Recipient of the Inspirational Leaders Award for March 2018
In thinking about her career as a public policy leader and advocate for social justice, Uppala Chandrasekera states: “Being a social worker is a big part of my identity and has shaped who I am as a person.” Uppala Chandrasekera, MSW, RSW, is a Toronto social worker who has held progressive leadership roles at the local, provincial and national levels related to improving the planning and delivery of health, mental health and policing services. As a passionate advocate for marginalized populations, a major focus of her work has been the intersection of discrimination and racism on health, mental health and social well-being. She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 5-11, 2018, under the theme: "Social Workers on the Front Lines of Real Issues.”
Uppala Chandrasekera holds a Master of Social Work degree from Wilfrid Laurier University. Currently, she is the Director of Public Policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario, where she provides leadership for public policy work. She also provides strategic policy advice to the Provincial Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee and is the Co-Chair of Ontario’s Police-Hospital Transition Task Force. Since 2012, Uppala has served on the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and was Vice Chair from 2013-2016. In 2017, she was appointed by the Ontario Cabinet to the Toronto Police Services Board, the first ever mental health expert to be appointed to this role. Uppala also provides education and training in human rights, inclusion, anti-racism and health equity, while her research and publications examine the impact of discrimination on the health and well-being of marginalized individuals and communities.
In reviewing her career trajectory, Uppala explains: “Mental health and addictions have been common threads throughout my career. I began my career as a correctional officer in a youth facility and as a security guard at the local RCMP detachment in Iqualuit. I saw first-hand the impact of addictions and mental health issues on both the individuals in custody and the officers. Without adequate supports from the health care system, the police officers became the default response to people in crisis. Police officers are not health care professionals, their job is public safety. This is when I first realized that the justice system is the catch-all for everyone who falls through the gaps in the health care system. This valuable knowledge gained early on in my career informs the public policy work that I do now.”
When asked what it means to her to be “on the front line of real issues”, Uppala Chandrasekera answers: “For me, social work is about affecting change both at a micro-level with individuals and families, and at a macro-level with communities, institutions and society at large. I have a lot of respect for social workers who are therapists and counselors. During my short tenure as a counselor, all I could see were the larger social barriers that were at play – poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and barriers to accessing the social determinants of health. I quickly realized that I was a systems-level thinker and that my skills were better suited to tackle macro-level issues. Much of my work over the past decade has focused on affecting change through public policy and advocating for change in legislation. Informed by the voices of clients and clinicians, I see my role as helping to translate the reality of the front-line issues to impact broader social change. In public policy work, we may not see the fruits of our labour for years, but when we are able to achieve change, it can have a significant positive impact for a great number of people all at once. For me, that is really rewarding.”
When asked how she stays inspired in her work, Uppala replies: “I continue to be inspired by the compassion of my colleagues in the mental health and addictions sector. The sector is chronically underfunded across Canada and the infrastructure is crumbling, while demand for services is increasing year after year. Yet despite the challenges, mental health and addictions service providers work tirelessly and are truly inspirational. My wish is for increased recognition of the importance of mental health. The conversation has started to shift over the years, but we as a society need to think about addictions and mental health issues the way we think about physical health issues. You can’t just snap out of cancer, or diabetes or heart disease, you need appropriate diagnosis, treatment and supports. The same is true for addictions and mental health issues. With the right treatment and the right support, recovery is possible.”
When asked to comment on barriers and challenges, Uppala notes: “Racism is a social determinant of health and continues to impact the health and well-being of individuals, communities and society. Racism exists in the social work profession too. The best way to address racism at an individual level is to name it when we see it. Often, racialized people walk around thinking, "Oh, that probably was just in my head. That subtle insult, was it actually directed at me?" By naming it when we see it, we are validating the person’s experience and acknowledging that it really did happen. Naming racism in the moment is also the first step to addressing it at an institutional and systems level. Anti-racism is an action-oriented engagement – it's not enough to write about it, it's not enough to talk about it, we actually have to do it.”
Uppala credits volunteering for maintaining her sense of passion. Among other activities, since 2012, she has participated in the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work Alumni Mentoring Program, and in 2017, she was recognized with the Outstanding Alumni Mentor Award. She says: “It’s simply not realistic to think that our “9 to 5 job” is going to be our “dream job,” because every job has components that are boring or challenging. Volunteering keeps your other interests and passions alive. If you have the time, volunteering can be both personally beneficial as well as a great contribution to society – and it can be fun too.”
Uppala Chandrasekera is an inspirational leader in the social work community – an impactful and resolute change agent. During Social Work Week, March 5-11, 2018, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.
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