A Tenure-Track Social Welfare Grad Works on Preventing Intra-Community Violence

Maurice Vann (Photo courtesy of Vann)

Maurice Vann (Ph.D. ’20, Social Welfare) grew up outside of Washington and lived in Baltimore for more than 20 years, where he did social work in the metropolitan area’s corrections facilities, jails, and courts. He later became the director of juvenile justice policy for Advocates for Children and Youth, where he worked on issues such as reducing the number of youth who are charged as adults in the justice system.

After earning a master’s in Legal and Ethical Studies from the University of Baltimore, he enrolled in The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Social Welfare — while continuing to live and work in Baltimore. Vann discussed his dedication to his field and his new tenure-track position at Lehman College, where he teaches and researches social welfare systems and policy.

The Graduate Center: How did you first become interested in social work and in research? 

Vann: On my first day of law school [in Washington, D.C.] we had to go around and talk about why we were there, and the professor kindly said to me, “You probably belong in social work school.” 

I’d been doing social work in the justice system for years before that, and didn’t understand it to be social work. I’d worked in drug courts, mental health courts, in the jails, prisons, and courts in Baltimore and D.C., and thought that what I was doing was part of the justice system. But it was really social work. 

I stayed in law school for about a year. But there was something about conducting research — social work, social welfare research — that really appealed to me, and that I wasn’t going to be able to do in law school or as an attorney. I decided to go to back to work and school in Baltimore.

GC:  What drew you to New York and The Graduate Center?

Vann: While I was working on my master’s degree, I had a professor who invited me to co-author a chapter of a textbook on the political aspects of prison privatization. And the editor was the dean of the Medgar Evers School of Business. I learned about CUNY, and came to New York and interviewed with Professor Harriet Goodman (GC/Hunter, Social Welfare/Social Work). She’s a Baltimore native, and she and I really hit it off. 

I enrolled, but I didn’t move to New York. I had a seven-hour commute, three and a half hours each way from Baltimore, but I really appreciated who Harriet was and what she was doing with the program and the kinds of students she put together as the cohort of that class. And the other professors as well — they were extremely supportive, knowledgeable. They wanted me there, and I really wanted to be there. I can’t speak highly enough of the faculty in multiple programs — there’s Critical Psychology, which has excellent professors like Michelle Fine and others — who were considerate and helpful and generous with their time.

GC: What are your hopes for your position at Lehman?

Vann: There is a focus on “Black-on-Black crime,” which is more accurately referred to as intra-community violence. People commit most crimes in places where they’re familiar, around their neighbors. We don’t hear “white-on-white crime” or “Asian-on-Asian crime” — there’s inherent racial bias. 

My goal is to reduce these incidences of intra-community violence within Black and brown communities. A way that I’m doing that is tracing these pathways to violence for youth, looking at people’s social interactions. And I’m also working with adults — formerly incarcerated, returning citizen men — to help them look at their issues, and to help them learn to be better fathers, so we can break the cycle of violence within Black and brown communities. 

That’s my research goal. The communities that are doing it right — how are they doing it? How can we use their interventions so we can reduce incidents of violence within Black and brown communities? That’s what my career’s about. 

GC: How do you feel about working in academia after years of service working directly with community?

Vann: In social work, there’s a symbiotic relationship between practice and research. We want to use practice-informed research and research-informed practice. Our real-world experiences guide where research goes in the future. And after we’ve done the research and have our findings, we want those to lead to the best practices that we use in the field. I don’t feel as removed from the work itself as I might in another field. 

GC: What advice do you have for students, particularly students of color, who are looking for tenure-track faculty roles? 

Vann: There is a space and a fit for you, particularly if you are in the field of social work. Social work is unique, because once you’ve received a master’s degree, you can set up your own office and accept third-party payments through insurers, and there’s almost no incentive to go on and earn a Ph.D. Essentially the amount of money you earn won’t change significantly. But if we don’t have social work Ph.D.’s, we won’t be able to train social workers. There are jobs in the social work and social welfare field because of these circumstances.

Meet as many people, from as many different institutions, as possible. Attend as many conferences as possible. Read as much as you can. And once you’ve read and you’ve found theories and positions that appeal to you, reach out to those scholars, send emails, tell them what you think of their work and how it may have influenced yours. And build a relationship with them. With all the scholarship out there, it’s a pleasure for a scholar to receive an email from a student saying, “I’ve read your work, I really appreciate it, this is how it’s influencing me.” I can almost assure you that they’ll get back to you and give you advice.

Submitted on: SEP 21, 2020

Category: Alumni News | Diversity | Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Social Welfare