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Living a Life of Impact

Prof. William Cloud is a teacher, mentor, scholar, and champion for diversity in social work education

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Professor William Cloud at CSWE

William Cloud (center, back) celebrates with students and colleagues at the 2018 CSWE conference, where his service to the Minority Fellowship Program was recognized.

On a summer afternoon more than a decade ago, Professors William Cloud and Robert Granfield developed their recovery capital construct while grilling burgers in Cloud’s backyard. The idea reframed the addiction and treatment field, but recovery capital’s genesis was much earlier.

The lineage of Cloud’s transformative idea can be traced back to the neighborhood Cloud grew up in in Chattanooga, Tennessee; to Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement and the counter culture of the 1960s and 70s; to post-war college campuses; to Cloud’s experiences as a counselor in a methadone clinic and a case worker for the Chattanooga Department of Human Services. In those formative years, Cloud — a professor in the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) — saw many people use drugs yet still go on to thrive while others lost the battle with addiction.

“How is it that some people are able to get over addiction and others aren’t? Some people enter treatment four or five times and still struggle with it; others never enter treatment and they’re doing fine,” recalls Cloud, PhD ’87.

The difference, he observed, was that those who were “doing fine” had more social capital than those who were struggling with addiction. “I knew people who had done drugs in college and went on to successful careers. Those who used drugs and stayed home in the neighborhood didn’t,” Cloud says. “I saw that poverty was a barrier to getting well. That was enlightening.”

Cloud’s insight — shaped by his personal experience as a Black man “from the hood” who says he is now walking a more privileged path — carried through his career and culminated in the recovery capital concept.

The Path to Social Work 

Cloud had started acting in first grade, and initially, he planned to be an actor. He enrolled in Tennessee State University in Nashville, one of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with a major in speech and drama. “I changed my major to social work because I wanted to have an impact on people’s lives. The dreamy stuff about acting wasn’t a contribution; I wanted to do something rewarding where I could make a difference.”

For Cloud, the first person in his family to go to college, the path to a degree wasn’t a straight line. He dropped out for a time and returned to Chattanooga, earned a two-year social work degree from a community college, worked, and then returned to Tennessee State to finish his BSW.

“I did well when I returned to college. I was president of the social work honor society and the student government representative from the social work department,” says Cloud, who received a minority scholarship to pursue his MSW at the University of Louisville. “My intentions were to go back into practice in mental health and substance abuse after getting my MSW.”

But Cloud never returned to clinical practice. Instead, he accepted an offer to teach at LeMoyne-Owen College, a small HBCU in Memphis, Tennessee.

With help from another minority scholarship — the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Minority Fellowship Program — Cloud attended GSSW to pursue his PhD. He returned to LeMoyne-Owen College, directing the school’s social work program and founding a community development program at a housing project across from the school. Cloud then joined the GSSW faculty in 1990, and in 1991 he co-founded GSSW’s Bridge Project, which was modeled on the community development program he’d started in Memphis.

Diversifying the Academy 

Although he never returned to direct practice, Cloud has fulfilled his goal to make a difference as a teacher and mentor. And of course, there’s that notion he had about recovery capital, which has taken root in the study and treatment of addiction and been the subject of countless papers, presentations and dissertations by other scholars. It’s even the focus of an annual conference.

Since 2001, Cloud has chaired the CSWE Minority Fellowship Program Doctoral Advisory Committee, helping to select a handful of preeminent scholars from among the 75 or so applications received each year. Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Minority Fellowship Program has supported more than 650 doctoral students since its founding in the mid 1970s, aiming to reduce the effects of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities by increasing the number of individuals trained to work with underrepresented and underserved people with or at risk for mental health and/or substance abuse disorders. The program doesn’t require that fellows be students of color, though most are, Cloud says; it does require a commitment to underserved populations.

“We look for the same things you’d look for in a tenure-track faculty member,” Cloud says. “They are the best of the best among minority scholars.” GSSW doctoral students Rachel Speer and Antonia Alvarez are Minority Fellowship Program recipients, and several former fellows have joined Cloud on the GSSW faculty: Associate Professor Johnny Kim, Research Associate Professor Nancy Lucero and Associate Professor Ramona Beltrán.

“The Minority Fellowship Program has primarily produced the Black and Brown academics in schools of social work around the country,” Cloud notes. “Without this program, I would not have received my PhD, and I would not be in the academy. A lot of us would not have taken this path had CSWE not supported us with this fellowship.”

Without the unique lens of his personal experience, Cloud says, he might never have understood addiction the way he does, and without the CSWE Minority Fellowship Program, he would not have had the education or platform to bring his recovery capital idea to the world.

“Many of the clients that we work with and study, the social problems we tackle, are born in disadvantaged communities,” Cloud says. “You don’t have to have to have a heart attack to be a heart surgeon, but it sure does help you to understand. We need more than one perspective.”

As he nears retirement, Cloud is thinking about what his impact will be in the future. He may return to acting. He’s certain he will miss teaching. For now, he’s spending part of his sabbatical recruiting graduate students from HBCUs in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, work he says he’s enjoying.

“I am from that environment,” Cloud says. “I was one of those kids who sat in those HBCU classrooms about 40 years ago.”

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