The 30 Most Influential Social Workers Alive Today

By Brenda Rufener
Posted October 2014

The practice of social work focuses on more than day-to-day patient assessment. Today's social workers are advocates, community developers, and human rights activists. The social work profession is committed to social justice. Social workers fight for oppressed communities and marginalized individuals, often forgotten about by society.

This list is comprised of the 30 most influential social workers alive today. Selection was based on merit, scholastic study, and political activism. From celebrities to university professors, the list includes individuals who plan, engage, and support social work. Many belong to professional associations that provide ethical guidance and support to various communities. Most have authored books or published journal articles on policy, reform, crisis intervention, and civil liberties.

Of the most influential social workers selected, all advocate for those affected by social disadvantage, such as poverty, abuse, illness, disability, or social injustice. They are experts in the field and instigate awareness within the social work field.

30. Joan Levy Zlotnik

Director of the Social Work Policy Institute, Joan Levy Zlotnik is an award-winning social worker recognized for her work and dedication to the field. She previously served as the Director of Special Projects at the Council on Social Work Education and currently acts as editor of a book series, Building Social Work Research Capacity, published by Oxford University Press. Zlotnik holds a PhD in Social Work from the University of Maryland and is a fellow of both the NASW Social Work Pioneer and Gerontological Society of America. The National Institute of Health's Social Work Research recognized her for her dedication to social research.

29. Tamara Grigsby

A graduate of Howard University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tamara Grigsby is a former university professor and social worker, known for her time served as the Democratic Party member of the Wisconsin State Assembly. She represented the 18th Assembly District from 2005 to 2013. Grigsby is a member of many organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Wisconsin Women in Government Board, and the Milwaukee Child Welfare Partnership Council. She is active in politics and public policy, voicing her commitment to social work.

28. Joe Kort

Known for his devoted career in advancing social acceptance, Joe Kort is an openly gay clinical social worker and author of four books and numerous journal publications. Kort received his undergraduate degree in social work from Michigan State University and two master's degrees from Wayne State University. Kort completed his doctorate from the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists. He works as a clinical sexologist and facilitator of couples workshops and counseling. Kort is active in online appearances and in the media. He has appeared on a variety of television and radio shows, including the Tyra Banks Show and Oprah.

27. Mariko Yamada

Mariko Yamada is a social worker and civil servant turned Democratic assemblywoman from California's 4th Assembly district. Her parents were held in Japanese internment camps during World War II and her roots are grounded in poverty. Yamada attended inner-city schools and became the first of her family to graduate from college. She received her master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California. Her career showcases a decade run in Washington, D.C. working in federal service and with the U.S. Census Bureau. Later in her career, she served as an investigator with the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

26. Celia Williamson

Professor of Social Work and Criminal Justice at the University of Toledo, Celia Williamson is a community advocate and researcher in the areas of human trafficking and prostitution. Williamson is the Founder of the Second Chance Program and Co-Chair of the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition. She has published extensive research on domestic minor sex trafficking and adult prostitution in the United States. In 2009, Williamson was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame for her work in the field of trafficking.

25. Ellen DeVoe

Associate Professor and PhD Program Director of Social Work at Boston University, Ellen DeVoe is considered one of the most influential social workers alive today. She is recognized for her research on the study of violence exposure on children. Her scholarly interest and practice includes domestic violence, sexual abuse, and intervention research with children and families exposed to violence. She has also performed extensive study on the impact of September 11. DeVoe is a certified social worker with the state of New York and was awarded the Teaching Excellence honor from Boston University School of Social Work in 2008.

24. David Crampton

David Crampton is an Associate Professor of Social Work at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University. He is an active member of the national team evaluating the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family-to-Family Initiative. Crampton's research includes a focus on the evaluation of family centered and community-based child welfare practices. In 2010, Crampton served as the chair of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services Practice Review Panel. He has written extensively for the field of social work and family services practice.

23. Sabrina Sullenberger

After ten years of teaching at Indiana University, Sabrina Sullenberger joined the faculty at Belmont University. She holds a PhD in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with research interests in poverty and child welfare. Her work has been internationally published with areas of exploration in the scholarship of teaching and learning. She teaches social work by infusing service learning and hands-on assessment. Sullenberger believes in passing the torch of change in social service to her students.

22. Georgette Mulheir

Popular TED Speaker and pioneer for the movement to end child abuse imposed by orphanages, Georgette Mulheir works as the CEO of Lumos – a non-profit organization founded by JK Rowling. Mulheir has dedicated the last twenty years working to shift resources away from orphanages and toward family services, such as foster care and support. Her focus is in Central and Eastern Europe, but her reach is international. Since the initiation of her work in Romania in 1993, over 200,000 children in orphanages were reduced to 20,000.

