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The Work And Impacts Of Gertrude Wilson Social Work Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 1883 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When pursuing a degree in social work, a student experiences equal exposure to group work and individual case work. The curriculum set out by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) requires that a healthy mixture of the two be taught in order to grant a degree in social work (CSWE, 2010). Every person becomes involves with different groups during their life, but within social work, groups are a tool for helping bring people together and solve problems, not only for recreation. One of the people responsible for the foundation of group work education in America was Gertrude Wilson.

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Gertrude Wilson was born in 1895, three years before the first course on social work was available at Columbia University in 1898. She was raised in a town with fewer than 200 people in Dana, Illinois (Chambers, 1986). Miss Wilson grew up seeing women like Jane Adams and Frances Perkins having an impact on the social fabric of America through the settlement house movement. She entered Illinois Women’s College in 1915, but ended up receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago (Chambers).

After two years of teaching high school, she became a secretary for the Young Women’s Christian Academy (YWCA) in Pennsylvania. Ten years later, she returned to Chicago as the administrator of the new Women in the Workforce branch of the YWCA. Miss Wilson has stated that her experience with the YWCA opened her eyes to the ability of groups to influence people’s lives for the better (Greenwood, 1985).

It was during her time with the YWCA that she met Grace Coyle, a sociologist, who convinced her to leave the YWCA and take a position teaching at Western Case University in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935. Wilson attended the University of Chicago part time while teaching in Ohio and received her M.A. from its School of Social Service Administration in 1938 (Chambers, 1986). She became a member of the American Association for the Study of Group Work (AASGW) and assisted Coyle with some of the first research done on groups in social work.

Shortly after receiving her degree, Wilson moved to the University of Pittsburgh. It was here that she published her first two, and what many believe, most influential books (Weil, Southerland, & Chou, 1991). Her first book, Case Work and Group Work was published in 1941.When Wilson began writing, the field of social work was dominated by case work, a more individual based approach that applied methods of psychoanalytic theory rather than examine environmental factors. Along with Coyle, she was among the first to argue that personal problems were not solely internal, but also found in external sources such as family organization and interaction. She advocated an integrated approach that involved both case work and group work to treat separate issues together rather than individually (Wilson G. , Case work and group work, 1941).

Case Work and Group Work was not written with the intent to make group work seem more important than case work. In the first few pages of Case Work and Group Work, Wilson decried the “short-visioned little cults of method and function that claim their superiority at the expense of healthy clients” (Wilson, 1941). Hers was an argument to consolidate the two approaches rather than create separate disciplines. Group social work existed, but still lacked any single academic foundation for study. She presented the book before the AASGW, the Psychiatric Social Workers Association (PSWA), and multiple schools of social work around the country.

At the National Conference on Social Work in 1942, Gertrude Wilson further expanded on what she began discussing in Case Work and Group Work. Wilson believed that group work could bring about changes in the values of individuals and society as a whole. She argued that a worker could dynamically influence the environment of the group for the better by directing certain processes towards specific social goals (Wilson G. , 1942). At this conference she defined three different ways in which the worker might influence the group by

“…directing the process toward the accomplishment of a social goal conceived in a democratic philosophy. They are 1) developmental, as it provided for normal social growth; 2) protective or corrective, in that it could be offered to people without groups; and 3) instrumental in achieving of socially desirable ends. ” (Wilson)

Her view put forth the idea that the good of the one and the good of the many were dependent on each other and social workers had a social responsibility to address both in order to build society (Weil, K., & Southerland, 1991)

After several years at Pittsburgh University, Miss Wilson and her colleague Gladys Ryland published Social Group Work Practice. Group work had lacked this academic foundation for so many years. It offered a systematic method of applying group work for social work practice. As the first book to actually offer a process for applying group work, it became the first textbook for group work and was used in schools of social work across the United States. It was called the “Green Bible” due to the color of its cover and size (Weil, Southerland, & Chou, 1991). Many still consider it the most influential book on group work in social work history (Chambers, 1986).

