The Brown School of Social Work tends to evoke the castle-like buildings of Washington University’s Danforth Campus. However, the Brown School, which claims in its mission statement to “collaborate with organizations to use evidence to improve access to and quality of social services and to address social and economic justice,” holds to its mission of being embedded in the community by having an office at the Better Family Life building on Page.
A group of Brown School students recently convened at Better Family Life (BFL_ to present their findings after spending time in collaboration with several community organizations. Aside from partnering with BFL, they also worked with Northside Community School and Community Women Against Hardship.
Each of the four groups of students jumped at the chance to apply the social work skills they had been learning in school. They met with members of their assigned organization and members of businesses, nonprofits and media outlets that partner with their group. They used the data gathered to determine each organization’s priorities, and then finally submitted a report detailing recommendations for how each organization could sustain itself and thrive in the future.
One group of students – Najjuwah Walden, Shakira Onwuachi and Jamie Bruner – worked with Community Women Against Hardship (CWAH), a long-standing St. Louis organization dedicated to helping families become self-sufficient and move out of poverty. CWAH provides educational and developmental classes for youth and families, and provides free clothing, food and household items to families. They have served over 6,000 families since their founding in 1988.
In their presentation, the students detailed CWAH’s current partnerships within the community. The St. Louis American and the Sheldon Concert Hall were the two community partners interviewed for the Brown School study, since these two groups have had a relationship with CWAH since its founding. Through interviews with people from both inside and outside the organization, the Brown School students realized that they needed to find partner organizations for CWAH that would reflect CWAH’s three core values: Afrocentrism, collectivism and internal credibility.
“We wanted to make sure that new affiliates and partners would also value the collectivism spirit, and wanted to make sure that they were working together, rather than working one on top of the other,” said Najjuwah Walden, one of the students presenting.
To find a partner that would preserve those values, the Brown School students turned to Harris-Stowe State University.
“Why Harris-Stowe? The first thing was, it’s feasible to expand their affiliations,” Walden said. Eventually, they could expand into other HBCU campuses, and into other territories as well. The first initial expansion would be beneficial to start at Harris-Stowe State University, because it’s in St. Louis, and there’s another HBCU, Lincoln University, in Jefferson City, just two hours away. All HBCUs value collectivism, so it wouldn’t be a competition in order to expand to additional HBCU campuses.”
As an HBCU alumna herself, Walden understood the benefits to the African-American community that a partnership between Harris-Stowe and a community organization such as CWAH could have.
The majority of students at Harris-Stowe are from St. Louis or the Metro East, and come out of the Saint Louis Public Schools system, so the community connection is strong. “So it wouldn’t be difficult for them to maintain their current client base as Community Women Against Hardship, as well as expanding it to the different communities where the students from Harris Stowe State University come from,” Walden said.
Another thing that made Harris Stowe an ideal partner for CWAH is that the university recently experienced a change in leadership. CWAH is going through succession planning in anticipation of the retirement of founding CEO Gloria Taylor. In that process, the board has hired a chief operations officer (Karla Frye) to handle operations and program and fund development, among other things, while Taylor focuses on community engagement, advocacy, the music institute and events, as well as developing affiliate relationships.
“The students were supposed to find out the attributes of a succession success story,” said Taylor. The Brown School students thought Harris-Stowe State University might be able to help out with the transition.
“They just experienced their own succession with their president, who came in three years ago,” Walden said. “He came in with the understanding that there’s sometimes changes that happen that you can’t necessarily control, and sometimes those changes aren’t bad, they’re just needed.”
During their conversation with Harris-Stowe administrators, the Brown School students designed a pipeline program from CWAH to Harris-Stowe. Children and teens who had been benefitting from CWAH services, such as its history and literacy education programs, would “have early access to college prep, and be exposed to what it’s like attending college,” said Walden. Harris-Stowe State University said they would be open and willing to have programs specifically for CWAH.
“In addition, Harris-Stowe State University has its own education department, and there’s a lot of students who are always looking for internships or practicums, and not a lot of nonprofit organizations that are recruiting at the undergraduate level,” Walden said.
This would make the relationship mutually beneficial for Harris-Stowe and CWAH: Students in elementary, middle, and high schools would be exposed to Harris-Stowe through CWAH, and college students would be connected to practicum and internship opportunities at CWAH through Harris-Stowe.
“It would create job opportunities for people who wanted to go into the nonprofit sector, and felt like there wasn’t a place for them to actually serve the community that they want to work with,” Walden said.
“A lot of times when we think about nonprofits, we think about Habitat for Humanity, we think about Each One Teach One, we think about United Way, but these big names don’t necessarily focus on the community issues and the socioeconomic oppression that our people experience.”
Karla Frye, COO of CWAH, found that the Brown School students’ presentation was exactly reflective of what CWAH staff believe needs to happen with their organization in this time of transition. “The conversation we had this morning before we got here was reflected in your work,” she said at the presentation.
As the Brown School students’ report says, “There is a lot of uncertainty that comes with change.”
This is the first story in a three-part series about the collaboration between the Brown School and Community Women Against Hardship to sustain and develop the organization.
Sophie Hurwitz completed her May project for John Burroughs School as a St. Louis American editorial intern and will continue with the paper this summer as a freelance reporter.