Social Work for Social Change

By Kevin C. Thornton

Retired Walden board member and social work pioneer Dr. Barbara Solomon reflects on a groundbreaking career.

Throughout her career Dr. Barbara Solomon, who served on Walden’s Board of Directors for nearly 30 years, helped champion the underserved and worked to revolutionize the field of social work. But in the mid-1950s, she was still a young graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

During one of her first field assignments, working with the Red Cross, she would learn a lesson she would take on her decades-long journey to better serve vulnerable populations.

Her client was a white woman from Mississippi who was entrenched in the mindset of the still-segregated South. “And here she was,” Solomon recalls, “required to seek assistance from a young so-called ‘Negro’ woman.”

The woman had driven to California, where the U.S. military had originally arranged for her to travel by ship to join her husband, a soldier stationed in Korea. But since she was pregnant, she needed to travel instead by air—and to do so, she needed help from a social worker. That’s where Solomon came in. 

“I’m sure,” Solomon says, “she had never been in a situation where a ‘Negro’ was in a position of authority.”

She recalls that their first interactions were challenging, but her client was desperate for help and seemed willing to accept it from a Black woman. “Then one day she came in hysterical,” Solomon says. “She’d been driving through West Oakland for an appointment in San Francisco and, after hitting the rear of a car, she was suddenly surrounded by a group of African American residents. When she related the story to me, she said ‘I’m scared to death of …,’ and used the ethnic slur. 

“I learned right then, if you’re really prejudiced against a certain group and meet someone who doesn’t meet your stereotype, you just lift them out of that group. It doesn’t change your prejudice at all. That was an important lesson for me as a social worker. That’s what we needed to work on.”

Experiences like that one motivated Solomon. She dedicated herself to changing prejudicial thinking and working to help underrepresented populations through more diverse approaches to social work. She would go on to reach remarkable heights in her career while navigating the biases, challenges, and roadblocks facing Black women in the 1950s and beyond. 

An Empathic Approach to Social Work

What drove Solomon was an approach to social work that advocated empowering clients to achieve goals and change systems by utilizing available strengths, resilience, and resources. In short, her conviction and work centered on the belief that social workers work with people and not on them, with a constant focus on supporting underrepresented minorities and their families.

“When it comes to issues of social justice, social work should be at the forefront,” she says. “Social workers are problem-solvers, and that requires collaboration with others. But you have to have the skill and knowledge to see the problem, and the ability to collaborate with diverse groups and professions.”

She also believes that social workers should reflect the culture and people they’re working with. “I see a great need for African American social workers who understand the communities and can communicate with the residents—it is even greater now than it has ever been.”

Solomon’s work and life history reflects a literal hall-of-fame career bridging academia and social work.

A Life of Impact

The granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter and an elementary school teacher, Solomon graduated from high school at age 15 and began pursuing her undergraduate degree at Howard University before her 16th birthday. She went on to earn a master’s from the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in Social Work from the University of Southern California.

But education is only one part of her story. Solomon’s life and career have also deeply impacted the thinking of social workers across the globe. Driven by her own experiences and a deep understanding of the African American experience, she has worked for decades to change the approach of social work and bring more diversity to the profession.

In addition to serving as an adoption worker for the California State Department of Social Welfare and as a clinical social worker for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Texas and California, she spent years as a professor and administrator at the University of Southern California (USC), serving as dean of the graduate school, vice provost for graduate and professional studies, and vice provost for faculty and minority affairs. 

The first African American to serve as a dean at USC, Solomon worked to increase the number of minority students on campus, which led to the highly praised Neighborhood Academic Initiative focused on preparing local secondary school students for higher education. She is also the author of the seminal book Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, published in 1976, which introduced the concept of empowerment as a framework for social work practice.

Solomon’s achievements have earned her the Presidential Medallion and Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching from USC, and the Rosa Parks Award from the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

All of that experience, knowledge, and passion was brought to Walden in 1991 when she was approached by university leadership and asked to serve on the Board of Directors. Although she was initially skeptical of distance learning, she was drawn to Walden’s commitment to social change and to the scholar-practitioner model, challenging students to integrate scholarly research with their own expertise as skilled practitioners in their fields. 

“They talked about wanting scholar-practitioners to reform the institutions they were joining,” she says. “That spoke to me.”

For nearly 30 years, Solomon herself has spoken, serving as a steady and forward-thinking influence on Walden’s board. One of her main focus areas for a number of those years was gaining accreditation for the university’s social work master’s program. In 2016, the Council on Social Work Education, the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the U.S., approved Walden’s online Master of Social Work program for accreditation. Later that year, Walden’s school of social work and human services was renamed to honor her legacy. The university had also previously established the Barbara Solomon Scholarships for Social Work, given to outstanding students who demonstrate a proven commitment to helping the underserved.

A Continuing Legacy

And now, decades after that memorable interaction with a client from Mississippi, Solomon has officially retired. For more than five decades, she built a career that impacted an untold number of students—and the greater social work profession.

But even in retirement, the career teacher and social worker can’t help but continue to do what’s she’s always done: teach, guide, and care.

“I still have a lot of connections in community programs and social work who reach out to me. From day to day, there’s always someone calling,” she says. “I’m not sure I’ll ever completely retire; there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Retirement, to me, means not doing what you have to do, but only what you want to do. Staying connected and involved is what I want to do. That’s where I am now, and it’s great.”