‘Trailblazers’ Return to Campus for SED Homecoming

Alumni; Social Work


In the four decades since the Brown School launched a Social and Economic Development (SED) concentration within the MSW program, the School’s SED alumni have spread out across the country and around the world, sharing a particular perspective on poverty and community development.

Beyond working to alleviate the suffering of poverty-impacted communities, these SED alumni work to address racism and other institutionalized dynamics that can entrap people in generational poverty — particularly in communities of color.

Many of these alumni have risen into roles of tremendous impact: tenured professors, authors, legislative staff, entrepreneurs, agency directors, and more. But Associate Professor Jack Kirkland, the founding SED concentration chair, heard that they often felt a sense of “professional aloneness” after graduation, as they entered institutions where colleagues might not share their philosophy.

In response, Kirkland recently organized an SED Homecoming, which attracted alumni from as far as San Francisco and Seattle, and across the St. Louis metro area. They gathered to share feedback on the curriculum and to make connections with other alumni who share their paradigm for pursuing change.

At the homecoming reception, Oct. 13, Kirkland spoke to a group of nearly 100, praising his former students for the innovation and vision they have shown in their work.

“You were not satisfied with the situation, the system, or yourself; you were as much of a militant as I when I was in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. Kirkland worked as an activist and strategist in the 1960s. “You wanted to do something more than that which was meaningful — you wanted to do something significant.”

“That is your task as SED people: showing agencies, corporations and public institutions how to work differently and better with all people,” Kirkland continued, “by being the open door to capitalism and free enterprise.”

Kirkland acknowledged the difficulty of their work to forge a new path toward social and economic equity. He ended his remarks with a vision for the future, when other professionals join on the path that these alumni have charted.

“When others catch on and see what you see, and [begin to] think the things they know you take for granted — things that you now simply call ‘common sense’ — others following after you will know that you are trailblazers.”

The homecoming also honored Kirkland’s impact on generations of students. He joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis in 1970 as an assistant professor at the Brown School, and in the intervening decades has shaped an extraordinary legacy of teaching and mentorship.

Of the 10,000 changemakers who have graduated from the Brown School since its founding, Kirkland noted he “most assuredly taught 5,000 of them.”

Kirkland’s professional experiences —which also included working as a group work specialist in a settlement house, co-founding the Washington University program in African and African-American Studies, and serving as Director of Transportation for the state of Missouri — have informed his teaching in the classroom and undergirded his commitment to help students address the root causes of poverty.

In recognition of Kirkland’s expertise and generosity, alumna Lucy Smartlowit-Briggs (Yakama), MSW ’14, presented Kirkland with a wool blanket designed by an Acoma Pueblo artist. Candy Boyd, MSW ’16, assisted with the presentation.

“The blanket personally represents the respect and honor that I have for Professor Kirkland and in a sense, is a gift of gratitude for the exchange of knowledge that he has shared with me during graduate school,” Smartlowit-Briggs said. “Thus in turn it can also represent a gift in exchange of the knowledge that he has shared with everyone that has been in his classroom.”

“As a School community dedicated to equity, we are grateful to work and learn alongside Jack Kirkland, whose achievements have set a tireless example for our alumni,” said Mary McKay, the Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School.

“By reconvening alumni from so many facets of social and economic development,” McKay said, “the SED Homecoming truly embodied this inspirational legacy.”