Friday, July 14, 2006

My Father and Social Work

NASW Pioneers: Alexander A. Hawkins, PhD.

By C. Matthew Hawkins

Alexander Amos Hawkins did his undergraduate studies at Moorehouse College in Atlanta Georgia during the early 1940s. He later completed his master’s degree at Atlanta University, and earned his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. His area of specialization within social work was criminal justice. His first job as a social worker was with the Salvation Army in the city of Pittsburgh. He went on to practice social work at Western Psychiatric Institute, before becoming a faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh until he retired in 1987.

Hawkins’ family immigrated to the United States from the West Indies in the 19th century. His father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, as was his grandfather. His father and grandfather built churches as they moved to different parts of the state of Florida. Hawkins grew up in with his two brothers, George and Clinton. Their parents died while the boys were still young. Hawkins and his brothers spent much of their time living with different relatives, mostly in Jacksonville and Gainesville, Florida. For a while the boys attended a private boarding school.

While studying at Morehouse College, Alexander Hawkins met Mabel T. Emanuel, who was attending Spelman College. They married and had two children, Alexander Amos Hawkins, Jr. and Clinton Matthew Hawkins. Hawkins was ordained in the ministry in the late 1950s and initially became the pastor of Brown Chapel before being appointed to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania. While serving as a minister, he continued as a social worker for the Salvation Army. The family lived in the Lincoln-Lemington section of Pittsburgh, a predominately working class African American neighborhood, before moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, which was still had racially segregated housing at the time. In 1968 the family returned to Pittsburgh to live in the historic African American community known as the Hill District before settling in Forest Hills, east of the city.

The work that Hawkins did in the field of social work reflected the twin values he held throughout his adult life: rehabilitation and reconciliation. These values originated from his family upbringing, his religious background and service in the ministry. They were also values he developed during his education as a social worker. His commitment to rehabilitation was expressed in his work within the criminal justice system, in which he focused on prisoner rehabilitation and improving police-community relations. His commitment to reconciliation was expressed in his work in community practice, particularly in the area of race and human relations in Pennsylvania and in Florida.

Hawkins worked to rehabilitate offenders during his employment at the Western Psychiatric Institute and the state corrections system in Pennsylvania. He continued this work after he was recruited to serve on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid 1970s. Throughout his professional career he had a strong interest in preparing those who had been incarcerated for re-entry into society. He supported an approach to incarceration that emphasized rehabilitation, where this was possible, rather than merely punishment. In his work he saw evidence that when prisoners were adequately prepared to make the transition from incarceration to re-integration into communities the likelihood of recidivism was reduced. He worked to create programs that would allow prisoners to strengthen their ties to constructive and supportive community networks prior to their release.

Hawkins was also an effective and consistent advocate for continuing the role of social workers in prisons, even at a time when the State of Pennsylvania was moving toward minimizing such involvement. Hawkins chaired the criminal justice skill area at the University of Pittsburgh, and fought for continued preparation of social workers to work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations, reasoning that the profession should not drop its commitment to those who needed its services, even though such services had fallen out of favor with public opinion and elected officials who allowed themselves to believe that working to rehabilitate prisoners was being “soft on crime.”

One of the contributions to the profession that he was proudest of was his critical role in helping to establish the Program for Female Offenders in Western Pennsylvania. The program was established to help female offenders make the transition back to civilian life while they were in prison, and by providing alternative settings for non-violent offenders. It involved him in working with a population that was generally overlooked, even among social workers who were involved in other aspects of criminal justice.

To promote reconciliation, Hawkins worked to improve race relations during a period when such conflicts were reaching a breaking point. While in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1968 – 69 Hawkins worked as the Director of Community Relations. He was the first and only African American to hold a position in city hall at that time. He found himself in a delicate and politically-charged position, in a racially segregated city. He worked to improve cooperation and communication between the different sides who were locked in conflict. The issues concerning race relations were compounded by issues of poverty and limits on economic opportunity. Hawkins maintained an office in the heart of the low-income African American community, in order to ensure that the voices of traditionally-ignored residents would be heard in city hall.

Hawkins was also active in recruitment and retention of African American students for the School of Social Work during a period in which the profession needed to expand the number of social workers who would work with the historically underserved black population. Hawkins not only recruited black graduate students, but provided direct mentorship, assisting them in developing research and writing skills. He was also instrumental in linking students to other faculty members in the university who would help them with statistical analysis and social theories. He did not, however, confine his efforts to assisting only African American students; he made his services available for students of all backgrounds, who found his assistance indispensable for their intellectual and career development.

For Alexander Hawkins, the most pressing issue when he entered the social work profession was the ongoing struggle for civil rights. His concerns in this area centered on the ability of African Americans to gain access to social services, public accommodations, voting rights, and to segregation in schools and housing. Over the years he developed additional concerns that included creating greater opportunities for students of all backgrounds to have access to higher education, increasing employment opportunities, to improve police and community relations, and to implement prison reform with a focus on rehabilitation. Throughout his career, due largely to his background in psychology and his early experiences within the social work profession, he remained an advocate for the humane treatment of the mentally retarded and mental health patients.

Upon his death in 1987, his wife established the Alexander A. Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2003 this fund was re-named the Alexander and Mabel Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund. He was a loving and compassionate father, who is still dearly missed by his two sons.

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