Friday, July 12, 2019
What does it mean to be a public health social worker? CISWH’s Boston University Advancing Leadership in Public Health Social Work (BU-ALPS) project explores the career paths and impact of MSW/MPH alumni.
Jenn Valenzuela, MSW, MPH, Chief People Officer, Health Leads, Boston, MA
Jenn Valenzuela graduated from the Boston University MSW/MPH Program in 2000/2001. She was a Clinical Practice major at the School of Social Work and Health Policy/Management major at the School of Public Health. Jenn is currently Chief People Officer at a national health organization, Health Leads, where she has worked for seven years. She describes her job as “100% Public Health Social Work (PHSW). I have both feet firmly planted in both social work and public health. At Health Leads, we deliver direct services to approximately 10,000 patients in health care settings every year. With my clinical hat on, I lead all the program implementation and integration in health systems and clinics across the country. My team is responsible for coaching and training staff, establishing and promoting best practices, and codifying Health Lead’s program model using data analytics and clinical expertise.” Jenn notes that her experience as a clinical social worker in health settings has informed her thinking about always keeping patients first and that her public health expertise allows her to speak with health care executives about population health strategies.
Jenn’s achievements are numerous: While at Children’s Hospital, she led a five-year U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Population Affairs randomized control trial to study the effects of individual life skills and parenting interventions among urban teen parents. She also spearheaded a partnership with fifteen community service organizations to create, develop and implement an Annual Summit for Teen Empowerment and Parenting Success, which is now in its 7th year. At Health Leads, she has created a Patients Advisory Council to increase the voices of those who receive services, co-led the development of a client database, and has recently been promoted to the Executive Team where she heads up the organization’s equity work.
Jenn notes that her experience as a clinical social worker in health settings has informed her thinking about always keeping patients first and that her public health expertise allows her to speak with health care executives about population health strategies.
She is also passionate about the need for social work to strengthen its role in health. She notes that when she started in public health almost twenty years ago, almost no one knew what an MPH was. At that point, “Social work was very well understood and the profession never needed to define itself—although it really was only known as a clinical profession. Now, public health has surpassed social work in its brand and professional identity. Public health is well-respected in the health care field and always brought to the table. And there are more public health folks in the administrative roles than social workers. And when social work is invited to the table, we don’t come with data that can tell our stories and make the case for ourselves.” Jenn observes that much of the conversation in health care is about social determinants, population health, unmet social needs and empathic inquiry. She is concerned that social work, which has been doing this work forever, has not told its story well enough. “We must do better!”
Jenn makes a compelling case for PHSW. She sees public health social workers as capable of bringing and keeping social justice at the forefront of the work. “Public health social worker is the best combination. We’re people that can see the bigger picture and look at how to prevent the problem, while at the same time recognizing that the problem still exists and we can intervene…when I tell people I’m a public health social worker, I have to explain it. But once I do, they get it.”
Jenn’s advice to students: Rather than waiting until after graduation, engage in leadership development while in school and learn “concrete things like facilitation of meetings, team leadership, staff development and financial management.”
This profile is excerpted from the Advancing Leadership in Public Health Social Work Education Toolkit. This free resource, designed to help advance the field of public health social work, was produced by CISWH’s BU-ALPS project and funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.