Bill Allen has taken on many roles throughout his life—student, therapist, educator, researcher, and now president.
In November, Allen became president-elect of the National Council of Family Relations (NCFR), a multi-disciplinary organization of researchers, educators, and practitioners dedicated to advancing the field of family social science. Beginning in 2015, his role will be to help shape what the organization does on behalf of families in the United States and around the world.
Allen sees the NCFR as his professional home, an extension of the roots that he began to grow while attending the University, where he attained his doctorate in family social science.
Whether he’s talking with colleagues from NCFR or researching new methods to use for helping families, Allen describes his work as energizing.
“As a student I felt this energy, too,” he says, “thinking about families and all of the things that we might do to help them help themselves.”
Roots in child psychology
Two themes run throughout Allen’s work: the idea that culture matters, and the roles that males play in family throughout the lifespan. But focusing on those themes took time.
Originally from the east coast, Allen studied at Brown University and graduated with a degree in child psychology. In 1979 he came to Minnesota pursuing a career in sales and marketing in the computer industry. After nearly 15 years in business, he realized then that if he wanted to fulfill his dream of working more directly in human services, he needed to return to school.
“You can do a lot with a bachelor’s degree, but you can’t do the kinds of things that I wanted to do,” says Allen.
The fifteen-year hiatus between his undergraduate degree and graduate school proved to be good for him, Allen says. In the work force, he was able to see family interactions and circumstances more closely. He also witnessed a growing appreciation in the human service fields for culture, diversity, and their effects on behavior and thought processes.
Beginning his graduate work, Allen felt there was a void in the research exploring male roles in families, especially previous work on young fathers. Much of it didn’t address the lives of the adolescents and young men themselves but were instead secondhand reports from others in their lives, such as the mothers of their children.
For his master’s thesis, Allen worked with his mentor, family social science professor Bill Doherty, to explore the experiences of adolescent fathers. Together they conducted a qualitative study on what being a father meant to a group of African American teen dads. A recurrent theme in the responses from these young fathers was their perception that being a father—and specifically “being there” for their children—was the most important thing in their lives.
For his doctorate, Allen worked with another mentor, family social science professor David Olson, to develop a theory of African American marriages to gain a better understanding of the factors that make healthy African American marriages strong. They discovered that couples in which partners shared similar spiritual beliefs and those with strong ties to their extended families tended to do better and stay together longer. The findings confirmed studies of healthy marriages in the general population and widely accepted theory about strengths among African American families.
Across the lifespan
After completing his doctorate in 1997, Allen joined a private practice with two other colleagues. Three years later, he started his own practice, Healing Bonds. In his office on Lake Street in Minneapolis, he sees individuals, couples, and families, many referred by social service agencies, counties, or the child welfare system. Drawing on his foundation in child psychology, Allen is often called to work more effectively with adolescents and young males with whom other practitioners have struggled.
Recently, he has been taking reunification cases. Many involve non-custodial fathers who have been estranged from their children and are trying to reestablish relationships with them.
“It’s really a fun practice because I see a lot of different families and family configurations,” Allen says. “I end up working with people across the lifespan.”
Allen also teaches. At the University, he has lectured on issues revolving around adolescent parenting and the familial roles that males play over the course of their lives. At the University of St. Thomas, he teaches aspiring marriage and family therapists in the graduate-level marriage and family practicum.
In 2011, Allen received the NCFR’s Marie Peters Award, which recognizes significant contributions to the area of ethnic minority families. Through all aspects of his work, he remains focused on advancing the importance of diversity and culture in the field of family social science. The field today is not just as an adjunct to psychology or social work, he says, but a key player in developing systemic solutions to relational problems facing families.
“At the time I was coming through my undergraduate program at Brown, psychology didn’t have a place for families as much as it does now,” says Allen. “The family field is really coming into its own.”
Story by Ali Lacey | February 2014