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Her Personal Journey Forged a Path for Others Founder of outreach to women in the sex business is named alumna of year by UCLA Luskin Social Welfare

By Mary Braswell

Harmony (Dust) Grillo clearly recalls those moments when she knew she could change the trajectory of her life.

At a group home where she lived briefly in high school, a counselor told her he was going to college because “‘I’m going to be the first black president of the United States.’” He was not Barack Obama. But his words made her rethink her opinion that school was a waste of time.

“I remember really being moved by his belief in himself and his audacity,” Grillo said. “And I made a decision that day that education could be a life raft for me, to get me out of the situation that I was in.”

That situation was forged by a childhood of trauma. Since the age of 5, she had suffered sexual and emotional abuse. At 13, she was left to care for her 8-year-old brother for three months, with nothing more than $20 and a book of food stamps. In her teen years, she became entangled in toxic relationships with men in her neighborhood.

By age 19, she had $35,000 in debt. Her boyfriend persuaded her to earn money as a stripper, just for a couple of months. Three years later, she was still in the business.

Grillo had not given up on her education. With a 4.0 GPA from Santa Monica College, she had been accepted at UCLA. By day, she was a studious psychology major. By night, she was “Monique” at a strip club near LAX.

Then came the next pivot that changed Grillo’s life. A friend encouraged her to come to church, where she heard over and over that she was made for a purpose.

“I was in the club one night, and it just dawned on me that this couldn’t be what I was put on this planet to do,” she said.

Grillo walked away from the strip clubs, the controlling boyfriend and the belief that she had no power over her life. Her calling, she decided, was to use her pain to help others heal. And then came another turning point.

She was on track to earn a Ph.D. in psychology but switched to the MSW program at UCLA Luskin.

“People who can afford psychologists don’t tend to be the kind of clients that I felt drawn to. That’s why I switched over to social work,” she said.

Just as she began her graduate studies in 2003, Grillo launched Treasures, an outreach to women caught up in the sex business. The timing was perfect, she said. She used research assignments, literature reviews and behavior analysis to expand her understanding of women in the commercial sex industry, as well as her own past.

“I began to recognize that, oh, this thing that I keep seeing, these women who again and again feel like they just can’t take that next step forward, oh, it’s learned helplessness,” she said.

At the Luskin School, Grillo earned a spot in the competitive CalSWEC program, which funds graduate education in exchange for service in the Los Angeles County child protective services.

“Harmony had this kind of light about her, this energy,” said Laura Alongi Brinderson, who has been with CalSWEC since 2001 and now serves as its coordinator. “She really had compassion and empathy for people who walked a difficult road.”

Alongi has followed Grillo’s career as it branched out from direct outreach to program development, fundraising and “how to keep an agency running.”

“Part of our mission at Luskin is to encourage leadership, and she really has established herself as a leader in her field. She has created a national hub for this type of work,” Alongi said. “It’s been incredible what she’s been able to do.”

Since Grillo received her MSW in 2005, Treasures has blossomed. From their base in the San Fernando Valley, known as the capital of the porn industry, the staff of four has trained a multitude of volunteers from 120 cities on six continents.

“It can be overwhelming,” said Grillo, who is also kept busy with a husband, 10-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, as well as the recently published second edition of her memoir, “Scars and Stilettos.”

Her faith-based nonprofit interacts with women in strip clubs and the porn industry, on online forums where sex is sold, and in juvenile detention centers. Its signature outreach is a small gift bag with donated cosmetics and resources. No pressure, Grillo said, just information.

For women who choose to leave the sex industry, Treasures offers many services, including a survivor-led support group, financial assistance, even a wardrobe closet. This spring, the closet was filled with elegant dresses that women could wear to the nonprofit’s annual fundraising gala.

In May, UCLA Luskin honored Grillo’s accomplishments by naming her the Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumna of the Year.

“When I’m looking at the trajectory of my life, and I’m looking at those defining moments along the way, I see people who had an opportunity to influence my life” — an important reminder for those in the field of social work, Grillo said. “Maybe they never knew what kind of impact they were having. But they had an impact.”

Minority Fellowship Recipients Advocate in D.C.

