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GSSW Marks 75 Years of Teaching Social Workers to 'Do Good for the World'

Kennedy keynote address, social innovation discussion highlight celebration

Victoria Reggie Kennedy gives the keynote address at the Sept. 14 Graduate School of Social Work 75th anniversary celebration. (Photo by Rose Lincoln)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Sept. 15, 2011

Social workers are an indispensible source of aid and comfort, as they showed in the wake of one of America’s greatest catastrophes — the 9/11 terrorist attacks — said Victoria Reggie Kennedy in her keynote address for the Graduate School of Social Work’s 75th anniversary celebration on Sept. 14.

Kennedy, the widow of US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, told a near-capacity Robsham Theater audience how her late husband, after hearing a 9/11 widow describe her plight in trying to get assistance, declared, “We need social workers — now!”

With the aid of social workers, Kennedy explained, Senator Kennedy and others were able to “put together a lifeline” for people who had lost family members in the attacks, enabling them to find financial and other needed support.

“The worst event in our history spontaneously brought out our best,” she said, “and in those difficult days, we saw the power of social workers to make a difference, to do good for the world.”

Kennedy’s talk was the climax to a day that saw the GSSW commemorate 75 years of illustrious social work teaching and research, and also offer a vision for the future — of both the school and the profession. Participants and guests at the celebration attested to the emergence of the GSSW as a widely acclaimed international hub of scholarship on critical social issues in areas such as poverty, aging, families and children, and mental health.  

Other events during the 75th anniversary celebration included a presentation on social innovation in social work — the focus of a recently launched GSSW program — a luncheon discussion on the school’s diversity initiative, and a liturgy celebrated by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, with Founders Professor of Theology James Keenan, SJ, as homilist.

Fr. Leahy, along with GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi, also gave a formal welcome to the audience at Robsham prior to Kennedy’s talk.

Kennedy, an advocate for women, children and families who is co-founder and trustee of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, praised the GSSW’s legacy of “training and inspiring so many to transform other people’s lives.” 

Echoing a comment she attributed to Godenzi, Kennedy said, “Social workers tackle the most challenging issues. They get involved where it’s the messiest. They help to bring order out of chaos. And Lord knows, we need that.”

The potential of social innovation — which combines social work and entrepreneurship — to address critical societal problems was the subject of the day’s opening event, also held in Robsham. Assistant Professor Stephanie Berzin gave an overview of GSSW’s recently launched program in social innovation, of which she is co-director.

“Social work must be on the front line of research,” said Berzin, “and at the table for discussions of innovative ways to take on social issues.”

Berzin’s co-director, Associate Professor Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, took part in a panel discussion with GSSW Advisory Board Co-chairman Bill Allen MSW’71, a former senior manager for United Way, University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work Dean Larry Davis, Boston Women’s Fund Executive Director Josefina Vázquez and GSSW Professor Kevin Mahoney, the director of National Resource Center for Participant-Directed Services.

Allen pointed to the new US Census Bureau report showing poverty in the US at a 52-year peak as an indication of the “enormous challenges” faced by Americans, and asked panelists how social innovation might offer hopes for a positive change.

“How can we take the risk of not doing something new?” said Pitt-Catsouphes. “Through social innovation, there is the opportunity for access to the economy — which so many people lack — as well as entrepreneurship, training, opportunities in small groups, and so on. It’s business for social change.”