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Currents - January 2012 - Pioneers
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Documenting the History of the Profession Through the Collective Contributions of NASW Pioneers

Elaine Congress, DSW, LCSW, Associate Dean, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service and Helen Rehr, DSW, ACSW, Professor Emeritus, Mount Sinai; Co-Chairs, NASW-NYC Pioneers Comittee

NASW-NYC Pioneers gathered on September 17, 2008.


The NASW Social Work Pioneer Program was created to honor members of the social work profession who have contributed to the evolution and enrichment of the field. The Pioneer program identifies and recognizes individuals whose unique dedication, commitment, and determination have improved social institutions and human conditions.

Pioneers are role models to future generations of social workers. Their contributions are reflected in every aspect of the profession including development of social policies and social service programs. They have accomplished through practice, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, advocacy, legislation and election to public office. Each Pioneer has had a minimum of 25 years experience in the field. Each has made a unique, innovative contribution in one or more of these areas. Each Pioneer has been recognized by peers as meeting these basic qualifications and thus nominated for election to NASW Pioneers.

The Pioneer program was founded in 1994 by Ruth Knee and former NASW President, Mark Battle. The Social Work Pioneer program is independent, although most Pioneers are members of NASW. The Pioneer national hub is in Washington DC where the program serves local members, as well as nationally elected members. Regional Pioneers can recommend candidates for election to the program. There are approximately 700 Pioneers including those in the New York metropolitan area whose collective contributions document the history of the profession.

The New York City Pioneer group was founded in 2002. The NASW NYC Chapter, which currently represents approximately 9,000 members, created and activated its regional section of Pioneers, which has a membership of approximately 100. This is 10% of the nationally listed Pioneers and about 1% of the NASW-NYC members. This low number reflects the need to recognize the many unrecognized social workers who have made significant contributions to the field. Of the NYC Pioneers, 56 are alive. While some are fully retired, most remain active in either practice or program development (in agency or private practice), as faculty (full or part time), as consultants to the field, in research, and/or policy/advocacy initiatives.

The personal and professional background of each NYC Pioneer has been documented and their names are represented on a wall plaque at the Chapter office and at National headquarters, as well as on the NASW Pioneer website:  Since 2002, the NYC NASW Pioneers have met regularly to address important issues for the social work profession.

Collaboration with New Professionals

One early activity of the Pioneers involved collaboration with the NASW-NYC New Professionals Task Force. The New Professionals registered their concerns with the challenging realities of current practice with limited job opportunities, lack of continual supervision and mentoring, fiscal impact on diminishing social work services and future of the profession. The Pioneers and the New Professionals hosted a very successful event on The Future of the Social Work Profession and deliberated on challenging issues for current practice and developed potential strategies to address these issues.

NASW-NYC Pioneer Study

An early project of the NYC Pioneers was funded by a small grant to study the accomplishments of New York City Pioneers. This study by the co-authors sought to highlight the characteristics, initiatives, and processes used by Pioneers so that the lessons learned were available for social work educators and practitioners. The purpose of this project was not only to identify their accomplishments, but also to identify what leadership skills Pioneers used to make their achievements reality. At the same time, it documented social work history.

The authors of the study expect to present the NYC Social Work Pioneer findings to a larger audience through NASW and other relevant social work organizations and journal publications. Developing a national study is seen as significant in reflecting the important achievements of social work leaders (Pioneers) around the country, making social work more visible within the field and with the public at large.

Outreach to Deans and Executive Directors Committee

An ongoing project of the NYC Pioneers has been its Outreach Committee to Deans and Executive Directors. The purpose of this committee has been to learn more about current educational and agency issues affecting social work practice. Headed by Alma Young with members Helen Hamlin, Lynn Orenstein, and Lita Talbot (all Pioneers), this committee has met individually with several social work Deans. With the assistance of Pioneer member Dean Peter Vaughan of Fordham, the committee was able to organize a luncheon meeting with the Pioneers and Deans of NYC schools of social work. More recently the Committee has begun to interview Executive Directors of social service agencies with the attempt to bring academia and the field in collaborative deliberation about tomorrow’s social work.

Pioneer Activities 2012

A planned initiative for 2012 is to invite speakers on emerging topics of interest. Since the future of social work is an underpinning interest, two of the initial topics will be disaster trauma counseling, as well as international social work.

Do You Know NYC Pioneers and Their Impact on Social Work?

An ongoing effort has been to identify new NYC Pioneers and all NASW-NYC members are asked to help in this effort. Pioneers need to have a minimum of 25 years’ experience in the field and have made a unique, innovative contribution to social work services at the practice level, in program development, in policy/advocacy, in the education for the profession, and/or in research.

More information about submitting applications for new Pioneers can be found at NASW-NYC members can submit their nominations through the NYC Pioneers ( This way, the NYC Pioneers can help facilitate and suppo rt the candidate through the acceptance process at National NASW.


From left to right: NASW-NYC Pioneers Alma Young, Terry Mizrahi, and NASW-NYC Pioneers Committee Co-chair, Elaine Congress.

Helen Rehr, co-chair, NASW-NYC Pioneers Committee .













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