Kathy Byers, MSW’71, honored as National Association of Social Work Pioneer

Kathy Byers, MSW'71
Kathy Byers, MSW'71
Last fall, Kathy Byers, MSW’71, was recognized as a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers Foundation for her work as a founding member of Influencing Social Policy (ISP). The organization aims to increase social workers’ influence on policy at the local, state and federal levels.

“I was just thrilled and humbled,” she says. “My parents and uncle, all social workers, were also honored in that way, so I was just so touched.”

Byers, now retired, has had a long career as both a social worker and an educator. In 1997, she helped create ISP, which holds annual contests for students to propose policy ideas and hosts an annual conference and teaching institute. She served as its national chair for seven years, during which time she connected isp with the University of Connecticut and the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy to launch a voter empowerment campaign partnering schools of social work with local social service agencies.

“We need competence in policy practice for all social workers, because we’re the closest to understanding what clients need,” she says. “What I used to tell students is that policy affects everything you can do. To say you don’t care — do you know how our mental health system is structured, for example? That’s policy.”

Byers seemed almost destined for a career in social work. With a family steeped in the tradition, she sought out a graduate program that was the right fit.

“I was interested in city planning at the time, but because it was the 1960s, I was also interested in social justice and social work,” she says. The Heller School had just started offering a master’s in social work, which led Byers to the program in 1968. Her focus was community organizing, which became more than a classroom lesson when she participated in the Ford Hall 1969 protests at Brandeis. She took those skills and helped in organizing a general strike in Boston against the Vietnam War, delaying her final project until 1971.

She spent the first part of her career after Heller working for the Developmental Training Center connected to Indiana University (IU), offering services for children with disabilities and interdisciplinary education for iu students. In addition to being a social worker and administrator for the program, she also taught part time at iu.

After 10 years, Byers realized she wanted to pursue teaching full time. She earned a doctorate in educational psychology at IU and began her academic career, spending much of it leading IU’s bachelor’s in social work program.

She advises today’s Heller students to find advocacy groups for policy issues they care about.

“You can’t really influence policy all by yourself, but if you’re working with a group that has a strategy, that has a plan, that’s a good place to start,” she says. “Following your passion is important.”

Cover of Heller Magazine Summer 2020, Celebrating Heller at 60

This story is from the summer 2020 issue of Heller Magazine