Six Honorees Join Hall of Distinction


The 2017 Honorees: Darrell Parrish (son of Benny Parrish), Doreen Der-McLeod, Bernice Catherine Harper, Barbara Needell, Ken Nakamura, and Linda Lopez (sister of Rebecca Lopez)

By Sue Rosenberg

In a ceremony on October 21, six outstanding social workers were inducted into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction, a program within the California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA). As one speaker noted, “History is biographical: if we dig deeply enough, we will learn something about ourselves,” and that sentiment informs the mission of the Hall of Distinction. CSWA President Esther Gillies explained that it was founded in 1979 to ensure that the advances and lessons of the profession remain available to future practitioners and researchers.

Left to right: Dr. Colleen Friend, Chair, Hall of Distinction Committee Honoree; Honoree Bernice Catherine Harper; Janlee Wong, Hall of Distinction Committee; and Suzanne Dworak-Peck, Hall of Distinction Committee

This year’s Hall of Distinction inductees were Doreen Der-McLeod, an elder-care and youth services pioneer in Chinatown; Bernice Harper, who helped transform health and hospice care on two continents; the late Rebecca Lopez, immigration scholar, activist and policy shaper; Ken Nakamura, education leader and bridge builder with indigenous North Coast communities; Barbara Needell, scholar and pioneer of data analysis in child welfare; and the late Benny Max Parrish, a change-maker in ethics and client advocacy. Hall of Distinction committee member Nancy Lim-Yee emceed the induction.

Doreen Der-McLeod

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, Der-McLeod led both Donaldina Cameron House and On Lok Senior Health Services, which pioneered the holistic, independence-fostering model known today as the Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), which became a federally-certified Medicare program in 1997 and adopted in more than 30 states. Her contributions over a distinguished career served women and girls, young children with developmental disabilities, adolescents needing healthy recreational outlets, the elderly and many others. In her extended service on the Committee for Better Parks and Recreation and other lobbying groups and community projects, she helped raise funds and negotiate for the renovation of every park in Chinatown and even to increase available outdoor spaces.

In accepting the award, Der-McLeod remarked, “Social work is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes institutions created to address problems can become problems. We have to think outside the box and become advocates.”

Indeed, in introducing her, the Rev. Harry Chuck, who succeeded her as Cameron House’s executive director, said that in watching her tackle issues such as domestic violence and human trafficking, “I marveled at her clarity and calm in the midst of controversy.” He added that her accomplishments are noted several times in the 2015 book Building Community, Chinatown Style.

Der-McLeod said her career taught her about human resilience, as she saw that people can overcome obstacles “if someone will stand alongside them as they struggle and grow.” She said those caring helpers, her fellow social workers, are her inspiration.

Bernice Harper

Among the first women of color to earn a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University, Harper was a trailblazer in the hospice movement and author of the groundbreaking book Death: The Coping Mechanism of the Health Professional. She was a hospital social work leader and a longtime advisor for the federal Health and Human Services Department, helping to add hospice services to Medicare coverage. For her leadership in long-term and palliative care in the United States as well as in Africa, her many honors include a major NASW-cosponsored scholarship in her name. She has represented the United States at international agency meetings, and she was inducted into the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

NASW past president and International Federation of Social Workers ambassador Suzanne Dworak-Peck introduced Harper as “a social worker who combines clarity of purpose, the highest standards and determination, with the ability to apply a systematic approach to serving the greater good” and as “a can-do person who represents the strength and caring of social workers who help others cope with the long-term challenges of the human life cycle.” Underscoring Harper’s national impact, Dworak-Peck read aloud a personal letter of congratulations sent to Harper one day earlier by former U.S. President George W. Bush.

After offering a prayer for those suffering from floods, hurricanes and other tragedies, Harper asserted that, regardless of ethnicity or geography, “we’re all related — homed or homeless, tall or short, thin or portly, ill or well.” And she said a new global revolution was under way in which social workers especially would be “called upon to help soldier love, caring, and devotion.” “Social workers are going to be available to assist to help to make a better world, but not only a better world, but a changed world for human betterment,” she said.

Rebecca Lopez

Lopez’s early work with community agencies, especially for Latino populations, led to a job with U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, for whom she became a top policy advisor on immigration reform. One of the nation’s first Latinas to earn a PhD in social welfare, Lopez then joined the faculty of the California State University at Long Beach and published research on topics from health care to language training. She also consulted for many city agencies and academic programs. She died in 2015.

UCLA professor Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil began by sharing that his students always love the Hall of Distinction assignment to research an inductee, view an interview in the Archives, and describe how that person’s work will inform them and how they will be leaders. He went on to describe posthumous inductee Rebecca Lopez “an amazing individual” whose passionate and intelligent work helped underserved, vulnerable and exploited populations.

