Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.
When I say, “I’m a social worker,” it’s really no different than saying, “I’m me.”
We tend to think of social work simply as helping others. But I’ve always asked my students to see someone in need of help not only as an individual, but as a member of his family and his community, to feel the pressures he may be facing and understand how his values, worldviews and behaviors have been shaped by those around him.
When asked why I’m a social worker — why I am who I am — I needn’t look further than those whose lives have touched my own.
My great-grandfather and grandfather served as ministers. My grandmother and both of my parents worked as school teachers. And, while studying at Boston University, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At that time, we stood at the dawn of some great changes in our society. I found myself in the presence of wonderful leaders who had a profound impact on me as I faced the personal challenge of being denied admission — because of my race — to the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) and as I worked to find my way into the field of social work.
After all, the great benefits of social work don’t have to come just from the social worker. They can come from a reverend like Dr. King, a volunteer, a teacher, a friend — anyone who sees the opportunity to help, to make an impact. When I returned to VCU, it was to embrace that challenge.
The School of Social Work allowed me to grow as a learner, a teacher and a doer. But those of us in social work have a responsibility never to rest on past accomplishments. If we haven’t impacted change today, if we haven’t made the lives we touch better, then enough hasn’t been done.
This is why I’m a social worker.
Grace E. Harris, Ph.D., joined the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work in 1967, marking the beginning of more than 40 years of service to the university. In 1975, she became director of student affairs for the school, and from 1982 to 1990, she worked as dean of the school. From there, she entered the central administration of the university, and from 1993 to 1999, she served as provost and vice president for academic affairs, as well as two stints as acting president of VCU. Though she retired in 1999, her work with the university hasn’t ended, as she still serves as a distinguished professor in the School of Public Policy and directs The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute at VCU.