Interview with Janelle K. Bryan, MSW, PhD - Clinical Assistant Professor for the Online Master of Social Work Program at Sacred Heart University

About Janelle K. Bryan, MSW, PhD: Janelle K. Bryan is a Clinical Assistant Professor for Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Social Work program. In this role, she teaches numerous courses in the MSW program, including the first course students take in human diversity and social justice, and their core research courses. Prior to her position at SHU, Dr. Bryan taught courses in social work research, macro social work theory, systems of human oppression, and community organization as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, Western Connecticut State University, and Simmons University.

Dr. Bryan has over a decade of experience in social work administration, program leadership and assessment, and community health. She has also conducted extensive research at the intersection of health care access, social justice and anti-oppression practices, and gender-based violence and discrimination. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in African-American Studies from Wesleyan University and both her Masters and Ph.D. in Social Work from the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background, and how you first became interested in community health leadership, organizational and community practice, and political social work, as well as research in gender-based violence, healthcare access, and anti-oppression practice?

[Janelle K. Bryan, PhD] I immigrated permanently to the United States when I was 15, and for college I enrolled at Wesleyan University. All I knew when I graduated from college was that I wanted to help people. One of my professional contacts at the time was a psychiatrist who worked at a community health center. He told me that the Executive Director at this community health center needed an executive assistant. That was my first job out of college–as an Executive Assistant at Community Health Services, Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut, and I was there for almost 10 years.

It was there that I met the director of our Ryan White program, who was a social worker. I was saying to her one day, “I just want to help people, but I’m not really sure what I want to do.” And she said, “Well, what about social work?” And I said, “I don’t want to take away people’s kids.” That was my conception of what social work was at the time, and she said, “Social work is so much more. You should really look into the program at University of Connecticut.” UConn was one of the only schools in the country to offer different methods of social work: Community Organizing and Policy Practice; Casework, Groupwork and Administration. When I read the description of the Administration concentration, it just jumped off the page at me. I had a lightbulb moment where I realized, “This is what I’m already doing, and this is what I can turn into my career.” I was already the liaison between the CEO at Community Health Services, the board of directors, and the community, and as a result I was already in-training, doing a lot of tasks around social work administration.

A lot of social service agencies are in fact headed by people with MPHs or MBAs. And while MPH and MBA grads offer a lot of assets in terms of organizational structure and leadership, budgeting and finance for programming, etc., I also felt it was immensely important for the upper tier of leadership in social work to in fact have that social work orientation, and to be people focused. To apply my professional experience in partnership/liaison building, administration, and managing the logistics of programs to helping people through a discipline devoted to client advocacy sounded like exactly the type of career I wanted to pursue. I completed my MSW and went on to become the Community Relations and Grants Development Manager at Community Health Services. In this role I wrote and monitored grants, developed and evaluated ongoing programs, and oversaw community collaborations. I also helped patients by advocating for health policies that benefited and protected at-risk communities.

Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Social Work from the University of Connecticut even as I also teach classes at SHU. Community health is so well aligned with social work for me that I ultimately focused my dissertation on that intersection of social work principles and practices in health care contexts. The history of social work and public health are aligned in that they developed along the same trajectory and a lot of components of public health, particularly community health, environmental health, etc. come from social work. In their early years, you could barely tease them apart. As a result, there was this real appreciation from the public health sphere for what social workers bring to the table in terms of being able to address the social side of illness and the social side of medicine. This piece, I believe, has been somewhat lost along the way, and that was another motivation for my choice in dissertation topic.

