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Bobby Boyd Leadership Lecture: Mia Ives-Rublee urges social workers to be conduits for change

Over the last nearly 15 years as she transitioned from work as a direct practitioner to academic researcher to community organizer to policy changemaker, Mia Ives-Rublee learned one very important lesson: Social workers must first consider how their own experiences with grief and pain may collectively impact the people they are trying to help.

“Allowing others to speak and amplify their stories is one of the best things we can do as social workers, and to do this, we must learn to silence our own thoughts, needs and wants,” said Ives-Rublee, a 2009 MSW graduate, Distinguished Alumna, and the guest speaker for the School of Social Work’s 2023 Bobby Boyd Leadership Lecture. “We must position ourselves to receive stories without personal bias and find ways to connect with people to empower them to speak with those who are in power to affect structural change.”

As director of the Disability Justice Initiative of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, Ives-Rublee now works a few blocks from the White House in a role that allows her to publicly advocate for federal policies that protect the rights of people with disabilities across the country. Prior to joining the Center for American Progress, she fought for disability justice and inclusion at nonprofit organizations and businesses across the United States. Recognized as one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year, Ives-Rublee is best known as a founder of the Women’s March Disability Caucus and co-organizer of the original Women’s March on Washington in 2017, one of the largest protests in American history.

To get to where she is today, Ives-Rublee said one must consider how far she has come. As a Korean American transracial adoptee born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, Ives-Rublee said she learned very early in life how the most marginalized, including those she now works to empower, are often ignored.

Sharing with the virtual and in-house audience of nearly 450 participants, Ives-Rublee said she can still remember the devastation she felt as a teenager when a trusted teacher forgot to arrange for an accessible school bus for a field trip outing, forcing Ives-Rublee to remain behind. Nodding to her adoptive parents in the audience, Ives-Rublee recalled how her mother and father showed up at her school the next day to remind administrators and her teacher how inappropriate their actions had been and how equity requires intention. Her parents even demanded that the school’s principal and her teacher verbally apologize to their daughter.

“This really provided a model for me in advocacy and taught me the important lesson that fierce advocacy — particularly for the ones you love and care about — requires others to hear your needs. That helps to create change,” she said. “As social workers, we hold a lot of power, and it is essential that we remain active listeners.”

Mia Ives-Rublee talks to audience participant Elena Levithan following the Boyd Boyd Leadership Lecture.

Although social work students are taught how to model active listening, these lessons are sometimes forgotten, especially as practitioners continuously encounter clients in emergency situations that require quick solutions, she noted.

“We may begin to believe we already know what people need and act on those thoughts rather than actually listening to people. I’ve seen it particularly for social workers who have been in the field for a while or who are close to burnout,” Ives-Rublee said. “I want to stress how important it is to continue to practice active listening and reflecting on what is being told to us, even in the most stressful and urgent situations.”

As a member of President Biden’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, Ives-Rublee also has learned the importance of social workers leaning into their own positions of power. Her education and research training, for example, taught her how to merge data with the collected stories and lived experiences of vulnerable communities to help lawmakers better understand what policies will look like in real-world situations. Social workers who are actively involved in their communities and who understand how systems of oppression intersect can use this knowledge to “work in solidarity with the most marginalized to affect change,” she said.

“We are not just allies, we are co-conspirators, and we should work with community members to help map out power structures and create and work toward measurable and achievable goals,” she said.

Her work at the micro level and seeing first-hand how current programs and assistance often offer clients little more than a band-aid approach continues to guide her work on a macro scale, Ives-Rublee added. Today, her work focuses on removing the structural barriers that exacerbate the societal problems that communities in need often face, such as duplicative and unnecessary complicated applications for services.

“I think my work in direct practice actually gave me a lot of insight, so that now when I do policy advocacy and analysis, I am able to recall my own previous work and my own experiences,” she said. “I can tell people in Congress, ‘Hey, this makes no sense. Fix it.’”

View Mia Ives-Rublee’s presentation

Be a Conduit for Change

Ives-Rublee offered the following advice to social workers:

  • Be actively involved in the communities we serve. Not just as service providers but as members that have a stake in the community.
  • Evaluate our own biases and how they impact the work we do. Utilize Kimberlé Crenshaw’s model of intersectionality to understand how systems of oppression interact for multi-marginalized individuals.
  • Utilize active listening skills to find out the wants and needs of marginalized community members and help connect folks to the resources that allow them to lead the change they deem necessary.
  • Work in solidarity with the most marginalized to affect change. We are not not just allies, we are co-conspirators. Help map out power structures and create measurable, achievable goals.

About the Bobby Boyd Leadership Lecture Series

Bobby BoydBobby Boyd, MSW ’69, is a member of UNC School of Social Work’s Board of Advisors, a recipient of the School’s 2009 Distinguished Alumni Award, and the former director of Catawba County Social Services, where he retired after a nearly 30-year career. The lecture series in his honor is made possible by the Bobby Boyd Leadership Fund at the School of Social Work. The fund was established by Boyd’s former staff at the Catawba County Department of Social Services, the Social Services Board and Catawba County Commissioners with the purpose of sustaining Boyd’s vision of focusing on results and excellence in public service. The fund supports leadership development and opportunities for UNC School of Social Work students. The Bobby Boyd Leadership Lecture provides a forum for leaders from various fields of practice to discuss their experiences and their use of specific strategies to provide leadership aimed at promoting social change interventions.