That was echoed by her sister Linda as she accepted the award and highlighted Rebecca’s “ability to empower through education, whether mentoring new leaders, teaching her beloved students, helping to create vision for communities, [or] educating her political opponents.” She practiced collaboration and coalition-building, “and she always set the bar high,” said Linda. “She is truly deserving of this recognition.”

Ken Nakamura

An intercultural educator, Nakamura coordinated California Social Work Education Centers (CalSWEC) on two campuses. He directed the accreditation of Humboldt State University’s bachelor’s degree program and the development of its master’s program. He forged trusting new partnerships with tribal offices and individuals to advance the dialogue between academia and indigenous communities and to alleviate a shortage of social workers along California’s rural coast. At San Diego State University, he coordinated Title IV-E federal funds for educating the child-welfare workforce, often helping local students with tribal connections to secure the stipends for their studies.

Pamela Brown, the Humboldt State University professor emerita who introduced him, said that upon first meeting him, “I felt something special was about to happen.” She went on to praise his “limitless patience and humble presence” during the arduous but always inclusive process of accreditation. Nakamura reflected on his personal experiences witnessing the challenges facing immigrants to make a life for their families, “when they don’t fully understand what is expected or desired, where their lives are much harder, not because of who they are, but because of how they were treated.” He observed that immigrants and refugees demonstrate that people have an enormous capacity to be treated poorly and yet be able to care about the welfare of others, even when their own conditions were compromised and limited.

Regarding his work in academia, he told the audience, “Teaching is less really about teaching and so much more about listening and learning. I’ve had wonderful teachers who are my students who have shared their lives with me.”

Reflecting on the warm spirit of social workers like Nakamura, Shaunna Oteka McCovey, a Yurok tribe member and poet, recited her “Believers in You,” including the lines, “When the river becomes the flood/ they are the cedar raft.”

Barbara Needell

Ahead of her time, Needell understood the power of data in social work and carefully taught government and academic leaders how to use this tool to improve the well-being of children and families.

She was principal investigator for UC Berkeley’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project, whose data informed state foster care policies, the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, and more. Also a creator of California’s Child Welfare Outcomes and Accountability System, she instructed a wide range of data users how to avoid biases in standard-setting and fallacies in analysis, fostering truly objective and rigorous tracking methods.

Introducing her, Dr. Daniel Webster of Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research called her “my hero,” “a brilliant mind” and “the ultimate in quality control.” With her “seminal work on disproportionality,” he said, “she created a sea change in the way social work uses data” and “set the trajectory of system reform” that is still improving social work today.

Needell remarked, “Social work successes are not achieved by individuals” and thanked her collaborators at UC Berkeley, the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and elsewhere. She continued, “Albert Einstein challenged people like us: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” While data analysis “shows us patterns we would otherwise miss and helps predict outcomes we cannot see from our perches in the middle of it all,” she said, it only tells who, what, where and how many. “To get to why will always require human understanding: social work!”

Benny Max Parrish

NASW-California’s president, Catharine Ralph, told the story of “my ethical hero,” Benny Max Parrish: As a social worker in the 1960s he was ordered to check for welfare fraud by means of “Operation Bed Check,” middle of the night visits into the homes of random clients, whether under suspicion or not, to look for signs of unreported adult males in residence. Anyone who did not grant permission for the search was to be referred to the fraud unit. Parrish felt these inspections were unfair and unconstitutional, and though he knew he would be fired for refusing to conduct them, refuse he did. Being fired for insubordination, what the State would deem as “a righteous cause,” prevented his collecting unemployment benefits or finding employment to provide for his family. With pro bono lawyers, he pursued court cases for five years, finally winning his back wages, and most importantly, setting new clients’ rights precedents for welfare and social work.

Darrell Parrish, in accepting the award on behalf of his father, who died in 2015, told the audience, “When I think about my dad, I think about integrity, caring and ethics.” In fact, when he was a child learning of his father’s story of fighting discrimination and unconstitutional practices he recalled he wasn’t surprised. Darrell said, “So many people knew him and appreciated him. What he did changed a lot for many people.” In his father’s spirit, he urged the audience: “Help people when they need help and love one another.”

The California Social Work Hall of Distinction is part of the California Social Welfare Archives, which was formed in 1979 to preserve the history and accumulated wisdom of the social work profession for the benefit of future practitioners and scholars. The Archives makes available materials related to social work and social welfare programs in California, including a collection of over 150 oral history interviews with social welfare leaders. Housed at the USC Special Collections Library, the Archives and its Hall of Distinction are supported by the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Visit to learn more about the inductees and the Hall.