A lifelong journey leads her home
Joan Blakey graduated from the University of Minnesota more than 25 years ago with an undergraduate degree in social work. Two more degrees and more than two decades later, Blakey now leads the School of Social Work as its director. She is the first African American woman in that role.
Joan Blakey is the new director of the University of Minnesota School of Social Work—the first African American woman in that role.
Blakey graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s (’95) and a master’s (’99) of social work, followed by a PhD in social work from the University of Chicago.
She specializes in child advocacy, diversity, equity and inclusion, and antiracism initiatives.
On becoming the first Black woman to lead the School of Social Work
To be honest, it's bittersweet. The fact that even in 2023 we're still saying “the first” of anything is always amazing to me. And yet we are.
But it's my school. I am proud to have received my bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Minnesota. I’m very proud of that. The fact that I get to now lead a school that helped to make me who I am today is truly an honor.
If my life can serve as an example for someone to say, “She could do it. I can do it, too.” I think that's fantastic.
"If my life can serve as an example for someone to say, 'She could do it. I can do it, too.' I think that's fantastic."
On growing up in Minnesota and going to the U
I grew up with my mom and my two sisters in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. I left home when I was 16 and I was on my own. And I remember a conversation with my then boyfriend’s mom.
We were in her kitchen one day, and she said, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” And I said I don't know. I was tired at that point. I was going to high school and working two jobs so that I could afford an apartment.
And so she asked me, “Do you want to work this hard for the rest of your life?” I shook my head. She said, “Then you need to go to college.” She helped me navigate the whole thing.
On finding her purpose
Since I was little I had wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, and I knew that in order to be a judge I had to be a lawyer first. Fairness has always been a big thing of mine, a fundamental part of who I am.
But I quickly realized that the law was not always about justice. And so then it was like, “Okay, now what?”
At the time I was working as part of a mobile crisis team. The police would call us when there wasn't a crime that had been committed, but the family was in crisis.
We helped to stabilize the situation and give the family some resources. That was my first introduction [to social work], and I thought, “Oh, this is really interesting, being able to work with families and help them to get on the other side of a crisis.”
So I sent away for some materials and I remember getting admissions information from the University of Minnesota … Words like social justice, fighting for people who may not have a voice, and working for marginalized populations stood out to me. I realized that social work brought me back to my dream of fighting for social justice. So I thought, “This is it.” And I have not regretted my education one bit. Social work was the justice that I was seeking.
Her advice for those considering majoring in social work
Social work is a versatile degree. You can do many different things with it. You can work with prison populations. You can work in hospitals. You can work in the schools. You don't ever get bored.
"So [my advice is to] be open. Be curious. Ask for help when you need help. And the path will unfold."
Her advice for young people
My life has unfolded as I took a step. So I think you just start moving in the direction of where you want your life to go, and then life happens.
It has not been easy for me, but the path has unfolded. So [my advice is to] be open. Be curious. Ask for help when you need help. And the path will unfold.
Starting points for change
Join the U of M Diversity Community of Practice
Celebrate Black History Month with programs and events throughout February
- Social Sciences