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By Susan White

As a child growing up in Eastern North Carolina, Annie Francis observed first-hand the impact of persistent poverty. Those experiences led her to ask why.

“ ‘Why?’ was always my go-to question,” said Francis, a student in the School of Social Work’s doctoral program, coordinator of Student Affairs, and a clinical instructor. “So growing up, I wanted to know, ‘Why does it seem like my community is one of the forgotten communities? Why are people still allowed to live in houses with holes large enough in the walls that someone on the outside can actually see inside of them? Why is this OK? Why isn’t somebody helping them?”

That curiosity eventually steered Francis to UNC, where in 2007, she earned a BA degree in sociology, with a minor in economic and social justice. Shortly thereafter, she accepted her first job as a foster care social worker in Northampton County, among the poorest counties in the state. Although her own salary was so meager she had to live with her parents to help make ends meet, Francis said she loved the work and the clients she assisted.

“Working with children and seeing them move from devastation to resiliency, along with witnessing their parents’ ability to overcome significant barriers to get their children back all fueled a fire for me to help those who are DSS-involved,” Francis said. “Being able to foster a connection with people who are often negatively viewed and being able to advocate for or with them to address their needs really spoke to me and my values. I knew that I had found my niche and that I was really meant for the social work field.”

Having grown up in a county with limited resources and a high poverty rate, Francis knew that social work agencies in similar parts of the state often struggled to attract experienced workers. Eager to serve these communities and to bring attention to the many needs they faced, she enrolled in the School’s N.C. Child Welfare Education Collaborative, which offers specialized instruction in public child welfare practice and financial support to MSW students willing to work for one year with a public agency after graduation. She also pursued the School’s dual degree in social work and public administration (MSW/MPA), with hopes of eventually securing a position as a social services director or public administrator in one of the state’s rural counties.

Her commitment and passion for public child welfare earned her the Jane Curtis Parker Scholarship, which is awarded to a rising second-year student who demonstrates compassion, social justice and courage and serves as an inspiration for others and the Annie Kizer Bost Award, which is given annually to a graduating student who demonstrates the greatest potential for service to the public welfare system of North Carolina.

“I was so grateful for these awards, which not only sustained me financially but also helped to solidify for me that I was in the right field,” Francis said.

Her experience as a Collaborative Scholar and N.C. Leadership Scholar also prepared her for a new role following graduation in 2011–as a foster care social worker with the Orange County Department of Social Services. However, what Francis didn’t anticipate was that her desire to answer those long-nagging questions would eventually force her to reconsider her career. During her tenure with the Collaborative, Francis’ mentors, including Clinical Associate Professor Wanda Reives, had “sown the seeds” of research and encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D.

Although she could help families in a direct capacity, Francis said she eventually realized that she wanted to create change on a much larger scale.

“I wanted to make it easier for my colleagues to provide effective services to the clients we are dedicated to,” she said. “But to create this type of change, I realized I needed additional research skills to make that aspiration possible.”

She was accepted into the School’s doctoral program this academic year and enrolled as a part-time student, which allows her to continue working for the School and to take classes at the same time. Her experiences with foster families now drive much of her research interest. Francis is particularly interested in seeking ways to enhance foster parent training and improving system accountability overall.

“Supportive services for substitute parents are lacking,” she said. “Children benefit when foster parents have ample support and training. So that’s kind of where I want to make my mark—looking at how we can improve the curriculum and how we can ensure that while children are in substitute care that the system isn’t contributing in any negative way to the people being served.”

Francis, who is a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, is equally interested in exploring how status as members of state recognized or federally recognized tribes impact an individual’s identity, as well as how having a dual-minority status affects identity.

“So for people who identify as Native and then as a member of another marginalized group, I want to know how that impacts them,” she said. “I’m really interested in understanding what that means for youth growing up or for those in transition into higher education. I’m interested in knowing more about what resources we should have available to ensure that students have access to all that they need while they are in school.”
Although her professional focus has changed slightly over the years, Francis has never wavered on her determination to fight for those whose voices often go unheard.

“One thing won’t change,” she said. “I am a social worker. There’s no gray with that. I am a social worker 24-7.”

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Contact magazine, the newsletter of the UNC School of Social Work, and is reprinted with permission.

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