Your browser is unsupported

We recommend using the latest version of IE11, Edge, Chrome, Firefox or Safari.

On Becoming “the Change We Seek”

John K. Holton, PhD

The quintessential rationale for social work education is to be found in the mission statement of the Jane Addams College of Social Work (JACSW):

“… to educate professional social workers, develop knowledge, and provide leadership in the development and implementation of policies and services on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, racial and ethnic minorities, and other at-risk urban populations.”

Our mission identifies three purposes for educating social workers, and at least two outcomes from its endeavors on behalf of socially marginalized populations. Significantly, the “at-risk urban population” represented by the “poor, oppressed, racial and ethnic minorities” can be found in disproportionate numbers within the American criminal justice system. Moreover, even when serving larger populations in other systems such as child welfare, education, housing, employment, and health (including behavioral health), the ties to the criminal justice system are omnipresent. Affirmatively stated, there is no escaping the criminal justice system’s centrality in the lives of “the poor, the oppressed, racial and ethnic minorities, and other at-risk urban populations” (e.g., people who are immigrants, homeless, or trafficked).

To model how social work education can be practiced, JACSW established its Center for Social Policy and Research (Policy Center) to enhance classroom instruction with “laboratory” precision. Currently, I serve as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Policy Center. In that capacity, I can develop opportunities for faculty to apply their research and practice skills, and for students to enhance their understanding and appreciation for social policy change via empowerment, collaboration, assessment, evaluation, and advocacy strategies.

It was never my intention to work in the criminal justice field per se. I began my professional career as a high school teacher. With two years of experience, I took a position instructing students who lived in group homes apart from and unlikely to return to their families of origin. These were students “excluded,” that is, expelled from attending public schools due to their truancy, behavior, or both. The reasons for their habitual absence from school or their combative actions in the classroom were missing from their profile when I encountered them. At times, I found them oppositional, frequently years behind in subject mastery, and inclined to demonstrate their brilliance of wit and cunning by staying at least two steps ahead of their teacher. They were afraid to show weakness in front of each other and often intimidated by the discipline necessary to catch up to grade-level mastery, but I never met one student who was unwilling to learn. Each wanted to succeed, grow, and prove to themselves and others that their lives were meaningful. They were being sacrificed by systems that had been established to prevent further harm. From each of them, I learned an authentic truth: be the change we seek. For me, it meant returning to graduate school to better understand the complexity of educating a person who survived individual maltreatment, familial estrangement, and community violence. It meant that I had to understand systems created by social policies. It meant making the imperceptible, visible.

For me, it meant returning to graduate school to better understand the complexity of educating a person who survived individual maltreatment, familial estrangement, and community violence. It meant that I had to understand systems created by social policies. It meant making the imperceptible, visible.

During my graduate studies, I spent a year working as a juvenile probation officer for the Circuit Court of Cook County. It was there that I encountered the legacy of Jane Addams, because her words, “in the best interests of the child,” were foundational to the nation’s first Juvenile Court. Working initially in the Cabrini-Green Homes and later in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing developments, gave me another education. I observed that well-trained probationary staff and compassionate, thoughtful judiciary were counterbalanced by the presence of political patronage coupled with the scarcity of appropriate community services. Without engaging and involving community members and institutions in planning a probationary recovery, my chances of making a difference with a “caseload” of children and adolescents were limited.

After the court experience, I went to work for a community agency in Chicago’s North Lawndale community as an evaluator of two sequentially funded programs by the National Institute of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The first program was a model of delinquency prevention focused on correcting individual deficiencies (educational and psychosocial) of high-risk youth considered on the “fast track” to incarceration in either youth or adult institutions. The second prevention program was a multi-level organizing effort involving, for example, schools, block clubs, and community meetings. In both programs, OJJDP funded replications of “successful” models to prevent delinquency and crime, primarily based on research findings or theoretical assumptions. I learned the need for sustainability for program interventions. The typical three-year grant cycle brought the necessary start-up funding but insufficient commitment. A few years later, I wrote a federal grant proposal to the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) to prevent child maltreatment using a community-level organizing approach.

Conceptually, this funded endeavor placed the responsibility of prevention as a community issue, not solely a finger-pointing exercise against parents and caregivers. The community’s response was instructive throughout. Capturing the impact with data proved elusive, however, and the funding ended after another three-year cycle. After this effort, I undertook my most comprehensive examination of juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behavior. From 1993-1999, I was the site director for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), jointly funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. PHDCN was a ground-breaking longitudinal study on anti-social behaviors employing innovative statistical analyses informed by data gathered from thousands of respondents aged from birth to early twenties in 848 Chicago neighborhoods.

Several highlights are worth sharing in taking stock of my “unintentional” career in and around the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Summarizing my activities based primarily on employment, I will share the following observations: As my exposure to juvenile delinquency grew, it revealed pathways to adult criminal behavior via organized crime in Chicago. By “organized” crime, I mean the partnerships with legal and illegal ties that are formed and embedded in criminal activity. The arrangements go beyond local law enforcement systems as the business acumen involved in conducting criminal acts (e.g., distribution of drugs and weapons) requires national and international market acumen.

Before entering the field of child abuse prevention, I was introduced to public health, specifically racial infant mortality disparities in Chicago and nationally. I learned of the relationships between the absence of prenatal care for Black females and the lifelong medical consequences for their children. Maternal mortality and morbidity during pregnancy, frequently because of domestic violence, coupled with substance abuse and the absence of medical care, were noticeable precursors to child neglect, early childhood education failures, and delinquency. My work with a national child abuse prevention organization that promoted a public health approach moved my thinking away from individualistic clinical interventions to community strengthening, including incorporating cultural competency in prevention.

Limiting education by censoring ideas or restricting interventions based on funding sources from governmental agencies may serve the interest of a few; however, it ignores the needs of the many.

PHDCN widened my scope of understanding as to the science of research and the “business” or politics of obtaining significant and sufficient funding for long-term analysis. The longitudinal study’s seminal publication identified a type of social capital that could be a protective factor against delinquency and crime, despite the presence of poverty, unemployment, race, family composition, and the other “usual suspects” used in criminology research. More importantly, my experiences with the Harvard study and its funding by governmental and private philanthropy helped me recognize the missing partner in changing society. The most obvious example is social work. Done well, social workers can translate and implement findings for policy changes or other properties needed by marginalized populations and communities. The absence of an applied mechanism that demonstrates how living standards can be raised by organizing communities, empowering families and individuals, and ceaselessly advocating is a missed opportunity.
My continual engagement in criminal justice is, therefore, both personal and professional.

The former derives from living in Chicago for over 40 years. In that time, I have borne witness to crimes against persons and property. On rare occasions, I have been the victim, literally and vicariously, by both perpetrators and protectors. As for the latter, my professional assessment is that the current epoch of mass incarceration and its accompanying culture of law enforcement—apprehension, sentencing, imprisonment, and parole—requires more critical thinkers trained in social work education. Limiting education by censoring ideas or restricting interventions based on funding sources from governmental agencies may serve the interest of a few; however, it ignores the needs of the many. One immediate opportunity for social work education is how to dismantle the systems supporting mass incarceration or how to construct decarceration methods. Discovering how social work science and practice can relaunch the lives of the formerly incarcerated and position them as leaders to educate, employ, and celebrate returning prodigal sons and daughters may become the “change we seek” in social work education.

Back to Index Page