As awardees of the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) master’s Minority Fellowship Program (MFP), UCLA Luskin MSW candidates Michelé Jones, Desiree Lopez and Jennifer Grijalva traveled this past March to Washington, D.C., where they gained valuable experience in policy and advocacy. The program aims to reduce health disparities and improve behavioral health care outcomes for racially and ethnically diverse populations by increasing the number of culturally competent master’s-level behavioral health professionals serving racial/ethnic minority populations. Recipients of the one-year fellowship receive specialized training, a monetary stipend and other professional development support. “The MFP program has provided me with professional development and access to mental health practitioners of color, which have been invaluable to my second year of social work education,” explained recipient Desiree Lopez. The 41 fellows gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, for the annual spring training and spent a morning on Capitol Hill, where they educated Congressional staff members about the importance of the MFP program. Grijalva described the spring conference as “a space filled with MSW students of color who were passionate about social justice issues around the country,” an experience that was “inspirational and empowering.” Jones was excited to use her skills as an advocate and gain a better understanding of policy during the training. “I was able to discuss the importance of having more mental health professionals of color in the field with members of the Senate in my own district. I left the training in D.C. extremely empowered and more prepared to begin my career,” she said.


UCLA Luskin Again Ranks High Among U.S. Graduate Programs

The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is once again among the top 15 public affairs schools in the nation as ranked by the latest U.S. News and World Report ratings released March 12, 2019. The School retained the No. 14 (tied) spot in the ratings while moving up to No. 13 (tied) in the social work category. “I am extremely pleased that Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin has moved up in rankings to 13 in the nation as rated by our esteemed peers,” said Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare and chair. “We will continue to work to educate the most-prepared social workers at all levels of practice in our pursuit of equity and social justice.” The School — with graduate departments in Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning, and a new undergraduate major in Public Affairs — also received high marks for subcategories that include health policy and management (No. 12) and urban policy (No. 9). A number of UCLA professional schools and programs also were named among top schools in U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Graduate Schools 2020” guidebook, which will be available in the spring. According to the publication, yearly graduate program rankings are based on experts’ opinions about program excellence and on statistical indicators that measure the quality of a school’s faculty, research and students. Research for the publication included surveys conducted in fall 2018 and early 2019 of more than 2,000 graduate programs and more than 22,000 academics and professionals in the disciplines.


 

UCLA Luskin Faculty Among Top 100 Social Work Scholars

UCLA Luskin Professor David Cohen and Professors Emeritus Yeheskel “Zeke” Hasenfeld and Robert Schilling were recognized in the Journal of Social Service Research’s list of the “100 Most Influential Contemporary Social Work Faculty as Assessed by the H-Index.” The report uses a new method called the H-Index to measure the impact and influence of social work scholarship, taking into account not only the number of publications an individual has authored, but also the number of times that his or her work has been cited by others. “It feels great to be included in a list of highly cited scholars in my field — especially when some were my teachers,” said Cohen, who is also associate dean for research and faculty development at UCLA Luskin. “But creativity and quality mean more than citations — so I plan to keep on trucking, hoping that my best work is still ahead of me.” Cohen, whose research focuses on the effects of psychoactive drugs, treatment-induced harms and mental health trends, has authored and co-authored more than 100 book chapters and articles. Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus Hasenfeld, who passed away Feb. 28, 2019, was cited for his insightful investigation of the relationship between social welfare policies, the organizations that implement them and the people who use their services. Schilling’s research focuses on developmental disabilities, HIV risk and prevention, and substance abuse. Also on the list is Ron Avi Astor, who will join the UCLA Luskin faculty in the 2019-2020 school year. Astor is an internationally recognized expert on school safety. — Zoe Day


UCLA Luskin Master of Social Welfare Receives Top Ranking

The Master of Social Welfare (MSW) at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs has been named the No. 1 program of its kind in California for 2019-20 by HumanServicesEdu.org, an online resource for information on education, practice and employment in the human service fields. The organization describes the MSW as a comprehensive two-year program, selected from among California schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), that offers the highest level of training, designed to produce the next generation of well-equipped leaders in social work and to help advance the overall knowledge base of social work policy and practice. In a news release announcing the designation, HumanServicesEdu.org noted, “When we got to the UCLA Luskin Master of Social Welfare, it was clear we had a winner. With a decided focus on experiential learning, valuable opportunities to study abroad, and a world-class faculty with lots of front-line experience, UCLA Luskin offers students something they just won’t find anywhere else.” UCLA Luskin’s MSW program was among hundreds of schools across the United States assessed by the organization in compiling a list of the best programs for each state, according to Kelly Simpson, senior editor for HumanServicesEdu.org. UCLA Luskin also was recognized for offering hands-on experience in field work placements, as well as opportunities to participate in advanced research and projects, along with concurrent degrees available with other top UCLA programs including Asian American Studies, Law, Public Health and the Master of Public Policy program at UCLA Luskin.


