Black History Month: Larry Davis, Transforming Social Work for a New World

Issue Date: 
February 20, 2012
Dean Davis and his sons recently attended Pitt Rep’s The Gammage Project at Pitt’s Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial. From left are Amani, 17; Naeem, 16; the dean; and Keanu, 14.Dean Davis and his sons recently attended Pitt Rep’s The Gammage Project at Pitt’s Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial. From left are Amani, 17; Naeem, 16; the dean; and Keanu, 14.

Larry Davis, the University’s Donald M. Henderson Professor and dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work, is a seasoned world traveler. By age 26, he had climbed Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro and been to every country in Western Europe.

And while moving to Pittsburgh in 2001 to accept his current position at Pitt may have seemed tame at the time, the past decade has offered its own kind of adventures.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had that has afforded me the opportunity to use all of my skills,” says Davis, whose job might find him in a foundation president’s office one day and a bustling food bank the next. “I get to use my creativity and my social skills, and I get to meet different kinds of people. I like negotiating the world and coming up with new ideas.”

Davis has worked diligently to refashion the School of Social Work’s doctoral program for the 21st century, continually updating the curriculum so that newly minted PhD graduates gain the latest in top-notch teaching and research methodology skills. He downsized the program from 14 to 6 students a year, added a doctoral student lecture series, and received administrative support to fully fund doctoral students for all four years of their education, making it one of the best-funded social work programs in the United States.

Davis also updated the Master of Social Work degree program, requiring students to go into the region’s neighborhoods earlier to fulfill practicum requirements. He has hired half of the school’s 30 current faculty, helped to establish three endowed chairs, supported the creation of a minor in social work, and begun recruitment into the School of Social Work’s Browne Leadership Program, a cross-disciplinary initiative created in 2011 with a financial gift from James J. Browne (SOC WK ‘73G) and his wife, Noel (SOC WK ‘74). The program selects as its participants Pitt undergraduates in nonsocial work majors, who are given the opportunity to attend monthly symposia and to do a summer service project. The goal is for students to implement the values and ethics of social work training into their own fields. An art history major, for example, could experience the rewards of spearheading a community mural project. Assisting Sharpsburg residents with waterways issues might be a good fit for an engineering student. The idea is to encourage all students to think more humanely and holistically, no matter their chosen career path.

In 2002, Davis founded Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP), which, through a popular spring and fall lecture series, brings in scholars from across the United States to visit with Pitt grad students and then address the community on topical issues ranging from racial housing segregation to obesity in Black communities.

Davis also has placed more of an emphasis on scholarly work. When he arrived at Pitt, the school ranked 40th in the number of published articles per year; now it ranks fourth.

“The whole intellectual climate of the school has changed,” says Davis, who has immersed himself in his leadership of the school, which is building on its legacy of valuing activists and organizers as well as scholars and thinkers.

Davis earned the Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in social work, a master’s degree in psychology, and a Ph.D. in both social work and psychology from the University of Michigan. In 1977, he was the first Black person to graduate from this joint-degree program.

In 2009, Davis created the groundbreaking Journal on Race and Social Problems. A multidisciplinary periodical, it is designed to unite scholars who may previously have been divided by fields of study. In addition, Davis is coeditor-in-chief of the 20th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work (NASW Press/Oxford University Press, 2008); coauthor of Measuring Race and Ethnicity (Springer, 2011) and Race, Gender, and Class: Guidelines for Practice With Individuals, Families, and Groups (Prentice Hall, 1989); and author of Black and Single: Finding and Choosing a Partner Who Is Right for You (Agate, 3rd edition, 2004).

Alberto Godenzi, professor and dean in Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work, calls Davis a “primus inter pares [first among equals] among social work deans.”

“He is not only revered for his visionary leadership, scholarly record, and outreach to communities,” says Godenzi, “but he is also the powerful voice that reminds us that education and social justice are two sides of the same coin.”

Davis also finds his deep community connections a satisfying part of his profession. Unlike his previous home base of Washington University, Pitt is thriving in an urban center and helps find solutions to urban issues.

“We can have an impact,” says Davis, referring to Pitt social work professor John Wallace’s Homewood Children’s Village, an initiative to improve the academic outcomes and well-being of children. Or Pitt social work professor Hide Yamatani’s work to help released prisoners make the jail-cell-to-neighborhood adjustment.

“I like to say that social work is one of the few professions in which the elevator goes all the way to the ground,” says Davis. “We can go into a community and make things happen.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Police Chief Nate Harper, Public School Superintendent Linda Lane, and Urban League chapter president Esther Bush are just a few of the community leaders who know Davis and also know the quality of social workers and community organizers his school is producing.

In his rare spare time, Davis enjoys attending cultural events and traveling with his sons Amani, 17; Naeem, 16; and Keanu, 14. Or he turns his attention to a book he is writing with the working title If We Were Slaves, Why Are They Angry At Us? It’s not unusual for him to rise early on a Saturday morning, don casual clothes, grab a breakfast-to-go on his way to Oakland from his Highland Park home, and spend the morning hunkered down in his Cathedral of Learning office developing what he calls “a personal history of race and social science.”  It’s a book written for the layperson with Davis’ ideas of  “how race works like it does in this country.”

Davis has enjoyed exploring other countries and cultures in order to learn more about people, he says. As a VISTA volunteer in New York City from 1969 to 1972, Davis ran a community center for teens, organized block parties, and produced plays against a backdrop of wide-ranging ethnic diversity and urban poverty. “It was the time of my life when I grew the most, in both mind and spirit,” he recalls.

As for the school’s future, he’s working on integrating a greater health focus into the school so that social work graduates will have a solid background in medicine, pharmacy, or public health—something that few social work schools offer. While he says he has received the most attention for creating CRSP and organizing a nationally recognized Race in America conference held on campus in June 2010, he feels it is his refashioning of the school’s programs for the new century that is his greatest accomplishment in his first decade as dean.

“Two of the best decisions of my life,” remarks Davis, “were working as a VISTA volunteer as a young man

. . . and coming here to Pitt.”