I was very interested in health care access because that’s my background, and I wanted to do my research here in Barbados, because that’s where I’m from. I left at such a young age that I wanted to return as an adult and apply my knowledge and skills to investigating the social work and public health challenges people face in Barbados. I received an amazing foundation in terms of my education in Barbados, and I wanted to come back and be able to give back. My mixed-method study focused on the healthcare sector’s response to domestic violence against women (specifically the primary care system), and it was the first of its kind in the region. There had been one study assessing hospital healthcare worker attitudes towards domestic violence, that was done in Guyana. While Guyana is culturally very similar to Barbados and both are considered part of the West Indies, Guyana is landlocked in South America, and has generally lower social indicators. Barbados is a small island state, and seen as somewhat of a regional leader, having all of these amazing kinds of first-world indicators. But there had never been an assessment of the factors impacting frontline primary care practitioners’ domestic violence screening practices in Barbados.

The United Nations Development Program did a study that looked at gender-based violence in the primary care system here. Their study was qualitative and only included administrators. My thought was, “What about the frontline folks? They are the ones who are on the ground and who see patients.” So I conducted my study with them. I looked at the attitudes, beliefs, past screening behavior and future screening intention of doctors, nurses, and dentists and found some really interesting things. The model I used was the integrated behavioral model, which was actually able to explain 30% of why health care professionals do or do not screen. For social science research, that’s quite significant, as it is usually within the 10-20 percent range. I also found some really fascinating data about the practitioners here. They were so open to the study from the start, and they thought it was really important. They were also very interested in the outcomes, and how these outcomes were relevant to improving their practice.

The major finding of the study was that practitioners who had experienced physical violence themselves were most likely to intend to screen. Practitioners who had experienced physical abuse–women in particular–were more likely to intend to screen and were more likely to be sensitive and empathetic in broaching the subject of abuse with their patients. I asked these practitioners about how their experiences with violence affected their practice and they told me that it heightened their awareness to the fact that violence is often hidden. It also motivated them to uphold a model of care that focuses on education counseling, but which also values these women’s experiences in terms of whether or not they’re actually able to leave the relationship. Barbados is a very small society, and from the North American perspective, the ideal is, “You should leave.” But oftentimes women either can’t leave or don’t want to leave, but rather, just want the violence to stop. And so that’s also another form of agency: coping and surviving within the context of those relationships.

Another thing that came of my study was how practitioners emphasized the importance of respecting these women’s decisions, and of listening with empathy. The doctors and nurses I spoke with often said, “If I can’t do anything but listen to them, that’s something that I can offer.” That is very much a therapeutic approach, as opposed to a medical model where practitioners feel the need to fix things. Another very interesting insight was that older men were more likely to screen their female patients for violence. Initially this result was very surprising to me from a feminist theory perspective. But when we looked at the demographics, we also found that older men were more likely to be in private practice. Being in private practice allowed them the autonomy and the time to be able to tackle sensitive issues like whether or not a patient had been abused.

It was a fascinating study and allowed me to come up with some actionable recommendations for health care settings that could be put in place at little to no cost. Social work research is not your average social science research where you’re building theory; social work research really focuses on outcomes: what can we do with and for our clients and those whom we’re serving. One of the central implications of my dissertation was the importance of empowering the folks whom we do serve and the importance of involving them in policy, practice, and interventions to help people similar to themselves.

[] May we have an overview of Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Social Work program? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students for a wide variety of social work roles? May we have more information on the specializations in Direct Clinical Practice and Direct Community Practice, and how they prepare students for advanced roles in clinical as well as mezzo and macro-level social work?

[Janelle K. Bryan, PhD] One of the things that I am really excited about and proud of in terms of Sacred Heart University’s School of Social Work is the commitment to anti-racist practice and anti-oppression practice–not just glossing over to say we’re committed to social justice because that doesn’t really get very specific. Social work is about more than just helping people. It also means taking an active stand. First of all, recognizing what’s racism, what’s sexism, what’s homophobia, what are these systems of oppression and how do they differ from discrimination? I think that sometimes we conflate some of these words and terms. And I think that is partly why even the national discourse can be so challenging because when you tell somebody, “You’re part of a racist system,” they take that as a personal attack that they individually are racist and they think about it in these superlative terms of them being in the KKK, or calling people racist slurs. But we really take a step back and look at it through a systemic lens.

