In her more than 50 years as a social worker and an academic, Dr. Barbara Solomon, a Walden board member for more than 20 years, has focused on social service delivery systems, especially to underrepresented minority families. After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology at age 19 from Howard University, Dr. Solomon immediately went into the School of Social Welfare at the University of California–Berkeley, where she was one of just three African-American students.
Despite her youth and lack of practical experience, Dr. Solomon was committed to making a difference. She started a career that has significantly impacted the field of social work through her practice, research, teaching, mentorship, and publications. To honor this social work pioneer, Walden University announced the Barbara Solomon Scholarships for Social Work in March. Spotlight on Walden had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Solomon to learn more about how she started in the field and her perspective on the future of social work.
How has the field of social work changed over the years?
I came into the field as a direct-service practitioner and at that time it was deluged with a psychoanalytic approach to social work—a real emphasis on the inner-self and helping to understand how to help a person becomes emotionally capable of dealing with a stressful life. Not much attention was paid to the environmental conditions people were dealing with and where the change really might need to come. I would say the greatest change in direct-service practice was when we discovered the social instead of the psychological, and, as a result, we began to see how important environmental modification was to outcomes. We have learned that we need to build bridges between our direct-service practitioners and our community organizers so they feed and complement each other, making everyone more effective. I think the profession has come a long way, and this is probably what makes it the profession of the 21st century.
What makes a social worker great?
People who have had a broad experience in their lives with exposure to many different kinds of people make great social workers. Over the years, I have found those who have limited exposure—such as a particular geographic area or with people who are similar to them and their family—may have difficulty as a social worker. Social workers have to be open to the fact that there are many different kinds of people and many different ways in which people live their lives.
Why is an advanced degree important for those who want to pursue social work?
I think it’s absolutely necessary. The problems social workers are trying to solve require mostly multidisciplinary approaches to solutions. That means social workers need to be part of teams that tackle most of the problems people encounter. Our ability to not only create these teams of professionals, both within and outside the realm of social work, but also to operate and lead them, requires a level of knowledge and skill that can only be obtained with advanced degrees.
How do you see Walden students and alumni making a difference in the field of social work?
I think that Walden’s online learning model promises to practically change the field. Students and alumni are able to share and learn from each other and cross boundaries that large social welfare agencies have not been able to accomplish. People’s problems have to be treated very differently in rural Iowa than urban Los Angeles, and you have to understand a variety of perspectives and approaches to solving these diverse issues. The online classroom gives you the opportunity to work with and learn from scholar-practitioners who provide insights and best practices to address societal problems.
One thing that has frustrated me for the whole 50 years is the fact that so many organizations—particularly public social welfare organizations—claim they can’t hire enough professionally trained social workers so they have to hire those who are not and then excuse their poor outcomes with the fact that they didn’t have an educated staff. So Walden’s graduates are actually a promise that maybe this problem can be resolved in a way we’ve never been able to do before.