 

Preventing Suicide Among Veterans and Other Vulnerable Groups

Experts on suicide, particularly among veterans, led a wide-ranging conversation about risk factors and effective interventions at an event hosted by UCLA Luskin Social Welfare. Professor Mark S. Kaplan shared insights from his extensive research of at-risk populations with the gathering of students and social workers. “What many vulnerable young veterans returning from places like Afghanistan and Iraq needed more than anything else was not a psychiatrist but a social worker, somebody who could help them with that transition into civilian life, somebody who could help them with their family and their community,” he said. “It was really a challenge of reintegration that mattered most; it wasn’t a psychiatric problem.” The Nov. 6, 2018, panel included Susan Pindack, a social worker with the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System; Sam Coleman, a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach and coordinator of the Veterans for Peace PTSD Working Group; and Carolyn Levitan, director of the crisis line at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services’ Suicide Prevention Center. The panel’s broad experience led to an expansive discussion that touched on Civil War fighters who took their own lives, firearm use among female soldiers, the role of pain management in preventing suicide and the impact of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” Students from the Mental Health Caucus at UCLA, one of several event co-sponsors, led a question-and-answer session after the panel presentations. — Mary Braswell

View a Flickr album from the event here.


 

 

Social Welfare Ph.D. Faculty Ranked Among Top Three in Scholarly Productivity

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams, right.

UCLA Luskin’s Social Welfare doctoral program is one of the top three most productive in the nation, according to a newly published study measuring the impact of faculty research. “The search for meaningful metrics of program excellence has been a longstanding effort by social work schools and colleges,” the researchers said. To understand variations in faculty productivity, they built upon previous work analyzing scholarly citations by considering the impact of a program’s funding sources, regional location, year of establishment and faculty demographics. “Researchers are not expected to build knowledge in a vacuum,” the study said. “Rather, it is a professional expectation that researchers also demonstrate the ability to disseminate knowledge widely despite the narrowness of their specialty area.” The analysis found that the three most productive social work doctoral faculties were based at public universities in the West: the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and UCLA Luskin. “One surprising finding was that there were significant differences among programs with the same size but located in different parts of the country,” the researchers said. “Why Western and Midwestern programs outperform their Northeastern and Southeastern counterparts is unclear.”  The research, published in the journal Scientometrics, was based on empirical data from the entire population of doctoral tenure-track social work faculty at 76 research-oriented universities.

 

New Grants Ensure Watts Leadership Institute’s Mission Will Continue to Grow An infusion of more than $650,000 will be invested in marginalized neighborhoods

By Mary Braswell

The community garden launched by the Watts Leadership Institute (WLI) a year ago is growing, thriving, bearing fruit.

The same could be said for the institute itself.

Since the start of 2018, the UCLA Luskin-based WLI has received several grants totaling more than $650,000 that will allow it to expand its core mission of empowering the community leaders of Watts.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said co-founder Jorja Leap, adjunct professor of social welfare. “We’re finding great support for this model, the idea that we want to lift up and help the small nonprofits and real community leaders in these marginalized communities.”

Along with Karrah Lompa MSW ’13, Leap founded the institute in 2016 with a two-year $200,000 startup grant from The California Wellness Foundation.

Since January, WLI has received new and increased investments:

  • An additional two-year grant of $250,000 from The California Wellness Foundation is an expression of confidence that its initial investment was effectively used in the community.
  • The Weingart Foundation is providing $200,000 for the next two years to support its efforts in Southern California communities most deeply affected by poverty and economic inequity.
  • Ballmer Group provided $150,000 over two years.  Ballmer Group supports efforts to improve economic mobility and has invested significantly in direct services and capacity building in the Watts-Willowbrook area.
  • GRoW@Annenberg has invested more than $50,000 this year as part of a multiyear commitment for the WLI GRoW Community Garden. It has also provided generous additional funding and technical assistance to enhance WLI community engagement and outreach. In addition, GRoW’s founder, Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, has awarded almost $100,000 directly to Watts community leaders working with WLI.

