Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Sharon E. Milligan, MSW ’73
JACSW alumna Dr. Sharon E. Milligan is an Associate Professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University. In 2021, she served as Interim Dean and prior to that, she was Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and chaired the Master of Science in Social Administration/Master of Social Work and the Master in Nonprofit Management Organizations programs. She has also served as Associate Director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.
Dr. Milligan has been continuously involved in social work, community development, and public health as a program developer, researcher, teacher, and consultant to government and nonprofit agencies. As an educator, she has taught graduate courses in community development, social welfare policy, and research methodology. As a researcher, she directed a study to uncover technology for evaluating conditions and assets in low-income communities and has led several funded research projects focusing on health and minorities.
In this interview, Dr. Milligan shares perspectives on education, program evaluation, community development, and more.
interview part 1 Heading link
What do you think are the greatest challenges that social work programs are facing?
There are, of course, many strengths that we are maintaining in the education of students, with a focus on the competencies that are important. I think the challenge is how we assess those competencies. We’re working on that as a profession. Another major challenge is the cost of education; not just tuition but the cost of attendance, what it actually takes for social work students to complete the two or three years of classes, including the cost of living. Many students are working as they go through a program, and also doing their field placements, and many exit with debt. The average social worker does not make a lot of money; we’re doing good with an entry level salary of $50,000.
We are witnessing renewed emphasis on racial equity; what do you think social work programs must do to achieve that?
One of the things we are struggling with is the question of what equity means, and what diversity and inclusion mean in our profession. And we are also struggling with the question of how equity plays out in society. I do believe that our programs need to achieve an education that relates to the lives and lived experiences of a variety of people. I think about the founders of social work, in the days of Jane Addams, and how we approached social change and social justice in the past, and I had assumed we would now be doing this differently. But, we need to approach the experience of being proximate in terms of the people, as Bryan Stevenson has talked about, and understanding and being open to the lived experiences of individuals in the communities we want to work with and help transform. We are still a divided country and race plays a significant part in the division.
What challenges are there in designing a social work curriculum that addresses racial inequity?
We’ve struggled with how we approach this, but we now believe that infusion of racial justice throughout the total curriculum is the most effective way to manage this, to help both students and faculty as they struggle with what it means to achieve racial equity in society and the world. So, together in the learning community we hope we can move the needle toward greater equity in our communities and across the world. But it can take a lot of introspection.
As an example, in one of my first employment opportunities I was trained in interventions for mother-child interaction, and at the time I never thought about how women of color never saw photos of brown mothers, or an illustration of a brown mother with a brown baby in the womb. Yet we just recently saw a young physician who produced such an illustration. It made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of that. Is it part of the struggle within myself? One assumes there is a single standard in terms of the kinds of exposures we could give people in our educational setting, and I suspect many people felt the same way when they saw
quote 1 Heading link
I have approached this as an expert but also as a learner, learning from people in the neighborhood. There was one particular community member who really took me to task. Her name was Katherine Butler, and when I would show her my diagrams with boxes, she’d say, “Dr. Milligan, those little boxes with their words in them are my lived reality.” And I’d never heard that before.
interview part 2 Heading link
Program evaluation is an area of focus for you; how can program evaluation help organizations and the communities they serve?
A lot of my program evaluation work has been in neighborhoods, in the community, and that’s where JACSW helped me think about how and where to practice. This has taken me on a very interesting pathway of interacting with entities that were attempting to see what we can know about developing the effectiveness of organizations. Many were in poor neighborhoods, and often African American communities where you saw the intersection of poverty with race. So, part of what I learned is that evaluation does relate to equity, even though we didn’t used to call it that. The question is, how do you design an evaluation that can give us knowledge of how these organizations work and what’s important, and how do you establish long-term or short-term impact outcomes for the evaluation.
I have approached this as an expert but also as a learner, learning from people in the neighborhood. There was one particular community member who really took me to task. Her name was Katherine Butler, and when I would show her my diagrams with boxes, she’d say, “Dr. Milligan, those little boxes with their words in them are my lived reality.” And I’d never heard that before. Now, of course, everyone talks about lived experience. But she challenged me to think about and visualize the process with an understanding that our boxes and arrows represent real peoples’ lives. Proceeding from that, I have tried to develop outcomes that are not deficit-based but express the values, hopes, and dreams of people who live in those spaces. I think we still struggle with this as a profession.
