A Social Work Friendship: When the Personal And Professional Merged

September 8, 2016

bobby staley and dean at tour in harlemSteven Huberman and Bobby Staley hail from very different backgrounds, yet the observant Jewish dean of Touro College Graduate School of Social Work and his African American student-turned-colleague grew up under strikingly similar circumstances, forming the basis of a close friendship. Both had strong women role models, difficult childhoods and a commitment to leaving the world a kinder place than they found it.

They grew up without fathers and their mothers  couldn’t fulfill their roles as chief nurturers.  Both were ultimately drawn to the field of social work to pay forward the kindness they received from the women in their lives who stepped up to the plate. For Staley, a product of a teenage pregnancy, it was his grandmother who was the dominant force. Huberman’s grandmother was also a pillar of strength, but it was a school social worker who stands out in his mind as a role model for kindness. She had pity on the boy with a disabled mother and absent father and gave him lunch money and huge doses of encouragement every day.

“There’s something motherly about social work,“ says Staley. “It’s all about assuming the caretaker role and that’s why the dean and I were drawn to it. We felt a void and we had a need to make sure others are supported and well-cared for.”

Staley goes even further in his praise for the women in his life. “I learned from them how to deconstruct barriers. Men often make people put up walls. I’ve always found that nonverbal, usually indirect communication, is the most impactful. If you want someone to do something, don’t hit them over the head with it. Hint at it instead. Women are masters at this technique and I try to incorporate it into my parenting and my social work practice.”

Dean Huberman sees himself as an agent of change whose mission  is to help others grow. The founding dean of The Touro College Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW)  is filled with pride when he discusses his ten years’ worth of graduates who are “out there changing society for the better.”

Reminiscing about the early days of GSSW, Dean Huberman says the school was established to reach out to those with no voice, those who might be termed the “underrepresented. “ He recalls asking faculty members during the first year to find him students who he could mentor. Staley was identified and the dean began advising him at his field placement where he worked with recently released prisoners who were HIV positive.

“It was evident right away that Bobby had enormous potential to make a difference,” the dean says.

Staley smiles and recalls their first meeting. “His compassion was palpable. He stood out as a very nurturing person and one who always made everyone feel like he has all the time in the world for them. He is so dynamic and inclusive. I watched him interact with the students and I tried to absorb his strength and make it my own.”

Both men affirm their deep desire to serve as role models for others, personally and professionally.  Staley says he learned from the dean that “our job is be resourceful…to help our clients access what they need. We need to be humble, to know we don’t have all the answers but to be committed to finding those answers. I like to involve my clients in the process, to facilitate growth, but never to tell them what to do.”

The dean says Staley too is quite humble when it comes to his accomplishments. “He never gives up. He’s committed to achieving his goals and he always has a positive attitude,” he says. “He went back to school in his 40s and overcame great odds to become a social worker, but he never thought of throwing in the towel. He refused to think negatively about passing the licensure exam and he did well and now he has a great career.”

Staley, who was valedictorian of GSSW’s first class and is now president of the school’s alumni association, is Associate Director for Services at the Federation of Organizations where he directs three community treatment programs for the severely mentally ill.

“My friendship with the dean is an outgrowth of the unique environment at Touro,” says Staley.  “Sitting in class with such a diverse group of students and learning to respect everyone from every culture has shaped my career and my life.  His ability to see everyone as part of his extended family brought me close to him as a friend.”

According to Dean Huberman, “the DNA of our school is inclusion and I’m thrilled to spend every day of my life creating an extended family where academic excellence and social justice reign.”

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