These continued philanthropic investments will “take our mission to another level,” Leap said. Lompa added that “having the support of these leading philanthropic institutions reinforces both the need for WLI and the impact these leaders are making in Watts.”

“We are grateful for these new funders and grants because they help diversify WLI’s overall funding, helping us lead by example when encouraging WLI leaders to diversify their own funding streams,” Lompa said.

The funds are quickly being put to use on the ground in Watts. WLI works with community leaders who are already making a difference and provides them with the tools, resources and training to be more effective — including tutorials on using tablets to keep their books as well as tips on navigating the Southern California policy and philanthropic landscape.

“These are the people that the community listens to and follows,” Leap said of the first cohort of 12 Watts leaders supported by the institute. “They live there, they work there. But they’ve never had the capacity to really do the work of which they are capable.”

The key for WLI, she said, is to listen to people who are acutely aware of what their neighborhood needs. WLI builds on this knowledge by responding with tangible help to sustain the leaders and their efforts.

Leap told the story of WLI cohort member Amada Valle, a community organizer and advocate for residents of the Jordan Downs public housing development. “Amada is teaching women to sew and to create women-led businesses,” Leap said. “And what do you need if you’re teaching women to sew? Sewing machines.” Thanks to funds allocated by The California Wellness Foundation for direct service reinvestment, Valle received a grant from WLI to purchase six sewing machines.

“You would have laughed if you had walked into the Luskin development office and seen all these boxes of sewing machines, all piled up,” Leap said.

Doing good works is contagious, WLI has found. Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino donated office space to the institute. The Johnny Carson Foundation funded an MSW internship in Watts. The UCLA Luskin IT team offers technical support, bringing community leaders to campus for tutorials.

“That’s really our dream — to have everybody working together and leading within their community,” said Leap, who has been active in Watts for 40 years, since she attended UCLA for her BA, MSW and Ph.D.

“With WLI, UCLA Luskin has a 24/7 presence in Watts. This is not lip service, and we don’t want to be a temporary program. We’re part of the community, and we want to be,” she said. “We’re honored to be.”

Panel, Presentations Focus on Social Justice Issues

On June 7, 2018, students from UCLA Luskin presented research on issues relevant to social justice, followed by a panel discussion about empowering immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Moderated by Val Zavala, formerly of KCET, the panel included Joseph Villa of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights; Daisy Esqueda and Nicole Mitchell of LAUSD; Jyotswaroop Kaur Bawa of the California Immigrant Policy Center; and Reshma Shamasunder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. The event was organized by three student groups at UCLA Luskin: Policy Professionals for Diversity and Equity, Social Workers for Collective Action, and Planners of Color for Social Equity.

View photos on Flickr:

Social Justice in Policymaking

Social Welfare Honors Alumna of the Year, Bestows Lifetime Achievement Award Large crowd from UCLA Luskin gathers in Hollywood to recognize achievements of Helene Creager MSW ’85 and Wilfred “Bill” Coggins MSW ’55

By Stan Paul

During the annual gathering to present Helene Creager MSW ’85 with its Alumna of the Year award, UCLA Luskin Social Welfare also recognized a lifetime of achievement by Wilfred “Bill” Coggins, a member of the Social Welfare graduating class 30 years earlier, in 1955.

Friends, family, faculty and coworkers jammed Loteria Grill in Hollywood on May 19, 2018, to celebrate Creager, a supervising U.S. probation officer, and Coggins, founder of the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling and Learning Center.

Since 2007, a Master of Social Welfare (MSW) graduate has received the alumni award named after the former vice chair and longtime director of field education at UCLA Luskin, Joseph A. Nunn MSW ’70 PhD ’90. He was on hand to congratulate both awardees and to introduce Coggins, who was the first-ever recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Distinguished at Every Level

Creager received her award from Professor Emeritus Alex Norman DSW ’74, who had nominated her and is also the person who first encouraged Creager to pursue an MSW at UCLA. “She has distinguished herself at every level of her professional employment,” Norman said.

In 1995, Creager joined the U.S. Probation Office for the Central District of California. Creager has served in a number of roles bringing a social justice emphasis to posts ranging from clinical director of a youth center for wards of the court and the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

During her time as an undergraduate psychology major at UCLA, she enrolled in a class taught by Norman — her first exposure to social work. “Meeting Dr. Norman and taking that class motivated me to obtain my master’s in social welfare instead of psychology,” she recalled.

