by M. Jenise Comer, LCSW, MSW, ACSW
I always knew I wanted to be a leader, which is a natural consequence of technically being an oldest. There are eight years between my older sister and brother, and me and my twin sister in our family of twelve children. I completed the MSW administration tract and a practicum with an amazing group of supervisors and mentors in a federal agency. The regional administrator suggested that I join the board of directors of a residential treatment center. I was recruited for a position as a program coordinator for a national private organization, and started my professional and servant leadership careers almost 42 years ago.
After working on the board for two years, I was asked to apply for the new position of Deputy Director. I was not looking for employment and was surprised to be considered at my age. I accepted the challenge less than two weeks after my 26th birthday, and was mentored by the most competent group of professionals, who also supervised my clinical training. Forty years ago, a social worker was a social worker was a social worker. It was customary for clinical social workers to become administrators within five years of practice in an agency. I happened to arrive at the same place in reverse order. The first direction I received from the Executive Director was to join NASW and pass the ACSW exam, which was the only credentialing exam for social workers in Missouri.
One of the duties I handled well was giving speeches about the agency for the United Way. I became a Loaned Executive during the 1985 fall campaign, and was asked to teach a class in a social work program 50 miles away. The next semester, I was hired in a full-time, tenure-track position, and fifteen years later, became the first African American Full Professor at the University. When the program director resigned in 2009, the faculty asked me to apply for the position. I will retire as BSW Program Director in December 2016.
Early in my 31-year tenure with the university, I designed our first social work conference focused on child abuse. The tradition continues with a different topic every year in celebration of Social Work Month. I successfully advocated for the degree name change to BSW, allowing separate recognition from all other Bachelor of Science degrees awarded during every commencement ceremony.
I negotiated a week-long program in response to a national initiative calling attention to domestic violence. The state NASW Executive Director recognized the plan and invited me to join the Chapter Board. While on the board, I was elected as one of three representatives to the NASW Delegate Assembly for three terms. Also, I was asked by the next NASW Executive Director to submit my name for service on the social work licensing Board. I was appointed by three different governors, and served a total of 15 years on the State Committee for Social Workers, during which time I was elected by my peers to serve several terms as president.
While on the licensing board, I attended the Association of Social Work Boards' (ASWB’s) New Board Member Training and Spring Education Conference. From that point on, I made every effort to increase my knowledge of social work regulation by also attending regulatory conferences. In 2007, I was appointed to serve a one-year term on the ASWB Board. I worked on several committees, and in 2010 was elected Secretary for two terms, then President-Elect. I am now President of ASWB and will serve for two years before a final year as Past President.
Additional highlights of my career in leadership include being elected to the CSWE Nominating Committee and serving as Chair in the last year of a three-year term, serving as the Local Planning Committee Chair for the Baccalaureate Program Directors (BPD) Annual Meeting in my hometown, and completing the 2014 Management Development Program at Harvard University.
What are the lessons learned from a social work career of servant leadership? First, know yourself and find your passion. Is leadership a good fit? If so, cultivate the skills by demonstrating good “followship.” Join NASW, or other social work professional groups, and work to advance their agendas. Hard work will be recognized. Attend conferences to increase your knowledge base and further professional development. Finally, establish positive relationships and select a mentor to refine your leadership skills. Like my mentor, I never had to apply for a job. I am honored to have been asked.
M. Jenise Comer, LCSW, MSW, ACSW, is Director of the BSW Social Work Program at the University of Central Missouri. She is the president of the Association of Social Work Boards.