The Living Spirit of Verne Weed, Social Worker Activist

April 4, 1909- November 14, 1985 

Verne Weed
Photo: Courtesy of the Verne Weed Collection for Progressive Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives.

Every once in a while there is a human being whose life may be said to be transcendent, because that individual, in words and actions, moves past current notions of what is realistically possible and uniquely fulfills some aspect of the human potential.

Verne was a social worker whose commitment to human service became the essence of her being, and both the source and focus of her energy. Her life and work were illuminated by a holistic view of social relationships, which links all persons as members in the human family. She considered that solutions to social problems could be achieved through united, collective activity, and that prevention is the most effective approach to social problem solving. Verne Weed understood that the social functioning of individuals and families is related to the level of nurturance and social responsibility in the society in which they live. She undertook professional advocacy and political activity which transformed those concepts into social action. For Verne, daily participation in the struggle to produce a socially responsible society was as essential to her life as the air she breathed.

Verne Weed was born in Columbus, Indiana on April 4, 1909. For Verne and her brother, home life was imbued with the values of rural America; Vern’s father was a distributor of farm equipment. After attending local schools, Verne graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Philosophy. A friend of hers had found work in New York City; after college graduation, Verne followed her friend east seeking a job, a decision that shaped the future of her employment career. Verne was hired by the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services, and entered the field of human services.

In the 30’s and 40’s, New York City was a center of trade union organizing. Verne joined the Rank and File Movement which developed among social service workers struggling for recognition of the needs of both clients and workers by rigid institutional systems, and for unionization. It was through the organizing campaigns of the Rank and File Movement that Verne met and worked with Bertha Reynolds. Verne also was a contributor to the Rank and File journal, Social Work Today. The theoretical perspectives and the dedication to social action which Verne Weed expressed in words and deeds throughout her life were developed through the Rank and File experience.

Verne was awarded her MSW degree at the New York School, now Columbia University School of Social Work, and she was a Charter Member of NASW in New York City. In the 40’s Verne moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where she became Assistant Executive Director of Children’s Services of Connecticut, and President of the Hartford Chapter of NASW. In 1955 Verne Weed ran as an Independent Candidate for City Council in Hartford. Her campaign platform, still relevant 30 years later, featured a call for increased social services, including housing and legal services, to be financed by cuts in military spending.

The McCarthy era in the United States, which followed, was both damaging to the progressive foundations of social welfare, and also personally devastating to many dedicated practitioners committed to social action in behalf of community needs. Activists were attacked with intent to eliminate them from positions in the field. Verne Weed was attacked as a Communist, so named by the prosecution in the Smith Act trial of a leader of the Connecticut Communist Party. She was forced out of her job in Connecticut, and received a year’s severance pay only through the supportive intervention of the NASW State Chapter.

Returning to New York City, where she resided for the remaining years of her life, Verne was still under investigation, and she continued to be harassed by hostile newspaper articles. Again professional colleagues were courageous in their support; Verne Weed was admitted to the Doctoral Program at the New York School, a program she did not complete, ultimately, but through which she became a Faculty Field Instructor. At Hunter, Verne continued her work against institutional racism and elitism; she conceived and developed the first one-year residence MSW program in the nation, a program which allows entry by working-class candidates because people with work experience may complete formal educational requirements in a shorter time. During this period Verne was active in Social Work Action for Civil Rights, and later helped organize Social Work Action for Welfare Rights. A leader in the NYC-based Radical Alliance of Social Services Workers, Verne wrote many articles; perhaps the most widely circulated, co-authored with Bob Rosengard, was: “Reaganism—What It Is and How to Fight It.” That analysis continues to be fresh and timely. She helped found, and participated in, the work of the Education Center for Community Organizing (ECCO) at Hunter College School of Social Work.

It was characteristic of Verne Weed that, she was not defensive about her egalitarian values, nor about the use of Marxist theory in her conceptual framework. Verne was always sure in her assessment that the construction of social structures which are caring and sharing is essential for human survival and growth. That assessment is relevant to world issues now more than ever; despite avoidance of the question by many political and economic leaders, international forums appear to be coming to the conclusion that human survival requires more socially responsible distribution of the world’s resources. The life of Verne Weed is a crystalline example of the radical, egalitarian tradition in social work which utilizes Marxist concepts in the analysis of social systems and other social phenomena, and which continues to provide relevant insights on current social problems. Theory and practice which have been articulated by this sector, a continuing, vocal minority within the profession, represent a vital tradition which needs to be known and taught in schools of Social Work, along with other core systems of organized principles which constitute the foundation upon which the social work profession has been built. To maintain that tradition, the most meaningful tribute which could be made to her memory is the establishment of the Verne Weed Archives at Hunter College School of Social Work.

When and wherever social workers participate in struggles for human advancement, the spirit of Verne Weed is and will be present.

—   Arlene Prigoff

Source: Verne Weed Collection for Progressive Social Work, 1940-1980.Box 1. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN.

 

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