About The NASW Social Work Pioneers®


NASW Pioneers are role models for future generations of social workers. Their contributions are reflected in every aspect of the profession, as well as in the establishment of social policies and human services programs. They have accomplished this through practice, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, advocacy, legislation, and election to public office. The Pioneer Program provides support for Pioneer projects that combine historical perspective with an interdisciplinary approach. Other projects bring a historical perspective to current issues and challenges, and insight to emerging social problems. 

The program is managed by the Pioneer Steering Committee, which meets quarterly. The Steering Committee is proud to be a part of this distinguished group, and encourages you to learn more about the Pioneers' commitment and dedication to the social work profession, and to the improvement of social and human conditions at the local, state, national, and international levels. Please join the Pioneers in their continued efforts to recognize and nominate outstanding individuals whose contributions will continue to influence and shape the direction of the social work profession for generations to come. 

Jesse Harris, PhD, ACSW - Co-Chair, NASW Pioneer Steering Committee

Jesse Harris - Social Work PioneerDr. Jesse Harris has been a commander and leader, serving as the top ranked social worker in the U.S. Army and then as Dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work. The respect, positions of influence and leadership, and rich array of role possibilities for social work in the military are due in no small measure to the efforts and careful stewardship of Jesse Harris. He holds a broad view of clinical social work practice in relation to health and mental health and its requisite high level of clinical skills. This view he has promoted and implemented in programs encompassing soldiers and their families around the globe. It now infuses the mission and service of the innovative Social Work Outreach Center he established at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Read Full Pioneer Bio >>

Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis, PhD, ACSW - Co-Chair, NASW Pioneer Steering Committee

Betsy Vourlekis - Social Work Pioneer

Dr. Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis has had a social work career that is one of outstanding accomplishment in research, teaching, and practice. Her pioneering efforts have involved partnerships with practitioners and others to demonstrate though data the difference social work can make and to make the case for the profession's varied contributions to health and mental health care. As NASW's Staff Director for Health and Mental Health, she led the Association’s efforts to develop clinical indicators for quality improvement in psychosocial care in acute care hospitals, home health, hospice, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals. She played a leading role in establishing the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR), a collaborative national research advocacy and capacity building organization involving five social work associations. Read Full Pioneer Bio >>

Mark Battle, ACSW (1924-2011) - Founding Co-Chair, NASW Pioneer Steering Committee

Mark Battle - Social Work Pioneer

Mark Battle, as Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, demonstrated a pioneering leadership which stimulated the organization and the social work profession to broader areas of social concerns. He was a social worker, educator, consultant, businessman, and former government official. Throughout his career, he blended expertise in management and labor issues with social work skills and knowledge. Battle served as the Executive Director of NASW from June 1984 to June 1992. During his tenure, the membership of NASW grew from 96,000 to more than 143,000. NASW also grew in complexity and in political strength. Battle joined NASW in June 1984 after leaving his post as Professor of Social Service Management at Howard University School of Social Work, where he also was Chairman of the Department of Macro Specializations.  Read Full Pioneer Bio >>

Ruth Knee, ACSW (1920-2008) - Founding Co-Chair, NASW Pioneer Sterring Committee

Ruth Knee - Social Work Pioneer

During 30 years of federal service, Ruth Irelan Knee developed social work roles within public health and military health care programs and advanced innovations and improvements in mental health services. Throughout her career, she worked to make quality social work, mental health concepts, and consumer rights integral components of health, mental health, and long-term care programs, policies, and standards.

Knee began her government career during World War II as one of the first psychiatric social workers in the industrial mental health clinic organized by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). She later fostered social work at Walter Reed Army Hospital and returned to PHS to provide leadership to numerous interdisciplinary research and program development initiatives of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).  Read Full Pioneer Bio >>

Dr. Betsy Vourlekis Speaks At NASW 60th Anniversary Event, 2015

NASW Social Work Pioneer , Dr. Betsy Vourlekis, speaks at the NASW 60th Anniversary Celebration, October 15, 2015, in Washington, D.C.



Dr. Jesse Harris Speaks At NASW 60th Anniversary Event, 2015

NASW Social Work Pioneer,  Dr. Jesse Harris, speaks at the NASW 60th Anniversary Celebration, October 15, 2015, in Washington, D.C.



NASW Social Work Pioneers Annual Event 2017

Pioneer Event

The 14th Annual NASW Social Work Pioneer Program and Luncheon was held October 27, 2018 at the Woman's National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. The 2018 theme is "Changes and Challenges: Reports From The Field Of Social Work."  Stay tuned for the 2019 NASW Pioneer annual event date and program details!