Sheryl Kubiak wearing blue jewelry and a suit jacket, smiling at the camera

EngageD Q&A

A conversation with …
Sheryl Kubiak,
dean of the Wayne State School of Social Work
The impact of the WSU School of Social Work has resonated throughout Detroit for decades. From hands-on work with senior citizens and prison outreach programs to a network that includes the likes of business titan William F. Pickard and the late Detroit City Council icon Maryann Mahaffey, the School of Social Work has established a legacy that extends from the city’s streets to its C-suites.

Now, Sheryl Kubiak, who took over as the school’s dean in 2018, has plans to build on that legacy even further. Kubiak, who established the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice — a programmatic effort to facilitate conversation and decision-making in areas such as mental health, substance use disorders and criminal justice — has leaned with full force into the school’s long-standing social justice mission, tackling health disparities, challenging the school-to-prison pipeline, fostering healthy families in disadvantaged communities and confronting many other hurdles facing the city’s underserved populations. Recently, Kubiak shared some thoughts about her mission, goals and most recent triumphs.

What brought you to Wayne State?

I was born in Detroit and have lived and/or worked in the city off and on since — including a stint with Maryann Mahaffey when she was on the Detroit City Council. Wayne State was my first job post Ph.D., and the only place I applied as an assistant professor. I was at WSU from 2002 to 2006, and left in search of some additional research opportunities. My goal was always to come back — this is home!

What are your key priorities for the School of Social Work, and how do you feel these impact the work the university does in Detroit?

My top priority for the School of Social Work is that we live our values and ethics through our community-engaged work. We model what social work means — and what social workers do — through our own practice in community-focused research and teaching.

WSU sits in the heart of the City of Detroit. As such, we are part of the fabric of the community. Like all good neighbors, we are concerned about those around us and believe that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” That collective spirit of the university’s faculty, staff and students is the real heart of Wayne State in general, and social work more specifically. This is what makes WSU one of the best places in the country to get a degree in social work.

What are some examples of work that the School of Social Work does in the community that people may not know much about?

School of Social Work faculty and staff are busy doing the work and often don’t take the time to tell their stories. There are so many things that we are involved in:

  • Suicide prevention/intervention with youth, families and indigenous communities
  • Intervention around the school-to-prison pipeline
  • Environmental justice (safe water and equitable distribution of natural resources)
  • Prevention/intervention of opioid use disorders in all types of places, from jails to schools to communities
  • Initiatives promoting fatherhood and protecting their parenting
  • Facilitating coalitions and work groups within Wayne County to change juvenile and adult criminal processing to prevent greater number of individuals from entering — or going further into — the legal system
  • Supporting older Detroiters with the Party Line to ensure their voices are heard in research and to reduce social isolation and the impact of environmental change
  • Interdisciplinary clinics supporting Detroiters with diabetes, older adults and those experiencing homelessness
  • Holistic Defense training in partnership with the Law School
Exterior of the Wayne State University School of Social Work
Dean Kubiak has helped transform the School of Social Work into a vibrant hub of social justice work and interdisciplinary collaboration.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?

Inside the School of Social Work and the university, the challenges are, of course, resources. We have a large program of nearly 1,000 students between our B.S.W., M.S.W. and Ph.D. programs, with a relatively small full-time faculty. We are a lean operation that depends on the vitality of our committed faculty, staff and students!

Outside the university, there are social issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the political landscape in the country — of course, this includes the health disparities illuminated by COVID-19, but also the racial inequity within the criminal/legal system. Social workers are, and will be, in high demand; however, as social workers, we also have to reckon with our own history and practice of sometimes being unaware of our own complicity in upholding oppressive systems.

Who have been among your biggest allies outside of Wayne State?

There are so many wonderful allies in these change efforts. Working on the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration last year, and continuing this year, I worked closely with the lieutenant governor (Garlin Gilchrist II), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack. They were tremendous leaders who listen and act! This year, the task force is focused on changes related to the diversion/deflection of individuals with behavioral health issues, and I’m so excited about that. The Governor’s Mental Health Diversion Council and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have also been very supportive and instrumental to this diversion/deflection work statewide.

Within Wayne County, Chief Judge Timothy M. Kenny from 3rd Circuit Court and Judge Freddie G. Burton Jr., chief probate, have been leading efforts for county-wide change in diversion/deflection efforts. They are interested in creating systemic change and have been leading the charge. Senator Stephanie Chang is writing legislation that would create more social work presence for first response to crisis.

The foundation community has been fully behind these change efforts at the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice: Malanca Clark, Hudson-Webber Foundation; Andrea Cole, Ethel and James Flinn Foundation; Lynda Zeller, Michigan Health Endowment Fund; Heidi A. Alcock, McGregor Fund; and Sarah Wedepohl and Surabhi Pandit from Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. It is nice to feel their support and appreciation of our efforts.

Finally, our School of Social Work Board of Visitors, led by Alice Thompson and Shirley Gray, has been such a friend and mentor to me. They are the biggest cheerleaders for the school! With their support and that of our many donors and community partners, such as William F. Pickard, we are able to provide necessary support to our students working to empower social change in Detroit.

What drove the creation of the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice?

My first career as a psychiatric nurse in institutional settings really collided with my early experience as an M.S.W. in a prison reentry program for women. Although these women had been labeled “criminal,” I saw lives filled with trauma and resilience. People living in very difficult circumstances are often penalized and sanctioned as they struggle for basic needs and survival. I believe that with a stronger social fabric and promotion of physical and mental health, we can greatly minimize criminal/legal sanctions. The Center for Behavioral Health and Justice was born out of a desire to divert and deflect as many people as possible from a criminal/legal system that will likely exacerbate issues and do little to strengthen individuals or communities.

The center focuses its work on county-level community change. We bring relevant stakeholders to the table — jail, community mental health, substance abuse, law enforcement, housing, etc. — to “map” their system to find ways people can work together to maximize resources and divert people from custody. This is a win-win for everyone around the table; however, most counties or communities are stretched for funding and resources to do this on their own. The Center for Behavioral Health and Justice provides the facilitation, data gathering, strategic planning, intervention planning/implementation and general capacity building.

Social workers are trained to work in and across many organizations and systems, but there were few social workers at this intersection between behavioral health and the criminal/legal system — and few schools of social work that train people in interventions across the criminal/legal continuum. The Center for Behavioral Health and Justice provides that incubator for training and experiential learning while the School of Social Work provides coursework, as well as the Law School program in Holistic Defense.

What have been some of its biggest accomplishments?

The team of people — both at the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice and the School of Social Work — is fantastic. Building that team makes all of this possible; without them, none of this work could happen! The School of Social Work has always been an outstanding program that has graduated over 15,000 — but now we have this new respected niche area that has a strong reputation in Michigan and increasing recognition across the country.

The Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, led by Director Brad Ray, has worked to gather evidence that diversion works in keeping people out of jail. Getting them into services has been important to improving current programs, creating new initiatives and providing information that informs policy formation.

How has the rising tide of social justice movements affected your vision for the school, its mission, or specific programs and projects?

The rising tide of social justice movements supports the direction we were going. In my mind, social work equals social justice. It is a moment whose time has come. We are overdue for this ongoing social justice success!

What’s next for the School of Social Work?

We have wonderful faculty who are fortifying our reputation for community-engaged work — and that reputation and energy will intensify with the 12 new faculty members we’ve added in the past three years. Our student groups are being revitalized. Realizing our activist history, they will increase their engagement in political and social issues affecting our community. The School of Social Work is on the move!