UHD professor goes beyond community service, lives ‘social work in action’
Tucked away off Washington Avenue behind Velvet Taco is an unassuming set of buildings and converted garage apartments where a dedicated professor spends half her week helping, serving and even living with immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and the poor.
As an associate professor and director of the social work program at the University of Houston-Downtown, Dawn McCarty has a natural intellectual curiosity toward less-privileged communities. But from Monday to Thursday, McCarty goes one step further in immersing herself by living at Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality.
“It’s what I do,” McCarty said. “It’s my life. It’s not like I’m making some great sacrifice — I’m not. People ask me that, but I’m not. I’m the person who benefits here. Sometimes people will surprise me. It’s such a part of my life that it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do my service now.’”
McCarty is tasked with running the food distribution at the shelter. Every Tuesday morning, she leads a crew of volunteers and full-time workers at 5:30 a.m. to prepare the morning’s food and open the doors by 6:15 a.m. McCarty said the meal serves about 300 people.
“We give out food all the time, but we do it in sort of a concentrated frame for people (on Tuesdays), and that’s open to anyone,” McCarty said. “We have such a food insecurity issue in our community, so we want folks to come in every week if they can. An important part of what we do is help people not to worry about food, and that’s a beautiful thing — you don’t have to worry about food. We have plenty of food. Come get it!”
Values in action
McCarty’s life of service is underpinned by a Catholic Worker ideal called personalism — the practice of moving away from self-centered individualism toward the good of other people — which she described as magical because of the personal connection that it grants for people like her to live out their values directly with others.
“People come in and they’re suffering,” McCarty said. “It’s an issue of solidarity — we’re on your side even though this is a very toxic environment for new immigrants and new refugees.”
Heather Goltz, McCarty’s colleague at UHD, said that it’s commonplace for educators, researchers and faculty professionals to try their best to be of service to their program, college department and university. But McCarty, Goltz said, is a rare academic.
“Dawn has built her career on not just being a social worker and educator or researcher, but her service extends far beyond the walls of the University and is very much focused on the community,” Goltz said. “She takes her professional and her philosophical lens as a social worker and as a Catholic social worker and uses that model to give the highest level of service. She lives with the population she serves.”
Not only does McCarty live with a marginalized population, Goltz said, but she’s a notary, participates in the food distribution and occasionally drives the van to get children to school.
“She’s really a living, breathing example of social work in action,” Goltz said.
A mentor for justice
Since getting involved with Casa Juan Diego ten years ago, McCarty has developed several mentoring relationships. Twenty-five-year-old UHD graduate and Mexican DREAMer Wendy Ramirez said she met McCarty six years ago under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, when she was applying to colleges and working part-time at Casa Juan Diego.
“She just took me in as a mentee,” Ramirez said.
The worst night of Ramirez’s life, she said, was Nov. 8, 2016. Not only did she find out that she did not get accepted into a college program, but Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
“It felt like my world was crumbling down with Trump being elected and me not being accepted into (a physician’s assistant) school,” Ramirez said. “I emailed her, and she just consoled me. She was there for me, and I knew I could count on her no matter what was coming.”
Ramirez said McCarty is persistent in her efforts to fight to find justice for people who are struggling.
“She’ll do anything she can to try to help you and try to find a resource,” Ramirez said. “Right now I’m applying to a P.A. program at (the University of Texas Medical Branch) and at Catholic universities, and she’s guiding me through it.”
McCarty spends several months in Mexico each year and said she is indebted to the families she knows south of the border.
“So many people in Houston are from central Mexico and southern Mexico,” McCarty said. “There’s so much migration here that I thought it would be a good thing to see if I could make myself useful and helpful to that population here.”