21. Darrell Wheeler

Dean and Professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, Darrell Wheeler is a member of the Council on Social Work Education and President of the National Association of Social Workers. His research interests and publication focus emphasizes the exploration of individual and communal resiliency in HIV prevention. His particular focus groups are on the African American gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. He has co-authored numerous books and chapters. Wheeler holds degrees in social work from Cornell, Howard, and the University of Pittsburgh.

20. Angelo McClain

Angelo McClain is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Social Workers. After serving six years as the Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, Dr. McClain moved to his current role of leading growth and support to the social work profession. He holds a PhD in Social Work from Boston College and has worked as a professor in the Urban Leadership Program at Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work. In 2013, McClain received the Betsey R. Rosenbaum Award for Excellence in Public Child Welfare.

19. Stephanie Berzin

Associate Professor and Chair of the Children, Youth, and Families Concentration at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, Stephanie Berzin serves as the co-director of the Center for Social Innovation – a division working to build evidence based social preparedness and awareness. Berzin's scholarship centers toward research on the social sector and social innovation practice. Her research has been published in various journals and in 2009 Berzin was awarded the Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize for her contribution in Social Service Review.

18. Thomas Crea

An Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College, Thomas Crea joined the faculty in 2007 after working as a clinical social worker assisting with severely emotionally disturbed children. Crea's research spans the local, national, and international level and focuses on social interventions for children and families. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the Annie E. Casey Foundation has funded his current research. Crea serves on the board of Adoption Quarterly.

17. Roger Roffman

Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington's School of Social Work, Roger Roffman is recognized for his long-term dedication and research in the area of behavioral intervention for addictive disorders and domestic violence. He joined the University of Washington in 1972 and by the mid-80s was the founding director of the Innovative Programs Research Group. Although retired from UW, he continues to co-investigate on many studies at the Research Group and has been known to pop in on classes unannounced to offer his words of wisdom.

16. Ruby M. Gourdine

Recognized as one of the social work pioneers by the National Association of Social Workers, Ruby Gourdine is a professor at Howard University with research focus on child welfare, youth exposure to violence, women's issues, and social work history. She is the Chair of Direct Sequence Practice in the School of Social Work at Howard and offers expertise in the area of inequalities of service based on race in the workplace. Her advocacy combined with her work experience has given her the role of monitoring social work services for a variety of private agency programs and the DC public school system.

15. Larry E. Davis

Larry Davis is the Dean and Donald M. Henderson Professor of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to his arrival at the University of Pittsburgh, Davis taught at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. He is the founder of the Center on Race and Social Problems. Davis' research interests include interracial group dynamics, racial impact on interpersonal interactions and family formation, and academic achievement of youth. His work has appeared in a variety of journals and has been funded by sources such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. Davis is a member of the Society for Social Work and Research and the National Association of Social Workers.

14. Alberto Godenzi

Alberto Godenzi joined Boston College in 2001 as the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and continues today to act as the Dean and Director of the Bi-Lingual Department of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Godenzi has published numerous books and journal articles in a variety of languages and has served on the Board of Directors of the Council on Social Work Education. His research focuses on the consequences and causes of violence against women and children, and he has served as Secretary General for the International Consortium for Social Development. He is currently the editor of Encyclopedia of Social Work.

13. Alice Walker

Known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple, critically acclaimed author Alice Walker began her journey as a women's rights and civil rights activist. She worked as a social worker, teacher, and lecturer and became recognized for her work with the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equality for African Americans. Her third novel, The Color Purple, was made into a Steven Spielberg directed film. The movie received numerous awards, including eleven Academy Award nominations. In 2005, the movie became a Broadway musical.

12. Dalton Conley

A sociologist and university professor at New York University's Department of Sociology, Dalton Clark Conley is recognized for his contribution to the field of socioeconomic status and how it is transmitted across generations. Dalton served as the Dean for the Social Sciences and Chair of the Department of Sociology at NYU and became the first sociologist to win the National Science Foundation's Alan T. Waterman Award. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and has published several books, including the acclaimed sociological memoir Honky. Conley is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

11. Jane Waldfogel

A professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work, and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Jane Waldfogel is a world-renowned social worker and researcher. Her publications include several books, journal articles, and newspaper segments. She has written extensively on the impact public policy has on children and families. Her research interests include poverty, inequality, and social mobility across countries. Waldfogel is a member of the Society for Research in Child Development, American Economic Association, and on the editorial board for Social Service Review.

