Dr. Margaret Lombe remembers the day she first realized she was a social worker. As a young communications major at her university in Kenya, she helped a social work professor on a research project with street children in the slums of Nairobi.
"We would ask the children, 'What do you hope to be doing in five years?'" remembers Lombe, who is originally from Zambia. "Over 200 of them in our sample would tell us they wanted to stay alive."
"Children are not just born to die," thought Lombe. "There has to be much more." With social work, she had discovered a profession whose mission is to empower communities to protect their most vulnerable citizens and offer hope for the future. And equally attractive for Lombe, she had found an academic discipline—a research-based applied science—where it wasn't necessary to be emotionally detached from her work.
"In social work research, we're always asking, 'So what?'" explains Lombe, who earned her MSW and PhD from Washington University in St. Louis. "I can do wonderful research and come up with incredible findings, but my question remains, 'How do these findings affect publics that I care for? How does this impact the lives of people in poverty?'"
Lombe brings this focus to the classroom. In her final year course, "Rights-Based Assessment and Capacity-Building," she has a way of bringing broad theoretical arguments about assessment models and macro policies back down to the people who are most affected by them.
"I feel I really have a responsibility to make students aware of the interconnectedness between people," says Lombe. "And how policies that are enacted in the U.S. affect places we can't even pronounce correctly."
Even after years as a researcher and professor, Lombe admits that she and her students still wrestle with the definition of capacity-building, a central tenet of social work that she translates as "empowering the people."
The biggest challenge of international development work, says Lombe, is not imposing your own definitions of "capacity building" or "empowerment" on people whose lives you'll never fully comprehend.
"You need the humility to acknowledge you're a learning expert," says Lombe, but not an expert in how to survive on the streets of Nairobi or how to live with a crippling disability. "You have to ask yourself, 'How do I connect my expertise to the expertise that already exists?'"
Lombe's combination of sharp professional analysis and genuine warmth has made her a student favorite at the Boston College School of Social Work and a sought-after expert for major international organizations the United Nations.