A Social Work Legacy
Prof. Jean East is retiring after 23 years as the ‘heart and soul’ of GSSW, leaving a legacy of positive impact on social work and social justice, and on the school and its students
Bedrock. That’s how Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) Professor Deb Ortega describes Professor Jean East, MSW ’79, PhD ’95. “She has built her foundation on stone, and that foundation is always about being true.”
East is authentic in everything she does, say those who know her. She has committed to a calling — to social work, to teaching social work, to understanding and repairing injustices, to serving others. It’s a calling that has carried her through a social work career spanning nearly 50 years, including 23 on faculty at GSSW.
“She has a mission and a legacy, and both of those things are correcting injustices — or at least throwing rocks at injustices in the fight against structural inequality,” says Ortega, one of many in the GSSW family who are lamenting East’s retirement. “She’s a role model. She’s not perfect, but even in her imperfection, she brings goodness. It’s not naïve, it’s not sweet, it’s not fake. It’s intrinsic goodness.”
“She has deep empathy for everyone she comes into contact with,” adds former student Hope Errico Wisneski, MSW ’00. “She’s always had a true, meaningful connection to the work and to the people. That’s what drives her.”
“If you can’t get along with Jean East, you have a problem,” says GSSW Professor William Cloud, PhD ’87. “She is so kind and considerate of others. I’ve seen her trajectory as a student to my colleague to a leader, to the hub and heart of the school, and it’s been a pleasure.”
The Heart of the School
When East interviewed for a GSSW faculty position, she almost didn’t get the job. She was competing against other stellar candidates from across the nation, and at the time, the school wanted to diversify by bringing in more faculty with doctorates from other programs, Cloud recalls.
East wound up getting the job, and “I’m so glad we stayed with Jean,” Cloud says. “It was one of the best choices we ever made. She has been the heart and soul of our program.”
East joined the GSSW faculty in 1995, and in addition to teaching, mentoring doctoral students, conducting research and publishing and presenting, she did a four-year stint as associate dean of academic affairs and has been the longtime chair of the school’s macro concentration, Organizational Leadership and Policy Practice.
Cloud has admired East’s willingness to take on challenging roles and succeed in them. “Jean gets complicated things done and thinks creatively about problems.” For example, Cloud recalls, “She was always involved in the curriculum — the behind-the-scenes that no one appreciates. Students show up at our doors every September ready to get their MSW, and there’s a curriculum waiting for them. There’s a lot of work to make that happen.”
Ortega agrees. “When she took over as associate dean, it was such a gift to the school. You have to be organized, you’re often a mediator of conflict, and you have to be a visionary and really attentive to detail. It’s so difficult to get all of those work qualities in one human being.”
“She’s made a terrific investment in the profession,” says Professor Emerita Sue Henry, DSW ’72, who chaired East’s doctoral dissertation committee. “It’s not that she always has the solution — she might — but she helps people work out a solution that fits for them.”
East mentored junior faculty members, mediated conflicts between faculty and students, and served as a sounding board for staff and faculty colleagues. When Ortega joined the school and was charged with establishing the University of Denver’s Latino Center, she turned to East for help. “I asked Jean, a white woman, to lead a discussion with Latino faculty across campus about what they wanted their Latino center to be,” Ortega recalls. “Her whole career has been relational; she knows how to harness relationships for change.”
“She humanized the school when, frankly, it wasn’t always humane,” Henry adds. “She made a difference.”
East appreciates a challenge. “When I take on something, I’m committed to it being the best it can be,” East says. “I like stretching myself and seeing what’s possible.”
As someone who describes herself as “not a very good tech person,” East has embraced technology’s role in education. With Walter LaMendola (now a GSSW professor emeritus) and former Dean Catherine Alter, East helped to establish GSSW’s first distance education program in the late 1990s. That eventually grew into the school’s Four Corners MSW Program. Today the school also has a satellite program in Western Colorado and last year established a 100-percent online MSW@Denver program. East teaches online and even after she has retired, MSW@Denver students will continue to receive East’s online course content.
“I’m just somebody who likes to look at the future and have a vision for the future,” East says. “I’m a big-picture thinker, and I like new ideas.”
Researching Women and Poverty
East’s work as a scholar and teacher has been informed by two decades of community social work practice for the City of Lakewood and Catholic Charities, where she was associate director of community services. That’s where East’s interest and research into the feminization of poverty and the causes and consequences of women in poverty took root.
“I worked to challenge the myth of self-sufficiency, which is a word often associated with women in poverty,” says East. “Just the words ‘self-sufficiency’ imply that if I do the right things, I should be able to be sufficient.” But, East says, poverty isn’t caused by internal, personal failings. “One of the things we discovered was that for many women, poverty is not just about the lack of skills such as education and training. There are many other issues that women face: past trauma, domestic violence, mental health issues, learning disabilities.”
East didn’t just study the issue of women in poverty; she worked to make things better. Combing research, practice and advocacy has been a hallmark of East’s career. In 1995 — the same year she earned her doctorate and joined the GSSW faculty — East co-founded the nonprofit Project WISE with Sue Kenney, MSW ’79, to provide advocacy, counseling services, mentoring and community organizing training to low-income women in Denver. It operated for 20 years and in 2001 received the El Pomar Award for Excellence for the Colorado nonprofit of the year.
At the time, other organizations were providing job training and education, but none were helping women to develop the self-efficacy to overcome additional barriers to economic advancement. “Our philosophy was that we could combine individual change and social change,” East says. “We could help individual women, but we could also engage the women with others around advocacy.”
