Social Work News

Social Work Professor Highlight: Sam Harrell

Written by Sarah Smith
March 11, 2023

Sam Harrell (they/them), MSW, is new this year to Seattle University’s social work department! The Social Work program at Seattle U is excited to feature Sam for a professor highlight in this quarter’s newsletter.

Sam Harrell

         Professor Harrell is currently in their first year as an instructor for Seattle University’s Social Work Department, teaching research courses for MSW students and aiding Dr. Derr in teaching BSW research courses. Sam equally supports their students and provides opportunities for learning—in Research: Methods & Design, Professor Harrell brings tea, snacks, and any other essentials students may need. Sam also plans occasional “Lunch & Learn” events for first-year MSW students on Thursdays, in which students can hear from and ask questions to authors of various social work research articles that are read in class. Attending one of Sam’s classes may feel like attending a workshop—and that is intentional. Sam designs their courses with strong learning objectives, hands-on components, group work and discussion, and with an application piece for students to apply the concepts they’re learning. Sam also values feedback, which they use to drive course structure and assignments to give students a reason to be invested in their own work.

         At 14, Sam decided they wanted to become a social worker, though they cite theory class and socio-ecological theory as reorienting their motivation to become a social worker. Sam was originally dedicated to macro practice, and they have experience with people experiencing homelessness, child welfare, LGBTQ+ youth services, violence prevention, prison and jail re-entry, and crisis intervention. Sam’s previous experiences in social work have guided much of their research inquiry. In November, Sam co-published their article, “The Case for Mandatory Reporting as an Ethical Dilemma for Social Workers,” which presents a content analysis of social work textbooks and proposes that social work education should prepare students to navigate mandatory reporting as an ethical dilemma. Sam noticed a need for mandatory reporting to be framed overtly as an ethical dilemma as they worked in violence prevention, noticing that many youths experiencing familial violence were forced to choose between sharing their experiences or maintaining a sense of control. As a social worker, Sam saw the need for a more nuanced exploration of mandatory reporting and potential alternatives in social work education. Although the NASW Code of Ethics draws a hard line for social workers regarding mandatory reporting, Sam would like to see alternative models eventually utilized and explored. Sam regards establishing mandatory reporting as an ethical dilemma for social workers as the first step in this area and plans to follow up with more research on the subject.

         In addition, Sam is currently a doctoral candidate at Portland State University, where they are completing doctoral research on the history of social workers as prison wardens during the Progressive Era. Sam became interested in this area of inquiry after the town they lived in during their MSW program began to experiment with police social work. Sam noticed that within police history, it is impossible to avoid running into social work history, prompting Sam to ask the question, “What distinguished police from social workers?” During their research, Sam found that Progressive Era training schools, reform schools, and reformatories were difficult to distinguish from prisons. However, the dominant story in social work education relates to social workers’ role in advocating for juvenile reform to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment. Therefore, Sam felt a huge piece of the social work history relating to these training schools, reform schools, and reformatories of the Progressive Era is missing, prompting their doctoral inquiry into social work’s role in shaping the development of the US prison system during the Progressive era. As a prison abolitionist, Sam hopes to explore decisions made a century ago to better learn from them now.

         Sam was drawn to teaching at Seattle University for the social work program’s commitment to social justice in the curriculum. Sam feels that such a commitment allows students and faculty to hold each other accountable to the program’s commitment. According to Sam, a strong social work program also needs a balance between introducing students to where social work is as a profession and encouraging students to imagine where social work could be. Sam felt Seattle University’s program navigates that balance well, as the program prepares students to navigate current systems but encourages students to become change-makers in the field. Additionally, Sam appreciates the small social work faculty at SU and how courses exist on a continuum, operating from agreed-upon commitments to social justice. Sam notices that every week, SU students reference material from other classes, creating through-lines across curriculums and the program. 

         Outside of the MSW program, Sam works for Affilia: Feminist Inquiry in Social Work, a peer-reviewed scholarly social work journal centering feminist points of view, as an Editorial Assistant. As an Editorial Assistant, Sam helps to run Affilia’s Critical Feminist webinar series, communicates with authors, and vets research manuscripts (view future Affilia Critical Feminist webinars here). In addition, Sam is an MSW field liaison for Portland State University’s MSW program and teaches in summers at Indiana University’s MSW program on executive leadership.

         Sam feels that the most challenging part of their work is balancing the bridge between where social work is at with where we want to be as a profession. Sam feels the most rewarding part of their work is being with students as they ask new, more nuanced questions. If Sam could give social work students one piece of advice, it’s to read outside the field. According to Sam, students should read what sociologists, criminologists, artists, and more write about social welfare and social justice. Sam says that at its core, social work has always been an interdisciplinary, relatively new field, and students do have the privilege now of accessing materials created by social workers for social workers. Still, Sam argues that there can be a lot learned from outside fields when it comes to critical histories and critiques, too.