Interview with Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD – Professor at California University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work | Youth Empowerment Social Justice & Policy

About Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD: Dr. Gwendolyn Perry-Burney first earned her MSW from Temple University and then went on to receive her Doctorate in Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh. She also holds a Master of Science in Business Administration from California University of Pennsylvania. Some of her areas of interest include macro practice, empowerment, social justice, policy, and community transformation, especially with the youth.

Dr. Perry-Burney is a certified youth organizer and youth trainer by the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and a Desire to Learn instructor, to name a few. Currently, she is a full-time professor teaching in the graduate program at Cal U’s Department of Social Work. Gwendolyn Perry-Burney was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] You have experience teaching in distance-learning environments. Besides the medium, what most distinguishes these environments from traditional in-class environments? How can students know which environment is right for them?

[Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD] Distance-learning environments allows students to work and maintain their family responsibilities. This venue can be more challenging to students because there is more written documentation and the need to discuss information from the textbook. Whereby in-class, one does not necessarily have to read the chapters and will receive credit for their appearance, but in an online environment, students have to, in many ways, be more accountable and more organized.

[Knowing which environment for you] is difficult question to answer. Our rural students are pushing for more distance courses, because they want to work a full-time and part-time job, have family responsibilities, and attend as a full-time student. Last semester, I had a full-time student working three jobs and planning a wedding. Once they enter the program, the first semester is a challenge because they are readjusting their lives to the curriculum. In addition, they expect to receive high grades. Nontraditional students returning to receive their MSW because of work requirements and licensure requirements tend to prefer the in-class environment. In our program, faculty decided that all practice courses will be taught face-to-face to accommodate traditional and nontraditional students.

[] Your research interests include lifespan development, social justice, poverty, oppression, dehumanization and more. How do these interests influence the courses you instruct? What should students expect from your courses?

[Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD] Very simply: this is social work. Everything to do with people, the environment, policies, and practice includes the above. I can’t teach without including lifespan development, social justice, poverty, oppression and dehumanization in the discussion. It’s becoming easier today to have a discussion with students about local, regional, state, national and global issues and engage them and have them make a connection with what they’ve seen through social media. Social media has helped to bring the plight of others around the world more directly to students, than just passively reading about it. In every class, I connect the topic with current events either locally, nationally, or globally to the classroom. It’s important for me as an instructor to provide students with information and scenarios that encourages critical thinking in order to promote them to think of how they can change their environment. Many of our students come from generations of conservative thinkers. They challenge the tenets of social work and many have the belief that people are in total control of their destiny. By the end of the course, I always receive unsolicited responses from students on how their values have changed in how they view marginalized people and their situations.

I have the distinct reputation in the department as being one of the most challenging instructors. I am insistent that students follow the syllabus, read the textbooks, and perform research before responding to my questions. I have course deadlines and I lock the course so no materials can be submitted after a specific day and time. In essence, one cannot be a procrastinator in my courses. During my practice, I have seen workers submit late or incomplete paperwork causing agencies to lose money and clients to not be properly serviced. I also teach a grant writing course which means deadlines are, again, important in the funding of agencies and providing services to individuals.

[] You cite the best part of your job as “seeing [students] ‘think outside the box.’” Any rules of thumb to help students do this and to continue doing it after they’ve begun their careers?

[Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD] Some rules of thumb:

1). Empower students where they feel confident in self and practice. I want students to challenge individuals and agency policies if they have their facts. You can have passion about an idea. But don’t just be passionate, whereby, your emotions overshadow your ability to state the facts and you are rendered ineffective. For example, I had a student who was working in a hospital mental health setting. She had a client and read her diagnosis posted by the psychiatrist. We discussed the client and her assessment. After conducting her research, in consultation with me, I suggested that she present it to the team during multidisciplinary team meeting. The psychiatrist was there and others. She was correct in her diagnosis. This is a case of thinking outside the box, not just going along with “group think” but doing one’s own research and presenting a different perspective.

2). Provide and share information with students. I talk about responsibilities as a social worker and practice situations in terms of both strengths and weaknesses. This means being genuine and authentic in practice, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions regardless of the consequences.

3). Be culturally and race aware at all times. Socialization in rural communities on culture and race can be oppressive to certain ethnic groups, especially African Americans who are a minority, and hindered from employment regardless of their degrees. I challenge students whether in a clinical or at the grassroots level to be committed to social justice. Ask the difficult questions around lack of agency diversity and explain how a diverse workplace enhances productivity and creativity. Often students don’t return to the university or contact instructors about their careers. I may receive a couple of emails a year from students sharing their careers with me, and asking me to assist them with a reference and how to negotiate a salary. I advise students that social workers did not take a vow of poverty and it is okay for us to make money in our jobs. However, because our community is small, I do get a chance to see students through conferences, at community meetings and events, or restaurants who will introduce me to their family and friends as one of the professors who challenged them. They also share how well they are doing in the field because of lessons they learned from taking my classes.

[] You “bring students to a cognitive acceptance of their social responsibilities in and beyond their local communities.” What do social workers owe their communities? What do they owe the wider world?

[Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD] Social workers owe their communities excellence in practice. Regardless of the reputation of the agency, because we know some agencies won’t change their culture. Professional social workers must honor our Code of Ethics and do their best in the current position until they can go somewhere else where their skills will be acknowledged, and appreciated. From the time I entered this profession, I have never sought employment. Agency directors have always sought me out and asked that I apply for a job at their agency. I had a stellar reputation in the field, where others always believed they were stealing the best for their agency. Many of the places I worked, I never knew anyone at the company before I came [onboard].

[What do they owe to the wider world?] Simply to value and practice our Code of Ethics in their life and on the job.

Thank you Gwendolyn Perry-Burney for your time and insight into social work!

Last updated: April 2020