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Susan White’s next career step is deeply influenced by SSW

by Claire Cusick

A mentor once encouraged Susan White to pursue three careers in her life. Following that advice, White is planning to follow her third professional path when she leaves the School of Social Work at the end of August.

After 15 years helping to promote the research and teaching efforts at the School as a strategic communications strategist, White will now use her writing, editing and marketing skills to launch her own communications and consulting firm in Chatham County, where she and her wife, chef and restauranteur Sera Cuni live. White and Cuni co-own The Root Cellar Café & Catering in Chapel Hill and its sister restaurant, Café Root Cellar in Pittsboro. Together, the couple is also planning to launch a nonprofit community fridge program to help address food insecurity and reduce restaurant waste in Chatham.

“Because I have loved my time with the School of Social Work, I never really thought that I would leave,” White said. “But since the pandemic, Sera and I have discovered a real passion for our home community, which is in the midst of explosive growth. We are committed to strengthening tourism in Pittsboro and to address an increasing challenge of hunger in Chatham County.”

In addition to managing the marketing needs of her two restaurants and helping other small businesses and local farmers strengthen their own brands, White will help manage their nonprofit, known as Feed-Well Fridges. The community fridge program will be Chatham County’s first and will support the placement of fridges around Pittsboro, Siler City and eventually in surrounding towns to offer residents in need free access to prepared meals from local restaurants and fresh produce from Chatham County farmers.

White attributes her time with the School for fueling her interest in a new career.

“Without a doubt, I have been so impressed with our faculty’s commitment to improving the quality of life of individuals and families through research and community engagement,” she said. “They have inspired me and my passion for empowering vulnerable communities.”

White arrived at the School in 2008, after spending 18 years as a reporter at newspapers in North Carolina and Virginia, covering education, county government, social services, and public health. As the School’s first full-time writer and editor, she quickly connected with the School’s mission and its faculty.

“All the research work that the faculty were doing aligned with the work that I had been doing in my journalism career,” she said. “In our own ways, we were each shining a light on complex societal issues and problems that required complex solutions. So, I jumped at the chance to promote this work in a new way, through our faculty’s research.”


High points

As an academic editor, White also helped current students strengthen their writing skills. She co-developed the School’s writing support resources, conducted writing workshops, and provided one-on-one coaching.

“I have really enjoyed working closely with our students over the past 15 years and helping them to better understand the importance of communicating clearly,” she said.

In addition, White’s primary responsibilities included producing content for the School’s monthly e-newsletter and its sister print publication, Contact magazine, which allowed her to indulge in her love of long-form storytelling.

“Some of my favorite magazine stories featured the fantastic work of our students, including their preparation through social work internships, the success of our alumni and the interesting paths they have taken, even nontraditional social work careers, as well as stories highlighting our School’s overall impact in North Carolina, nationally and globally.”

In 2021, White worked closely with former communications colleague and designer Rich Stewart for months to plan, research and compile stories for an issue celebrating the School’s centennial. “That was a major lift,” White recalled. “Quite honestly, I wasn’t planning to do a historical timeline. But I love researching history, so I spent eight hours a day for several weeks sifting through archives in Wilson Library and looking through old copies of The Daily Tar Heel. I knew we didn’t have a lot of internal documents, because I had done the 90th anniversary edition. But I found nuggets – things that I hadn’t known even 10 years earlier about the School and all the people who had passed through it in 100 years. The centennial project is among the work that I’m most proud of here.”

Stewart said White’s interest in history made the project successful. “Susan has an amazing ability to take complex concepts and winnow them down to concise stories that grasp the reader and relay core ideas,” he said. “Her supportive and collaborative attitude has been such a blessing as the demands for communications support continued to grow over the years.”

Barbara Wiedemann, who joined the School as associate dean for strategic communications and marketing in July 2022, said White “has been an invaluable resource to our School and to the broad network of University communicators.”

“I am grateful for her graciously shared insights and deep understanding of the research, the teaching and most importantly, the people who make this School so special,” Wiedemann said.


Influenced by social workers

Moving forward, White hopes to continue relationships with the School’s faculty, many of whom she credits for their support and guidance, including faculty members Travis Albritton, Iris Carlton-LaNey, Gina Chowa, Sharon Holmes Thomas and Amy Blank Wilson.

“Susan has been an integral part of the expansion of the UNC SSW global work,” Chowa said. “She has endeavored to tell the story of our vast work by translating our research to a broader audience and showing our impact with clarity and a winsome narrative that always helped the global team respond to our global partners’ needs for accessible information. Susan has been a true partner and colleague, and I will miss her greatly.”

Thomas said she will also miss White. “Susan is my sharpshooter friend,” Thomas said. “We have a mutual respect for each other based on brutal honesty. I value her for her thoughtfulness and professionalism. She has been a trusted ally, collaborator and supporter.”

Lately, White has also leaned into Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson’s call to make an impact on people in our own communities. A native of Chatham County, White is an only child who grew up in a divorced family with a father who struggled with alcoholism. As a young child, she remembers how her mother had to work two jobs to put food on the family table and to pay the mortgage.

“Those early experiences certainly influenced my decision to go into journalism and my interest in writing about poverty, behavioral and mental health, and homelessness,” she said. “And they influenced my decision to work for the School of Social Work.”

As White and Cuni prepare to launch the Feed-Well Fridges nonprofit, they’re also thinking about the growing number of families in need in Chatham. CORA, the local food bank that the couple has helped supply with thousands of pounds of food over the last few years, including hundreds of gallons of soup, currently serves more than 10,000 residents. With the rise in inflation, CORA has experienced a 38% increase in need over last year.

With the free community fridges, the couple hopes to bridge the gap between need and demand for accessible healthy food options.

“The idea with the fridges is that you take what you need and leave what you don’t,” White said. “We’ll partner with local restaurants to collect unsold food daily and label it, package it and put it in the fridges for anyone in need to grab. For restaurants, this is an opportunity to reduce their own carbon footprint because they will help to divert perfectly good food away from the landfill.”

Although leaving a place she has learned so much from and colleagues she adores will be difficult, White said the pandemic also taught her an important life lesson.

“Life is so short, and I’m really ready to give back even more to my own community,” she said. “I don’t want to regret not pursuing an idea that I feel really passionate about.”