Seeing Local Government Through the Social Work Lens

Community Engagement; Social Work; Students

Social workers have long served traumatized students, sick patients, struggling veterans and troubled families. 

But can they help the American mayor? Absolutely, said Diamond Munerlyn, who graduated in December 2019 with a master’s degree in social work from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.  

“Mayors and council members are elected by the people, but there often is a disconnect between government and the people,” said Munerlyn, who concentrated in economic and social development. “Social workers can bridge that gap.” 

Munerlyn recently worked in the north St. Louis County municipality of Jennings, where she worked with elected officials to update the city’s comprehensive plan. In addition to studying past economic development initiatives, Munerlyn collected and analyzed feedback from community members. The result: dozens of recommendations, from a moratorium on liquor stories to accelerated road repairs. 

“The city wanted to hear from its residents, but that can be hard to do when you’re juggling the day- to-day business,” Munerlyn said. “I was able to engage the community and learn what sort of mix of business they wanted in the city and what services and resources they needed.”

Munerlyn was set on her career path after taking the immersion course “Poverty – The Impact of Institutionalized Racism,” taught by Jack Kirkland, associate professor at the Brown School. For one week, she lived and learned in East St. Louis, Ill., where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. 

“The infrastructure failures, the water, the food deserts — what I saw in East St. Louis reminded me more of Guatemala than any city I knew in America,” said Munerlyn, who grew up in Louisiana, Tennessee and north St. Louis County and served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. “My eyes were opened to the policies that created the problems that persist today. The people never had a voice.”

Kirkland, who has continued to serve as a mentor, said that Munerlyn’s expertise in economic development and eagerness to connect with people will make her an effective advocate for the region’s residents.

“She recognizes that local city government is the main arena to transmit information and knowledge to assist citizens,” Kirkland said. “She is translating research into practice in a way that is instructive to the people she works with and helpful to the citizens she meets.” 

After graduation, Munerlyn will coordinate upcoming sessions of Kirkland’s course and continue to work for Jennings as a consultant. Ultimately, she hopes to work for a local municipality in north St. Louis County.

“People look at government and get frustrated,” Munerlyn said. “I get that. But even small changes can be progress.”