Arlien Johnson

1894 – 1988

Advanced many causes and significantly influenced social work education

Arlien Johnson was born into a pioneering farming family Portland, Oregon. Her maternal grandparents had crossed plain and mountains by covered wagon and her paternal grandparents, the first Norwegian settlers in the region, had taken the train route. When she was two, Johnson’s father died and her mother became a working mother, prizing the sense of independence she acquired from the 19th Century settlers. Johnson grew up sensitive to the self-reliance of the women around her who knew how to earn their way without discrimination or intimidation. These women helped to shape her keen interest in current events and issues and, perhaps, her later attention to the ways in which politics affect social issues and programs.

Johnson became a renowned social work educator and community organizer; she was a social policy expert and a social reformer. Through her books, speeches and letters, she significantly influenced school social work and mental health services in the Los Angeles area and at state levels. After completing her undergraduate work at Reed College and working for several years in settlement work on the East Coast, she obtained a master’s degree from the New York School of Social Work and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. While there, she was the protege of the famous social work reformers, the Abbot sisters and Sophinisba Breckenridge. Following several years with the Washington State Department of Public Welfare, she accepted the deanship of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington until 1939 when she became Dean of the University of Southern California’s 20-year old School of Social Work.

Johnson’s influence on social work education was felt throughout the world: students came from all over the U.S. and other countries for consultation about social work education and social services. Through her persuasiveness, her writings, and her educational activities, Johnson shaped much California and federal-level social policy. She successfully enlisted support from lay and professional persons to establish the Mental Health Association of Los Angeles County and the California Mental Health Association, organized several mental health clinics for children in Southern California, and introduced education for school social work in California, and social services into several public health programs.

Johnson served actively on a variety of social agency boards and on local, state, and national commissions. She was president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work, the California Conference of Social Work, and the National Conference on Health and Welfare. She was the recipient of many professional and other awards and honors including being named Los Angeles Time Woman of the Year. The Arlien Johnson Historical Social Welfare Library at USC is an enduring tribute to her powerful leadership and fine works.

« Back to list.