The early history of the School of Social Work is notable as our present-day ethos and mission was greatly shaped by the school’s origins. The School of Social Work was established in 1971 as a Department of Social Welfare, where students earned a B.A. in Social Welfare. The Department was accredited in 1974 by CSWE, the year after the establishment of the first national accreditation standards in social work education. Given the context of the active social movements in the 1970’s, social work became a very popular major at the University of Southern Maine. In fact, the Department of Social Welfare developed notable pioneering courses: one titled Women and Social Change, taught in 1974, one of the first women’s studies courses at USM; and, the first course at USM addressing LGBTQ concerns was taught in 1978 titled, Relating Professionally to Homosexuality. While this is not a controversial course topic today, there was resistance within the university system to offer such a course and it was finally allowed on an “experimental” basis. The course then drew national attention: CSWE identified it as “cutting edge” curriculum, and it was featured at the 1980 Annual Program Meeting in Los Angeles, California.
The School of Social Work has a deep and rich history of community immersion in Portland and the surrounding areas. A highly distinguished achievement in this regard with enduring community and university impact that came directly from the USM Department of Social Welfare in its early years is what is now named the Preble Street Resource Center. The Center was founded in 1972, by an infamous faculty member, Joe Kreisler, a Rhodes Scholar and Community Organizer from New York City. Kreisler, who later became the Department Chair, had a vision of creating a community setting to provide supports and low barrier services to empower homeless people while also providing real world training for USM social work students. In 1975, Kreisler made this happen and overcame many challenges to implement it. Initially named the High Street Resource Center, it was a part of USM, situated at the former location of the University of Maine Law School. The program was an enormous success for students and the clients served. In the early part of the 1980s USM began to question whether it was willing to support using university property for social service work. When social work students and community members heard of the university’s desire to shut down the Center, they staged a sit-in at the Provost’s office and halted the effort, but only for a short period of time. In January of 1981, it was forced to move to a small room at the Salvation Army on Cumberland Avenue where it operated for a number of months. By the fall of 1981, it moved to the Preble Street Chapel, and in 1993, the Center was moved to its current location on Preble Street in Portland and was re-named the Preble Street Resource Center. In 1996 a Teen Center was founded to serve homeless youth, and in 2013, this center was named the Joe Kreisler Teen Center. Joe Kreisler died at age 82 in 2002 and remains an iconic figure in the SSW. He was known for his deep kindness, unwavering integrity, keen intellect, steadfast sense of purpose and passion for social justice and human rights, the embodiment of social work values. His legacy set the stage for the strong community values and cultural norms in the SSW that persist today among faculty and students and in our mission.
Hundreds of social work students, graduate and undergraduate, across all program options, have been trained through the range of programs within the Preble Street Resource Center over the decades. USM SSW students are passionate about addressing and ameliorating homelessness and poverty and its far-reaching effects. Countless students have also done innovative projects and conducted research in collaboration with the Center as well. Students often stay on as volunteers after completing internships or service learning, and many students have been hired by Preble Street after graduation. The USM SSW is integrally connected to the Preble Street Resource Center, sharing themes in our respective missions and guided by values related to human rights, social justice and ameliorating poverty. Preble Street leaders, present and past, serve on the SSW Community Advisory Committee, too.
Due to COVID-19, many agencies in the community worked closely with the SSW and USM to respond to the changing community needs at a rather desperate time. The Preble Street Resource Center leadership partnered with USM to convert the University’s closed gymnasium into a temporary wellness shelter for homeless individuals. At Preble Street’s city-based shelter, a number of residents tested positive for COVID and they needed a safe place to house those people who did not have COVID. With the leadership of one of Preble’s program directors, who is a USM MSW alumni, the 24-hour wellness shelter was opened and run for 5 months right on the Portland campus. Many SSW students decided to help at the shelter as Preble Street called upon us to help them recruit experienced students to staff the gymnasium-based program. A number of students did just that. Here is one example: https://usm.maine.edu/news/usm-honors-student-finds-meaningful-work-amid-pandemic/ . In addition, SSW faculty and students volunteered during the pandemic at other programs within the homeless service system in Portland, from donating food to serving and delivering meals to staffing residential programs.
Integrity, human rights and social justice are central to SSW programs, expressed through research, community projects and curricular innovation. Courses continually revised and developed to respond to pressing and emerging contemporary issues. For example, it is important to note the SSW response to the most recent national racial justice initiatives. In line with the mission of the school and values of the profession, the SSW is committed to engaging in the work to stand against racism: https://usm.maine.edu/swo/usm-school-social-work-stands-against-racism The SSW is actively engaged in on-going discussion about race and racial justice and what actions we can take to promote anti-racism, recognizing that this work is a long-term commitment and paradigm shift for all.
On April 12th 2022, the School of Social Work honored its 50th anniversary with a festive gathering of current students, faculty, staff, alumni, emeriti faculty, field instructors, USM friends and community partners, who have made the school a success over five decades.
Also, you can support the school and its students by making a donation to the school’s annual or scholarship fund. We are very proud of the half century of social work at USM!