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Summer 1998
Social Evolution

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Far more dramatic was what I refer to as the Mother of All Encounter Groups, a tragicomic effort by Dr. Alex Norman D.S.W. 74 to bring together members of the Los Angeles Police Department and local black militants, with our faculty in tow to provide insight and direction. True to the hard-nosed stance of then-chief William Parker, who had branded rioters in 1965 as "monkeys in a zoo," the LAPD participants arrived at the Santa Barbara hotel where the encounter was to take place in full uniform and heavily armed. The black activists took one look, headed out the door and returned some hours later with their own weapons. I was the uneasy and unarmed assistant professor who addressed the assembled firepower. I can't remember what I said, other than I wanted to go home as soon as possible. The LAPD abandoned any further encounter groups shortly thereafter.

Changes in our curriculum and faculty reflected the needs and tenor of the times; we added courses in racism, group conflict and cross-cultural practice and increased the number of women and people of color on the faculty. But it was not enough. At one faculty meeting, students marched in and read a list of non-negotiable demands. Tensions ran high, even as a variety of ethnic student caucuses were organized for the first time -- groups that helped recruit students, provided a mutual support system and were helpful in opening communication to local minority communities.

The legacy of those changes is the department's continuing distinctive emphasis on cross-cultural practice -- a necessity in a city of such diversity as Los Angeles, where social workers must routinely deal with scores of ethnic groups. Our students, about half of whom are people of color, reflect that diversity -- a far cry from the monochromic classes of the 1950s.

Today, instead of its original focus on preparation for public social service, the department now trains students to work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The addition of a Ph.D. program has greatly enhanced our research capabilities, and among the program's 2,600 alumni are many who have gone on to distinguished academic careers around the world. Department faculty edit major professional journals, including Children and Youth Services Review, and have been repeatedly tapped for service at all levels of government -- Fernando Torres-Gil recently served as the first-ever assistant secretary for aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The department as a whole is the recipient of a special commendation from the California Legislature for outstanding contributions to social policy and welfare reform -- a role we continue to play as chief evaluators of state welfare reform and family preservation programs.

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