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2017 NASW-MA Chapter Award Recipients
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Greatest Contribution to Social Work Practice

Elizabeth Brenner 

Elizabeth Brenner, LICSW, is the consummate social worker. Creative, courageous and hard-working, she excels at clinical work, teaching, writing, supervision, administration, collaboration and consultation. She began her career, close to 30 years ago, with adolescents on an in-patient psychiatric service in Rhode Island.  Seven years later, she moved to Massachusetts as Program Director at Arbour-Choate Family and Home Consultation Service in Woburn. In 2003 she joined the Family Institute of Cambridge.  As a clinician, she has worked with individuals, couples and families from a wide range of socioeconomic and diagnostic categories, and has supervised clinicians in many settings. Elizabeth also developed a graduate-level intern program specifically geared towards family therapy. She has creatively blended long-used theoretical approaches with new and innovative theoretical orientations.

Elizabeth has taught practicing clinicians from all disciplines, as well as MSW students. At the Division of Children and Families, she has provided education and support to experienced staff who work in one of the most difficult areas of our discipline.When the Family Institute of Cambridge closed, she worked hard and successfully to maintain accessible family therapy education for clinicians across multiple disciplines culminating in the development of Therapy Training Boston, a teaching institution, where she serves  as administrator, clinician and teacher. She has created videos depicting role plays of therapy scenarios, is currently co-authoring a book, and conducts numerous workshops.  She has brought her systems theory knowledge and skills to her work in the corporate, non-social work world, namely, the Biopharmaceutical industry.

Elizabeth is especially noted for her unparalleled ability to use self-reflection and self-knowledge as a tool for clinical excellence. With openness and integrity, she has shared how her family struggled with mental health challenges and how family history influences all aspects of our lives -personal, inter-personal and professional. Elizabeth is an innovative, caring, passionate and gifted therapist, educator and consultant who represents the best of our profession at both the micro and macro levels. We are proud and honored to present Elizabeth the award for the Greatest Contribution to Social Work Practice.

Lifetime Achievement

Erica Kirsners

For more than 39 years Erica Kirsners, LICSW, has demonstrated her commitment to the social work profession.  During those years Erica became an expert in clinical matters working in a variety of challenging positions in inpatient and community psychiatry. She has maintained a demanding private clinical practice where she works with individuals, families, and groups while also teaching and supervising. Since her graduation from the Smith College School for Social Work in 1976 she has been a consistent supporter of her professional organization, NASW, and since 1993 Erica has served as the Chairperson of the NASW-MA Social Work Therapy and Referral Service (SWTRS) the first such NASW Chapter sponsored program in the country. 

Erica serves on the Chapter’s Managed Care Commission since 2008, as well as being the Medicare coordinator and an active member of the Private Practice Shared Interest Group.  The chapter has been involved with compensation issues for decades. Knowing that Clinicians United, SEIU Local 508, was also working on compensation issues, Erica joined the union, became co-chair of the Executive Committee and Chair of the Policy Committee, and serves as a bridge between NASW and Clinicians United.  In addition to years of volunteering, countless hours to NASW, she brings a calm good nature and strong moral character to all she undertakes. Erica is generous in sharing her considerable knowledge and skills with colleagues offering consultation and support to fellow practitioners.

Throughout her career Erica Kirsners has embodied the values of the social work profession and has shown strong and wide-ranging commitment to her clients, colleagues, and NASW. She is the ideal candidate for our NASW Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017.

Public Citizen of the Year

Joanne Peterson 

In the midst of a family crisis surrounding her son’s opiate addiction, Joanne Peterson realized there were few if any resources for family members of opiate addicts.  Out of this crisis, she became empowered to bring about change, not just for herself, but for all families suffering from the stigma, isolation, and confusion associated with addiction.  Her efforts that began with the creation of a single peer support group in southeastern MA have grown to include her creation of a non-profit, Learn to Cope ( which now has 24 chapters across MA and serves over 500 weekly attendees at peer support groups.  Learn to Cope’s mission is to provide support, education, resources, and hope to all families grappling with addiction and recovery. 

Ms. Peterson had no prior experience in mental health or addiction, but singlehandedly began to network, collaborate, learn, and educate. Through her outreach to non-profits and state agencies (DPH, DMH, DCF, and more) and hospitals, Joanne has created a network of groups and individuals who together work to strategize, advocate, and innovate. Joanne is known for her tireless advocacy with individuals, families, legislature, non-profits, and addiction and recovery programs and is just as available to a family in crisis as to meeting with the governor or participating in a White House task force meeting or testifying before the legislature. Joanne’s compassionate, non-judgmental, and strategic work has changed the lives of many families in the Commonwealth. Substance abuse and mental health professionals alike find Joanne an inspiration and cannot imagine being able to do their work without the existence of Learn to Cope as a resource for families. Most important, family members attest to the power and sustaining nature of peer meetings and learning from other families. These weekly meetings along with educational literature and online resources created by Joanne and her staff become a lifeline for many family members, some of whom are in turn empowered to join the efforts of Learn to Cope and use their own experience and knowledge to help others.  While Joanne is known throughout the Commonwealth and nationally, her grassroots connections and involvement remain an inherent part of her work.

