by Judson Mead
After working in the criminal justice system, working with survivors of human trafficking, with refugees and people seeking asylum, and as a women’s clinic escort, Whitney Marris has seen a lot of trauma caused by macro systems.
She looks through the eyes of those whom fortune has left at the bottom and sees a society that, in her words, “systematically imposes gross injustice and trauma.”
For Whitney, that’s a call to action. “The status quo has to be disrupted,” she says—disrupted to advance human rights and social justice.
Despite coming from a family of lawyers, what she experienced in the criminal justice system, as a clerk for judges and an aide to defense counsel in trials, never felt like the right fit. She was ambitious to try to right wrongs on a larger than individual scale.
Then her mother died suddenly. Whitney sought out a grief support group and encountered social work practice for the first time. She liked the comfort she found. That introduction eventually led her to study for an MSW.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., and a graduate of SUNY Geneseo, Whitney had settled in Washington, D.C., by the time she started looking at MSW study. She was admitted to programs in Washington, which she could have finished in two years, but chose the UB School of Social Work (UBSSW) online degree program, which requires three years to complete, because of UB’s trauma-informed, human rights-focused curriculum.
“Other schools had courses that dealt with trauma, but UB weaves it into everything,” she says. “The school walks the walk.”
Whitney tackled online study determined to overcome the distance inherent in distance learning. “Online can be isolative,” she says.
She found support and solidarity within a group her proactive peers created for fellow online students in lieu of an official channel to authentically connect outside of the virtual classroom setting. She credits school administration with listening to online students and has worked with administrators to start an online mentoring system.
She is a member of the executive committee of Rho Kappa, the School of Social Work's chapter of the Phi Alpha National Social Work Honor Society.
And, in a further tie to the campus, Whitney is completing her studies with a placement in the school’s Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC), working with Sue Green, a clinical professor and one of ITTIC’s Directors. She expects to work on developing kits for community organizations to help them understand trauma as a community health crisis. She might also lobby on Capitol Hill, which she’s well located to do.
Her first placement was a micro-level experience with Community Connections, the largest not-for-profit mental health agency in Washington, D.C. She worked in the Southeast D.C. offices where the organization provides counseling and connects clients to other services.
Even though she intends to work on a macro level, she appreciates what she learned first-hand from the micro-level experience.
Whitney joined the UBSSW delegation to Student Advocacy Day in Washington in March 2019, and that summer attended a three-day political boot camp sponsored by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy with two other UB MSW candidates (read more about this in our Mosaics magazine).
More than the mechanics of political campaigning—Whitney already had experience stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors and making phone calls for candidates—she says the boot camp was invigorating because she was surrounded with social work students with similar ambitions to better the world and because she left feeling that she fit in, that “this is my place.”
Reflecting on the experience in a follow-up blog post for the school, Whitney listed first among the lessons she’d learned there, “Social work is powerful. You are powerful. Use that power to elicit social change.”
Right now, Whitney’s dream job would be with the United Nations Human Rights Council. But wherever she goes after she graduates in August 2020, it will be to work for all our good.