Creager has served as a field instructor for UCLA students, and her career includes work as a treatment team leader of the supervising and treatment staff at Dorothy Kirby Center. Since 1995, Creager – who plans to retire this year – has been serving with the U.S. Court Office, Central District of California. There she has led the implementation of STARR (Staff Training Aimed at Reducing Re-Arrest), which is a set of skills that U.S. Probation Officers can use in their interactions with the individuals they supervise in the community. She has also provided training and assisted in other districts in implementing STARR.

“I am receiving this award as I am about to retire, by the man who helped me start my career,” said Creager, who is married to another alum.

Creager cites Nunn as a mentor during her studies and throughout her career.

“Being selected for this award is exponentially more meaningful to me because it is named after someone I admire and respect,” said Creager, who also worked with Nunn when she became a field instructor for MSW interns and served with him on the Social Welfare Alumni Board in the 1980s. “We both also share that we worked in the criminal justice system and value what social workers bring to criminal justice agencies.”

Commenting on her early training in social welfare, Creager said, “I have been very fortunate that all of my life’s work has been in line with my social work values, knowledge, skills and education. I have had a career that has been fulfilling and meaningful, and it all began with my graduate social work education and experience.”

A Chance to Develop Something Important

At one time Coggins, trained as a psychiatric social worker, contemplated working in private practice, but his life took a different path shortly after the New York native and U.S. Army veteran returned to the United States in 1966 from a Fulbright Scholar post in London.

Recalling his decision to take a job in South Los Angeles in the wake of the Watts riots, Coggins recalled thinking, “Here’s a chance to develop something for the community.”

Since 1967, Coggins has been known for his work in Watts and for founding and serving as director of the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling and Learning Center. Through his leadership and clinical experience, a center that started as a “loosely defined program” for children and their parents became the important community service that today continues to provide counseling and educational services to the Watts community.

“I am reminded of the contribution of Bill Coggins every single day as I work in Watts,” commented Jorja Leap MSW ’80, adjunct professor of Social Welfare at Luskin and director of the UCLA Watts Leadership Institute. “He rolled up his sleeves and got involved in the community.”

Leap said Coggins focused his efforts on the strengths of the people who live in Watts. “Every Monday morning at the Watts Gang Task Force, when the staff of Kaiser gets up to present on their latest efforts, we are all (silently) reminded of the work Bill did — it lives forever,” she said.

Alice Harris, an institution in Watts herself, has carried on the tradition of Coggins. “Sweet Alice,” as she is known in the community, met Coggins through a program he established through the Watts Counseling and Learning Center. Harris is one of the original Core Mothers, a group of parents who attended the center with their children and went on to serve as advisers to new parents and their children. Today, Harris continues to serve as executive director of Parents of Watts, a social services agency that she started out of her own home more than 50 years ago.

Harris, who was on hand to see Coggins receive his honor, said, “I went on to college, and then I started a program because I wanted to be like Bill Coggins. I wanted to help the people out like he was helping the people; that’s exactly what I did, and I have been doing that ever since.”

Coggins describes his MSW education as “priceless and valuable,” adding, “skills you develop … can be applied to a variety of settings that can be nonmedical, nonclinical.”

Coggins’ wide-ranging career has included stints as a psychiatric social worker for the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, providing therapeutic treatment for patients at the Wells Medical Group in Arcadia and serving as a senior psychiatric social worker for the Veteran’s Administration. He has also done work assisting the developmentally disabled.

He has applied his education and training well. “I’ve had a very rich career, and I’ve worked in a variety of quality places. I’ve been lucky, but at the same time, when the luck broke, I had the tools to deal with the situation that was being presented to me.”

This year Coggins will also be inducted into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction along with alumni Kathy Kubota MSW ’82, John Oliver MSW ’69 and Yasuko Sakamoto MSW ’83.

Other UCLA Luskin speakers at this year’s Social Welfare gathering included Dean Gary Segura, Alumni Relations and Social Media Director Marisa Lemorande, and Gerry Laviña MSW ’88, director of field education. Toby Hur MSW ’93, a Social Welfare field faculty member, introduced this year’s Social Welfare Alumni Fellowship Fund recipient, Jennifer Weill, a second-year MSW student.

If you would like to donate to the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Fellowship Fund which provides support for student fellowship opportunities, click here to learn more.