This is the reason why in our MSW program at SHU, the first class students take is SW 524, Human Diversity and Social Justice. We think it’s very important that this course be the absolute first class that students have because it undergirds and cross cuts every single aspect of practice. In this course students learn of the way that the United States and many Western countries have been structured in terms of being based in white supremacy and patriarchy. The alienation and marginalization of women, people of color, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities–understanding what that means in terms of practice is extremely important because marginalized populations are the people we primarily serve in social work. We don’t want to replicate and exacerbate the harm that these folks are experiencing within the larger society in our practice. So Human Diversity and Social Justice is very much a self-reflective course.

Students also learn this common terminology and how these principles and concepts of human diversity and social justice apply to clinical situations and accounting for the diversity of experiences amongst our patient populations. The way I explain this to students is by having them think about it in professional practice terms: for example, each of us has an idea of what it means to be depressed, to be anxious, to be bipolar, etc. But when you are in a room with a client, you don’t use your personal definition–you use the empirically based, scientifically developed definition. When we look at society and think about issues of oppression, we’re looking not just at what we think racism is, but also, what does the literature say? What does our established knowledge base say about what racism is? And when we think about systems of oppression, it is prejudice plus power, and with that understanding students explore the distinctions between racism, bigotry, and discrimination.

We also recently designed a book-end course that students will take near the end of their time in the program–SW 624, which is an Applied Anti-Racism course that builds on the content from 524, and wherein we have students complete an applied project in anti-racism work and social justice. This project involves designing and implementing an intervention, which I think is really powerful. The signature of social work pedagogy is being hands-on in the field, putting principles and concepts into practice. It’s having the feedback in terms of supervision with your field instructor during your practicum, as well as support and input from your field liaison and your professors at SHU. Our goal is to give students comprehensive and constant support and feedback as they are learning so that they can reflect, incorporate feedback, and improve their practice.

In addition to teaching the Human Diversity and Social Justice course, I also teach the Intro to Research class, which undergirds this notion of empirically based, evidence-based practice. Again, as a practitioner it’s not about what you think and feel, though certainly there is a place for what we call “practice wisdom,” which is the knowledge and intuition that you gain over the course of being in service to others. But we also want to make sure that there is a balance in terms of recognizing that knowledge is always changing. Every client that you see, even if they have the exact same traits as the last person that you saw, their experience is different. Their experience is different and they are the expert in terms of what they’ve experienced, and what they know they need. So a central question in social work is, “How do we as clinicians and social workers (because not all social workers are clinicians) partner with clients to produce the best outcomes for them in their context?”

I also teach the research practicum where students actually practice conducting research that translates immediately into practice, such as doing needs assessments and program evaluations. Students also conduct a single subject design on themselves, where they establish a goal, whether it is to drink more water, stop smoking, or exercise more, and use this single subject intervention to better understand what it takes to design effective interventions for clients. What it does is it puts them in the position of not just researcher, but client. They begin to understand that it’s not as simple as, “Here are some instructions. Follow them, and you will get better, and you will do better.”

Students begin to understand that in the real world there are barriers to contend with. The kids get sick, the dog has something that needs attending to, there is a natural disaster, God forbid, there are pandemics, and so all of these factors at the individual and at the macro level are coexisting and have the potential to interrupt an otherwise “perfect” intervention plan. In this way, the single subject design students complete builds their empathy as practitioners and encourages them to be more realistic in terms of their expectations and also to be flexible and fluid in terms of their recommendations. If an intervention needs to be modified in some way, practitioners need to be dynamic and client-centered in those modifications, and to not be rigid. We as social workers need to continually work with clients and help them to see victories, even if that victory doesn’t necessarily look like what we may have initially envisioned. It isn’t about us; it’s about the client.