The 700-page book can be divided into two sections: practice methods and case studies. The first half of the book described group work methods and theories about groups. For the first time, a social group work method was described. This was based on Wilson and Ryland’s experience with groups and Grace Coyle’s research. Miss Wilson expressed the key goal of group workers as such: “The worker’s aim is to help the members of groups develop the capacity to carry on their own group life and achieve goals” (Wilson, 1949). This goal is still considered important and appears in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics to this day NASW, 2009).

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The second half of the book contained analyses of different groups, their specific activities and how the social group work method applies to them. Miss Wilson’s research over the years is seen here in the detailed case studies included in this section. The case studies cover groups from preschool to retirement, reflecting the extent that Miss Wilson went to in researching the book. Significantly, much of the case study material was drawn from work in recreational and informal educational agencies because group social work was not practiced often in a clinical setting at that time (Weil, Southerland, & Chou, 1991).

The case studies included in Wilson’s book may be dated, but the concepts of group work that they represent have withstood the test of time. The last half-century has seen a great deal of social change and numerous group work textbooks since Social Group Work Practice, but Wilson’s original ideas about group work have remained largely unchanged and few modern texts can refer to group work without referencing the work of Gertrude Wilson, especially this book.

One of the most tempestuous times in Gertrude Wilson’s life was during the time that she and Gladys Ryland were putting Social Group Work Practice together at the University of Pittsburgh. During the late 1940s, anti-communist politicians began attacking the field of social work because of its progressive views and support of New Deal policies to assist the needy (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). One of the main targets was Marion Hathaway, the director of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Wilson was among the several educators and students that supported Hathaway and her support (along with many other faculty members) caused friction between the School of Social Work in Pittsburgh and the university chancellor (Wilson, 1978). Wilson was one of the many professors who resigned from the college in 1950 under pressure (Wilson). Ryland was terminated after refusing to resign a few months after Wilson left (Andrews & Reisch).

Wilson did not let this controversy stop her career. She joined the School of Social Welfare at Berkeley in 1951. It was here that she developed a professional education program focused on training new social workers. Originally known as the “Certificate Program in the Social Services,” it contained specific courses over a two-year period that ended with a two-week seminar on campus (Greenwood, 1985). The Council on Social Work education (CSWE) in 1952 adopted this program as the model for national accreditation (Weil, Southerland, & Chou, 1991).

At Berkeley, Wilson taught courses in both theory and practice in group work. She was a frequent speaker at seminars and conventions all over the United States and she guest-lectured at the Columbia, Smith, and Tulane Schools of Social Work. Even after retirement, she served as a consultant to social agencies, schools of social work and professional associations. Wilson used her own experience to constantly refine what she considered a dynamic aspect of social work (From practice to theory: a personalized history, 1976). Wilson wrote dozens of conference papers, journal articles, chapters in books, and monographs although she will most likely always be remembered for Social Group Work Practice with Gladys Ryland in 1949.

She was one of eight social work pioneers chosen for the NASW Oral History Project in 1978. Each participant took part in a 1-2 hour interview that was recorded and placed in the Library of Congress. Berkley performed a similar interview on videotape in 1982. Both recordings are very difficult to obtain. Although she officially retired from Berkeley in 1963, the college was very gracious following her death from cancer in 1985 (Greenwood, 1985).

Gertrude Wilson was an amazing woman who pushed social barriers as an educator and activist. She was one of very few women with a full professorship in the 1930s. Her work in the first half of the 20th century still influences social work today in the 21st. She had a passion for helping people that encouraged her to study a field of practice that was barely recognized until the 1940s. Not only did she pursue that field, she made it possible for others to do so as well by writing the first textbook on the practice of group work. Her certificate program at Berkley was the foundation for modern undergraduate social work curriculum in universities across the nation.

These are all accomplishments she made in her field that show her impression on the practice, theory and future practitioners of social work. Personally, I am inspired by her resolve to follow her passion even though there wasn’t a road to follow; she dug it out herself so that she could reach her destination and so that others could follow her. It is this attitude that inspires me in my pursuit to implement school social work in Oklahoma. It will never exist in Oklahoma if people do not fight for it and have a practical way to practice it once it does.


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