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Achieving Social Justice: Meet The New Dean of the UH Graduate College of Social Work

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By Januari Leo

Social workers aim to improve the well-being of the communities they serve by acting as advocates in private practice, schools, hospitals and clinics, mental-health facilities, and community organizations. College students who are trained in the art of mediation, conflict resolution, policy analysis, leadership, and human behavior receive the foundation for a lifetime of work. Since 1967, the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) has produced outstanding researchers and practitioners such as Tony Carroll, Sandra Lopez, and Dr. Brené Brown.

For the first time in 15 years, the GCSW has a new dean in Dr. Alan Dettlaff. Originally from Chicago, Dettlaff first arrived in Texas as an undergraduate. “I was an aimless junior-college student, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do just yet,” he says. “I knew I wanted to work with children and families in some capacity. I had dropped out of two universities by then, and my mom had a job opportunity, so I moved with her to Fort Worth.”

After being accepted at Texas Christian University (TCU) as an education major, Dettlaff had a life-changing experience. “I discovered social work through a news story about Child Protective Services,” Dettlaff says. “A reporter went on a ride along with a case worker, and [the resulting article that I read] was really a light-bulb moment. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Drawing on his own experience as a child, Dettlaff pursued a career in child and family welfare. “My parents divorced when I was 10, and my sister and I lived with my grandparents and father,” he says. “My mom told me that it was better to live with my dad [since] he was more financially stable. But all I knew was that I wanted to be with my mom. I always remembered that [as an adult] when I was doing Child Protective Services (CPS) work. I felt passionately about protecting children that needed to be protected, but also working really hard to keep children with their families.”

After both interning and working at CPS for a number of years, Dettlaff was given the opportunity to teach a child-welfare class at TCU. He discovered a love for teaching, and was offered a faculty position as the director of field education, where he remained for five years. Wanting to pursue his passion from a more research-based perspective, Dettlaff earned a PhD from the University of Texas at Arlington, and then went on to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.

Dettlaff saw becoming dean of a graduate social-work program as one of his long-term goals. “What was always exciting to me about social-work education was the opportunity to make a difference on issues of social, racial, and economic justice. I knew that I wanted the opportunity to be responsible for an entire school and develop a vision in terms of the type of education we’re going to provide our students—and the type of graduates our school is going to produce.”

When former GCSW dean Ira Colby announced his retirement, he approached Dettlaff about the opportunity. “Ira has always been a big supporter of my career,” he says. “When he was president of the Council on Social Work Education, he appointed me to chair a committee called the Commission on Educational Policy, which develops all of the competencies that social-work programs have to demonstrate. That was a big opportunity for me, because over the past five years, I’ve been responsible for developing or revising the policies that all graduate colleges of social work have to demonstrate in order for their students to graduate.”

Dettlaff is joined in Houston by his partner of 16 years (and his husband of three years), Vincent Pryor. They met at TCU when Dettlaff was talking to a social-work class about organizing the school’s first LGBT student group, the TCU Triangle. Pryor was a football player and a social-work student sitting in the back of the class with some other football players. “I remember that they were snickering about me being gay,” Dettlaff says. “After the class, he came up to me and wanted to talk about a paper he was writing because he had a family member who was gay. I was very suspicious and thought it was a ploy to get me somewhere so the football players could beat me up. But I gave him my number, and he called me later that night and told me he was gay.” Pryor attended the secretive Triangle meetings as a friend of Dettlaff’s—in spite of the fear that he would be discovered. “We didn’t advertise the location of the meetings because we were afraid that people would come and disrupt them,” Dettlaff says. “It was difficult—we would put up flyers and people would tear them down. This was over 20 years ago; it was a different time. Coming to the groups was helpful for Vince. He didn’t have other gay friends.”

After graduation, the two went their separate ways, but reconnected several years later at JR’s bar in Dallas—this time romantically. When it came time to propose, Pryor surprised Dettlaff by popping the question in front of almost 500 people at an Atticus Circle fundraising gala in Austin. “Vince was speaking about being an out college athlete, and promoting inclusion in sports,” Dettlaff says. “He hatched a plan with the executive director to propose to me during his speech. It was amazing.” They were married in New York in 2013, and spent their honeymoon at President Obama’s second inauguration.

Dean Dettlaff has big plans for the future of UH’s social-work college and its students. “Our mission is to educate students to prepare them to achieve social, racial, and economic justice,” he explains. “I’ve seen a lot of other schools that want to promote or advance social justice, but here at the GCSW, we want to achieve it. That’s a subtle semantic difference, but it means a lot. My bigger vision is for social justice to be a reality, not just an aspiration. I want to prepare our students to go out in the world and do the work that will get us to that place. It can be a reality.”

Januari Leo is the director of public affairs for Legacy Community Health’s Montrose Clinic.

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