SHU’s MSW program really focuses on systems of all sizes. And I think that’s one of the really great things about our program–we use an integrated approach, where the difference between the Clinical and Community tracks is literally one class. All of our students get almost exactly the same content, except for their specialization course, and this is because we think it is imperative that clinical social workers know the macro-level contexts in which they work and how to navigate and optimize them, and it is just as imperative for community leadership and policy social workers to understand the clinical side of social work practice.

This goes back to the origins of social work as a discipline. A defining feature of social work is the person-in-environment perspective, the idea that a person is connected to a family, a neighborhood, a community, a town, a state. So when they come into your office, they are a microcosm of everything that is connected to them. Because of that, every factor becomes important. Our program teaches students how to navigate both the micro and the macro arenas, because it is in the nature of social work that social workers, regardless of their specialization, must go beyond the system that they’re working with. So individual, family, organization, community, state, nation–we want to make sure all of our students leave our program with a base set of skills to be able to engage with all of these systems.

To illustrate this point around practice integration, there is a great story from public health that I use in my Human Diversity and Social Justice class: the upstream/downstream story. There is a fishing town with a river running through. One day the fishermen are there and they see someone in the river, calling for help. They rush to help this person and save his life. The next day it happens again, and from there it keeps happening. So the townspeople come together and develop a system where one team is pulling people out of the water, one team is reviving, one team is taking people to the hospital, etc. Until one day, a team member says, “We’re doing a really good job of helping people who fall into the river, but it’s getting to be pretty intense. Has anybody thought about trying to figure out why they’re falling in in the first place?”

So the townspeople go upriver and there’s this beautiful lookout point–people are going up there to take their pictures and some of them end up falling. In response, the town built a fence so that people could still go and do their snapshots, but they are protected from falling into the river. There may still be some people who climb over the fence or who fall in anyways, but now there’s something upstream that is reducing the number of people that are being engaged in this detrimental activity. And this, in turn, enables the people who do fall into the river and end up downstream to get better care, more concentrated treatment, better allocation of resources to genuinely help them. We need both aspects of social work to be able to effectively help people within the contexts of their community. That dual approach is crucial.

[] How do you recommend students get involved in macro-level political advocacy and social change, especially in light of recent social movements and sociopolitical circumstances? For social work students who are interested in both practicing at the micro/mezzo/macro level and engaging in research to further the discipline, how do you suggest they get involved?

[Janelle K. Bryan, PhD] When it comes to practice and research, my principal recommendation is that students follow their passion. Whatever really piques their interest, that should be their practice focus area or topic of research. Of course, determining what areas you are passionate about takes up-front work, which is why at SHU we do have opportunities for students to work with faculty on their research through graduate assistantships. This way, students are able to explore different topics and become more familiar with the on-the-ground, in-the-trenches practice of research.

Even going through my own dissertation process, I went through several topics, and that is a necessary part of the process. When determining a topic to research, you need to think about who the population is that you want to work with, the sensitivity of the topics you want to explore, the likelihood of getting participation, and any and all ethical considerations of conducting your particular research study. But as you are navigating the research process from the beginning, I believe you will find the most fulfillment in following the things that are close to your heart. For me, those things were Barbados, healthcare, women experiencing violence and how to best help them–those things came together for me in my dissertation.

With that said, an important part of social work research is meeting the client where they are, and that means, just as in social work practice, you must be dynamic and flexible when it comes to your research. In my dissertation’s case, the client was the Barbados healthcare sector, and I had to listen to the health care workers there to learn what their most pressing issues were. You cannot go in and define the most pressing issue for them–rather, you need to listen to them define for you what the challenges are that they are grappling with, and from there, ask yourself, “What is the connection in terms of what I’m passionate about and trained in as a social work researcher?” So much attention is focused on the victims and the perpetrators of violence, without enough attention given to the systems that they have to navigate in order to get help. If the systems that are available are not receptive, if they are not supportive, then you may be re-victimizing people while also failing to provide the folks who are perpetrating violence the services that they require. That was a challenge that I wanted to investigate and help solve, and choosing Barbados’ health care system as my focus enabled me to do so.

