By Eric Lindberg
Six individuals with distinguished and successful careers in social work entered the California Social Work Hall of Distinction during a recent induction ceremony that recognized their exceptional contributions to social justice and social welfare.
The new class of inductees includes L. Georgi DiStefano, an advocate for the integration of alcohol abuse and mental health treatment services; Marilyn Flynn, a leader in social work higher education; and Marilyn Montenegro, a social worker committed to resolving issues of societal inequality.
The Hall of Distinction also welcomed Alex J. Norman, a proponent of building coalitions across racial and ethnic lines; Helen Ramirez, whose work in child welfare and adoption services have been a model for practice and outreach in minority communities; and Fernando Torres-Gil, a champion of issues related to aging and health in later life.
“It’s so heartening to see so many people committed to preserving the history and dignity of the profession of social work in California,” said Rino Patti, former dean of the USC School of Social Work and professor emeritus.
When DiStefano began her career in substance abuse treatment, she quickly recognized that mental health issues and substance abuse are interrelated and inextricable issues that must be addressed together to promote successful recovery.
As clinical director and now executive director of the San Diego State University Research Foundation’s Driving Under the Influence Program, she oversees services for approximately 3,000 clients per week. Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, DiStefano said few if any DUI programs in California addressed co-occurring disorders or mental health challenges.
In addition to creating a model of treatment that addresses mental health issues alongside addiction, she has strongly advocated for a mental health component in DUI treatment throughout the state and created a data management software program that helps clinicians track patient progress in substance abuse treatment programs.
“If our communities are safer because we have reduced the incidence of DUIs, if individuals attempting recovery now have a better understanding of what will contribute to a successful recovery, if counselors now have a treatment guide to help them work with clients, and if mental health issues are routinely recognized and addressed in addiction treatment, then I feel something has been accomplished and my time has been well spent,” DiStefano said.
In accepting the honor, Flynn emphasized the need to cultivate and cherish an appreciation for the history of the social work profession in California. Although much is known about economic and political development, she said less is understood about social workers who transformed the wild society of the West into a caring community.
“I’m extremely proud to be part of a narrative that exemplifies and honors social work in the West,” she said. “I hope we are establishing a tradition that endures and inspires others for generations to come.”
A transformational leader who in 1997 became the second woman to serve as dean of the USC School of Social Work, Flynn created the first military social work specialization at a major civilian research university, established a groundbreaking and successful web-based master of social work degree program, and recruited a diverse and distinguished faculty featuring experts in research on health, mental health, aging, and child maltreatment.
Marv Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, praised Flynn for her rigor, entrepreneurial spirit, generosity, international perspective, and intense devotion to social justice.
“She’s always looking beyond the obvious to new opportunities,” he said. “Marilyn has always been willing to share resources and time and energy and intellect to advance our profession to a new level.”
As a committed advocate for equality since her days as a graduate student at the UCLA School of Social Welfare and later as a doctoral student in urban studies at USC, Montenegro has tirelessly pursued efforts to increase diversity in academia, address housing discrimination, and protect prisoners from abuse and inhumane conditions.
Inspired to replace a brutal punishment model with restorative justice after visiting a friend in prison in the 1970s, Montenegro and her life partner formed the Prison Project through the National Association of Social Work Women’s Council and led a successful movement to shut down a sensory deprivation program designed to punish female inmates in Kentucky.
In accepting the Hall of Distinction honor, she described a career-long struggle against societal systems that don’t support all individuals equally.
“I’ve worked, often unsuccessfully, to challenge some of those systems — the system that says we must have growth and development rather than sustainability and balance, the system that values individual achievement over communal well-being — and it’s something I continue to challenge,” Montenegro said.
Alex J. Norman
An expert in multiethnic coalition building and urban planning, Norman has dedicated his career to social justice and developing collaborative partnerships across racial and ethnic boundaries. He helped establish ReThinking Greater Long Beach, an organization that promotes and conducts research on issues faced by African Americans, and cowrote a recent report outlining challenges related to education, health, and crime faced by the African American community in Long Beach.
“This is an individual award, but it really is a collective effort,” he said. “I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors going back seven generations. I’m just two generations from slavery, so I’m the grandson of slave parents. It’s the context of my ancestors that drives my theme of social justice.”
He challenged the profession of social work to continue championing the causes of individuals and groups victimized by society. Quoting civil rights leader and his mentor Whitney Young, Jr., Norman said social workers must remember three things: who they are, where they are, and why they are there.
“By engaging in transformative change, you are battling the powers that be,” he said. “And as Frederick Douglass said, power concedes to nothing. It never has and it never will.”
A persistent proponent for children and families, Ramirez developed the first social work unit in the Los Angeles County Department of Adoptions focused on placing children with developmental disabilities with adoptive families, created a bilingual–bicultural unit to assist Latino children in need of permanent homes, and established a support and training program for emancipated youths transitioning from foster care.
She became the first Latina to head a child welfare department in Los Angeles County as the director of the Department of Adoptions from 1978 to 1984. In her later role as deputy director of the county’s Department of Children’s Services, she continued to develop innovative programs and policies in child welfare and served as a vigorous advocate for minority children and families.
“It’s not where you are going, it’s the people you meet along the way,” she said during the induction ceremony, crediting her parents, family, friends, and colleagues for her success. “That’s really the way I feel about my career.”
Born and raised in Salinas, California, as one of nine children in his family, Torres-Gil said his single mother had a tremendous influence on his career path. Despite having to swallow her pride and enroll in a public assistance program for families and move into public housing, Torres-Gil said she kept her head high.
“That was not going to make her feel sorry or any less of a person,” he said. “She instilled in us that one should give back regardless of your circumstances.”
All eight of his siblings have gone on to successful professional careers, he said, and Torres-Gil himself has become a national leader on issues of health, long-term care, disability, entitlement reform, and aging. Among many local, state, and federal appointments, he was selected by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Assistant Secretary on Aging and was recently named by President Barack Obama as vice chair of the National Council on Disability.
Describing why he has pursued change at the macro level, Torres-Gil paraphrased President Hubert Humphrey: “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; the twilight of life, the elderly; and the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
The Hall of Distinction, established in 2002, has honored 91 individuals who have made outstanding contributions to social welfare and social work in California. In particular, the institution has emphasized leaders who served as practitioners, administrators, advocates, educators, or other high-impact contributors to the profession.
The hall is supported by the California Social Welfare Archives, which identifies and preserves documents and memorabilia related to social welfare programs in California and gathers oral histories from professional and volunteer social welfare leaders. The archives are housed at the USC Doheny Special Collections Library and supported by the USC School of Social Work.