California Social Work Hall of Distinction: A Force for Positive Social Change

A Brief History

The California Social Work Hall of Distinction was founded in 2002 by James Karl (1927-2008). Its inaugural event was on November 14, 2002 where 12 members were inducted. Selected inductees demonstrate exceptional leadership in social work practice and education, research or policy in California, and have advanced the profession. Each year, the induction ceremony is held in conjunction with the NASW-CA Annual Conference, alternating between northern and southern California.  

California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA)

The California Social Work Hall of Distinction operates under the auspices of the California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA). Following an explosion of creativity, growth and development of social welfare services and programs across California and the nation during the 1960’s and 1970’s, a group of dedicated social workers at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, posed the questions,

“What if all the advances achieved in social welfare during this prolific time fade away and are forgotten? What if the theories, knowledge and understanding achieved by our generation are lost to future social workers and social welfare advocates in our state? What can we do to ensure that advances made in our time remain available to inform decisions and planning of future social welfare and social justice, legislation, programs and services?”

Led by George Nickel, the CSWA was established in 1979 by this small group of social workers devoted to preserving California’s social welfare history. Over time the CSWA has evolved into an established, statewide, non-profit organization operating under the auspices of the University of Southern California (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Today, the Archives is affiliated with the USC Libraries Special Collections, where physical CSWA holdings are housed. 

In the clip above, Frances Lomas Feldman, discusses the California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA) and the Hall of Distinction.

CSWA Prime Movers

George Nickel (1906-1990)

Armed with master’s degrees from the University of Southern California in both economics and social work, George Nickel began his social work career during the Great Depression with unemployed homeless single men and with couples entering Rancho Los Amigos, the Los Angeles County Poor Farm. In 1932, he was invited to become director of the Kern County Welfare Program to address the relief of needy and distressed people. Over the opposition of many in that county, he successfully developed innovative projects that both relieved the stress on individuals and added economic and social benefits to the larger community experiencing the great influx of migrants from the Dust Bowl.

In this clip, George Nickel discusses how he got into social work.

Nickel then became statewide Director of Social Services for the newly created California State Relief Administration, working closely with its director, Charles Schottland. During WWII, Nickel carried on a placement service, nationally and in California, for children in Europe displaced by the war. As the war drew to a close, he persuaded the California legislature to retain the child care programs that had been established under the wartime Lanham Act and that were abandoned in every other state, thus creating in California a strong nucleus for day care and after-school care for children of working mothers. He was the prime founder of the movement to create Consumer Credit Counseling Services, the first established in San Diego and Los Angeles. He was instrumental in the passage of the first legislation to create licensing for California social workers. He was a valuable ally in the passage of mental health legislation in the 1950s, and worked on a variety of key public commissions, agency boards and professional associations, local as well as national.


Frances Lomas Feldman

Frances Lomas Feldman was Distinguished Professor Emerita of Social Work at the University of Southern California, where she taught social welfare history, policy, and administration for 35 years after fifteen years in public and private social agencies as caseworker, administrator, researcher and consultant. Even after retirement, she remained active in university and community affairs, engaged in research, and continued to write. Her name is legend in southern California social work circles. She represents the best in the social work profession and, because of her enormous contribution to the field, was among the first to be nominated as a living inductee into the Social Work Hall of Distinction.

One of her early seminal research interests was the psychological and social meanings of money and work in family life; it led to several research and demonstration projects, the founding of the non-profit consumer credit counseling movement and the innovation of pioneering programs in industrial social work. She chaired the Child Welfare Division of the Los Angeles Welfare Planning Council that was instrumental in the passage of the important 1950 legislation. She served as academic consultant to the McCone Commission on the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, and the supplemental report she authored contributed to some health and welfare policy changes. She took special pride in an extensive demonstration-research project conducted in rural Alaska in the late 1960s that had important effects on Eskimo village life. Her research on the workplace and cancer health histories has been much cited in later psycho-social research in the arena of cancer.

A deep interest in history and human services led to her work with the CSWA and a continuing interest in the preservation of records that reflect the social programs that flourished in southern California during its history. As part of an institutional study of the City of Los Angeles from its birth as an American city, she documented and wrote Human Services in the City of Angels for which she received the 2004 Wheat Award from the Southern California Historical Society.

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