Policy Analyst, Voices for Virginia’s Children
Thanks for agreeing to talk with me, Allison. And congratulations on your new position!
Tell me more about yourself. How did you become interested in social work? How has your career evolved? What led you to your work in policy practice?
I originally started out with intentions of becoming a lawyer and doing child and family law. I did not understand then that, as a lawyer, I would most likely be taking individual cases and not working at a systems level the way I had always envisioned. As a college student, I interned at the House of Delegates and the Office of the Governor – these experiences solidified my desire to work in public service. Because of my own childhood experiences, I decided to volunteer for the City of Richmond’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. During the process of becoming a volunteer, I realized that my passion was being the voice for our most vulnerable and valuable resource, our children. This passion led me to me to work for Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. While there, we had an MSW intern who introduced me to the concept of “Macro” practice, social workers who are skilled in formulating, implementing, analyzing and evaluating policies, plans and programs for complex and ever-changing local, state, national and international environments. During the first year of my MSW program, I interned at the Department of Criminal Justice Services for the CASA State Coordinator. In my second year, I interned with the Lt. Governor’s office and was selected as a 2016 Federal Policy Fellow. During both years, I worked closely with the Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success and started realizing the many systemic disadvantages many children and families face. After completing the program, I landed the perfect role at Voices for Virginia’s Children as a policy analyst in the areas of juvenile justice and foster care. I am excited to make a dynamic impact in our Commonwealth’s child welfare practices.
What do you consider to be the single most pressing social problem in the USA today? Why do you think it’s so important? How do you think we, as social workers, can help to address it?
It is very difficult to choose one single social problem, but if I had to choose it would be our nation’s poverty levels. Poverty is the underlying issue for so many social problems social workers address such as: substance abuse, child abuse, incarceration, trauma, etc. Family economic security is a strong indicator of a child’s likelihood that they will have access to preventive health (immunizations), accredited schools, as well as a lower risk of experiencing community violence and unplanned pregnancy. Addressing poverty is a challenge for many organizations and States, so my suggestion is to ask the question “What policies are in place that perpetuate poverty in my State, and how can my organization address that problem?” In Virginia, our failure to expand Medicaid is pushing more families into poverty each day. Our organization is strongly encouraging our legislators to support this expansion.
Is there an issue that you are personally passionate about? What is it? Why is it important to you? What kinds of policy changes should we be advocating for to make life better for those affected by it?
Currently, I am very passionate about reforming Virginia’s juvenile justice system so that most of our delinquency-involved youth are served in their families and communities, as opposed to juvenile prisons that are unsafe, ineffective, expensive to maintain, and keep kids disconnected from families. Last session, Voices successfully advocated for a budget package that will result in the closure of our two remaining Juvenile Correctional Centers (JCCs) and a reinvestment of those funds into a full, evidence-based continuum of supports and services geared towards rehabilitation in family and community environments. Many youth in our juvenile justice system have mental health needs that are either untreated or undertreated; these youth could also benefit from family engagement strategies that can often only be implemented when youth are living with or near family members. Family and community-based services also allow for continuity of treatment needs: these youths are often known to other systems before they enter DJJ, and will most likely need to be known by other systems (like mental and behavioral health) when they leave. Virginia is poised at a moment of real opportunity to see large-scale reform of a system that is just not working as it’s currently structured. It is important for me to be involved in how the new system is structured so that we do not recreate an already broken system.
Do you think social workers have anything unique or special to contribute in the policy arena? How did your social work education prepare you for the work you do? How has being a social worker shaped your approach to social change? Are there things you wish you had learned or been exposed to sooner?
Social work is an undervalued career within the policy arena. Social workers bring a level of empathy and social awareness unlike any other profession. Our job is to constantly think about the most vulnerable and oppressed populations and promote polices that benefit them. It was not until I started working in the policy arena that I realized that most people working in this field do not have this attitude or the dedication that social workers have. My social work education prepared me best in the areas of identifying where the underlying social problem is and addressing racial equity issues. In hindsight, I wish my program would have provided me with opportunities to practice testifying before the legislature, and to create and maintain relationships with the media.
What advice do you have for social work faculty in terms of getting students excited about and engaged in policy practice?
I think social work programs have a responsibility to seek out exciting and challenging internship opportunities for students interested in macro practice, specifically in the area of public policy. Social work faculty should be bringing current public policy topics into the classroom for conversation and allowing students to discuss what policy strategies they would pursue to create effective change. It is also important for faculty to address how practice informs policy and policy informs practice continuously throughout the program.
If any students are reading this, what would you like to say to them?
While I am not certain my Professors would agree with me, students should be spending half of their time on academics and the other half networking. Public policy is all about relationships and that is what employers want to know when they are hiring you. They are not just hiring your skills and abilities as a social worker, they are also hiring the relationships you have with Senators, Delegates, and high ranking officials in the Administration. The last year of my program, I met with at least 3 people a month and interviewed them about strategies in public policy, who they think I should know, and of course if they knew of any job opportunities. Now that I am a policy analyst, I am calling on those connections when needed to collaborate on issues where I think we can work together. Many of the brightest individuals in my class are still seeking employment because they did not invest time in networking before graduation.
Allison Gilbreath recently joined Voices for Virginia’s Children as its Policy Analyst for Foster Care and Juvenile Justice. Allison was a Governor’s fellow in 2011 and was selected for the 2016 Emerging Leaders Program at University of Virginia’s Sorenson Institute. She was awarded the 2015 RVA inspiring woman award as well as the 2016 David Saunders Legislative Award from the VCU School of Social Work. She also serves on the YWCA of Richmond’s Young Woman’s Leadership Alliance. Allison earned her B.S. and MSW degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University.