New U of M social work leader brings a passion for fairness

Dr. Joan Blakey

Dr. Joan Blakey is the new director of the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. After starting this role in July of 2022, Blakey made history as the first African American woman to serve in this position and the second African American to do so, following only James Goodman, who served as the director from 1975 to 1977. “He and I have been the only people of color that have been in this role,” she said.

Although she is serving in a new capacity, her roots at the University of Minnesota run deep. “I was an undergraduate student here, and I got my MSW (Master of Social Work) in ’99. So the school has a special place in my heart because of that,” she explained. 

As Minnesota finds ways to heal after a trying past few years, it is perhaps the perfect moment for a leader like Joan Blakey to emerge. “There’s a lot of good stuff here. I feel like this is a good school. The interim director Joe Merighi and the director before that, John Bricout, and the director before that have really laid a great foundation for me.”

In this unique time, Blakey considers ways in which she can effectively build upon this foundation to serve the greater good of her students and the communities that they will serve in the future.

“How do we make our education more accessible? How do we make it more relevant? How do we make it so that students leave here and can immediately apply what they are learning to their work?” she said. “I think about the future of social work and education and how we’re going to educate a new generation of social workers.”

While Blakey embodies the essence of social work and its rippling impact on greater society, it may come as a surprise to some that social work was not always her career plan. “Growing up, I wanted to be a judge. That’s what I really wanted to be. 

“In order to be a judge typically you have to be a lawyer. I shadowed a lawyer after I graduated [undergrad]. And I realized that the law wasn’t always about justice. The law wasn’t always about fairness.” 

This realization became a pivotal moment for Blakey. “My mom said coming out of the womb I’ve always been like, ‘That’s not fair.’ What is fair, and justice, are really a core part of my makeup,” she stated.

Blakey would go on to join a mobile crisis team where she would respond to emergency occurrences involving families and domestic conflict in and around her community. It was during this season of her life that she happened upon a certain brochure that she had received in the mail. 

“It was about the [University of Minnesota’s] School of Social Work and the mission of social work about helping those that were voiceless, about really advocating for change and justice for marginalized populations… I was like, yep! I’ve found the right profession,” 

Before coming back to the University of Minnesota in her director position, she served as the associate dean of academic affairs at Tulane University in New Orleans. “I love administration because I get to be a part of shaping student’s education and what that educational experience will be. Because again, my education was not perfect, but it has opened up worlds for me.” 

This month the University of Minnesota will host a private event as a formal welcome to Dr. Blakey in her new position. Blakey remains energized to build upon the great work of the School of Social Work, Dr. Blakey herself being an inspiring example. 

“I want to be a part of students leaving my program inspired to change whatever part of their world that they feel passionate about, but nonetheless inspired to do so. I want to be a part of shaping that vision, because I think that that’s the only way we are going to change our world—if people feel inspired to do so.” 

Learn more about the University of Minnesota School of Social Work at www.cehd.umn.edu/ssw

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