10. Ruth McRoy

Ruth McRoy has published over 100 journal articles and book chapters, as well as ten books, including the well-known Openness in Adoption: Family Connections. She is the first holder of the Donahue and DiFelice Endowed Professorship at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. Over the years, McRoy has received numerous research grants at the state and federal level. Her work has focused on adoption and racial disproportionality in child welfare. She has received many awards and honors, including the Charles I. Wright Distinguished Alumna Award. McRoy is a board member and president of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

9. Keith Alford

Associate Professor for the School of Social Work at Syracuse University's Falk College, Keith Alford specializes in mental health service delivery to children and families. His research interests include human diversity and culturally specific programming for children in out-of-home care. Alford received his PhD from The Ohio State University and is a licensed independent social worker for the state of Ohio. He is an active member of the Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers.

8. Cathryn C. Potter

Cathryn Potter is a proven leader in social work research and education. She has served as the Associate Provost for Research at the University of Denver and as the executive director of the Butler Institute for Families. She is currently the Dean of the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work. Her scholarly work has focused attention on organizational culture and climate, with areas of interest on at-risk children and families. Dr. Potter has a special interest in minority over-representation and service disparity among children. She is active in the community of social work and her research has been published worldwide.

7. Tom Walsh

Associate Dean and Director and Overseer of the MSW Program at Boston College's Graduate School of Social Work, Tom Walsh is an advocate, leader, and educator in the field of social work. He oversees the structure and curriculum of one of the most prestigious social work programs in the country, and currently serves as the chair of the Academic Planning Committee. Walsh is a member of the Council of Social Work Education Commission on Educational Policy. His research has been published globally with scholarship focus in forensic social work, psychotherapy, and substance abuse.

6. Tiziana Dearing

An Associate Professor of Macro Practice at Boston College and the Graduate School of Social Work, Tiziana Dearing is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and actively involved in anti-poverty organizations in the Boston area. She has served as the Executive Director of the Hauser Center at Harvard University and has brought social awareness to a variety of problems in the area. Her work on social justice in public policy and poverty and inequity in urban environments has brought her international fame. In 2012, Dearing was appointed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to serve on the governor's commission for a cashless EBT payment system.

5. Maurice C. Daniels

Maurice Daniels is a dean and professor at the University of Georgia's School of Social Work. His teaching specialties include civil rights, community practice, and program development with research focus in the areas of social justice and community empowerment. Before accepting the appointment as dean of the social work program at Georgia, Daniels served as associate dean and director of the MSW program. He is an active civil rights and social reform leader and co-founder of the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity. Daniels has published numerous journal articles and leads a variety of campus organizations. He is a life member of the NAACP.

4. Sandra Bernabei

Sandra Bernabei is the New York City area community organizer and president of the National Association of Social Workers. She is a private practitioner who works as a liberation psychotherapist and life coach, with fieldwork in the areas of depression, anxiety, and addictions. Bernabei is a founding member of the Antiracist Alliance and has served as a director at Barnard College and Columbia University. She is a recipient of the WestCOP Community Service Award and advocate for obtaining resources for low-income families and at-risk populations.

3. Karen S. Haynes

Karen Haynes is the president of California State University, San Marcos. A former dean and professor of social work, Haynes has authored and co-authored numerous books, articles, and publications on political social work. She received her PhD from the University of Texas and currently serves as the Presidential Sponsor for the American Council on Education's Southern California Network of Women in Higher Education. She has been awarded numerous honors, including the Most Admired CEO award and Women Who Move the City. Haynes is an advocate of community engagement and believes in making transformational regional impact.

2. Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes

A professor, director, leader, and investigator, Dr. Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes wears many hats for the field of social work. She is a professor at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work with additional appointments at Middlesex University in London and at the Carroll School of Boston College. Pitt-Catsouphes' primary focus is social justice within the workplace and she has devoted much of her career examining factors that contribute to adverse employment among vulnerable populations. Her work is extensively published in scholarly and practitioner journals. In 2006 and 2010, Pitt-Catsouphes was invited by the White House to participate in a forum and committee focusing on workplace flexibility.

1. Preston Dyer

Professor Emeritus at Baylor School of Social Work, Preston Dyer is one of the most familiar faces in the social work arena of academia. Dr. Dyer joined Baylor University in 1969 and served thirty years as the director of the undergraduate program. Prior to his many roles at Baylor, he worked as a clinical social worker in the area of mental health. His research has focused on strong marriages and families, with publications in over 100 academic and scholarly journals. Dyer is a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers and sits on the board of PREPARE/ENRICH – a premarital counseling inventory and program organization. Dr. Dyer and his wife are the former presidents of the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment.


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About the Author

Brenda Rufener is an internationally published freelance writer and journalist living in North Carolina. She holds a graduate degree in Communications and undergraduate degrees in Biology and English.