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An Emphasis on American Indians

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Masters of Social Work: Promoting Human Wellbeing, Advancing Social Justice

UMD’s Masters of Social Work (MSW) program challenges students to advance human rights and socioeconomic justice and to do so in a professional and ethical manner. One focus of the program, to serve American Indian populations in Minnesota, particularly in rural areas, helps to galvanize the coursework. Faculty not only provide support and guidance to their students, they work in partnership with tribal officials and administrators.

While immersed in the program, students are expected to examine their beliefs, go beyond their comfort zones, and engage in ongoing cultural competence development. They are expected to develop empathy and other interpersonal skills. Students may enter the program primarily to eadvance their careers, but invariably leave intensely committed to serving others.

Two such graduates of UMD’s MSW program are Carol DeVerney (’07) and Danette Kimball (’12). They come from different backgrounds, but both have found the program transformative. Each is dedicated to working with at-risk children and their families, while they continue to learn and grow as individuals.

Carol DeVerney  
Alumna Carol DeVerney ('97)  
Carol DeVerney
DeVerney was living in Milwaukee when she began thinking of pursuing a master’s degree in social work. “I worked in a children’s emergency room,” she recalled. “I saw the effects of child abuse, child neglect. We saw five traumas a week.” DeVerney began to have some vivid dreams. “As a Native American, my dreams guide me,” she said. “I knew what I was supposed to do.”

DeVerney had received her undergraduate degree from UMD in American Indian Studies with a minor in business administration (’97). She returned to Duluth and began her studies in the MSW program. She was accepted into the Child Welfare Scholars Program. The program promotes the development of advanced generalist social workers and practitioners who are committed to serving at-risk children and their families through county and tribal agencies. Child Welfare Scholars receive a stipend that they can apply towards expenses incurred during their MSW education.

Part of DeVerney’s graduate work included producing a major research paper. “I thought I’d hate research,” she said, “but I loved it.” She and her research partner chose to explore the best chemical dependency treatment for Native American women. “What was being done wasn’t working,” she stated. They interviewed both Native and non-Native people who were providers, counselors, and directors. “We couldn’t interview the women themselves as they were a vulnerable population.” DeVerney and her partner discovered that often traditional ceremonies would be the best treatment and that this was especially true for women who are culturally aware. “You need to discover where the Native person is culturally,” she said.

DeVerney’s graduate work led her into a deeper appreciation of her own Native American heritage. She is Anishinaabe, a member of the Mide Lodge. “Mide means ‘the heart way’,” she explained. “That means you should do everything from the heart. That’s a big commitment once you have made that choice. It means helping people in whatever way you can.”

DeVerney is now one of the lead social workers with the Fond du Lac Band’s Department of Social Services and works in their urban office in Duluth. She is deeply concerned about the rise in drug addiction particularly heroin, other opiates, synthetic drugs, and prescription drug abuse across the state. “Drugs are tearing families apart,” she said. She is now pursuing her clinician license. “I want to do family therapy with Native families.” She will incorporate traditional American Indian healing methods into her work. She believes in the future of the MSW program. “What UMD is doing is working,” DeVerney stated. “I see the caliber of the students coming out of the program. They are very observant, very intelligent. They ask great questions. They can make the changes that are needed.”

Danette Kimball  
Alumna Danette Kimball ('12)  
Danette Kimball
Kimball graduated from the MSW program this past spring. She is not an American Indian. Yet when she spoke about American Indian Projects (AIP), it was as a very privileged participant, not as an outsider.

In 2011, she attended AIP’s annual Summer Institute in American Indian Child Welfare. The Summer Institute is an opportunity for tribal child welfare workers and administrators to spend a few days developing new practice skills, sharing their collective experiences, and learning with Indian Child Welfare professionals and scholars in a tribal context. “It’s a chance for tribal people and national leaders to come together and support each other,” Kimball said.

In addition to attending the general assembly and participating in private sessions with some of the speakers, Kimball was involved in ceremonies that left a lasting impression. “I had the opportunity to take part in a teaching Sweat Lodge,” she said. “The most powerful experience was learning in a traditional American Indian way.” Rather than being told how it would be and what she would learn, “You just did it. You were a part of it. It was more of a process, than just an instruction.”  She also took part in a Healing Circle. Those events, she stated, “helped me better understand American Indian culture in a way that was more consistent with American Indian values and traditions.”

This emphasis on culture competency is a crucial part of the MSW program. “It is about becoming more aware of different world views, how different people see things differently," Kimball said. "It’s important to recognize that people have their own answers and solutions. I can be a facilitator, asking ‘How can I help you get where you want to go?’” She believes that anyone entering the MSW program should be ready to work on themselves. “Students should be open to learning, challenging their own biases, and working through them.”

During her graduate program, Kimball completed two internships, devoting over 400 hours each to St. Louis County and to Arrowhead Regional Correction. She also volunteered at Unity Schools in a special education classroom. “These experiences,” she noted, “helped me to better understand how culture and the roots of cultural identity can facilitate healing processes.”

The program has shaped her as a social worker and as a person. “My participation in community events and activities helped me to realize and better comprehend the systemic nature of inequities and how systems continue to disadvantage marginalized people. I have worked to enhance my cultural competence so I can be an ally and an advocate for people who are directly impacted by these systemic inequities. This is what I am passionate about,” Kimball stated.

American Indian Projects: Past and Future
Professor John Day, director for AIP, has seen the program grow. “Early on we asked ‘how can we help the communities?’” he said. AIP worked with American Indian tribal leaders and social service practitioners to identity critical issues in tribal communities. “We built natural trusting relationships,” Day said.  AIP faculty and staff have become key resources both for tribal councils and state commissions, and they have become experts in the areas of tribal sovereignty and American Indian child welfare law, policies, and practices.

With grants from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, they have produced the booklets Raising Healthy American Indian Children in Grand Portage and Using the Seven Traditional Teachings to Raise Healthy Anishinaabe Children created in partnership with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. In addition to the Summer Institute, AIP, in partnership with the department's Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies, will host its first Winter Institute, March 2013, geared toward non-American Indian social workers working with African American and American Indian families. All of these efforts continue to inform the MSW program, helping it to grow, evolve, and stay relevant.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, June 2012

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