Ellen Dunbar

NASW and CalSWEC Leader who Shaped Practice, Policy, and Education to Improve Social Work in Rural Communities

A leading advocate for underserved populations and the professionalization of public child welfare services, Ellen Russell Dunbar has had a lasting effect on the social work landscape in California.

Dunbar earned her Master of Social Work in 1960 from the USC School of Social Work and completed a doctorate in Public Affairs in 1975 also at USC. During her time in Los Angeles, she worked with Special Service for Groups, a nonprofit health and human services organization focused on community-based programs for vulnerable communities. Her roles included supervisor of street gang social workers, director of service and training, and director of program development.

She ultimately accepted a tenure-track position at Eastern Washington University’s School of Social Welfare. Although she rose through the ranks to the position of professor and acting dean, she left the university in the mid-1980s to join the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

During her eight years as its executive director, Dunbar lead the chapter to a solid financial and professional footing, relying on her excellent management skills and devotion to the professionalization of social work. Under her leadership, NASW CA purchased its current building in Sacramento, strengthening fiscal responsibility and providing the foundation for today’s strength. The California chapter is now the largest in the country and boasts the largest fiscal reserves.

In 1994, Dunbar left NASW to launch a new Master of Social Work program at California State University, Stanislaus. Her strong emphasis on integrated practice in a community setting and ability to attract excellent faculty members established the university as a leading source of well-trained social workers. By developing and promoting a curriculum focused on the needs of underserved and marginalized populations, Dunbar strengthened the ranks of social workers working in remote and rural communities throughout California, areas that had largely been neglected in terms of social services.

In the early 1990s, Dunbar joined leaders from other schools of social work and the County Welfare Directors Association of California to lead an effort to bolster public child welfare services in the state. She proved extremely effective in obtaining the commitment of county leaders and other stakeholders, including sources of funding, to create the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC). The only organization of its kind in the country, CalSWEC now involves nearly all schools of social work in the state and has produced hundreds of highly-competent social workers for California’s public social services system.

As an active policy maker and advocate for the profession and for the underserved populations that social workers represent, Dunbar has established a legacy of outreach, responsibility, education, service, and innovation.

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