A Conversation with New Dean Mary M. McKay | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
Dean Mary McKay
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A Conversation with New Dean Mary M. McKay

Faculty; Social Work; Public Health; Policy

Dean Mary McKay joined the Brown School in July, bringing with her unique expertise that unites social work, public policy and public health. We sat down with Dean McKay to learn more about her work, her reasons for coming to the Brown School, and her vision forward.

You are a trained social worker whose research focuses on public health and policy. How did that come about?

I am a social worker by education, yes, and have devoted my entire career to public health-oriented research to improve the lives of children and families impacted by poverty, both locally and globally. After receiving my MSW, I started working in community-based organizations as a family-focused practitioner. During that time, I saw the need for improved family-based prevention and child services. After returning to school and completing my doctoral degree, I began my work as a researcher. I knew from my clinical work in the community that the best way to test and develop interventions was to work collaboratively with members of the community. At the time, utilizing community-based participatory research methods was uncommon and not widely accepted. However, I was fortunate to secure funding for a number of projects that employed this collaborative model. I have worked side by side with community members from the Bronx, New York to Durban, South Africa to address the HIV epidemic, as well as strengthen kids’ mental health, and family and community supports in settings where there are few resources.

I have been so fortunate to collaboratively adapt evidence-based practice across the globe to make the science accessible to all who need it. Throughout my career, I’ve also been dedicated to demystifying the science behind the practice when working with families. I want to remove the stigma from mental health treatment and make it more of a transparent process.

Tell us about your recent work as inaugural director of the McSilver Institute at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work.

The McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research was founded to advance knowledge about the root causes and consequences of poverty in this country and around the world. There is a serious interconnection between poverty and racism. The Institute established an evidence-based practice lab for young people to help them graduate high school and address the unacceptable rates of high school drop outs. In addition, McSilver also serves as a pipeline for scholars of diverse backgrounds who want to continue research that addresses inequities and issues of social justice. In a short span of time, we grew to more than $35 million in funded projects and more than 50 employees. It was a labor of love, and I’m so proud of that work — and of the work that will continue there.

Why did you want to lead the Brown School?

I must say, it was a privilege to even be considered for the position of dean. Across my career, I have admired the Brown School, and it was really the mission and the platform of the School that brought me here. In addition, the interdisciplinary focus — the marrying of social work and public health — spoke to my life’s focus.

The School’s research and policy centers and their faculty have taken scientific research excellence to the next level and continue to make incredible strides at improving the lives of vulnerable populations around the globe. It’s an honor to be their colleague.

You have personal ties to the School, too, correct?

Yes, I am the proud parent of five young adults now, and two of them have embarked on the journey to become social workers. They were admitted all across the country, and they chose to come to Brown. So I’ve had a very unique vantage point to really take a look at what they were and will be learning and the value of this education. It also makes this School and St. Louis feel more like “home,” given they are here.

Coming from New York City, what’s your impression of St. Louis?

What I have learned and love about St. Louis in my short time is that it has real vibrancy and diversity. I can’t say that I’ve fallen in love with the signature Provel cheese, but the civic pride here is incredible. I’ve met some wonderful people, who recognize the challenges facing greater St. Louis and are rolling up their sleeves to make this great city even greater. I’m looking forward to meeting more of our partner organizations and learning more about how the Brown School can be a contributing member of the community.

Do you see St. Louis as an asset for the Brown School?

St. Louis, with all its strengths, is also city where health disparities are real and serious inequities exist. This is fundamentally driven by racial inequalities and structures that systematically block opportunities and provide advantage to others. This is why the Brown School’s students, faculty and staff need to continue to be active.

Something that Dean Lawlor told me when I was interviewing for this position is that St. Louis is a city where it’s “small enough to make a difference, but large enough to matter.” This really spoke to me. Can we work collaboratively with local residents, service providers, policy makers, elected officials to develop socially just policies and programs that could make St. Louis a model for the country? I believe we can and we must.

Do we have more of an opportunity to have an impact because of Ferguson?
Are people watching St. Louis?

You know, I was asked during one of my meetings here: “Can something like Ferguson ever be positive?” I’ve kept thinking about that question over and over again: Can something so painful ever be the impetus to real change? We are still waiting to find out. The world always tries to erase these situations. But I know people here really want the death of Michael Brown to matter, and they want to help make the change. And that’s so inspiring.

What do you hope your past experience can bring to this school?

With my background in both social work and public health, I hope I bring a set of lenses and frames to the work that can be energizing.

We are in such a unique position to lead the nation; more and more programs are trying to integrate areas of study, as we did, to tackle the social, systematic and structural drivers of well-being. I’m asked time and time again by colleagues at other schools: “How did the Brown School do that? How can we merge and integrate these complementary perspectives?”

It’s an exciting time to be at the School and to make key investments to grow our impact, innovative outlook and academic leadership.