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Eileen Blackey: Pathfinder for the Profession

Eileen Blackey: Pathfinder for the Profession


Eileen Blackey[View Image]
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Eileen Blackey
Photo: NASW Foundation

With the publication of Eileen Blackey: Pathfinder for the Profession, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) begins its new Leaders in Social Work Series and commences a major effort to capture and preserve the writings of our social work pioneers and innovators. Eileen Blackey was just such a social worker. Known affectionately by her friends as “Blackey,” her compassion and intelligence inspired thousands of people around the world.

Blackey dedicated much of her life to strengthening the social work profession. She did this through staff development and training in public agencies and through curriculum development for schools of social work at home and abroad. Believing that skilled, competent social workers would help build a caring society, Blackey strove to delineate the knowledge and experience that would shape effective practitioners. In addition to concerning herself with the needs of students, she contributed to our understanding of how to develop social work leaders and educators.

Following Blackey’s death in 1979, a group of her friends and colleagues founded the Eileen A. Blackey Memorial Fund Committee, whose members were Margaret Daniel, Ruth Fizdale, Dorothy McKay, Eunice Minton, Georgia Pinnick (now deceased), Helen Rehr, and Corinne Wolfe, the chair. The committee set two goals for itself. The first was to collect and publish Blackey’s conviction that society must build systems ensuring justice and the maintenance of civil rights for all and that sound social policy providing opportunities for all persons was a necessity.

To achieve the goals established by the committee, Katherine Kendall, Blackey’s longtime friend and colleague, undertook to review, catalog, and edit Blackey’s extensive writings. For carrying out this prodigious task and for donating many hours and strenuous efforts, Dr. Kendall deserves our thanks. Our appreciation is also extended to Werner Boehm, another friend of Blackey, whose fresh insights into and careful analysis of Blackey’s contributions appear in the introductory commentary in this volume. At the same time that these editorial efforts were carried out, the members of the committee worked tirelessly with NASW staff to raise the money to endow a permanent fellowship fund. The result of this collaboration, the Eileen Blackey Memorial Fellowship Fund, will award a yearly grant for doctoral research in social policy. The research supported by the fund will focus on analyzing the impact of social policy on people, with the goal of molding human-centered public policy.

Blackey’s ideals will now be carried forth in perpetuity. Eileen Blackey believed the profession of social work must be involved with the social and political factors in the environment that affect the lives of the clients it serves. The Eileen Blackey Fund, NASW’s first named fund offering fellowships in social policy, and Eileen Blackey: Pathfinder for the Profession, the first in the Leaders in Social Work Series, are testimony to her life and that belief.

Mark Battle,

Executive Director, 

National Association of Social Workers

November 1985


This is the first volume in a new series of publications issued by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in honor of social work leaders. Those of us who worked with Eileen Blackey, known to all her friends and colleagues as “Blackey,” applaud the choice of this collection of her writings as the initial volume. What was the essence of her leadership? I choose to answer through her own words on that very subject, delivered at the graduation banquet for the College of Social Professions at the University of Kentucky in May 1972 . Blackey talked about social work’s great heritage in having pioneers such as Sophonisba Breckenridge, Edith and Grace Abbott, Jane Addams, and Mary Richmond, noting their contributions as “leaders, who made professional education for social work not only a possibility, but a reality.” She continued in this vein:

To study the qualities and talents which made these pioneers great leaders might help us appreciate the source of many of our social work values and to be clearer about what it is we mean today when we say we are educating for leadership roles. It is important to realize that there is a difference between leadership roles and leadership. Roles may be functionally defined as being of leadership level complexity, but leadership in the meaning of the lives of these pioneers was not defined or bounded by function. Rather it was an expression of the spirit and, to name two very old fashioned virtues, a manifestation of faith and courage. Faith was conviction and commitment; courage was the willingness to risk oneself in a cause.

Blackey’s leadership was equally an expression of the spirit and a manifestation of faith and courage. But she also carried many leadership roles that were marked by a spirit of inquiry and finely honed competence. Blackey wondered what pioneers such as Breckenridge and Addams would do and say if they were to join us today in our problem-solving endeavors. While granting progression in many of the areas of knowledge of people and society underlying social work practice, she suspected that the “creative, searching, disciplined minds” they would bring to current problems would make “possible the best resolution…with what is known” and push “toward the creation of new knowledge to effect subsequent and greater change.”

