Dr. Colleen McMillan

Recipient: March 2014

Dr. Colleen McMillan welcomes the opportunity to tell social workers of their potential to become leaders within health care: "Never before has the field been so receptive for our abilities in creating innovative health care models due to our 'person in the environment' training and our vision for seeing health as all-encompassing." Colleen McMillan, MSW, PhD, RSW, is an Assistant Professor at Renison University College School of Social Work (University of Waterloo); the Clinical and Research Lead for the Mental Health Team at the Centre for Family Medicine in Kitchener; a course lecturer in the Department of Family Medicine of the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University; and a social worker in private clinical practice. She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 3-9, 2014, under the theme: "Social Workers: Champions of Positive Change"

Colleen's practice in the health care field has been as broad as the word 'health' itself: policy, clinical practice, health promotion, disease prevention, community development, advocacy, teaching and research opportunities have seamlessly merged together into a rich and varied journey. She started in community development, moved into medical social work, and then on to primary health care when she established a mental health team within a Family Health Team. She sees the roles of practitioner, researcher and teacher on a spectrum continuously informing and intersecting each other. 

In her work at Renison University College and McMaster University, Colleen notes that she is in the enviable position of being able to straddle professions that in the past have been labelled as oppositional - that of social work and medicine: "Teaching McMaster family practice residents on the value of relationship-building for the past 9 years has changed how they practice upon graduation, while bringing the perspective of evidence-based practices to social work students strengthens their clinical potential. My role as a 'knowledge broker' is one that I feel is critical toward better health outcomes for all." 

In Dr. Colleen McMillan's opinion, the most visible way to demonstrate the uniqueness of a social work degree is to position oneself within other professional paradigms: "Without a doubt the most fulfilling achievement has been my ability to transverse across different professions (urban planning, family medicine and social work), within the social work profession (policy, clinical, research, teaching and community development) and between work contexts (academic, clinical practice setting, and community). This 'passport' has revealed spaces of opportunities for me to engage in and to bridge people and projects." 

It is evident that Colleen makes it a rule to always say "yes" to opportunities that come her way; her biggest challenge is time. As an example, she explains that she had two opportunities present at the exact same time in 2005 - the offer to pursue a PhD full-time and that of building a mental health team for a newly formed Family Health Team. She accepted both offers and, in retrospect, can credit that decision for where she is today. She explains: "The opportunity as a social worker to inform how primary care is delivered in a meaningful way in conjunction with other health professionals has been a tremendous growth experience and one that I transfer over to the classroom and informs my research." 

Dr. Colleen McMillan is a strong proponent of participatory action research in health care that values the lived experience of individuals above learned knowledge by experts: "Equipping people to feel empowered about their health is the best way to ensure change that is sustainable.  An example of this is the creation of self-management tools in primary health that supports individuals to assume responsibility of their health with traditional health providers taking a secondary role." 

In reference to the theme for Social Work Week 2014, Colleen states: "Diversity of thought is a rich tool to seek out when thinking of positive change. As a social worker, my unique training and experience have equipped me to look within and beyond our profession to appreciate how the merger of taught and lived knowledge result in a momentum that creates and sustains change. Positive change does not happen in isolation. Positive change comes from identifying and supporting the growth of those you work with toward a shared goal." She cites the examples that have been meaningful for her such as the opening of the first inter-disciplinary AIDS clinic in Canada and the creation of the first online Master of Social Work program in Canada, both of which were the result of intentional and collaborative energies of people from diverse backgrounds. 

Dr. Colleen McMillan believes that there are many ways for social workers to be leaders: "As social workers, we hold an impressive portfolio of skill sets and abilities that we need to embrace and celebrate. Leadership ranges from single acts of kindness to global endeavours addressing gender inequality and health disparity. My wish would be for each person entering the profession to embrace their potential and to actively seek out ways to showcase their abilities in the most fulfilling avenues open to them." She also encouraged social workers to always be lifelong learners and students of others. For her, she says: "Look at each personal interaction as an opportunity to either learn something new or to be open to having one's views questioned." She adds: "A key attribute is to have the capacity to hold information without acting on it. Leadership is not a solitary act but the culmination of different synergies between people, issues and places." 

Colleen notes that she has had the good fortune of being mentored by strong, supportive women from very diverse backgrounds over her career: "My grandmother who was Mennonite was my first mentor and her values of humility, tolerance and respect for all people continue to shape my behaviour and thinking. This mentoring is currently bookmarked by Dr. Ellen Sue Mesbur who saw potential in me to be an academic. In turn, I look for opportunities to impart the gifts my mentors have instilled in me to others, including students that bring a wonderful new lens to issues. Many other women over the years have generously shared sage advice and wisdom." 

Dr. Colleen McMillan is an inspirational leader in the social work community - optimistic, rigorous, energetic. During Social Work Week, March 3-9, 2014, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.