For decades, social work Professor Richard Hoefer encouraged his students in social work policy classes to advocate for changes in laws they deemed unfair to disenfranchised people. That message resonated with Serena Simmons Connelly (’95 MSW) when she was his student.
In early 2020, Connelly, partner of the Simmons Sisters Fund at Texas Women’s Foundation and vice president of the Harold Simmons Foundation, shared with Dr. Hoefer her desire to see a greater number of students becoming social policy advocates. That conversation resulted in the new initiative SPEAK, or Social Policy, Education, Advocacy, and Knowledge. The Simmons Sisters Fund at Texas Women’s Foundation gave $325,000 to support the effort.
Tragically, while the plans for SPEAK were being finalized, Connelly passed away at the age of 50. Her legacy of passionate, effective social advocacy lives on through the initiative.
Alumna Serena Connelly with her husband, Tim Connelly. Before Serena died in 2020, she helped launch a significant social justice and advocacy program at UTA.
SPEAK is now providing UTA faculty and students, community leaders, and other social justice allies with resources to promote social policy advocacy. The program is currently offering paid student internships and research opportunities, as well as training sessions and civic engagement activities. Plans for a virtual social work conference, training materials, and more are underway.
“The overarching goal of SPEAK is to increase the participation of social workers and their allies in the public policy process in order to achieve social justice outcomes,” says Hoefer, director of SPEAK. “By having resources available, faculty, community leaders, and students are learning how to be better advocates.”
School of Social Work Dean Scott Ryan says that once in the field, many social work students find it difficult to remain effective without allies who are properly trained in the art and skill of advocacy. With SPEAK, they now have access to the support and materials they need to be successful.
“This gift from the Simmons Sisters Fund is going a long way in helping to train and inspire social workers, community leaders, and social justice allies by teaching them proven techniques, as well as introducing new skills needed for today’s information society that will help them be more effective in advocating for social change,” says Dr. Ryan.