Although there have been improvements, the work on behalf of women isn’t over, which make’s East’s contribution as a teacher all the more important. She has mentored and trained other scholars and practitioners who will continue to move the needle on equity and justice.
“Just in the last three years, I see a resurgence of women in social movements — the Women’s March, #MeToo, Red For Ed, immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter movements. It is important to acknowledge that many of the disadvantages women face are disproportionately faced by women of color and women with low income,” East says. “Social movements across racial and class lines will make things better for women overall. We can’t ignore classism and racism. We need to continue to highlight those issues and look beyond the obvious to find solutions.”
A Gifted Educator
As a girl, Jean East would line up her stuffed animals on her bed and play her favorite game: school. Her mother, Margaret East, was a teacher and women’s rights activist whose master’s thesis was on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Still, East thought at the time that she would never be a teacher. “When I started teaching, I realized how much I did love it,” East says.
And students have loved East, who in 2006 received one of the University of Denver’s highest honors: the Distinguished Teaching Award. “Students gravitate toward her,” Cloud says. “Jean sets the bar very high for teaching. She raises the bar for all of us.”
“One of the reasons our school is ranked No. 17 is research and contributions to knowledge, but the other reason is teaching,” Cloud continues. “When we hire people now — thanks to Jean and others — one of the questions we ask is, ‘How well do you teach?’”
What makes East such an effective educator? “I try and personalize my knowledge of the students in my classes. I get to know them and what’s important to them, and I build on that and bring it into my lectures and courses,” says East, a lifelong student of pedagogy who has continued to adapt to and apply the changing best practices for teaching.
Technology hasn’t diluted East’s personal touch. “When I began teaching online last year,” East says, “I still connected with students personally and gave them lots of personal feedback on their work.”
Sue Henry describes East as “student-centered, not subject-centered.” East has been a confidant, guide and mentor who will drop whatever she was doing to help a student, Henry recalls. “She’s been a real rock for many students.”
Through the years, East has imparted a consistent message to students, Ortega says: “Each person that you encounter, no matter the reason they sit before you, is part of a community and experience. Part of our job as social workers is to understand their history, culture, in a world that mostly takes from them. Sit with them in that, reflect back what’s happening, help them understand what the opportunities are.”
The crux, East says, is that she’s hopeful. “In social work, we study a lot of what’s wrong. While we’re studying that, I try to be hopeful about what’s possible.”
East’s passionate, personal, inspirational style of teaching has made a difference to students like Wisneski. As a new clinical student with little interest in macro work, Wisneski took a supervision and management class from East, and everything changed. “I loved her, I loved her style. I took every class she offered.”
East had a conversation with Wisneski about her second-year internship and advised her to change and help run a community-based organization instead. “I changed my internship because she had that conversation with me,” Wisneski recalls, “and it put my entire career into motion. I was later recruited to run that youth center.” Almost 20 years later, that career brought Wisneski back to GSSW as chief of staff and associate dean at GSSW, where she now partners with East as a colleague.
“My teaching has been about mentoring students, encouraging them in their careers, continuing to follow their careers, getting them excited and hopeful about being social workers,” East says. “That’s what I’ve loved the most.”
East’s Enduring Legacy
“Through her teaching and mentoring, scholarship and leadership, Jean has made a lasting impact on the Graduate School of Social Work and its students, on the community and on the social work profession. I’m honored to know and work with her,” says GSSW Dean Amanda Moore McBride. “She embodies the very best of GSSW and social work, and she positively impacts everyone who interacts with her — including me. Jean has been a trusted advisor as I have begun my deanship at GSSW.”
“Everyone” also includes hundreds of women served by Project Wise and thousands of students who have taken her classes and gone on to establish social work careers of their own. “Jean’s handprints are all over this building,” Wisneski says. “Her curriculum and teaching design will live on. Her legacy will continue through mentees and past students like me who she’s trained to serve our Colorado community and nonprofits across the country and the world.”
Wisneski adds, “All of these seeds Jean has planted over decades have blossomed and are now planting seeds of their own.”
East’s CV includes a long list of awards and recognitions, publications, presentations and grants. But when she is asked what she’s most proud of, East doesn’t mention any of those things.
“My greatest contribution has been teaching and mentoring students,” East says. “I’ve been so privileged to have the career that I’ve had, to have the mentors and professors I’ve had. It’s been a joy to work with all of my colleagues. I feel very blessed.”
What does East’s next chapter hold? “I hope to do some traveling, see old friends, read more novels. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel,” East says with a laugh. She’ll spend winters at her home in Green Valley, Arizona, and the rest of the year in Colorado. But with all that East has planned, the novels may have to wait a bit longer. She will continue working in the community as a consultant helping nonprofits to grow and develop their programs. She will remain involved as a co-member of the Sisters of Loretto and their work of mercy and justice. And she may continue to teach from time to time.
“I’ll go to more protest rallies,” East says. “There’s a lot to work on. I hope to continue to contribute in that way as long as I’m able.”
“All of these seeds Jean has planted over decades have blossomed and are now planting seeds of their own. Her legacy will continue through mentees and past students like me who she’s trained to serve our Colorado community and nonprofits across the country and the world.” — Hope Errico Wisneski, MSW ’00
“My teaching has been about mentoring students, encouraging them in their careers, continuing to follow their careers, getting them excited and hopeful about being social workers,” East says. “That’s what I’ve loved the most.” — Professor Jean East