Ms. Peterson has received the following awards: Unsung Heroine Award, MA State House: 2006, 2011, 2015 Best New Innovative Program, North Shore Children’s Hospital, 2008, Massachusetts Health Council Award, 2015, White House Advocate for Action Award, 2015, Citizen of the Year Award, Town of Raynham, 2015, and the 2016 Common Good Award, United Way of Plymouth County.

Ms. Peterson is an ideal candidate for the Public Citizen Award with her work and advocacy a true model of selfless dedication to improving the lives of others.

Beverly Ross Fliegel Award

Joan Whitney

Joan Whitney, LICSW, has made a significant contribution to social policy and change as the Director of the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative, whose mission is to reduce alcohol and other drug problems and their related consequences for youth, families and the community. Joan is a strong visible and fearless advocate, a systems change agent, and a compassionate leader.  She built a large network of public and private community partners including parents, youth, elected leaders, health professionals, law enforcement, schools, businesspeople, and members of the recovery and religious communities to come together around substance abuse prevention and recovery.

Joan was instrumental in developing a Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program in the emergency room at Addison Gilbert Hospital. She brought together emergency department leadership, the police and fire departments, addiction treatment programs, social service agencies, local shelters and clergy. The SBIRT pilot at the hospital screens for substance abuse risk/use, establishes rapport, raises the subject of drugs and alcohol, and assesses patients’ readiness to change, and a safe space pilot. 

In fact, Joan collaborated with police and fire personnel years before it was widely accepted to champion the use of Narcan by first responders to help prevent fatal drug overdoses. Gloucester was one of the first communities in the country to have police officers carrying Narcan thanks to Joan’s work with city leaders.  Joan expanded the program to a pediatric population using a similar inclusive planning approach and model.  She also helped SBIRT get started at the Gloucester Community Health Center which has since expanded to all North Shore Community health sites. 

Recognizing the importance of education for those Gloucester youth without a clear who often fall prey to alcohol, drugs or worse, Joan worked to get the community committed to providing post-high school education to prepare students as entry-level technicians in the biotech industry. That school came to fruition this past September.

Action Inc. honored Joan with its Community Leadership Award in 2012, and NASW is delighted to honor her with our 2017 Beverly Ross Fliegel Social Policy Award.

 Greatest Contribution to Social Work Education

Nancy Avery

Nancy Avery, LICSW's nominator and supporters emphasized her character saying she commands the highest respect for her body of work accomplished over a period of 29 years. Early in her academic career, Nancy was recruited by former NASW-MA Chapter President Hubie Jones to join the faculty of Boston University's School of Social Work as an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Academic Field Placement Advisor. Five years later she became a lecturer at Harvard University's Medical School. She was also on the faculty of the Couples and Family Center at Cambridge Hospital. Nancy provided clinical supervision and program consultation at Cambridge Health Alliance in Outpatient Psychiatry as faculty member of a patient care team, on the faculty of the Couples and Family Center; She specialized in issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, child abuse and neglect, and the legacies of trauma as sequelae of these, and interventions/treatment modalities used to respond to patients with these issues.

Nancy mastered a most difficult and complex field of treatment in Contextual Therapy Principles, which focuses on intergenerational legacies of justice and injustice and ethical entitlement among family members. She was an early and fierce advocate for the Commonwealth of MA to establish ethical laws and policies to protect children. While at the MA Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, she led in establishing methods and protocols for mandated reporting of child abuse; there was no such law until 1973. The Department of Social Services (now the Department of Children and Families) was created in 1979 and Nancy was invited to consult with the newly appointed Commissioner because of her recognized expertise.

Nancy Avery is co-founder of Boston Association to Stop Treatment Abuse (BASTA), which provided intervention for survivors of professional misconduct.   She conducts numerous teaching engagements and lectures across the country, for professionals and lay people, on the subject of treatment and advocacy for survivors of professional misconduct.

The Awards Committee is honored to present the 2017 Greatest Contribution to Social Work Education Award to Nancy Avery.

Emerging Leader

Colleen Shannon

Colleen Shannon, LICSW, graduated from Salem State University of Social Work in 2010. Prior to her graduation, she began to distinguish herself as an intern for her current employer, The Children’s Room, as well as in the classroom. She presented her work with grieving children to her peers and she was honored with an award at graduation, “the student who most contributed to the School of Social Work.”

With her MSW degree, her dedication to grieving children and families continued and she designed a new position at The Children’s Room titled Associate Program Director of Youth and Community Outreach. Her central responsibility led to the development and implementation of all community based and youth programming. She was also responsible for providing grief and loss support, consultation, and workshop trainings to professionals in the bereavement field. She had visions beyond the white middle class community her agency served, and branched out to the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Roxbury, School Districts and the Boston Boys and Girls Clubs.

Colleen has already amassed an impressive resume highlighted by her commitment to the social work field. She has written and presented 18 papers since her graduation. Her dedication to the future generation of care providers is also evidenced by her work as adjunct faculty at Smith College School of Social Work teaching about end of life.

Colleen embodies the social work ideal of dedication to her clinical work and sharing her knowledge with fellow care givers. NASW is proud to present her with the 2017 NASW Emerging Leader Award.

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