Faculty Profile: Amelia S. Derr

Amelia Seraphia Derr decided to become a social worker to make a difference in the world, and she is doing just that. She had studied issues of migration as a student but shifted focus slightly after September 11 when she saw the backlash against immigrant and refugee communities. She recalled hate crimes at the North Seattle mosque and local attacks, but her concerns went deeper.

“I realized that they also faced employment and housing discrimination,” she said. “Kids were bullied in the schools. People were being put in detention and deported without charges or access to legal council. I needed to be part of doing something about this.”

She began working at Hate Free Zone Washington, now called OneAmerica, and two years ago joined the Social Work faculty. Last summer, the City of Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs asked her to facilitate the Refugee Women’s Institute.

“The project came about after immigrant and refugee community members expressed their distrust and fear of the police to city officials,” Derr said.

The Refugee Women’s Institute, an 8-week program, brought refugee women and women police officers together to build trust, form relationships, and share information. Derr worked with Nimco Bulale, MPA ’13, who recruited the women from refugee communities. Bulale, who is the youth program director at East African Community Services, helped facilitate the sessions, which included interpreters using seven different languages.

Many refugees don’t speak English or are learning English. At the institute, the women learned how to access government services, how to call 911, and how to reach the city of Seattle’s language bank. They shared their customs and expressed their concerns with the women police officers.  Both groups became valuable resources for their respective communities.

“I was surprised at how close the refugee women and the police officers became,” Derr said. “It is really about accessing services and having mutual trust. Community policing was enhanced by this effort and hopefully can be replicated in other communities where there are fractured police-community relationships.”

In Seattle, 1 in 8 are foreign born, and in the United States, 1 in 4 are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Now back on campus, Derr teaches her students, some who are immigrants and refugees, the skills to work in various communities and with various groups--elders, families and children, foster youth, youth in the juvenile justice system, people with disabilities, immigrants, and refugees. She takes her students to local agencies that work daily with immigrant and refugee communities to hear first-hand the issues and challenges they will face when they become social workers.

“In social work we look not only at individuals but their families, their communities, their neighborhoods, their societies,” Derr said. “I want my students to understand current needs and issues. Most of what’s happening right here in Seattle is happening in communities throughout the country.”

Derr sees social work as a career that is the embodiment of social justice: “We are social justice workers, not just social workers. Social workers create social justice in the community through building relationships, community organizing, policy advocacy, and working for social change. I feel really lucky to be at a university that supports that vision and with students that vision attracts.”

Published March 2015.