When the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009, the first family included not just the President, Michelle Obama, and their two daughters but also the girls’ maternal grandmother. Mrs. Marian Shields Robinson was quickly hailed as everything from First Granny to Grandmother-in-Chief.
Indeed, Michelle Obama’s mother was the first in-law in the White House with the role of caregiver to grandchildren. But such a household was familiar to many, including social work professor Priscilla Gibson.
“Grandmother caregiving is a tradition used across social classes and circumstances in African American communities,” says Gibson, who grew up in Church Point, Louisiana, surrounded by her extended family. Gibson’s mother had been cared for as a child by her own Cajun grandmother, whom she called ma mère. “Yet the common assumption is that something has to be wrong if the grandmother is there.”
She was inspired to write about the subject in a journal article, “Grandmother caregiver-in-chief continues the tradition of African American families,” published last year.
Gibson pays attention to intergenerational family caregiving. Her research has examined older adults, especially African American grandmothers, who have assumed the role of primary caregiver to related children whose biological parents are not in the household, what is called “kinship care” in the public child welfare system.
“Another term, ‘grand family,’ is relatively new,” Gibson says. “Until recently, it has been used more often in gerontology and nursing care.”
Listening to grandparents’ voices
Gibson has investigated grandmothers’ socio-cultural experiences during the delivery of social services and as intergenerational parents to their grandchildren while maintaining a relationship with the parents of those children. She has also explored grandparents’ understanding of social policies influencing services for them.
Locally she collaborates with Lutheran Social Services, which is the primary community provider of information and services to grand families and also offers support groups called GAP—Grandparents As Parents. While researching children’s out-of-school suspensions over the past four years, Gibson has listened to the voices of grandmothers, who expressed deep concern about the achievement gap and the educational success of their grandchildren.
In 2009, Gibson used a sabbatical to return to Church Point for six months. There she collaborated with service agencies in New Orleans and the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center of Louisiana to explore the caregiving experiences of African American grandmothers during and after their recovery from four hurricanes in southwestern Louisiana—Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike. She traveled from Church Point to New Orleans and other cities multiple times to interview grandmothers who volunteered for her study to explore how their caregiving changed during and after the hurricanes.
Social change and social work
Gibson’s time in Church Point also provided an opportunity to join her siblings in caring for their mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and to listen to her stories.
It was Gibson’s mother who so highly valued education that she made sure all her children completed high school, even though Church Point had no high school for blacks before 1966. Educational segregation resulted in the busing of young Priscilla Gibson from Acadia Parish to St. Landry Parish—lucky for her and her cohort, because in prior years before busing, scores of African American children in Church Point were not able to attend high school.
Gibson went on to study social welfare in Baton Rouge, at one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), and was first in her family to attain a college degree. Yet jobs in social service agencies, even with a college degree, were scarce for blacks. She volunteered for political campaigns and did substitute teaching until she obtained a full-time job in New Orleans, at the Family Planning Medical Clinic in the Social Service Department, which required a move from her small town of Church Point.
After 12 years, Gibson resigned to attend a master of social work (MSW) program at Tulane University. As a social worker, her practice included families who were homeless, families with children who had developmental disabilities, and those requesting therapy.
Allies on her path
“Throughout my life I’ve had allies,” says Gibson. It was some of those allies who urged and encouraged her to apply for a doctoral program so she could pursue the kind of research she envisioned.
Gibson completed her Ph.D. at the University of Denver in 1996 while also working with people with disabilities across the lifespan. Some of the children on her caseload were being cared for by grandmothers.
After serving on faculties of the University of Colorado and the University of Louisville, Gibson relocated to the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work in 1999. This year she was promoted to full professor. Her latest work includes a book about the ally model in social justice work, research on widows’ property rights in Ghana, and grandmothers’ activities with their grandchildren that influence their own health status as well as their grandchildren’s educational achievement.
Gibson puts a high value on community service and building relationships that also inform her teaching and research. She now belongs to a group of black women who are writing memoirs.
“My mom always wanted to tell her story,” says Gibson. “These women writers want to raise up another generation of writers to contribute to the literature on the experiences of African Americans.”
Postscript: Gibson was part of a unique research collaboration that resulted in a play performed Feb. 26, 2016, at Rarig Center. Saplings is based on Gibson’s research about African American grandmother caregivers and how school suspensions affect them and their young charges. Audience members were invited to participate in discussions after the performance. Read more.
Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Greg Helgeson | June 2015