By Savannah Jelks
Ruth Brandwein (ΦBK, Brooklyn College) has had a long and illustrious career in social work. In May of this year, Brandwein was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Founded in 1955, NASW is the largest membership organization of professional social workers.
Each year, NASW recognizes one member with this honor. During the awards presentation earlier this year, Brandwein’s colleagues with NASW offered the following statement: “Ruth Brandwein exemplifies the ideals of a life well lived as a champion of social justice, serving our most vulnerable, fragile, and oppressed populations by translating her theories developed in the field to social justice and policy change, through education, teaching, writing, and leadership positions. She is an inspiration and a true example of a social work champion.”
Brandwein said she was “very proud and humbled by the award.” She was especially thrilled because about 80% of NASW members are direct practitioners. The fact that they recognized her for her social justice work and her career without being a direct practitioner made her “feel very appreciated.”
Brandwein’s career in social work began in Seattle, where she got a job at a recreation center in a housing project with young mothers. Brandwein said she enjoyed this position because she “had a lot of freedom and could be very creative.” She even started art and dance classes while in this position. She then had a role as the head of a community council, which she describes as “a highlight of her career” because she was part of a coalition that successfully stopped a major highway from destroying the Central Area of Seattle.
Brandwein also held significant roles in academia. In addition to earning a master’s in social work and a PhD, she has served as an assistant professor at Boston University, been the Director of Social Work at University of Iowa, and been the Dean of Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare in New York. In these roles Brandwein taught social work classes, especially those with an emphasis on macropractice: working to create structural change in society. Brandwein has also been the head of the Suffolk County New York Commission on Family Violence and the commissioner of the Department of Social Services for Suffolk County. She described how this latter role allowed her to put her “theories into practice.” She retired in 2010.
Looking back, Brandwein notes that “there’s a theme” in all the positions she’s had—she was always interested in justice, inequality, and women’s rights. She was particularly interested in the plight of single mothers as a single mother herself, and she wanted to do something that held meaning for her. To her, social work “is concerned with the belief that people and institutions can change for the better. Social justice is a key value of social work,” she explained. She also learned that you don’t always win a battle, but you don’t always lose a battle. The work she has done has proved that social work is really a “matter of persistence rather than hope,” she said.
When asked about the role Phi Beta Kappa has played in her life, Brandwein remarked that she is not one to brag about her achievements, as “you don’t make friends by showing how smart you are,” but by practicing servant leadership and being a role model. She credits Phi Beta Kappa with possibly having opened some doors for her career-wise and mentioned that she is probably more involved in ΦΒΚ now than she was before. She’s gone to her local chapter luncheons in Sarasota, Florida, to hear various speakers.
Brandwein would most like readers to know that she’s tried to live her life “honestly and with intention, with commitment to making the world a little bit of a better place,” she said. She’s also proud of her children, having raised them as a single parent and managed her career and family. To readers, she imparts this advice: “Make choices that have meaning for you, not just what will help your career. Choose the work you would choose if you’re not getting paid.”
For more on Ruth Brandwein’s NASW award, click here.
Savannah Jelks earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Union College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Union College is home to the Alpha of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.