NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Fern L. Chamberlain (1911 - 2011)
Fern Chamberlain was one of the first professionally trained social workers in South Dakota. She was born in North Dakota on November 26, 1911. Her family moved to South Dakota when she was very young. Her interest in social work was derived from the years of the depression when her family operated a small grocery store in a working class neighborhood in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She saw firsthand the efforts of their customers - friends and neighbors - as they struggled with poverty and hunger.
Fern graduated from Yangton College with a BA degree and received a MSW from Western Reserve (now Case Western ) University in Cleveland, returning to Sioux Falls in 1937 to help the state set up a state public assistance program to receive federal funds for relief. While carrying the title of Chief of Research and Statistics, she served the state department in many ways, filling other roles when needed. In 1966, she left the state department in protest of the negative attitudes prevalent toward welfare and recipients of assistance. Both as a state employee and later, Fern was an outspoken and courageous advocate for people who were disadvantaged and poor.
After returning to Sioux Falls, Fern was employed part time by the United Way. In 1974, she established the Community Information Center (now the Helpline). After her retirement in 1980 she actively lobbied state officials and the legislature and wrote frequent letters to the editor pointing out needs and inequities.
A longtime friend described Fern as a "quiet radical" who was "fighting the causes long before they were the "in" thing to do. She had a lifetime of working for things that didn't benefit her."