We all have things that we are passionate about, in both our professional and personal spheres. Perhaps your work is in indirect care with people who have substance abuse issues, but maybe you have a family member who is a cancer survivor who did not get access to the care that they needed because there isn’t universal health care. That is the larger macro issue that you can then become passionate about and engaged in that is outside of and in addition to your paid work. So I really think it comes down to thinking about where you are, and what the change is that you want to see in the world. There is that axiom, “Be the change that you want to see,” and it applies in your research pursuits too. Think about the change that you want to see, and then see how you can participate in that.

[] What role does mentorship play in Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Social Work, and in the social work discipline at large? How can students make the most of mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled in an MSW program, as well as throughout their careers? What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as a faculty mentor at Sacred Heart University?

[Janelle K. Bryan, PhD] Before students enroll, they receive support from our enrollment coordinator who helps them navigate the process of enrolling in their classes. Once students have done that, they are assigned an individual academic advisor who is in touch with students at least three times a semester. We have actually instituted some protocols where we require mandatory meetings or at least check-ins before students can enroll. Just to make sure that they’re enrolling in the right courses, and so that if they have any issues they have a point person who keeps them right on track. Students also have their field liaison, who is the field version of their academic advisor. This person helps them identify and secure their field placement, conducts site visits, and helps students throughout their practicum experience. And then of course, students have their field supervisors at their chosen practicum sites who add another layer of mentorship.

Students’ professors also serve as a source of mentorship. In addition to our asynchronous lectures and discussion boards, many of our faculty host synchronous sessions to help students connect with them and with their peers. We can’t require synchronous meetings because we’re an asynchronous program with students from all over the country, but we offer it as a way to academically and personally support students. For example, in the Human Diversity and Social Justice course, students tackle very heavy concepts–race and racism, privilege, bigotry, systems of oppression, and more. And each student has a different experience of the course content based on their life experiences, whether they have been the targets of discrimination or have enjoyed a high degree of privilege in their personal, academic, and professional lives. And so I host synchronous sessions that are optional for this class so that students can sit down and have a candid discussion where they can process what they have learned, ask questions, share thoughts and feelings, and learn from each other.

One thing that SHU’s MSW program really emphasizes is fostering that community of learning, where instructors like myself are facilitators of learning but we know when to take a backseat and let students learn from each other and drive the discussion.

[] What makes Sacred Heart University’s Master of Social Work unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in social work practice, research, and leadership?

[Janelle K. Bryan, PhD] I think what excites me the most about the program is the support that students receive. SHU has put a lot of work into creating a system for student support and success. I remember when I first visited SHU, because I had a colleague who worked there–just interacting with instructors and students in a lunchtime setting, I was struck by a feeling that I could call this place my academic home. I saw the collegiality, I saw the collaboration, I saw the support. Coming from my own doctoral program, where the students were extremely supportive of each other, where you could go into the doctoral student lounge and ask a question, and your peers would converge to provide feedback, weigh pros and cons, and provide any support that they could, I immediately recognized this culture of collegiality as being a true asset at SHU.

The feeling that someone was there for me was part of what made my time at the University of Connecticut so special, and it was something I discerned and appreciate immensely at SHU. As a faculty member here, I can reach into my phone and call any of my colleagues at almost any reasonable hour if I’m struggling to figure out how to best support a student’s interests, or how to design or redesign a specific course element. There’s this sense of, “Let’s sit down and work this out together” across the board amongst the social work faculty here at SHU. Not only is there great collegiality between instructors, but there is also great leadership at the level of the College of Arts and Sciences. Dean Robin Cautin, PhD has been amazingly supportive of our program, ensuring that we have the resources to make a program that cultivates meaningful connections between instructors and students, and which can offer a truly personalized and empowering approach to social work education.

Thank you, Dr. Bryan, for your excellent insight into Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Social Work program, and for the discussion of your impactful research concerning the intersection of health care access and quality, anti-oppression practices, and social justice!