In this collection, we are working primarily with what was known in the 1950s and 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s about social work education and staff development. Blackey brought a creative, searching, and disciplined mind to bear on all aspects of social work education and training. Some of the problems she addressed are no longer of major interest, not necessarily because they have been resolved but because they have been edged out by more urgent concerns. Yet there are many lessons to be learned from what she had to say about socialwork objectives and values, the public social services, and the role of the profession in producing social change. We need historical perspective in order to know from whence we have come and on what we should set our sights if we wish to move forward. In this regard Blackey’s words are again worth quoting:

While seemingly we often ignore the past in our societal and world affairs, there is scarcely a major decision that is not either consciously or unconsciously linked to events of the past. This is what we know as continuity—a bridge from the past to the future. Without it, we would have chaos.

Let us then build a bridge from the past to the future by placing this collection of articles within the context of the times in which Blackey lived.

Background in Brief

The depression of the thirties produced many of the best minds and stoutest hearts that social work has known. Those who possessed them were leaders, although not perhaps of the stature of the pioneers of an earlier era. Their names are not legion, but there were too many to be individually identified here. What they brought to the field was a conviction about public responsibility for human welfare and a determination to carve out a better society in which every man, woman, and child would be treated with dignity and respect and given an equal chance at a decent life. Eileen Blackey was one of these leaders, and the philosophy of that period is mirrored in all that she wrote. She spent a good part of her career in public service, carrying major responsibility for launching and institutionalizing staff development and student training programs in public welfare departments and in the Veterans Administration. The philosophy and values that guided her work and that of many of her social work colleagues in the public sector are not as easily discernible today as in the post-depression years.

It is good to be reminded, as we are in this collection, that social work has a special responsibility to contribute knowledge and skill to the public social services. Blackey’s work in staff development deserves to be remembered for what it achieved in an earlier, less complex period, but one lesson that can still be learned from that work and all her writing is the absolute necessity for social work to find appropriate ways to respond to the changing needs and demands of the society in which it operates. This is a major theme throughout the collection, underlined again and again in presentations before national and international audiences. As Blackey said in her comments about leadership, the experiences that she recorded are “linked to events in the past,” but the ideas and values they express retain their power “to effect subsequent and greater change in the future.”

Blackey’s views as an educator were formed in a period of tremendous growth and change in professional preparation for social work. With the establishment of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in 1952, social work education was seen as the responsibility of the total profession. This produced new patterns of relationship among all segments of the profession, with graduate schools of social work, undergraduate programs of social welfare, professional membership associations, employing agencies, and interested citizens all participating in various ways in the formulation of educational policies. Blackey, as a representative of an agency that was a major employer of social workers (the Veterans Administration), was actively involved in this movement, bringing to it a strong conviction about the interdependence of education and practice, a conviction that found expression in all her articles on social work education.

In Blackey’s view a school of social work had many constituencies—the university, the profession, the communities and clients served, cooperating agencies, and the general public. With all of them Blackey urged the maintenance of meaningful ties and a leadership role that in large measure remains elusive. She hoped that schools of social work would have a stronger presence within their universities; she envisaged greater involvement of the schools in formulating social policy and advocacy on behalf of vulnerable groups in society; and she wanted agencies to be more open to experimental approaches to practice. These are goals still to be achieved.

Views on Curriculum

In his appraisal of Blackey’s work that follows this introduction, Werner Boehm notes Blackey’s leadership in curriculum building. Indeed, this is a major theme in the present collection of papers. As we shall see in this volume, Blackey’s thoughts on the social work curriculum reflected official curriculum policy and trends of the 1950s and 1960s, but with a significant difference. Blackey anticipated sooner than many of her colleagues the need for greater flexibility in generically orientated graduate programs, more active involvement of graduate schools in shaping undergraduate education, and a stronger emphasis in doctoral programs on preparation for teaching and leadership in schools of social work.

Blackey’s experience in establishing an undergraduate social work program in Israel sharpened her understanding of the linkage between foundation knowledge and professional courses in the preparation of a social worker. With only three years at the postsecondary level at her disposal in planning a curriculum, she recognized the need (1) to identify and draw from the social and behavioral sciences content that would be most useful to social workers, (2) to recast that content in the form of immediately usable concepts to be taught in “bridging” courses and (3) to have the concepts reinforced by knowledgeable social work faculty members in all professional courses. With acceptance by the social work profession in the United States of the bachelor of social work as the first professional degree and a continuing commitment in curriculum policy to a liberal education approach to professional study, Blackey’s thoughts on this subject merit our examination.