You have also done research into community development; what is key to successful community development?
At the risk of repeating myself, engagement of residents in the process is key, no matter how difficult that is, and it can be challenging. We can be challenged when we come in with notions that we are in the transformation alone. We are not in it alone. And we must include a variety of people, not just the politicians, but the average person who goes to work every day. We must also be attentive to the organizations and institutions that already exist; people have already struggled in those spaces. Successful community development also includes knowing those individuals who provide services within the community, and not just human services, but the grocer or the person who owns the convenience store. What does it mean to have a corner store that does not carry a full selection of resources? What does that mean for the health of the community? We have to consider all the resources that are available or those that are needed.
How can social workers ensure that community needs and community voices remain central to their work?
It takes a lot of work comparing what you read in the literature to people’s lived reality. I think a big challenge is not only having community voices, but also using mixed methods of understanding the community. One has to look at the literature and see what has been written about similar neighborhoods, for example, asking how the work in Chicago translates to the work in Cleveland. We also need to understand that data can be fraught with issues related to equity; data science can be fraught with racist information. So, we have to account for the frequency of disparities, or adjust for them. Lastly, I don’t start any work without having focus group conversations with various voices from the community. The data in and of itself is not sufficient for understanding community needs. You need the community voices, and to understand that there are many levels of voices within a space.
What roles can universities play in supporting and partnering with marginalized communities?
The most important thing is that the university continues to be community-facing in the broadest sense. We need to bring people into the university not just as learners, but as teachers. Community members can learn but they can also challenge, as I noted before, so that we as academics are also learning. I love the idea of community fellows, which I know UIC has done, and I think as universities become increasingly aware of the benefits of real community engagement, such fellows can provide great value to our institutions and our research.
quote 2 Heading link
I don’t start any work without having focus group conversations with various voices from the community. The data in and of itself is not sufficient for understanding community needs. You need the community voices, and to understand that there are many levels of voices within a space.
interview part 3 Heading link
Did your education at JACSW influence your orientation toward community development and program evaluation?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I came to Chicago at the end of the great migration to cities such as Chicago and Cleveland. So, I not only learned a lot from the people I worked with in the university, but also people who lived in the neighborhoods I worked in. So, it was the experience of living in Chicago and being immersed in it, and going to Jane Addams which is so part of the community, and then having two years of field placements in those neighborhoods. I learned so much about social work practice and organizing. It was not lost on me that Jane Addams herself worked in the community, so I felt at the time that I was at the right school, and in the right moment to learn community engagement, community practice, and group work.
You are also interested in art and its intersection with social work; can you please tell us about that?
There is definitely an intersection of art with social justice. I think portraits are especially important in terms of how we see “the other” and how we see ourselves, and to our sense of identity and pride. How we portray people, what they do in the world and how they fit in the world, is important and powerful. We often think about community as a physical space, but it’s also a space in which people live and thrive, and being able to show that is a wonderful way to transform spaces. That’s something I’ve always paid attention to in community development, trying to create an authentic space in which people can be reflective. I don’t care what you say to people, but if what you show them and surround them with contradicts their experiences, you’re only going to go so far. That’s why I love photovoice projects that allow people to show you their space and what it means to them.
While in Chicago, I saw a lot of public art in neighborhoods, and I loved that about Chicago. With my own children, I took them not only to museums but to public art spaces to talk about, for example, a mural and what it means. What does it represent? Is it the lived experience of the people who live there? Those artists, like social workers, listen to voices, to what people say about themselves, and what they aspire to.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yes, and this connects back to one of the first things we talked about, the cost of education. I chose UIC based on the quality of education, but also on the amount of debt I would have after graduating. I’m originally from Florida, and coming to Chicago was expensive. The city was an urban laboratory, which was attractive and which taught me a lot, but part of my choice was based on debt. And many students are still struggling with that. But getting your education at UIC Jane Addams is a great investment. There are so many ways you can use social work practice, and so many wonderful opportunities to contribute to society.