Alumni and Friends

Ruth Brandwein, PhD’78

Ruth Brandwein, PhD’78

Ruth Brandwein, PhD’78, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. Brandwein is dean and professor emeritus at the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University, where she also served as director of the school’s Social Justice Center. Her long career includes a role as commissioner of social services for Suffolk County, New York, and in 2018, she received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Sarasota National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and from the national NASW organization in Washington, D.C. She spoke to former classmate Dick Scobie, PhD’72, about her longstanding commitment to social justice and focus on the plight of women and children in poverty.

Dick Scobie: Do you remember what was going on in the country when you came to Heller? It was a wild time with so much going on. We were still reeling from the assassinations [of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy]. Nixon was still president. It was a crazy time to be studying social welfare planning because it was a period in which people were rejecting the concept of planning.

Ruth Brandwein: Nixon was very conservative and focused on cutting back services. I remember in that first year there was a move to cut federal block grants by 25%. At the time, we were all afraid that he would cut them by 25% every year. But then people mobilized, and he was stopped. Because we had grown up in the ‘60s, we thought everything was possible.

DS: When you graduated Heller as a newly minted doctor, what was your experience like?

RB: Well, it was exciting. I guess you know when you're a new young PhD holder, particularly from Brandeis, you’re a real hot commodity. I was hired at the University of Iowa School of Social Work as a tenured  associate professor and Director of the school.  After about two and a half years, some of your colleagues at Stony Brook, who were looking for a dean, encouraged me to apply. I ended up staying there for almost 30 years, with some time out when I was commissioner for social services. I gave up the deanship after nine years but I remained a full professor. We created a new social justice center, which I managed for the rest of my career until I retired in 2010.

DS: While you were at Stony Brook, were there any personal goals or major problems that you wanted your work to address?

RB: For my whole life I've been interested and concerned with issues of inequality and justice, and I’ve tried to take whatever job I’ve had to think of how I can use that as a platform for furthering my goals. When I was younger, I wanted to change the world and then as I got older, I thought, well, let me at least try to change my little part of the world.

For example, at Stony Brook, I worked on organizational change. I started evening and weekend classes because we had a lot of older returning students and working people. I also got federal funding for a student unit in one of the motels that were housing homeless families, which gave students experience into how people are managing with poverty and homelessness. 

At the Department of Social Services, the first thing I did was to develop a mission statement which talked about the dignity of all clients and respect for all clients and workers. That document became part of the orientation for all new workers and that lasted even after I left, which I feel good about. We also got all the homeless families out of motels and into supportive transitional housing.

In my academic work, when I was a visiting professor at the University of Utah, for example, I worked on issues of domestic violence, looking at the connection between domestic violence and welfare use. That ended up being published as a book and was presented at a number of national conferences. So, my teaching, writing, professional presentations, and work were always all connected.

At Stony Brook in connection with NASW [the National Association of Social Workers], we had an annual social justice day in which we identified some state legislative bills that were social justice-related such as mental health, homelessness, and gay and lesbian rights. We would have speakers talk on each of these areas and then break up into small groups and do role play, lobbying their legislators on these issues. We were really teaching students how to be advocates on social justice. I see one of my main contributions as passing the torch and being a mentor to young faculty and students in terms of social justice and really pursuing that as part of social work practice.

DS: When you look back, what were some of your proudest moments of your career?

RB: One of my proudest moments was before I even went to graduate school. I was working as a community organizer and there was a plan to extend the highway system I-90 right through the central area of Seattle, closing it off from the more affluent lakeshore area and connecting it to a much larger bridge that would go out to the suburbs. We developed a powerful coalition and we fought and fought, and we absolutely stopped that from going through. Whenever I go back to Seattle, I say, “You know, if it hadn't been for us, that city would have been completely different.” I'm very proud of that.

Another would be all the writing I did about feminist theory as well as domestic violence. [Heller Professor] David Gil had a conference on social justice. A book came out about it and I wrote a chapter about social movements and social change and how we needed to have a feminist approach to really make a difference. Those are the things that were important to me. I can't say that I built a great edifice but I think that a lot of these things kind of tied together in my life.

DS: How has being a social worker been with its own particular set of values and ethics affected or impeded your work?

RB: For me personally, social work complements my approach, my feminist values and my Jewish values of humanism and respect of the individual and the worth of every human being.

Social workers can do so many things. It's a very malleable profession and I think my example is a good one. As somebody running for office in Suffolk County once said, “Can you imagine the county executive hired a social worker to represent the Department of Social Services?”

I used to teach a course on women in administration as a way to encourage the women in social work to move into positions of power and influence, rather than working for people who were lawyers and business people who didn't understand what social work was about. And so, this course also provided the opportunity for social workers, with their values, to lead social service organizations. That’s a long way to answer the question, but I think social work is important and needs to be pursued with its intrinsic values.

DS: You've been retired officially for a while now, but I get the feeling that you haven't slowed down.

RB: I formally retired 10 years ago, but I'm not a very retiring person. I moved to Florida and thought, “This state has so many problems. How can I live here and not try to change it?” I’ve done a lot in Florida, but I recently turned 80 so I’ve slowed down a little bit.

I just got involved with the League of Women Voters and I am chairing the health committee. We are one of the few states that has not adopted Medicaid expansion, so that's going to be our big push: either getting it on the ballot or getting the legislature to pass it. We're also looking at racial disparities in healthcare and Florida is among the worst. We have thousands and thousands of people who are uninsured and people who are Black and Latino have much higher rates of all kinds of illnesses, so their rate of contracting COVID-19 is much higher. Currently maternal and child deaths are about three or four times higher in the Black community than the white community, so how can I stop? There is work to be done and it gives me joy to have the energy to be able to do my little part to maybe make a little bit of a difference.  

“How can I stop? There is work to be done and it gives me joy to have the energy to be able to do my little part to maybe make a little bit of a difference.”

Ruth Brandwein, PhD’78

About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.