Interview with Dr. Wendy Ashley– Assistant Professor at California State University at Northridge (CSUN) | Community Mental Health & Urban Child Welfare

About Dr. Wendy Ashley, Psy. D., LCSW: Dr. Wendy Ashley earned her Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Ryokan College, her MSW from the University of Southern California, and her BA in psychology from UC Riverside. She has been a licensed clinical social worker since 1998 and has more than 20 years of social work experience in the areas of community mental health and child welfare.

Dr. Wendy Ashley currently works as an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), maintains a private practice, and provides consultation and training for multiple community agencies. Her research interests include treatment models for working with African-American and transgender clients, the impact of power and privilege on macro and micro practice, and child welfare. Dr. Wendy Ashley was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] CSUN’s Department of Social Work focuses on providing services to children. For social work students who have not yet decided on a concentration, can you give an overview of child welfare social work, the advantages and challenges of this field, and what kinds of roles are possible within the field of advanced child welfare social work?

[Dr. Wendy Ashley] CSUN’s Social Work Department is a generalist model, specifically focusing on urban family practice. Our mission is to prepare professional social workers to promote the well-being of individuals, families, and communities in the urban setting. While that includes children, it also includes other members of urban families including parents, grandparents, extended family members, those who do not have children, and others. A generalist model is ideal preparation for social work practice because unlike many concentration specific models, it provides exposure to a variety of social work arenas, preparing students for the diversity of the field and giving them micro (individual/family), mezzo (group/community) and macro (policy/societal) skills.

Our model is particularly valuable for social work in child welfare. Child welfare primarily focuses on child safety, establishing permanency for children in out-of-home care, and providing families with effective resources to support the well-being of children, youths and families. I have quite a bit of experience working with children; the majority of my practice experience before and after graduate school was with children and families, my concentration in graduate school was children, youth and families and my sub-concentration was public child welfare.

Social work focusing on child welfare is a specific genre of the field that prepares social work students to effectively work in the urban child welfare system. The employment possibilities are endless; social workers can work within the court system, with foster youth (in mental health, adoption, placement, visitation with family members, reunification, permanency planning), with agencies housing or providing resources to youth and families, with families wanting to adopt or foster, writing grants, developing programs to assist children and families in need, or initiating policies and legislation that promotes equity for marginalized clients.

[] Throughout your career, is there one aspect of social work practice that you’ve noticed has evolved the most?

[Dr. Wendy Ashley] In my 20 years of experience, so much has evolved and changed. I am pleased to see the level of critical thinking emphasized in social work education and the impact of practice-informed research and research-informed practice on service delivery. I would say that the focus on intersectionality is one that I am the most awed by. Twenty years ago we understood the value of diversity and the role of cultural competence in effective treatment, but the emphasis on diversity, power and privilege and their impact on social justice really adds complexity to how we understand clients and systems.

[] You specialize in community mental health. Can you discuss the focus, methods and goals of community mental health as practiced by social workers? What is the definition of community mental health, and how do social workers who practice it combine a broad understanding of a larger community’s needs with a more individualized understanding of people’s mental health?

[Dr. Wendy Ashley] It is challenging to simultaneously assess the needs of a community and address individual needs. The ability to accurately assess needs largely depends on the position of the assessor (member or ally versus stakeholders). Privilege obscures vision, so those with dominant status may think they are supporting equality in programs and organizations, when individuals and communities need equity regarding access, treatment options and aftercare.

Community mental health services support and treat mental health disorders in client communities, as opposed to health care, psychiatric or other facilities. The approach was designed to supplement and decrease the need for costly inpatient mental health and health care while making treatment more accessible and decreasing stigma. In order to effectively engage with, assess and assist clients, social workers need the critical-thinking, practice-informed research skills and intersectionality lens that come with a CSUN MSW focusing on urban family practice.

[] Besides teaching at CSUN, you also work as a clinical consultant, maintain a private practice and provide training for community agencies. Is such a multi-faceted career typical of social workers? Are there benefits to pursuing social work in so many forms? Does each facet of your social work career benefit the others in some way — for example, does your work as a professor enhance your work as a clinical consultant and private practitioner, and vice versa?

[Dr. Wendy Ashley] Maintaining a multi-faceted career is common in social work, and more likely to occur with seasoned social workers who have a sense of what their skills are, have clarity regarding legal and ethical responsibilities, and are able to manage the demands of multiple jobs, a personal life and sustaining an ongoing self-care regimen. I am extremely fortunate that all of my jobs complement one another. I love teaching and consider it a gift that I have the skills to make difficult academic concepts palatable in the classroom and field.

Teaching supports new social workers and clients; it allows me to teach and model complex concepts and provides an opportunity for practice-informed research and research-informed practice. I also have the benefit of being surrounded with new research and contemporary ideas that add to my clinical acumen. Because I also maintain a practice, provide supervision, consult and train groups of practitioners, I have the opportunity to practice the material I teach. I am able to model and discuss skills in the classroom and offer real life examples of what works, where social workers struggle and areas where I have been ineffective (along with my insight on why).

[] What advice do you have for students who are considering pursuing an MSW and entering the field of social work for the first time?

[Dr. Wendy Ashley] I would encourage those interested in social work or pursuing an MSW to ask themselves why they want to be a social worker (or engage in social work practice) and write it down, so that their larger goal doesn’t get absorbed in the process of researching, inquiring and applying.

Then I would recommend that they look at the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) website to view the Code of Ethics. This code clarifies the mission, purpose and values of the profession, which is important to be clear on and aligned with if one is pursuing social work as a career path. It emphasizes the role of social justice in the discipline, which differentiates social work from other disciplines.

I would also encourage them to research all of the social work programs they are interested in and review each of their missions. Most social work programs have an online presence as well, which provides a plethora of information regarding application deadlines, program options and strategies for completing application documents. CSUN’s website is amazing and offers a multitude of information.

Finally, once they have narrowed things down to one or two schools, I would encourage them to select a faculty member or two they feel aligned with, or whose research interests resonate with them, and contact the faculty member(s). The emails I have exchanged with prospective students have been quite beneficial in students learning more about the nuances of the program, deciding which program to attend and developing relationships with faculty.

Lastly, I’d ask them to compare what they wrote down at the beginning (why they want to be a social worker) and see if it is congruent with the information they gathered from websites, program information and faculty members. That should help them clarify if they are aligned with social work or if there are additional questions or concerns that need resolving prior to making a decision.

Thank you Dr. Wendy Ashley for your time and insight into social work!

Last updated: April 2020