St. Paul native becomes first Black woman to lead University of Minnesota's School of Social Work

The School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota is starting the new school year with a new director.

St. Paul native Dr. Joan Blakey is the first Black woman to fill the role with the School of Social Work, which was established in 1917.

"You don’t get to this place without having high expectations and pushing yourself. So I push myself a lot and I have a lot of high expectations for myself," said Dr. Blakely, seated in her office on the St. Paul campus.

Dr. Blakely started the new position in July. She earned her bachelor's and master's degree at the U. And she received a PhD from the University of Chicago. Blakely spent years at Tulane University in New Orleans, before returning home.

Dr. Joan Blakey (FOX 9)

"I think being able to come back in a different role, in a different position, and give back to the school means a lot to me," said Dr. Blakely.

Having experienced homelessness at the age of 16, her story is one of strength and endurance, and faith.

"There were people that were just, they saw something in me and they just kept pouring into me and they kept believing and kept pushing and kept saying you could do this," said Dr. Blakely.

She says that student interest in the field of social work right now appears to be on the decline.

The University of Minnesota's School of Social Work (FOX 9)

"There is a great need and there is not enough social workers to fill those needs," said Dr. Blakely.  And that's where she says recruitment is key. Dr. Blakely said, "I think there’s a lot of good here. I just think that it’s, how do we make it better? How do we make it more accessible? How do we make it more relatable to what students are needing right now?"

For Dr. Blakey, it's a return to familiar territory. Serving in a different role, a new journey begins. "What I do admire about the students today is that they do believe that they have a right to an education that is reflective of them, that meets their needs, that prepares them for tomorrow," said Dr. Blakely.

The director also serves as a professor at the U Dr. Blakely will be formally installed at a welcome reception next month.