Profiles in Social Work
Combining Social Action and Gerontological Social Work
Harriet Cohen, PhD, LCSW
It’s no surprise that Dr. Harriet Cohen, associate professor of social work at Texas Christian University, feels strongly about social action. When she was a teenager, the Ku Klux Klan bombed her synagogue and her rabbi’s home.
“Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s in a reform Jewish congregation, the values of social justice and social action were highly emphasized,” she recalls. Connecting these values to gerontological social work would become an overriding theme of her career.
Looking back, her pursuit of social work with older adults seems natural. “I have notes from my kindergarten teacher who talked about how I helped the other children to do the pages in their workbook and how I made sure that everyone had a chance to play with the good blocks,” she said. In addition, she had a very close relationship with her grandparents and would frequently ride her bicycle to see them after school. “On Sunday afternoons, my aunts, uncles, and cousins would all gather at the home shared by my grandparents and great aunt and great uncle. I always loved spending time with my grandparents and their friends.”
There were a few roadblocks on the way, however. First of all, she had very little experience with social work while growing up. It wasn’t until a hiatus from college that she met the social work student who would illuminate the field to her. According to Cohen, “she was actually the one who helped me look at my volunteer experiences in high school, working for school integration and the end of Jim Crow laws in terms of social justice and social action, which resulted in my decision to return to college to earn my social work degree.”
Still, a career in social work and aging seemed far-fetched. “When I started college in the early 70s there really wasn’t an emphasis on aging in social work and so I didn’t even consider it,” Cohen noted. As a BSW, though, Cohen completed a field placement in a nursing home. While she enjoyed working with the population, she didn’t enjoy the setting.
Cohen pursued working with the Jewish community after graduation instead. As luck would have it, her first social work job entailed starting an interfaith gerontology training center through the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging.
“I didn’t know what the possibilities were. The Gerontology Training Center lost funding after about a year. My next career move was at a Jewish family service agency. Although I had a mixed caseload, I loved working with the older clients; I also had the opportunity to lay the foundation for a group home for older adults.”
Cohen describes her career path as an “unfolding.” Eventually, after amassing 26 years of direct practice, staff development, program planning, and legislative advocacy with diverse older adults, Cohen returned for her PhD. Although ambivalent about whether to leave practice for the academy, a job opening at a university near where her father and sisters lived convinced her to make the change.
Once she decided to become a professor, the Hartford Foundation entered her life. The Gero-Rich program helped her bridge the gap between practice and academia. “I was leaving the gerontological social work practice field that I loved and going to teach students how to do it when I still wanted to be out there doing it myself.” Through Gero-Rich, “I was able to put my experience into developing curriculum and then see students’ attitudes and behaviors begin to change.”
Cohen was also in the first cohort to receive the Hartford Faculty Scholar award, which allowed her to expand her research concerning forgiveness in older Holocaust survivors and then led to her being able to apply for other opportunities for research. She recently received another grant to document the contributions of Holocaust survivors in Texas. “I am honored to preserve the stories of resiliency and survivorship of these remarkable people. They have taught me so many lessons about living, loving and giving.”
Cohen plans to continue her work with Holocaust survivors and her research on older gays and lesbians, bridging her long-held ideals of social justice and social action with social work.
- Story contributed by Megan Mills, Program Coordinator, Gero-Ed Center
Updated on November 18, 2010
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