While always asserting the need for continuity among undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education, it was at the graduate level that Blackey made her major contribution to curriculum building. Through her early experience as a field instructor in the 1930s and 1940s and in the next several decades as a teacher and dean, she was exposed to all permutations in official curriculum policy statements, from the first “minimum curriculum” in 1932 and the 1944 “basic eight” subject areas required of all students, to the generic statements of 1952 and 1962 and, finally, the liberating statement of 1969 that freed schools to experiment with different curriculum models. In her work abroad and for a considerable period in the United States, she was in accord with the generic thrust of the policy statements of the fifties and sixties. Those statements represented an important step forward in professionalizing social work by providing what was regarded as the necessary foundation of knowledge, attitudes, and skills not for particular jobs but for a career of service. The curriculum was transformed from a collection of courses into a unified whole with balance in subject matter and specified broad areas of content required for all students through the two years of the graduate program. A shift in emphasis from what students were taught to what they were expected to learn introduced an awareness of learning theory as an important new consideration in curriculum building.

Blackey constantly reviewed curriculum policy in the light of new and changing demands on the profession. She had no problem with the generic approach in the placid fifties but in the restless sixties became restive herself with what she perceived as the inflexibility of social work education in coping with rapid social change. She decried the idea of continuing to view social work intervention in such clear and simple terms as casework to help individuals, group work to   help groups, and community organization to help communities. She urged exploration of new patterns of intervention, bolder and more imaginative approaches in practice, and better communication and cooperation with other disciplines, social agencies, and community leaders.Confronting change as a challenge, she met it head on. How to prepare students for competent and inventive practice in a changing world emerges in her writing as a central concern. In how this was to be done there is much to learn from her views on the social work curriculum.

Interest in Advanced Programs

Well-informed on all aspects of teaching and with a special interest in learning theory, Blackey deplored the lack of attention in doctoral programs to social work education as an area of specialization. The need for deans, directors, and faculty members to have better preparation for their administrative and educational responsibilities is a constant refrain in her writing. Her failure to get results may, again, be understood by placing this concern in a historical context. In the 1950s when Blackey began to concentrate on social work education, doctoral study in schools of social work was still in its infancy, exceptin three schools with a long history of doctoral education. When doctoral programs did begin to proliferate across the country, they tended for a variety of reasons to follow the traditional graduate school pattern of research-centered study with emphasis on building professional knowledge and social work theory as a more urgent priority than teaching doctoral students how to teach. Nevertheless, from the beginnings of doctoral education to the present, schools with advanced programs have invariably listed teaching and leadership roles in social work education as important career objectives, which does lend weight to Blackey’s criticism of their failure to offer requisite learning experiences.

A suggestion put forward by Blackey in one of her articles may find fruition in a national center for social work education, which has been proposed as a major program area for CSWE. In addition to a research institute, the center would include a faculty academy to help prospective and current faculty members to develop or enhance their competence as educators while an academy for administrations would offer programs to prepare deans, directors, and other administrative personnel in social work education for their administrative responsibilities. The academy approach, which has been followed successfully in Britain by the National Institute for Social Work, would appear to meet more effectively than current doctoral programs the needs so well outlined in the articles contained in this collection. What Blackey had to say with considerable passion on that subject could well serve as a guidepost for the social work profession for this projected new endeavor.

Concluding Notes

A final word needs to be said on the preparation of this publication. The materials made available for selection by the Eileen A. Blackey Memorial Fund Committee established to commemorate Eileen Blackey’s contributions included published and unpublished articles, reports, notes for speeches, and a book-sized volume on staff development. In discussions with the committee it was agreed at the outset that Blackey’s extraordinary experience and accomplishments as Director of the Child Search and Repatriation Program in Germany at the close of World War II deserved their own special treatment. Efforts are now under way to make material dealing with this period available to the profession as a whole.

Other decisions were more difficult, but it was also agreed that, while valuable for CSWE and the specific institutions and groups involved, reports of consultation visits and feasibility studies to determine the need for new schools of social work did not lend themselves to reproduction in a volume of readings. When it was determined that Blackey’s papers would be the first to be published by NASW in a new series on leading figures in social work, the task of selection was greatly simplified. The articles presented here demonstrate the qualities and abilities that marked Blackey as a leader throughout her career. The papers, with one exception, have been adapted and excerpted rather than reproduced in full so that the volume would include a representative sampling of Blackey’s thought. In many instances, the titles have been changed to reflect more clearly the themes that the collection is intended to memorialize. At the time of publication, the original materials on which this volume was based and Blackey’s collected writings have been reposited at the Social Welfare History Archives Center, Walter Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. As already noted, the articles contained here are a product of the times in which Eileen Blackey lived, yet what comes through in the end is not a static picture of another era, but the future-oriented thought and insights of a leader who emerges as a pathfinder for the profession of social work.

Katherine A. Kendall, November 1985

References: Katherine A. Kendall Papers. Box 21. Folder 1, “Eileen Blackey – Pathfinder for the Profession.” University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2014). Eileen Blackey: Pathfinder for the profession. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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