I will remember Nancy Humphreys as someone I wished I had met earlier in life. Her tenacity and determination to hold onto to an idea in which she firmly believed had a profound impact on my thinking about social work. Nancy believed more social workers needed to be actively involved in the political arena. She believed that if part of our cause was the pursuit of social justice, then social workers could not stand on the sidelines of the political arena and watch history being made. She believed more of us needed to follow in the footsteps of Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Dorothy I. Height, and Ron Dellums. If you don’t know these names, you need to look them up.
Her first attempt to train social workers for entry into the political arena was a nonstarter. In 1984, armed with a grant from the Silberman Foundation, Nancy, then director at Michigan State’s School of Social Work, planned her first campaign school with Oakland Congressman Ron Dellums as the featured speaker. She had to cancel when no one signed up. But she had clear ideas about what she wanted to accomplish and soon created the Institute for Political Social Work in 1995 after moving to the University of Connecticut where she would spend the remainder of her academic career. She served as dean of the School of Social Work from 1987 until 1995 and was professor and director of the Institute until her retirement in 2014.
I met Nancy in 2012 during my time on the Hill as the deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns, a social worker representing my home borough of Brooklyn, NY. He and I worked with NASW Executive Director Betsy Clark and her special assistant, Elizabeth Hoffler, to create the Congressional Social Work Caucus, an official Congressional Member Organization (CMO) that would provide a platform for social workers on the Hill to give voice to our concerns and ideas about the pressing social issues confronting the nation. When it became apparent that Rep. Towns would retire after three decades in the House, we created the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) to ensure the caucus would remain viable.
As I was contemplating the idea of a nonprofit support organization, Betsy Clark suggested that I have a talk with Nancy Humphreys. I flew to Hartford and she sat with me for hours helping me think through its purpose and mission and how it might be received by the social work profession. From that point on, she mentored me through the ups and downs of being a political social worker, emphasizing the need to persevere. Nancy could always get people to listen to her. She was one of the great orators of her time.
Before meeting Nancy, I had no idea political social work might be seen as a legitimate practice. I always thought my friend Ed Towns was a social worker who left the profession to go into politics. Thanks to the scholarship of Dr. Suzanne Pritzker at the University of Houston and Dr. Shannon Lane at Sacred Heart University, there is a textbook for political social work and I am meeting scores of talented enthusiastic social workers eager to take our skills and knowledge into the political arena where they are profoundly needed.
The Social Work Caucus lives on under the capable leadership of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the social worker who succeeded the late Ron Dellums representing citizens of Oakland and beyond. Social workers can be proud that she is among the leadership of the House Democratic Caucus. Rep. Lee will be reintroducing the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act in the current Congress in March which is Social Work Month. Those who would like to leave condolences or make a donation in honor of Nancy A. Humphreys can go to her memorial page. I plan to speak with her life partner, Jo Nol, to get her approval to create a CRISP tribute to her work and legacy.