May 9, 2023 | Alumni
How alumna Ellen Sue Mesbur revolutionized social work education
Growing up in Edmonton, community engagement and organizational leadership was a big part of life for Ellen Sue Mesbur (BSW 1966, MSW 1967, MED 1978, EDD 1986). Her parents were involved in Jewish organizations and other local community groups, instilling in her deep values of helping others and giving back. When Mesbur set out to start her own career, social work “seemed like the normal thing to do,” but she wasn’t sure about the exact path her career would take.
More than 50 years later, Mesbur has both led and witnessed considerable changes in social work education — including initiatives to make programs more accessible to students. Her career has included roles as the Director of not one but two Canadian schools of social work, and deep expertise in the history and practice of social work with groups in Canada. Today, she continues to share her experience and knowledge both as a consultant for Jewish Family and Child Services (JC&FS) and as an internationally recognized expert in social group work through published articles, papers and presentations.
Evolving the learning experience
After graduating from U of T’s Bachelor of Social Work program in 1966 and the Master of Social Work program in 1967, Mesbur landed a job as a school social worker in Scarborough. While there, a colleague recommended that she apply for a position in the Welfare Services Program at what is now Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). “They hired me to teach and, by taking a chance on me, that changed my whole career,” she says.
At the time, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, as TMU was then known, only offered a Certificate Program for people with a high school diploma who had been working in welfare services. “Most of the students would never have had an opportunity to get any kind of advanced education if it hadn’t been for that program,” Mesbur says. “It met a very interesting need in the community.”
Expanding the program
The Institute’s two-year Certificate Program soon expanded to a three-year Diploma Program thanks to pressure from students who wanted more education. In 1971, it launched a Bachelor of Applied Arts (Social Services) degree. In 1982, it became fully accredited by the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work. And in 1989, Mesbur became the Director of the School of Social Work and remained in that position until 1998. In 1993, when Ryerson Polytechnic University gained official university status, students were able to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work degree.
Amid all this, Mesbur was furthering her own education as well, attending U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) both part time and full time during her sabbaticals, majoring in Adult Education. There, she received a Master of Education (in 1978) and Doctor of Education (in 1986), while studying group interaction and how it influences learning.
In the early 2000s, Mesbur started to think about retiring from teaching, but that didn’t mean she was slowing down. She was presenting and publishing papers on social group work, field education, practice with diverse populations, and the history of social group work in Canada. She was also a member of the Board of the International Association for Social Work with Groups, and co-chair of the Board of Accreditation for the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE). It was in this role that she was introduced to Renison College’s emerging School of Social Work at the University of Waterloo. A few years later, some of the faculty members she had met when the school applied for its first accreditation encouraged her to put her hat in the ring for the position of Director. She was offered the position and was the school’s Director for 10 years.
Diversify and modernize
During that time, Mesbur helped diversify and modernize the program. This included contributing to the development of a part time BSW program (available in class and online) that would attract more mature and diverse students. Later, she and her colleagues and staff worked toward the development of the first part time MSW program in Canada focused on health and offered largely online, making it accessible to students further afield. Mesbur officially retired from Renison University College in 2013.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Mesbur’s experience with online learning was an asset. Although she was no longer teaching, she met weekly for a virtual meeting with group work colleagues from Canada, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia who, like everyone else, had been forced to pivot to teaching group work online. “Everybody was struggling with the same things,” she says. “They were universal in the sense of worrying about the students and being concerned about the course content and student mental health.” The group’s weekly meetings led to two published journal articles on teaching group work online during the pandemic.
Jewish heritage month
As she reflects on Jewish Heritage Month celebrated in May, Mesbur says she would like to see Antisemitism incorporated into educational policies and standards around equity, diversity and inclusion within schools of social work, accrediting bodies and social work associations. “I did my MSW thesis on hate propaganda legislation, because at that time, in the mid 60s, there was a rise of neo-Nazi activity in Canada,” Mesbur says. “Over the years, Antisemitic activity has calmed down and then gotten worse, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it, in terms of incidents across the world and in Canada and Toronto as well.” B’nai Brith Canada’s League of Human Rights annual report backs this up. Its 2022 audit showed that Antisemitic incidents in Canada were 105.9% higher than they were in 2012. “In social work, I think we have to be aware of all forms of hatred, include it in our curricula and learn how to address hate in our work as practitioners, teachers and researchers,” she says.
Looking back, Mesbur can’t help but be grateful for those who have served as her mentors and the immense impact they had on the trajectory of her career. She is proud of the legacy and contributions that faculty and graduates from Canadian schools of social work have made to the field and to social work education. “There has been so much leadership in social work and social work education from faculty and graduates across Canada, from the early days to current days,” Mesbur says. “It’s quite impressive to think about.”
Originally published by the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work