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A Voice for Social Justice

After 46 years, Demetrius Iatridis prepares to leave GSSW - but he's not done helping those who are less fortunate

Graduate School of Social Work faculty member Demetrius Iatridis with former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who spoke at a retirement celebration for Iatridis on Nov. 12 (Photo from Christopher Soldt, Media Technology Services)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 29, 2012

After coming of age in a crucible of war and destruction, Demetrius Iatridis has spent his adult life seeking to foster a world built on cooperation and compassion for those in need.

Iatridis will retire next month after 46 years as a faculty member in the Graduate School of Social Work, with a reputation as an esteemed researcher and teacher in social policy and social welfare. He’s also been hailed as a pioneer in bringing an international context to social work, particularly for his study of former communist nations’ efforts to build social services systems in a market economy.

“Professor Iatridis influenced the learning of countless students during his long tenure at GSSW,” says GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi. “In his teaching and scholarly work, he underscored the crucial role of policies and critical thinking. His voice will be missed in local conversations focused on social justice as well as in global debates around issues of poverty and exclusion.”

Godenzi, along with GSSW faculty, staff and alumni, as well as special guests, honored Iatridis Nov. 12 in the Heights Room of Corcoran Commons. The event featured a keynote speech from former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and a panel discussion.

“He’s always been concerned with those who people who are disadvantaged, who have fallen behind,” says Barry Bluestone, a former Boston College faculty member who is now director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and who participated in the Nov. 12 panel.

“In the best Jesuit tradition, Demetrius has kept his focus on helping those whom society tends to neglect, and he’s always reminded his students of the importance of doing that. That’s why so many of us respect him so much.”
Iatridis came to his beliefs the hard way. He was only 16 when the Nazis invaded and occupied his native Greece in World War II. On his own, he escaped to the island of Crete, but found it no safer there, and was forced to hide in the mountains until he was able to flee by boat to Egypt. Lying about his age, he joined the Greek air force and served as a tail-gunner. During the war, he lost his mother and grandmother.

His experiences, Iatridis says, made him want a different world, and ultimately a different path for himself. “I had prepared to go into aeronautical engineering,” he recalls, “until I decided that the world would not be built by aircraft engineers but by mutual aid, collaborative programs to prevent other wars. Instead of seeing the powerful always defeating and dominating the powerless, I wanted to help the powerless become powerful. This became my goal.”

After the war, Iatridis aided United Nations’ efforts to help children in his country affected by the conflict, and the UN sent him to the US to observe its social welfare system. Iatridis went on to earn degrees from Washington and Jefferson College, the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work, then returned to Greece for a while to help assist in establishing a graduate school of planning.

Iatridis eventually came to BC in 1966 as director of its new Institute of Human Sciences, founded by then-University President Michael Walsh, SJ. “The social sciences were still a relatively new field,” he says, “and Fr. Walsh envisioned the institute as a potential strength for BC, in the way that engineering or architectural studies was for MIT. The social scientists he brought in all were given joint appointments, and mine was in GSSW.”

After six years, the institute was viewed as having achieved its goals, Iatridis says, and was disbanded, and he became a full-time GSSW faculty member.

“I was skeptical when I first came to BC. I didn’t know about Jesuits, and whether their beliefs would align with mine. But I found BC was a very good fit, and I was able do things I might not have an opportunity to do so otherwise.”

For years, Iatridis taught classes comparing social policy in capitalist and communist societies, and led students on visits to Cuba so they could draw their own conclusions. He also invited Cuban social services experts to speak at BC. Such practices were not without controversy in the Cold War era: Some critics thought this amounted to an endorsement of communism.

“My point was, ‘What can we learn from the way these countries practice social policy?’” says Iatridis. “Nobody, as far as we knew, was looking into this. The students would decide for themselves what was effective and what wasn’t, and they would have to account for and justify their positions. There was nothing ideological about it.”

On one trip, Iatridis met for half an hour with Fidel Castro. “He wanted to know if social work was appropriate for Cuba and the revolution,” says Iatridis. “I said, ‘It depends. If you want to increase participation of people in decision-making, it’s your best model. It does not work well in dictatorships.’ A few years later, he established social work as a profession in Cuba.”

With the fall of many communist governments during 1989-90, Iatridis saw a new area of exploration in the changed geopolitical landscape. He organized several major conferences to examine the challenges faced by former Soviet Bloc nations in building social service systems in a market economy, and co-published an accompanying series of books.

“This was a tremendous opportunity to put social work in the forefront of a major world development,” says Iatridis, who credits then-University President J. Donald Monan, SJ, and the late Executive Vice President Frank B. Campanella for supporting his efforts. “The conferences and the books were very well-received. It was very good exposure for GSSW and BC.”

But Iatridis kept a local focus, too. He founded GSSW’s “Boston Day” event at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which gave students the opportunity to form ties with city authorities and neighborhood leaders. He also served on University committees, including 27 years — 15 of them as chair — on the Faculty Compensation Committee. In 2000, he was selected for a Distinguished Service Award from BC.

Iatridis has no plans to be idle after leaving GSSW. “I am going to spend probably 50 percent of my time volunteering for anti-poverty programs or projects. Sadly, poverty has only increased in recent years, but even in the election campaign you didn’t hear anyone talk about this.

“The poverty and inequality I saw after World War II was the reason I went into social work, and I am going to continue to help the powerless.”

—Material from Regina O’Grady-Leshane was used in this story