Growing up, Renee M. Cunningham-Williams, PhD, associate professor of social work and associate dean for doctoral education at the Brown School at Washington University, said she had a front-row seat to observe how at-risk youth can get thrown off-course in life.
She grew up in the Arthur Blumeyer Housing Project in midtown St. Louis, one of the last remaining public-housing projects in the city before being demolished in 2006.
“I didn’t know Blumeyer was considered impoverished until I went to Howard University, as a first generation college student, where I saw great variations in social class,” Cunningham-Williams said.
Blumeyer was a community where risk for young people was clearly evident, but also a community where many individuals, institutions, and situations facilitated growth and opportunity, she said.
“I consider them all positive ‘change makers,’” Cunningham-Williams said. “I was blessed to be influenced by many change makers such as being nurtured in a loving home and being exposed to supportive community and church members and teachers.”
For more than two decades, Cunningham-Williams’ work has focused on the healthy transitions into and out of young adulthood, as well as leading social work doctoral and post-doctoral education. Her work has led to better screenings and interventions for gambling disorders among vulnerable populations, as well as to the training and development of future scholars in social work and public health.
“I’m proud to be at the forefront of understanding risk and protections for vulnerable youth, especially African-American youth,” said Cunningham-Williams, who is also the director of the Brown School’s doctoral program in social work. “Primarily my work has been to understand what that risk trajectory looks like and what change makers have been able to interrupt the course.”
On Friday, April 27, Cunningham-Williams will receive the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund Dr. John M. Anderson Excellence in Mental Health Award. She will be honored at the 18th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon at the Frontenac Hilton. Net proceeds from the event support the St. Louis American Foundation, which fostered more than $750,000 in community grants and scholarships for area youth in 2017.
One of the country’s foremost experts on problem gambling, Cunningham-Williams has devoted her career to studying risk behaviors and protective factors associated with emerging adulthood, including addictions. Her research has been disseminated nationally and internationally, appeared in high-impact academic journals, and been recognized with numerous awards and honors.
Her newest line of research focused on the college/university setting as both a particular risk for substance abuse and mental health disorders, as well as an opportunity for prevention and health promotion among college students, particularly students of color.
Before age 30, she had earned four academic degrees: a bachelor’s degree with honors, two master’s degrees (in social work and psychiatric epidemiology), a doctorate, and completed post-doctoral training.
It was at Howard University, which she attended after graduating from Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis in the mid 1980s, that Cunningham-Williams first became involved in a National Institutes of Health program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). The career-training program aims to increase the number of under-represented minorities in research.
It was also where Cunningham-Williams met the first of what she calls her “academic mentor moms,” Fariyal Ross-Sheriff, PhD, who administered the program at Howard. That was a key first step for her: finding a supportive mentor to help shepherd her studies.
“I think I was Howard’s first MARC trainee in social work,” she said. “It allowed me to get a taste of the life of a researcher and, potentially, a professor.”
She was seeking a top graduate social work program; there just happened to be one in her hometown.
Cunningham-Williams completed her doctoral studies at the Brown School under the tutelage of Arlene R. Stiffman, PhD, professor emeritus, a woman she came to call her second “academic mentor mom.”
After earning her doctorate, Cunningham-Williams took another uncommon path for a social worker: post-doctoral training at WashU’s School of Medicine in psychiatric epidemiology and biostatistics. There, she began a research project on epidemiology and comorbidity of problem and pathological gambling just as the issue was coming to the forefront.
“There’s the saying about ‘catching the wave’ in research and looking for an area where there’s a great need,” she said. “Where there are needs, there is also much research to be done – and problem gambling fit the criteria for me.”
After two-years as a post-doc, Cunningham-Williams was hired as a research faculty member at the School of Medicine (Psychiatry) — at a time such hires were rare.
After nearly 12 years in psychiatry, she returned full-circle to the Brown School. With her psychiatry colleague Kathleen K. Bucholz, PhD, she now heads a NIH postdoctoral research training program in addictions called TranSTAR that began in 2002 by Stiffman — one of only a handful nationally in a school of social work.
“My joy has been in supporting the research training of the future generation of emerging scholars in addiction research in TranSTAR – most of whom are women and African-American scholars,” Cunningham-Williams said. “As associate dean, I have also worked to increase racial and ethnic diversity and improve quality in doctoral education. I’m pretty proud of that.”
Her work’s impact on the field has been recognized with numerous research, career and community service awards. As the lead author, her article was named among the “Top 10 Most Influential Papers on Gambling Disorders published from 1965-2010.” In 2014, Cunningham-Williams was recognized in an article published in the Research on Social Work Practice as one of the “Top African-American Faculty in Schools of Social Work” based on the impact of her work.
“Walking into our school and realizing that I have the privilege of working with students who are hungry to make a difference,” she said, “that gets me excited and motivated.”