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Women to Watch at UA Little Rock 2023: Dr. Laura Danforth

Laura Danforth
Laura Danforth

​​In celebration of Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women in leadership positions who are making a difference at the university and in the community.

The next Woman to Watch at UA Little Rock of 2023 is Dr. Laura Danforth, associate professor and co-director of the School of Social Work!

Tell us about yourself and your background.

For starters, my name is Laura Danforth, and I am a licensed certified social worker (LCSW), a social scientist, and a professor of social work. I earned my Ph.D. in social work from Mizzou (University of Missouri) in 2016 and began practicing social work after I earned my Master of Social Work (MSW) at UA Little Rock in 2011 and my Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) in 2009. I am a social work purist, through and through. This is not to say that I am not critical of the profession and some of the elements of how we practice professional social work, but I do love this discipline and line of work.

Social work has evolved since it became professionalized in the 1920s, and I hope to be part of the wave of social workers that continues to challenge the “old guard” way of thinking as it relates to how to “do” social work well, how to really work with client-partners in order to help them meet their needs, how to be part of large-scale social and policy change that will help everyone to meet their full potential and give everyone a fair shot of the pursuit of happiness, etc.

I am also a whole person outside of my job. I enjoy spending time exploring Arkansas with my best friend who happens to be my spouse. When spring rolls around, I love to be in my garden at home as well as my small plot at the Oak Forest Community Garden, where I am an amateur tomato and green pepper enthusiast. I enjoy reading, running anywhere outside, walking in my neighborhood, taking trips to Fletcher and the Downtown Library (who doesn’t love free access to that many books?), and fixing up our 1920 craftsman home.

What is your current position and professional duties at UA Little Rock?

I am an associate professor in the School of Social Work, and currently serving as one of the interim co-directors of the School of Social Work alongside my friend and colleague Kim Jones. Right now, my duties include managing student enrollment, managing our budget, working with faculty to do some really cool strategic planning about who we want to be as a school, ensuring that students are given the best social work education in the state, and just making sure faculty are happy, engaged, and given every opportunity to meet their professional potential. At the same time, I am also continuing to teach graduate level courses, mentor students each semester, engage in university and community service, and attempt to maintain an active research agenda.

What brought you to UA Little Rock?

I grew up in Arkansas and when I left for school, I never thought I would come back. Fast forward to being on the market for an academic job, and there was an assistant professor position open here. At the time, I was interviewing at other academic institutions all over the country and looking forward to moving somewhere new, but none of the schools that I was considering had the same community-engaged metropolitan designation that UA Little Rock did. None of the other schools seemed to prioritize being active or involved in the communities where they were embedded or bridging that gown-to-town gap. UA Little Rock always has always encouraged faculty to get students out of the classroom and into their communities to make things better, and to pursue high-impact learning opportunities and participatory-action research, and you just can’t beat that in an employer.

What are some of the exciting projects that you are working on at UA Little Rock?

Right now, a couple of junior faculty members in our department and I are working with JoHanna Thomas (the acting director of the UA Fayetteville School of Social Work) to complete a program and process evaluation on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for the entire state of Arkansas. This is of course, super exciting, and I am super grateful for that partnership.

I am also mentoring a really talented Donaghey Scholar (Hi, Sahana!) who is completing her final Donaghey capstone project on the use of multi-dimensional approaches to improving the Arkansas Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA) Program. Sahana is a biology major and is pre-med and being able to mentor someone in a completely different discipline because of her interest in public good and public health is a really cool experience. You know your department is special when you attract students from other disciplines to seek out faculty for this type of mentorship.

What woman has inspired you the most and why?

Two women come to mind. My mom, for sure. My mom is the person who first told me that education was equal to opportunity and choices. She was always really honest about the fact that she never got the opportunity to go to college and really wanted that for her kids. She also somehow did this without coming off as elitist or de-emphasizing the important things you can learn OUTSIDE of a classroom as well. Mostly, though, I watched her work for what she wanted, career wise. My mom is one of the most whip-smart people I know. She is a quick read, is extremely independent, and honestly just super resourceful. Chalk it up to being a single mom to three kids, but the woman is adaptable, driven, and pushed me harder than anyone ever has.

Another woman who inspires me every day is my older sister Lee Ann. She has a Ph.D. in cellular physiology and is brilliant, but doesn’t define herself by her academic accomplishments, which is refreshing and a good reminder that we are more than what we “do” or the degrees we earn. She actually left academia and is now a business owner in the fitness world, which is a tough arena to be in. I am most inspired by her ability to make folks feel seen, valued, and understood, and she makes me laugh harder than anyone else in the world.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

Just because someone is speaking louder than you or over you or more than you, it does NOT mean that they are the arbiter on the topic. Don’t shrink to make anyone else more comfortable or let other folks’ arrogance make you feel like you don’t belong in specific spaces or leadership positions. I think as women, we are conditioned from an early age to “be nice, don’t make a fuss, be accommodating.” While I think it’s always important to be kind, it’s equally as important to not conflate kindness with passivity or unfettered agreeableness for agreeableness’ sake.

Further, it is important to have mentors whose goal is for you to grow out of your current position, role, or job. You have to put in the work as a mentee, too. Mentorship where both the mentee and mentor both acknowledge the necessity and desire for joint growth and where both parties are benefiting is key.

Name something about yourself that most people would be surprised to learn.

I made a commitment to myself in the last few years that I would explore new potential hobbies and try to develop skills outside of the often-cerebral environment of academia. As a result, I took drum lessons last spring and summer, and I love it. It’s a great way to get out any pent-up frustration, make a ton of noise, listen to (and make) music, and just have fun!

What is your favorite quote and why? 

Leslie Knope from “Parks and Rec” once said, “We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, and work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work has to come third.” It just really resonates with me.