NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Vilona Phillipi Cutler (1890-1970)
Specific Pioneering Contributions
Former director of the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work, Vilona Phillipi Cutler established her reputation as a human rights activist and social worker by facing political battles head-on to change unjust racial discrimination laws in Oklahoma. She has been described as a truly revolutionary social worker, educator, humanitarian and activist.
Serving in leadership positions at the YWCA in Oklahoma for 33 years, Cutler exerted her influence and fought against white privilege social norms and Jim Crow segregation laws. She established a small YWCA branch to serve the African American community. She convinced her YWCA board of directors to create a multiracial committee to raise funds to house a branch serving the Black community. Cutler was instrumental in involving churches and their choirs to break the racial barriers.
Cutler established a USO facility for Black service men and integrated the YWCA camp facility for girls and young women. By challenging white privilege and Jim Crow laws, her integration attempts were successful and helped establish the Oklahoma City Urban League.
Cutler served as chair of the group work committee of the National Conference of Social Workers and was appointed by the Governor of Oklahoma to the Children's Code Commission.
For 33 years, Cutler had a distinguished leadership role with the YWCA, starting during the First World War as a YWCA war camp worker. Throughout her life, the disparity she witnessed then between whites and Blacks influenced her professional decisions. It was in race relations and gaining civil rights for minority groups that she made most of her contributions. Cutler's pioneering efforts included securing education, safe housing and recreation for Oklahoma girls of African heritage. She was a consistent advocate for the promotion of human dignity, improved race relations and equal opportunity for all.
Cutler was general secretary (head) of the YWCA in Miami, Florida and Yonkers, New York; and later general secretary (head) of the Oklahoma City YWCA.
She was director of the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work and became the chair of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Association of Social Workers (before NASW was established) and first Chair of the NASW Western Oklahoma chapter. Cutler presided over the first MSW accreditation process by the American Association of Schools of Social Work while director of the School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma.
Before NASW was established, she chaired the earlier American Association of Social Workers Oklahoma Chapter and in 1955 became the first chair of the new social workers national membership organization, the Western Oklahoma NASW Chapter.
Cutler was born and raised in Harper County, Kansas. She received a BA/MS degree from Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan and her MSW from the New York School of Social Work.
Significant Achievements and Awards
Cutler received the New York School of Social Work's prestigious Norma and Murray Hearn Social Action Award presented annually to an outstanding social worker in the nation. This was for her race relations leadership work in Oklahoma City, her service on the Governor's Children's Code Commission, her involvement in the founding of the National Urban League Chapter of Oklahoma City, and her opening of the YWCA camp to Negro girls. She was the first recipient of the annual Americanism Award for meritorious community service presented by the Lew Berlitz B'Nai B'rith Lodge Women's Auxiliary. In 1950, the Urban League of Oklahoma City established the Vilona P. Cutler Award, presented every five years to an individual in recognition of outstanding service for building better human relations to advance the general welfare of all Oklahoma citizens. In 2008 the Urban League presented its sixteenth Vilona P. Cutler Award. Finally, the School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma has honored Cutler's qualities as a social worker, educator, humanitarian and activist by establishing the Vilona P. Cutler Foundation Lecture.