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Highlighting Social Work: A Conversation with Co-Directors Laura Danforth and Kim Jones

Laura Danforth, left, and Kim Jones, right, are co-directors of the School of Social Work. Photo by Benjamin Krain.
Laura Danforth, left, and Kim Jones, right, are co-directors of the School of Social Work. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

March is Social Work Month, and we are highlighting the happenings in the School of Social Work at UA Little Rock with a conversation with the school’s new co-directors, Dr. Laura Danforth, associate professor, and Dr. Kim Jones, professor.

Social work is one of the university’s most popular majors, currently ranking fifth in most undergraduate students at UA Little Rock. The School of Social Work is the home to approximately 425 students and 18 full-time faculty and staff. The school has been growing steadily over the years, up from 365 students five years ago.

Its programs include the Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work degrees with both online and on-campus options, a graduate certificate in gerontology, and minors in gerontology, human services, and social work.

Danforth and Jones became the school’s co-directors on July 1, 2022, upon the retirement of Dr. Stephen Kapp. After nine months on the job, they are dedicated to expanding the School of Social Work to become the top social work higher education destination in the state!

How did you both come to work at UA Little Rock?

Danforth – I was a master’s student in the Social Work department at UA Little Rock, and I had such a good experience. It’s actually the first time at a university that a professor had informed me there was something beyond the MSW. I ended up applying to a Ph.D. program at Mizzou (University of Missouri) and had my professors here write recommendation letters for me.

When I was in the market for an academic position, I was interviewing all over the country and I loved the balance that UA Little Rock strikes with teaching, research, and service. No other university that I interviewed with had the community-engaged metropolitan university designation, or was as involved in the community as UA Little Rock was. It was nice to land somewhere where that was a priority. I started at UA Little Rock in 2017.

Jones – My wife and I moved here from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1997 because of her job as a psychologist at UAMS. I then started here as an adjunct instructor and started full time as an assistant professor in 1999, and I’ve been ever since.

When did you know that you wanted to be social workers?

Danforth – I realized some time in high school. That’s when I realized the important role that social workers play both in a macro and micro sense. Our responsibility as social workers is to not only provide mental health and case management services to clients, but also to  advocate for equity and fairness and large-scale change that allows everyone to meet their full potential. I went to U of A, and they had an orientation on the major and I was sold.

Jones – It was in junior college in Illinois when I took my first psychology class. That was my favorite subject, and I did the first two years in a community college outside of LaSalle, Illinois. It was during the last semester of junior college that I realized social work is what I wanted to do.

What are your major fields of research?

Danforth – Mine has been education equity, or using qualitative methodology to tease out the experiences of populations that have been marginalized or historically silenced. Because of this role Kim and I have taken over, I am also interested in the preparedness of future social workers and whether we are doing a decent job of educating them for the field.

Jones – My main focus is clinical social work practice. I am chair of the advanced practice concentration – clinical track. I also research case-based teaching in the social work curriculum and issues related to father absence.

What has it been like becoming co-directors of the School of Social Work?

Danforth – You can probably tell by our interests and backgrounds that we balance each other pretty well. We make a pretty good team. It’s especially helpful to us since we are so large of a school. It’s nice to have a teammate to tag team big stuff

For me, it’s been such a great learning experience. It’s really been beneficial for someone who just got tenure. It was a really big shift moving from faculty to administration. It’s been really challenging, but really eye opening as it relates to what it takes to keep a department running. You are managing the budget, student enrollment, and strategic planning. You are also learning to be in a leadership position for your colleagues and trying to help them reach their full potential as faculty. It’s also been nice to meet other chairs of departments and those in administration positions across campus.

Jones – I had been the MSW program coordinator for 16 years, so I had that administrative experience. I also served as the interim co-director in 2017 with Shannon Collier-Tenison, so I’m in this role for the second time.

What are your plans now that you are co-directors? What’s new and up and coming in the School of Social Work?

Jones – Enrollment is up, so we are managing the growth of the school and getting new resources to accommodate that growth. We are continuing to expand our online offerings throughout the state. We are the only BSW program with an online option in the state of Arkansas. We have strong concentrations in the MSW program – advanced direct practice clinical work or management and community practice. We are one of the only programs that offer both those concentrations in the state. We are positioning ourselves to be a leader in social work education in the state of Arkansas.

Danforth – Because Kim and I are in a position to really take stock of the number of students and faculty, we have been able to help faculty really understand their specific roles in the school, which feels like a luxury now. Now everyone is focused on their particular position and what they can do for the school and for students. Because there are two of us, we have the bandwidth to work on more than just the day-to-day running of the program. It’s a very well-oiled machine now.

With it being Social Work Month, what would you say to students who want to become social workers?

Jones – It’s a very fulfilling profession in terms of having a meaningful career and being able to help others. There is also the issue of job growth. It’s about 13 percent right now, so it looks good for the future. There is a tremendous amount of mental health issues in America. Social workers can now operate independently, which they couldn’t until recently. They currently provide 75 percent of the mental health needs in the United States.

Cooler opportunities, job growth, job satisfaction, and increased salaries – all of this goes along with high demand for social workers. The versatility of the social work degree allows people to work in school settings, hospitals, mental health fields, and micro and macro sectors. I want to emphasize the diversity of positions that are out there for social workers.

Danforth – A lot of social workers end up in clinical positions, which is amazing. My advice would be to continue to pay attention to the macro issues going on in the work and state and federal policies that are coming out. All of those things will affect individual clients and their ability to meet their potential.

Can you describe the variety of careers that people can have as social workers, especially the ones that aren’t commonly known?

Danforth – There is a mental health sector. Within that, there is direct clinical practice. There is school-based social work, residential and outpatient treatment. You can work in hospital settings and be a hospital social worker and do therapeutic support work, making sure people get the resources they need. You can work in drug rehabilitation, the aging adult arena or geriatrics where you help with hospice care and end of life planning. You can also do policy analysis, community organizing, legislative research and advocacy. We have graduates who have formed their own nonprofits and do a lot of grant writing. It’s so broad. You can do so much with this degree.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Danforth – The degree of social work is a very gratifying, stable, and impactful degree to have. You will always have job security. Individuals and communities will always need assistance and intervention. The world is a complicated place. As much as we would love to work ourselves out of jobs, the demand for social workers is always going to grow. You will also have the ability for professional licensure, and there is always an opportunity to move from one area to another because social work is so broad.