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In the room where it happened - Part 1- Edwardsville

By Dot Kontak

The Founding of SSWAA

It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years since sixty-four School Social Workers from twenty-two states came to Edwardsville on July 22 – 24, 1994 to create a framework for a national association. I feel very privileged and proud to have been “In the Room Where it Happened” on this and many other occasions as SSWAA was created and has since developed.

In April of 1994, the Midwest School Social Work Council (Midwest Council) & the Illinois Association of School Social Workers (IASSW) sent out an invitation to state School Social Work leadership around the country to attend the National SSW Planning Retreat. IASSW graciously hosted the event at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville (SIUE), Illinois supplying funding, room and board, meeting space, materials, an agenda as well as moderators to utilize our time together.

As the president of the School Social Work Association of Missouri (SSWAM) and member of the Midwest Council, I found myself in the middle of being responsible for coordinating transportation for many of the people flying into St. Louis from other states to a relatively remote area of SIUE which was about 45 minutes “across the river”. People were assigned to housing units on the campus and our meeting was held in what I recall to be the main hall: a long meeting room with one side being mostly windows which was filled with tables and desk chairs.

As a member of Midwest Council, I was aware that there was great concern about the lack of support for School Social Workers from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) whose interests were spread across multiple social work disciplines, creating a very strong interest and desire to explore the establishment of a new national organization that would be SOLELY devoted to serving and advocating for School Social Workers. The room was buzzing with excitement. School Social Workers from the Northeast to the West Coast were there; some bringing decades of experience and others of us fairly new to the scene of advocacy and leadership. Some representing state associations with large numbers of SSWs and others representing new or forming state associations with only 5 or 6 members. Credentials for SSWs also varied at that time, with most states requiring an MSW but a few states only requiring a BA or BSW while still others of us did not even have SSW certification (including Missouri—but that’s another story).

Greg Petty, from Illinois, served as our very able host and moderator in facilitating the group process as enthusiastic people worked through a myriad of details that needed to be addressed as we transitioned from vision to the possible reality of establishing a national organization. Numerous questions were addressed: What were our goals? What will make this organization unique and different from NASW? What will our relationship be with NASW?

What Would the Organizational Structure Be?

It was very apparent that many people had done incredible amounts of work and research to assist the group to move through our organizational development process and the roles of the Board/Leadership including not only Greg Petty, but Randy Fisher (IL), Vaughn Morrison (IL), and Sally Carlson (WI) to name only a few. Sally Carlson provided attendees with a 34-page packet of information regarding national professional organizations as well as specific organizational information from national “Pupil Personnel Services” (at the time) organizations for our review and consideration during discussion. As a starting point, she also included three possible budget scenarios for our new association.

A key question that I recall a great deal of debate about was regarding the organizational structure and just who would be its members? At the time, there were three regional SSW organizations i.e., the Midwest SSW Work Council, The Western Alliance of SSW Organizations, and the Southern Council of SSWs. Would this new organization be an organization of regional groups, state associations, or individual members? Should the member structure be similar to the American School Counselor’s Association or the National Association of School Psychologists where individuals are simultaneously members of both their state association as well as the national association? Up to this point, several state associations were not only aligned with NASW but were included within the structure of their state NASW. How would those state associations be impacted by a new national association? What role would the regional and state organizations play in the structure and leadership of a new national association?

Resolving these questions was critical in determining the possible options in response to many, many more questions. After what I recall to be a very robust discussion and debate due to the different status of state associations, it was resolved that the new association should be an association of individual members regardless of their state association’s status or a SSWs’ own status with their state association.

Should we have a national office in DC? (I remember quite a bit of discussion about that.) What personnel would we need? Where will we get the money to run a national organization? (That was a BIG question!) How would we locate as well as communicate with SSWs in every state to let them know about our association? What membership incentives could we offer? How will we spread the word about our new association to other organizations? At the end of 3 days, the walls of the room were covered with mural paper capturing the brainstorming of participants as we addressed these issues and many more.

All Work and No Play?

Several of us chauffeured part of the group for a bit of an evening in St. Louis especially since there was NOTHING to do in the area we were at. One cannot come to St. Louis without a trip to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard (with ice cream “concretes” that are so thick they are served upside down) in south St. Louis. While the energy and enthusiasm of so many leaders from across the country at Edwardsville was itself intoxicating and extremely empowering, Donna (Secor) Pennington hosted the first of what would be many “SSWAA Box o’ Wine” gatherings at day’s end which was a real highlight. In addition to establishing the base for decades of friendships and networking with leaders from near and far, these gatherings continued over the years where often the “meeting after the meeting” and some of the “real” work got done as people continued to discuss issues, strategies, options, problem solve and discover compromises.

SSWAA is Born

In retrospect, it really is quite amazing how much this group of 60+ was able to address and outline regarding the establishment of a new association in such a short time. At the end of the three days and with a great sense of pride and accomplishment, the “School Social Work Association of America” was officially “born” along with our initial mission statement: SSWAA is “dedicated to promoting the professional development of school social workers to work with students and families in order to enhance their educational experiences”. Now on to the hard work of operationalizing this vision. See next blog: “In the Room Where It Happened: After Edwardsville”.


Dot Kontak, LCSW, SSWS - SSWAA Founding Member

Dorothy “Dot” Kontak graduated from Valparaiso University with a BSW and received her MSW from Washington University. She was a K-12 School Social Worker for over 27 years and has served numerous leadership positions at the state (Missouri), regional and national levels as well as served as an adjunct professor at Washington University for 13 years. In 2008, she received the Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Midwest School Social Work Council. Dot is a Founding Member of SSWAA, former SSWAA board member, past Conference Director as well as past Director of Communications. In 2015, she received SSWAA’s Randy A. Fischer Lifetime Achievement Award. She currently serves as the Director of Communications for the New York State School Social Workers’ Association.

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