Sonny's Corner: History of the Grace Abbott School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha

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Sonny Foster"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.

By Dr. Theresa Barron-McKeagney

The University of Nebraska Omaha’s Grace Abbott School of Social Work is celebrating 75 years of excellence in social work education in 2012. Rechristening of the school took place in 2010, after years of advocacy by department professors who thought the child welfare champion and early social worker embodied the mission of the school.

The school aims to educate generations of social work professionals who engage in scholarship, research and a commitment to service to a diverse range of people. Grace Abbott, a native of Grand Island, Neb., was an advocate at the turn of the century for abolishing child labor and increasing public awareness of the need for services for immigrants, children and their families. The focus of Abbott’s work led her to reside at Hull House in Chicago, one of the first social settlement agencies in the country, working alongside Nobel Prize-winning social advocate Jane Addams. Her contributions against dangerous working conditions for immigrants and children are credited with policy decisions that led to the creation of Social Security and UNICEF.

Additionally, Abbott was the first woman to be nominated for a presidential cabinet position by Herbert Hoover, in the role of the secretary of labor. A true force of social service innovation, Grace Abbott became the ideal namesake for the only school with an accredited graduate social work program in her home state of Nebraska.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has continuously accredited both the MSW (since 1940) and BSSW (since 1975) programs, awarding reaffirmation of accreditation in 1997 through the year 2013. The University of Nebraska at Omaha offers the only accredited MSW program in Nebraska, and it is the only such program within a 250-mile radius. The school has expanded to include graduate cohort programs in South Sioux City, Neb., and both undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, including the addition of three new full-time faculty members.

Students and faculty alike in the Grace Abbott School of Social Work are becoming more connected to her legacy; in 2011 Nebraska native and film director John Sorenson brought his documentary “The Quilted Conscience” to the University of Nebraska, where the school assisted in a public premiere and community events to promote his chronicle of Grace Abbott’s legacy in Grand Island and the immigrant population residing there now. Primarily focused on Grand Island quilters and Sudanese refugee children, the documentary highlights the indelible links of the past to the future of social work.

The Grace Abbott School of Social Work prepares students at the bachelor’s and master’s levels for field work, policy development and clinical practice, all within the framework of diversity and social justice. Students complete a fieldwork practicum anywhere from mental health in urban and rural settings and case work with immigrants and refugees to advocacy and legislation efforts. Graduates of the program are prepared to carry on the legacy of Grace Abbott and address the contemporary needs of diverse populations within the community.

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the school has sponsored several symposia and events, including faculty and guest speaker symposia, a photography exhibit on China’s floating population and continuing education opportunities. The celebration will culminate with an all-weekend event beginning Friday, Nov. 16, where John Sorenson and the featured master quilter from his documentary, Peggie Hartwell, will return to the school to show the film and engage with the community. This will be preceded by an event with the deputy director of communications from the Children’s Bureau, Ms. Patricia Brincefield, who will give a morning symposium on the resources of the Children’s Bureau for community practitioners. Saturday, Nov. 17 will feature a cocktail reception and dinner program in recognition of the school’s 75 years of research, teaching and scholarship.

Immigration in Nebraska