Friday, July 14, 2006

My Mother and Social Work

NASW Pioneers: Mabel T. Hawkins, PhD.

By C. Matthew Hawkins

Mabel Teola Emanuel Hawkins, PhD did her undergraduate studies at Spelman College in Atlanta, approximately from 1940 – 44, and later did her masters work at Atlanta University, and earned her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. Her area of specialization within social work was children and youth. Her first job, as a social worker, was to work with juvenile offenders. She later gained employment at Family and Children’s Services with a specialization on adoption before becoming a faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Hawkins grew up as Mabel T. Emanuel. Her father was Matthew Levi Emanuel and her mother was Teola Prior Emanuel. Her father was a teacher and a Baptist minister, who, upon migrating to Pittsburgh in the early 1920s, became a brick cleaner for the exterior of buildings that were covered with soot from the steel mills. Her mother was a hair dresser. Hawkins grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an historic African American community, as an only child. She nonetheless had many cousins and neighborhood friends who functioned as extended siblings. Nonetheless, she said her passion for issues related to children, and eventually for social work, was being rooted in her desire for siblings when she was a child. Even as a child she had aspirations for opening an orphanage someday.

Although she came from a working class background and her family suffered extended periods of unemployment during the Depression, she had the benefit of parents who strongly emphasized the value of religion and education. Because the family had its origins in Atlanta, they would periodically make return trips to the south to keep in contact with other relatives. It was there that she first developed an appreciation for Spelman College, which was an African American women’s college. Her desire to attend the college, when she got older, became a strong source of motivation for her through most of her primary and secondary education years.

When a guidance counselor at the high school she attended told her she should forget about college and prepare to be a domestic because, according to the counselor, this was the only practical future for a black woman, her father marched into the guidance counselor’s office the next day and firmly informed the woman that it was his job to figure out how to pay for his daughter’s college education and it was their job to see that she was academically prepared to attend upon graduation.

While she grew up in a struggling working class family during the Great Depression, Mabel Hawkins later observed that she was unaware of her family’s poverty. Her parents filled the home with love and did not call attention to their financial situation. They did, however, encourage her to be frugal, and make wise choices. They let her know that she could not have everything she desired and they trusted her judgment. When she wanted both a bicycle and a typewriter upon graduation from high school they had her choose between the two. It was a difficult choice and she knew that her parents would honor her wishes whichever gift she chose. After considerable reflection she settled on the typewriter, convinced that it would be more valuable to her in the long run.

A college friend of hers, from an affluent family, commented during one of her visits to the Emanuel household, “your family may be poor, when it comes to money, but it is rich with love.” It was at Spelman College that she met her future husband, Alexander Amos Hawkins, who was attending Morehouse College at the time. Alexander Hawkins also became a social worker, earning his PhD. in education and teaching in the School of Social Work from late 1960s until 1987.

In college, Mabel Hawkins became friends with students from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. Her closest friend was studying medicine, and eventually became a physician. Hawkins’ values and perspectives on social problems were primarily shaped by the humanitarian emphasis of her religious upbringing. It was this humanitarian background that provided her with a perspective that allowed her to interact with other students on the basis of their character, without regard to class distinctions. Her friends in college often said. “If Mabel can’t get along with somebody then nobody can.”

During the Second World War she worked in the summer as an office clerk for the Pentagon. During her studies for her Masters’ degree at the University of Pittsburgh, her internship was with Juvenile Court. While she appreciated the importance of professional objectivity in social work, she also felt it important to connect with her clients on a human level. Her field placement supervisor noted that this distinguished her from others who had been placed at the site.

Upon completing her Master’s degree, she worked for a while in the field of child adoption until she had two sons of her own, Alexander A. Hawkins, Jr. and Clinton Matthew Hawkins. She took about five years off from work until the youngest of her children entered Kindergarten, which allowed her to gradually re-enter the workforce.

Upon entering the field of social work, the key issues that she encountered centered on racial discrimination and poverty. Mabel Hawkins became a professional social worker during the post-war years, when the civil rights movement was gaining steam in the south and having an impact across the country. In the north, she could see, first hand, the effects of post-war exodus of whites to the suburbs and the growing concentration of poverty in the inner cities. Through her work with youth she became aware of the relationship between the poor living conditions and lack of nutrition that children received at home and behavioral problems as they were manifested in the schools.

While she was studying social work, Mabel Hawkins learned assessment skills and the importance of seeing the client within the context of a larger community. This knowledge led her, in later years as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, to establish a series of community-based tutoring programs in the Hill District and in Homewood Brushton. Graduate students and younger students still in secondary education staffed the tutoring programs she initiated. These programs were as much an education for the tutors as they were for the tutees, because it gave the tutors an opportunity think about and respond to the social conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. This was a reflection of the systemic perspective that Mabel Hawkins gained through her social work education.

Her approach to the tutoring programs she initiated was holistic, allowing graduate students to play a significant role in making hiring decisions and in designing activities and the program for education. Both tutoring locations recognized the importance of child nutrition as being essential for a student’s willingness and ability to learn. Inexpensive breakfasts and lunches were included in the programs. In Homewood Brushton there was a heavy emphasis on community engagement, to point where the tutors met with the parents of the younger students in their homes and talked with them about their children’s lessons. They also assisted some of the parents in registering to vote.

In the early 1980s Mabel Hawkins was elected second Vice-President of NASW. In this capacity she pursued her interest in encouraging at focus in social work education aimed toward preparing students to have an awareness of family dynamics and the continuing role that racism plays in American society. She traveled widely and sought first-hand experience with people from different groups and sub-cultures. Her thirst for knowledge led her to embark on a Semester at Sea upon retirement, in which she took classes on a ship and traveled around the world. She also continued her education by studying and writing poetry and supporting African American cultural events in the city of Pittsburgh.

Mabel Hawkins repeatedly emphasized that social workers should understand the importance of strong family and community networks for individual clients. Through her activities young people, she emphasized the importance of intervener being interested in the things that interest the client, while using such opportunities to strengthen the client’s discernment skills. In her retirement years she became engaged in volunteer work for a Mime Ministry in her church because she could see that young people were interested in dance. She took the opportunity, during this ministry, to expose the members of the troop to the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, among others. When she organized activities for young people to attend plays or movies she built in time for debriefing sessions so that they could talk about, and think through, what they had just seen. As she traveled around the world she brought back distinctive children’s books so that she could broaden the perspectives of young readers.

Toward the end of her life, Mabel Hawkins expressed several concerns that she felt were comparable to, and extensions of, the challenges she faced when she began her career. Central to her concerns was the deterioration of the social fabric once facilitated greater communication between generations. She was concerned about the break-down of families and the increased difficulty in transmitting wholesome values to emerging generations. She observed that young people seemed to be more easily distracted than in the past, and had a shorter attention-span. She also saw evidence that African American males were increasingly being stigmatized and marginalized in ways that diminished their opportunities for education and employment.

She played a central role in establishing the Alexander A. Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh. Upon her death in 2003 this fund was re-named the Alexander and Mabel Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund. She was a loving and nurturing mother, whose presence and warmth can never be replaced.

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