Thanks to support from the Simmons Sisters Fund at Texas Women’s Foundation (TWF), Richard Hoefer, professor of social work at The University of Texas at Arlington, is launching an initiative focused on promoting social policy advocacy through educating community organizations, students and social workers.

For decades, Hoefer encouraged his students in social work policy classes to advocate for changes in laws they deemed unfair to disenfranchised people. With the $325,000 gift from the Simmons Sisters Fund, Hoefer will be able to translate his passion for social justice into a program designed to inspire and educate social workers and leaders of community organizations to become more effective in policy advocacy.

The idea for the project originated in a conversation between Hoefer and School of Social Work alumna Serena Simmons Connelly (’95 MSSW), partner of the Simmons Sisters Fund and vice president of the Harold Simmons Foundation. In early 2020, Connelly shared with Hoefer her desire to see a greater number of students becoming social policy advocates and the two began to work on the concept for a new initiative called SPEAK, or Social Policy, Education, Advocacy and Knowledge. Tragically, while the plan for SPEAK was being finalized, Connelly passed away at the age of 50.

“Serena’s life was dedicated to helping the most vulnerable members of our communities,” said Connelly’s sister Lisa K. Simmons, partner of the Simmons Sisters Fund and president of the Harold Simmons Foundation. “With SPEAK, we know UTA will be able to inspire a new generation of social workers to be passionate, effective social advocates.”

Connelly, a 2014 recipient of the UTA Distinguished Alumni Award, was known for her compassion and determination to help those in need. She dedicated her life to uplifting the most vulnerable in our communities, including HIV/AIDS patients, refugees, and torture survivors. In 1999, Connelly co-founded the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. After joining the Harold Simmons Foundation, founded by and named after her father, Connelly and her sister helped shape much of its outreach over the years. The sisters opened the donor-advised fund at TWF in 2020.

Hoefer expects SPEAK to mobilize current and future social workers to address social injustices. The program will offer training and provide UTA faculty, social work community leaders and other social justice allies with resources to educate students, community activists and social workers in social policy advocacy. The project also plans to provide internship, networking and mentorship opportunities to social work students with an interest in advocacy.

“The overarching goal of SPEAK is to increase the participation of social workers and their allies in the public policy process in order to achieve social justice outcomes,” Hoefer said. “By having resources available, faculty, community leaders and students will learn how to be better advocates.”

The gift comes at a time when some scholars worry too few social work professionals are working to change policies that adversely affect marginalized communities. Although UTA social work students receive education in policy advocacy throughout most of their courses, once they are in the field many find it difficult to remain effective without having allies who are properly trained in the art and skill of advocacy, School of Social Work Dean Scott Ryan said.

“This gift from the Simmons Sisters Fund will go a long way in helping train and inspire social workers, community leaders and social justice allies by teaching them proven techniques, as well as introducing new skills needed for today’s information society, that will help them be more effective in advocating for social change,” Ryan said. “The SPEAK initiative will reinforce what we are doing in the classroom, enhance our Master of Social Work program’s Community and Administrative Practice concentration and help us further strengthen relationships with our social work alumni and community organizations.”

The Simmons family has a history of supporting UTA’s School of Social Work. In 2012, the Harold Simmons Foundation made a $1.1 million gift to the School’s Innovative Community Academic Partnership program, supporting research into racial and ethnic disparities in mental health and the study of family violence.

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