Joan Blakey left the University of Minnesota and the School of Social Work (SSW) with a BS and MSW in hand. She now returns to SSW as an associate professor and its new director, ready to inspire students, staff, and faculty alike to strive to make a difference.
“It is my responsibility to create an environment in which we provide the best education possible for students and that we provide the best work environment possible for faculty and staff to thrive and bring their best selves to their work, which should be reflected in the education that students receive,” she says.
Blakey is returning to CEHD and SSW after serving as the associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor at the School of Social Work at Tulane University in New Orleans. Prior to that, she was a department chair and associate professor at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
When announcing her new role at SSW, Dean Michael C. Rodriguez said Blakey will make the CEHD community brighter and stronger. “She brings great scholarship, leadership, and lived experience, as well as new energy and commitment to goals that are closely aligned with those of the SSW and CEHD,” he said.
Besides her BS and MSW from the U, Blakey holds a PhD in social work from the University of Chicago. “What drives my passion is my education,” she says. “I think about the education that I received and how much it has changed my life, how much it has opened new worlds for me, how much it has shaped the person that I have become.”
When Blakey graduated from college, she was inspired to change the world. “While I think perhaps I was a little naïve at the time in terms of how much I could change the world, especially without the help of others, I’ve never lost my desire to leave a legacy and to affect change,” she says.
Blakey hopes to instill this attitude among every student that walks through the school’s doors. “I want students to leave inspired to change whatever piece of the world they feel passionate about that they feel they can contribute to making it better,” she says. “It’s not about maintaining the status quo. It’s about embodying and living our social work mission. That drives me as a college administrator.”
Being the best it can be
So as a college administrator, what does her job entail? “My responsibilities are to the faculty and staff to create an environment in which they can thrive, that every single person who is employed through the School of Social Work feels valued, appreciated, and that their contributions matter,” she says. “I believe that every single person contributes to the mission of the school, what the school is, and what it will become.”
Blakey says the responsibility of the school is to inspire. “We should be pushing students to think critically about the world, about how they can really make a difference,” she says. “If students leave our program the same as they came in, we have not done our job.”
Being the best it can be for students, then, is a primary goal for Blakey. “We want to provide students with more options and choices around electives of what their education will look like,” she says. “We want to create an online MSW program and make our program more accessible to people in rural areas and to people who need flexible, part-time options to complete their degree. I also want to look at our curriculum and really begin to work on what using an anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens would look like in our current social work practice.”
Refining the curriculum and online program has both short- and long-term aspects. “We’re working on the curriculum and making changes now. Part of that involves thinking about where the field will be in the next 50 years,” she says. “What do we believe social workers will need to know and how do we best prepare them for practice?”
Baking anti-racism into the curriculum is an urgent need, Blakey believes. “I want to center multiple perspectives and decenter white-bodied-ness and white normative views,” she says. “I want to begin to look at the ways in which we teach students about how to work with diverse populations. Oftentimes we focus on white families and white individuals as the norm and then we jump from there to ‘this is how you work with African Americans.’ ‘This is how you work with Latino people.’ ‘This is how you work with Indigenous people.’ We need to rethink our entire curriculum around what it means to educate the social workers of today.”
Blakey says students have the right to have and see themselves reflected in the curriculum, in the faculty, and in the student body. “Students have a right to be in a program that celebrates all of who they are and seeks to be inclusive, welcoming, and providing a sense of belonging,” she says. “I believe students also have the right to receive a rigorous education that pushes them to think critically, that pushes them to at least try on different perspectives, and to really see problems from different viewpoints so that they can respond to and speak to why they believe something should be a certain way beyond their personal feelings. Their beliefs and opinions should be rooted in research, knowledge, practice wisdom, and social work values and ethics.”
To make this happen, Blakey plans to tap into the key strength of the school—its people. “We have a world-class faculty that is doing amazing things from work in domestic violence to work with refugees to work with aging populations. Our faculty interests really run the gamut of social work practice,” she says. “We have some of the best staff at this University who really care about students, who really care about social work’s mission, and who are really dedicated to making this school the best place it can be. And I think we have some of the most dedicated students.”
Blakey says she wants to build upon the solid foundation that has already been built by Joe Merighi, John Bricout, Jim Reinardy, and Jean Quam. “I know that every single faculty member has ideas about what they think the school should be and what the school should look like,” she says. “And so I think that’s going to take time to really figure out what we are going to become, what we are going to highlight, and what we want to be known for as a school of social work. Those are conversations that are going to happen over the next couple of years and we will be continuously tweaking and improving as we go along.”
Happy to be home
Blakey is excited about the future and also, happy to be home. “The school has a special place in my heart because it is my alma mater, because I got my bachelor’s and master’s here,” she says. “I grew up in St Paul. I am a fourth-generation Minnesotan. My family has a very long legacy in St. Paul.” Her great-grandfather, Cassville Bullard, helped to build monuments in St. Paul and Minneapolis and also worked on the governor’s mansion, the state capitol, and the Foshay Tower, once the tallest building in Minneapolis. Her cousin Art Blakey was the first African American sheriff at the State Fair and was the first Black king of the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
“My family has a long history of caring about Minnesota public service and contributing to the betterment of the Twin Cities area,” she says. “And I am the next person in line to continue that tradition. I am really excited to be here to serve in this role. It is not lost on me that I am the first Black woman to serve in this role and I really am honored to be leading the school at this time in history.”
– KEVIN MOE