Shelley Craig

Recipient: March 2015 

Dr. Shelley Craig affirms: "I am in social work because I like to creatively work with others to solve social problems." Shelley Craig, PhD, RSW, is an Associate Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 2-8, 2015, under the theme: "Social Workers: Mobilizing Strengths in Individuals & Communities".

Shelley Craig has an extensive history of community-engaged leadership. She was the Co-Chair of World Pride 2014. She currently serves as: Co-Chair of the Council on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression of the Council of Social Work Education; National President of Heartstrong; executive committee member of Pride Toronto; and member of the national board nominating and performance review committee of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Shelley has also founded several organizations, such as the Alliance for LGBTQ Youth. Drawing from these influential experiences, she now uses practice-based research to create knowledge about the value of social work practice. For example, she partners with youth and community to create interventions that cultivate LGBTQ youth strength and resilience. She declares: "Practicing social work over the past twenty years has inspired and transformed me."

Over the years, Shelley has found that a key component of her ability to catalyze change is to amplify the voices and experiences of those that are more vulnerable. She states: "The focus of my approach is identifying and mobilizing strengths, whether in students, marginalized youth, health practitioners or community organizations. Every single person has a set of strengths. Often individuals are unaware of their strengths because they have been buried under cumulative trauma, marginalization or daily life stressors. I try to partner with individuals and communities to help them pinpoint, discover and leverage those strengths and create opportunities for them to thrive." 

To effectively mobilize strengths, Shelley tries to remain positive and keep a sense of perspective. Having worked in crisis intervention for many years, she quickly can situate perceived crises in a broader context: "I love to "reframe" -- I like to deconstruct and reconstruct perceptions in a way that allows individuals and communities to understand their strengths. Even at the university level, I always have one foot on campus and one foot in the community because it gives me the most inclusive practice perspective."   

Shelley notes that her socio-economic background required work to survive and she worked full-time through all of her degrees, thereby accumulating many practice experiences. She says: "To keep going, I always focus on the big picture and draw on the connections that this work fosters. Social justice is critical, because I am also in social work because I want to help create change for individuals, families and society. If I didn't believe that social work could help make a difference, I would pursue another career. Working for social change can be fun. Social support can help buffer the challenges and provide a forum for shared creativity and innovation." 

Her practice-based research and clinical work have focused on capturing and leveraging the strengths of vulnerable populations, particularly LGBTQ youth. Building on a history of creating programs with youth, she now uses research skills to understand the effectiveness of interventions for these populations. Within the research literature, she is thrilled to have contributed the first evidence-informed programs designed to improve the overall well-being of LGBTQ youth. Some recent examples are Strengths First, a strengths-based case management program; Affirmative Supportive Safe and Empowering Talk (ASSET), a resilience-based group intervention; and Project AFFIRM, a cognitive behavioural coping skills training. She states: "I am delighted when social workers email me and share that programs have helped them provide critical service to LGBTQ youth. I am inspired when youth recognize that they have the courage to be the architects of their own experiences even while they are experiencing discrimination and violence. That is resilience. I am thrilled when former clients enroll in a social work class and when former students become recognized leaders in the field. The work of social workers across the world, especially in Ontario, is awe-inspiring. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to learn from them as they change the world. To just be a small part of that movement is exhilarating."   

For Shelley, it is vital for social work to own its importance as a profession and start conceptualizing its daily contributions in terms of interventions and outcomes. She adds: "I would like our profession to nurture creative ideas for social change that considers similarities in our work.  Think about what unites us and not divides us. I want social workers to consider inspired imperfect action to make a difference within our communities and our profession. Trying something new, even when we feel immobilized by fear, perfectionism or the status quo, can be a catalyst for a social work innovation." 

Shelley Craig's passion is fueled by the potential for social change. She believes that even when individuals or communities experience barriers in their quests for full human rights, the change process can be energizing. She notes that there are now over 600 Pride festivals in the world and has found through her research that Pride festivals reduce discrimination against the LGBTQ community and advance human rights. Pride organizers internationally are an inspiration. During 2014, the year that we hosted over 2 million people for World Pride in Toronto, dozens were arrested for attending Moscow Pride. She explains: "Human rights do not evolve but are achieved through the blood, sweat and tears of those who went before us." 

It is Shelley's belief that inspirational leaders have a clear and courageous vision and don't let protocols or precedent dissuade them: "Leaders listen, learn and think big and very creatively while they work. True leaders elicit and support others' strengths. They also recognize the personal and professional transformation that leadership responsibilities can fuel. You can advocate your way to greater wellness by working on behalf of others. This has been my experience. Despite being a very introverted person when I was younger, engaging in the social work fight for human rights on behalf of others has profoundly changed me." 

Shelley Craig is an inspirational leader in the social work community -- innovative, engaging, and courageous.  During Social Work Week, March 2-8, 2015, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.