Throughout her childhood, Najjuwah Walden’s only interactions with social workers occurred when something was wrong. They came in when there was violence in her home. They came in when her father was handcuffed and taken to jail. They came in for the time she was in foster care.
So when she decided to pursue graduate work in her field of interest — reproductive and sexual health, particularly as it relates to institutional racism and economic stability — she never expected it to lead her to the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, one of the nation’s premier schools of social work.
She knew she had grand ideas and questions, but she needed the backing of an institution with the resources to support her. After earning her bachelor’s degrees in economics and psychology from North Carolina A&T State University, she decided to take a risk and apply for graduate school.
“I had professors in undergrad who believed in my aspirations and felt like I was 100 percent capable and competent to do the work, but weren’t really able to provide me with any of the money or the technological resources I needed,” Walden said. “So, coming to Washington University, it was like the resources were a candy shop and everything in it was free.”
Walden, who also received a Dean’s Scholarship, immediately got to work focusing on issues related to sexual violence. A generational survivor of sexual violence herself — meaning she, her mother and her grandmother are all survivors of sexual violence — she wanted to understand how their experiences were influenced by their economic instability and dependence on the environment perpetuating the violence.
“I felt like if I wasn’t able to fix the problem in my own home, how could I go into others’ homes and address that issue?” she asked. “If somebody calls me in because there’s been an incident — a molestation or rape — and I’m not able to tie them in to all the other social determinants or indicators of this experience, then how am I going to better service them than the social worker did for me when I was an adolescent?”
Under the guidance of Sheretta Butler-Barnes, assistant professor at the Brown School, and Jack Kirkland, associate professor, Walden expanded her interest to any violence with the potential to threaten reproductive or sexual autonomy. She began to focus on health-care utilization and access, as well as maternal and infant mortality, specifically among pregnant women in Missouri across different races, income levels and urban and rural communities.
Meanwhile, Walden began fulfilling her Brown School practicum hours in East St. Louis School District 189, where she was asked to find a way to decrease the school’s number of in-school suspensions. While the Brown School has a 960 practicum-hour requirement, Walden has completed close to 1,500 hours.
As a solution, Walden began to help implement restorative justice in the school — a philosophy that aims to understand pathways to, as opposed to punish, certain behaviors. Coupled with her interest in sexual health, she continued this exploration into restorative justice and sexual violence last summer — first at Adler University’s Institute for Public Safety and Social Justice and then at the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Center of Excellence for Sexual Health.
But, when she returned to school in September of 2017, she was faced with the unexpected. Her brother had been arrested for possession of drugs and firearms that were not his, but belonged to a friend who wasn’t admitting ownership.
“It was hard, because for a year I’m going to these practicums, and I’m learning about myself and I’m flourishing and my locks are growing — and then I get hit with this and the lawyer fee is $5,000,” Walden said. “I don’t have $5,000.”
Putting her family first, she took time off school to find the money to help her brother. She even created her own business, Bees and Balms, where she creates herbal alternatives and remedies for skin infections such as alopecia and eczema.
“My family is so important to me,” she said, “that when something like this happened to my brother, I didn’t see any other option but to devote 100 percent of what I had to him. If it wasn’t going to be me, then who?
“There were many who thought I was going to drop out, but that wasn’t going to be an option for me,” she said. “I foresaw the consequences of his resentment — how it would have been another burden on him to say that the reason why his sister didn’t get her MSW was because she needed to take care of him. I didn’t want that.”
With her brother’s charges dropped a few weeks ago, it was “go time” for Walden. She made up for lost time on her master’s thesis and got back on track. In particular, she started to focus on her “Earth and Her Flowers Project,” a compilation of her master’s thesis — which looks at the correlation between insurance and birth methodologies — and research she hopes to conduct over the next year before she pursues doctoral studies.
The project aims to understand how different social indicators affect the health care women receive during pregnancy in Missouri. But, unlike studies in the past, it aims not only to incorporate opinions of women, but also to address the barriers physicians feel they themselves face, which has never been done in any study in Missouri.
Walden (center) poses for portraits with mentees Brandy Johnson, 15 (left), Keandria Payne, 16 (right), and Payne’s 4-month-old daughter, Malia Robinson, at the Thomas Dunn Learning Center in south St. Louis. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)
“Because I am at an institution like Washington University that has the funding, the technology and the faculty who know how to theorize a lot of these issues, it would only be right for me to be able to take advantage of my presence and facilitate greater impact not just within Washington University, but within the entire state of Missouri,” Walden said.
Walden’s ultimate dream is a world in which infant and maternal mortality cease to exist — and being only 23, she’s still exploring how she can make a difference in reaching that end. Her ultimate goal is to create a woman’s wellness center in her community that is accessible to women across their entire lives — a dream of her mother’s she wants to bring to fruition.
“We change and we catapult change when we exist within these systems, so it’s not enough for me to be able to write about primary care from afar if I’m not actually within the system,” she said.
And as the conversation surrounding #MeToo continues to grow, for Walden, the movement has been a source of validation.
“I thought I was a unicorn in my own home — I assumed my experience was unique,” she said. “It was something I didn’t know how to talk to people about before this. It was something that I didn’t understand, and for a while it was something that I conceptualized as my fault.
“So, for me, #MeToo is an act of validation, but it’s also an act against resistance of patriarchal systems that allow us to believe that we are the reasons for our victimization.”