Andrew Young School associate professor Jan Ivery said she “came into” social work after graduating with an undergraduate degree in sociology.
“I was nearing graduation, and my parents asked me, ‘what are you going to do with this degree? So I looked around my senior year, and someone asked if I’d considered social work.” It wasn’t her first choice, though. “I had the typical stereotypical idea of what social work was, and I didn’t want to work with children.”
Ivery’s parents were deeply involved in their Washington, Pennsylvania, community. Their leadership and commitment manifested itself in Ivery as a deep interest in learning how communities work together. So she discussed degree options with her mentor, then enrolled in M.S.W. program at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Social work was a good direction, a good fit for me. I learned how to align new theories with ways to address the inequalities, structural and institutional issues I saw as a sociologist,” she said. “It gave me the tools and strategies to begin to address these issues.”
Ivery earned her M.S.W. in 1997, then worked for the university’s department of infectious diseases.
“I entered public health because they wanted a community organizer to work with groups across the state on HIV prevention,” she said. “By the time I started working, HIV was really starting to hit communities of color and women, as well as gay men.”
She led a demonstration project that focused on perinatal transmission.
“One of my best experiences was when we held young adult roundtables with groups of teen moms who were African American and Latino. These experiences showed me that when we work with people and their strengths, when we increase and build capacity to solve problems, we can really make a difference.”
Ivery’s experience led her to pursue a Ph.D. in program evaluation and policy at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). During her coursework, her interest in collaborations and partnerships deepened as she worked on partnering service providers with Homeward, the planning and coordinating organization for homeless services in the greater Richmond region.
“My dissertation ended up looking at what partnerships look like and how they’re evaluated. It launched my research into collaborative partnerships: what are the components that work, what factors contribute to success, what are the processes and outcomes, and how do these things all fit together?”
Ivery joined the School of Social Work at Georgia State University and continued to focus her research on collaborative partnerships. She turned to aging populations and Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) during her work with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, a supportive services program reliant on partnerships.
“As people grow older they want to stay in their homes, but they may not be able to because of the physical structure of the homes or for other practical reasons. How do we begin to look the fit between individuals and their external environments as they age?
“Many supportive services focus on reducing social isolation among older adults. Some focus on cultural events. Physical health is an example. There’s a NORC in East Point that had a walk-in program to encourage activity. Or they offer home modification services, like putting grab bars in bathrooms.”
Ivery aided the Jewish Federation in assessing its model of supportive services in NORC communities. This experience helped lead her to return to Virginia Commonwealth as a visiting scholar in its Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed) this academic year.
“I’m having a full-circle moment now,” she said.
Ivery is a member of the institute’s Social Justice Transdisciplinary Core, a team of VCU faculty, visiting fellows and scholars from several disciplines tasked with making significant and meaningful changes in equality around food security, education, well-being and economic status in Richmond, where a quarter of its residents live in poverty.*
“Poverty has a ripple effect on health care and education systems. My team is looking at the structural barriers that contribute to people living in poverty through the lenses of social work, education and policy,” she said. “We are also looking at it from an intergenerational perspective, across the lifespan, from childhood to late adulthood.
“When people think of poverty and education, they tend to focus on education. Our approach looks into what happens to those affected by poverty at the end of their lifespan. How can we work with them to develop strategies, rather than just talk about it over and over?”
Her team has held meetings with agencies and their community partners. “We ask them to describe their situations and are hearing their different perspectives on inequality and poverty, and what needs to be done,” she said.
Ultimately, Ivery’s Social Justice Transdisciplinary Core is expected to develop impactful community-based research and scholarship on addressing the structural barriers that effect Richmond residents’ educational attainment, economic advancement and family well-being.*
“We will look at what types of partnerships make sense in moving forward strategically and develop a blueprint for social justice that addresses operations and identifies partnerships. Our report will go to the provost’s office, and we’ll align partnerships with the School of Social work to support its mission.”
Ivery looks forward to continuing this work when she returns to Atlanta in the fall.
“The role of universities is to be full and true partners with their communities,” she said. “We must really, truly engage with communities so those individuals can have their voices heard. The desire for this action is there, in the community.”
“I see so many parallels between Richmond and Atlanta, particularly around gentrification and its concerns. Where is our affordable housing? Where do people want to live?” she said.
“The community folks are asking, ‘what about us?’ They cannot be ignored. You can’t ignore history, the historical happenings like segregation and gentrification and economic equality that have led to where we are today.”
*Photo and iCubed content provided by VCU University Relations.