A man smiling wearing a blue sports coat and blue plaid button up shirt.
Anthony Estreet, Ph.D., graduated from the VCU School of Social Work with a Master of Social Work degree in 2007. He is now the CEO of the National Association of Social Workers. (Courtesy of Anthony Estreet)

VCU grad pushing profession forward as leader of National Association of Social Workers

Anthony Estreet, who graduated with his Master of Social Work from VCU in 2007, says VCU’s proximity to Capitol Hill gives social work students, faculty unique opportunities to “make a lot of change.”

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As the new chief executive officer of the National Association of Social Workers, Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Anthony Estreet, Ph.D., is looking to re-engage social workers – and future social workers and their faculty.

“We are in that space between challenge and opportunity as social workers,” said Estreet, who was announced as CEO in early January and assumed his duties in early February. “If we embrace and fully come together as one profession and break down silos, we can continue to make a lot of change and good trouble in terms of addressing challenges we see.”

Estreet pointed to Florida and the banning of books related to critical race theory. “I want us to be able to be a voice and to be able to advocate and help out our colleagues in Florida,” he said. “Even me living in the DMV area or somebody else living in California, we should be able to advocate and really express our concern with some of the challenges that we're seeing. The biggest thing for me is coalition-building and figuring out how we can all start to have a voice under one banner, which is the social work profession.”

Estreet, who graduated with his Master of Social Work from VCU in 2007, previously served on the board of the Washington, D.C.-based NASW while working at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he was a full professor of social work and chair of the master’s program. He brings a higher education-informed perspective to his new role.

“I think we have to try to figure out how we engage students in services that are meaningful for students,” he said. “And, equally, how do we engage faculty in services that are useful for faculty?”

The draw, Estreet said, needs to be more than just providing a membership benefit such as continuing education units, which students are typically too busy to use. Instead, he is focused on more timely and relevant concerns of the profession and issues students care about.

“For me, the role is really helping students to understand the value of a membership and a professional association and helping them to understand that we're only as strong as the voice that we have and as our professional association has,” he said. “If we were to really have a strong association, we could, in fact, do a lot of policy and advocacy that is supportive of better pay for social workers, that could address this issue (of bias) around the licensing exam, that could really talk to loan forgiveness and those things that matter to social workers.

“I think everybody understands the strength in numbers concept. I am much more looking for us to build coalitions and strengthen our voice as a profession, so that we can then have Congress coming to us asking us for support instead of always having to go to them.”

A good match at VCU

Though Estreet grew up in a military family that moved around a lot, he established roots in the DMV, graduating from high school in Maryland and then earning his undergraduate degree in psychology from Bowie State University in Maryland. He also has an MBA from the University of Maryland.

“I was looking for something that was close but also not in Maryland,” he said of his decision to attend VCU for his master’s in social work. “VCU just kind of struck me as a place that had the ability to look at different issues of the time. It was close enough to Baltimore and the Washington area for things to do outside of life at school. It was a good match.”

Estreet fondly recalled Elizabeth “Lib” Hutchison, an associate professor at that time and one of a number of faculty with national recognition as authors of widely used social work textbooks.

“I had the pleasure of working with some of the social work giants, like Lib Hutchison,” Estreet said. “She was certainly a huge influence in terms of how we understand human behavior in a social environment. Her books really helped you understand social work from a theoretical lens but also to understand human behavior.”

Hutchison, who retired in 2009 after 22 years with the school and continues to write new editions of two textbooks, said, “Anthony was such a delightful student, and I always thought he had a bright future. He was one of those students that lights up a room and you are happy to see in the hall.

“He was highly respected by everyone. He had a noticeable maturity for his age and also a delightful sense of humor. I grew very fond of him. We can all be proud of him.”

Estreet will return to campus as the keynote speaker for the school’s commencement ceremony in May. He praised both the school’s national reputation and associate professor of social work Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D., who is serving as interim dean.

“I think people have always held VCU in high regard,” he said. “VCU has always been one of the top-ranked schools of social work. The one thing that is a huge draw is that it’s situated near the DMV area. You can come to D.C. to advocate and get a flavor of Capitol Hill. It’s really uniquely positioned to understand both the challenges of the South and also to be accessible to D.C. for advocacy.

“VCU is definitely top tier. I particularly loved that I went to VCU, and as you can see, my education has certainly helped me a lot in my career.”

Dr. Estreet is a 2007 VCU M.S.W. alumnus and CEO of the National Association of Social Workers.

Leadership at a crucial moment for the profession

Estreet and Gomez met in 2018 while working as co-chairs of a track on addiction at the Council on Social Work Education’s annual conference.

“Rebecca is an exceptional leader,” Estreet said. “She also does a great job of listening and has a listening ear when it comes to addressing situations. Working with her has been great. As co-chairs, we had the opportunity to put out the first iteration of the curricular guide to address substance use for all schools of social work. That indicates her ability to lead and to really be forward-thinking when it comes to addressing issues in social work.”

Gomez said Estreet is the right person to lead the national organization at a crucial moment for the profession.

“Social work is in a period of great self-examination and evolution. We are critically examining what we do and how we do it,” she said. “There is a great opportunity for transformation that will leave our profession better, stronger and more just. Actualizing this positive growth requires strong leadership. Anthony has an enormous strength in his ability to bring people together. He is a connector.

“If you ever have the ability to step back and watch Anthony amid a group of social workers, you will notice how they naturally and effortlessly gravitate to him. They have confidence in his ability to hear them, to address tough challenges and to facilitate meaningful dialogue. This leadership has the potential to lead social work to a future filled with significant impact where we can realize our values both within our profession and in the larger societies we work to serve.”