By Jana Eisenberg
MSW student Gloria James holds many additional roles in her life: she’s a mother to a six-year-old boy, caretaker for her younger sister, part-time case manager for the Buffalo Public Schools’ adult education department, part-time cosmetologist, founder and president of the school’s chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers (UBABSW), and an advocate for racial and social equity issues.
As James, 36, earned a BSW at Buffalo State College (2011), she came to recognize her path. “While at Erie Community College, and after transferring to Buff State to complete my undergraduate work, I was on a ‘self-journey,’” said James. “As I started understanding myself better, social work became the natural progression.”
The progression led her to pursue an MSW, and the choice to come to UB was clear. “Because I am a Buffalo resident, I can go to UB, which is a public university; it made no sense to pay private college prices,” she said. “Several of my Buff State professors also recommended UB; the program here aligns well with theirs.”
She started in the late summer, 2019. “My first semester was hard, but I learned so much, especially from Prof. Noelle St. Vil, in her ‘Theory of Human Behavior and Development’ course,” she said. “I also connected with other students at orientation and we continue to support each other. Here, I have a purpose, versus in undergrad, where it was more just ‘going to school.’”
She gained valuable experience through an internship with the school’s annual Challenge 2 Change youth program, also finding the opportunity to apply learning from her coursework. “Throughout the internship, we conducted focus groups on racism and oppression with Amherst High School students,” she said. “At the ending summit, we (MSW students) facilitated the adults—school administrators and leaders—who participated. It could have been intimidating, but I’d had had so much practice with intergroup dialogue that I was confident.
“As facilitator, I posed a question, and then allowed the group to bring light to it,” James added. “An ‘aha’ moment, was applying an idea from my Interventions course: I leaned into the silence, and let the group come together around the question.”
She has found a strong connection with Prof. Annahita Ball, who is now her advisor. “Prof. Ball has been very responsive,” said James. “And when I had some challenges, the Student Services office was supportive; I worked through my issues with classmates as well as accessed resources suggested by school staff.”
As part of her determination to work towards a more racially equitable society, James investigated joining the Association for Black Social Workers (ABSW) Buffalo chapter; she eventually decided to form a new chapter at UB. “Starting UBABSW was a way to push forward, especially in the academic environment, considering the disparities between students who are Black, white and other ethnicities. Neither Buff State or UB had a chapter. I felt like we were behind,” she said.
She finishes her MSW in 2022 and intends to stay with the Board of Education, partially because of the pension plan. She is also considering her longer-term future. “I’m doing micro work now. My upcoming MSW internship will be at the Coalition for Economic Justice, which is my passion—that is more macro. I love my job, and also want to do bigger-picture advocacy. Micro changes can’t happen without macro changes. They must coincide.”
Because of her many responsibilities, James is acutely aware of the need for balance in her life, making sure she has time to effectively parent, work, go to school and, of course, find ways to provide herself with care.
“I use my ‘village,’ including family, daycare, and resources that UB provides. I always have my computer with me; when my son is in his karate class, I do schoolwork,” she said. “I manage my thoughts and organize my day while driving peacefully in silence. I get massages. And I give back to myself in small moments, like sitting comfortably, looking at the beautiful sky.”
Her aims for herself, her family, and her work seem to mesh, with the themes of empowerment, awareness, and education. “My son is a Black boy. I don’t want him harmed and I also want to provide him with opportunities,” she said. “I try to create an environment where he looks at white people as equals, not as power figures. That’s hard.”
Advocating for financial literacy is a goal she’s set for the UBABSW chapter. “Black families need to have more conversations about these things. But we have so many other struggles,” she said. “As a homeowner now, I’m building generational wealth for my son and younger sister. By the time my son is 18, he will be able to consider buying a home, building wealth. I am here to make sure he has that experience.”