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Alumni Q&A: Terry Gardiner

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Terry Gardiner (MSW 2009) is no stranger to Factor-Inwentash faculty, students, staff and alumni. In addition to completing his Master of Social Work degree at FIFSW, he was a member of its administrative staff for nearly 11 years, first as an outreach and equity advisor, and later as a manager of diversity, equity and student experience. But his involvement and impact has extended to other U of T Faculties and organizations as well. In 2021, he was recognized with an Award of Excellence from the university for his leadership advancing equity, diversity and inclusion and his deep commitment to the wellbeing of students. Today, he is Director of Student Programs at U of T’s Faculty of Law. We caught up with Terry to learn more about his social work journey, some of the projects he’s most proud of and how his social work knowledge and experience have strengthened his work at U of T and beyond. 

What inspired you to join the field of social work?

My first career was in ballet. When I decided to go to university, I was toying between education and social work. The way down the middle was Early Childhood Education, because it was about learning and education and care. In the third year of my undergrad degree in ECE I did a placement at a children’s mental health center, where I was supervised by an early childhood educator who worked closely with social worker as a team. I saw very quickly that the early childhood educator who had a BA, could only do so much of the work and at some point, would have to hand the case over to the social worker who had a master’s degree. I learned from both the early childhood educator and social worker and saw merits in the work they each did, but I also understood that I would need to get a second degree in order to be able to contribute more fully to what I was seeing in the families that we worked with.

Could you tell us about your journey from early childhood education to receiving a social work degree that saw you eventually take on leadership positions in post-secondary education?

My social work journey has been a very scenic one — or I’ve taken the scenic route. It has allowed me to see and explore and participate in and try on lots of different things. I was in the children and their families field of studies at FIFSW and did placements that were preparing me to be a mental health clinician in children’s mental health. But at the time that I graduated, there were few jobs in the field, and I had the opportunity to start working with graduate students at the Faculty. I found I was able to apply my social work training and my understanding of the connections between people, systems and community to this role. When I first started working at FIFSW, I was concurrently teaching at the Ryerson School of Early Childhood Education.  Eventually work expectations in both places forced me to choose and I chose FIFSW. Working in post-secondary education was not something that I planned, but I find that when I’m open to possibilities, the outcomes can be wonderful.

What is your role now at the Faculty of Law?

I’m the Faculty of Law’s Director of Student Programs, which involves leading and supporting a team that manages co-curricular learning and activities. I support and work with three particular portfolios. The first involves having mental health strategic plan for the faculty, with activities and access to mental health and wellness supports within the law school, the University and in the wider community. The second is a student programs portfolio, which encompasses student life, such as clubs, physical activities, and social activities, including orientation and convocation. And the third involves the Indigenous Initiatives Office, which works to raise awareness within our community of Indigenous history and experience and their connection to law, as well as create intentional space for support for and connection among Indigenous students within the law program.

What similarities have you observed between the disciplines of social work and law?

There has been research on what draws people to pursue social work and what draws people to pursue law, and very often there is an alignment: people want to help people, change systems and bring justice to the world, in one way or another. I think both social work and law are avenues that allow us to do that and shape and change and maybe even reimagine, revision and reshape the systems that guide our society.

[> Click here to learn about the combined JD/MSW program offered by U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Faculty of Law, designed for students who wish to practice in the areas where law and social work intersect.]

During your time at U of T, you’ve supported and helped lead initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion as well as mental health and community building. Could you tell us about an initiative you were involved in that you are proud of?

I have been fortunate to be part of very many group efforts across campus, and am I’m grateful to supervisors and faculty members who encouraged me to get involved. One of the things that really stands out for me was being able to work with Professor Shelley Craig on the reimagining and revisioning of the admissions process at Social Work. The mandate that we were given by Professor Faye Mishna, who was Dean at the time, was to look at the admissions process to see how we could have better outcomes that reflect the diversity of our Canadian society and, in particular, the diversity of the service users, the clients of social workers. We had good evidence that the student body in social work and the makeup of the social work profession didn’t reflect the client population. As a result of the implementations we developed and piloted, the ethno-, racial, cultural, socio economic, makeup of our student body ultimately changed. It’s something that I was really excited to be a part of. It was aligned with social work values and processes, but we also made sure it was evidence informed.

Another project you oversaw while at FIFSW was the alumni podcast series: Profiles in Social Work.

A big part of my role when I started working at the Faculty was outreach. I was the person who spoke to potential applicants about what social work was and how it was envisioned at the Faculty at U of T. This project was developed to share as many social work stories as possible in an authentic way and to illustrate the broad a range of careers and work that social work graduates do.

Was there is there a particular story or theme throughout those interviews that stood out to you?

I think I ended up interviewing about 50 or 52 alumni, and I learned something in every single conversation. It reified for me something that my grandfather had said when I was a child, which was the more you learn, the more you realize how much you have to learn. Every single story, every single experience expanded a bit more the way I thought about social work, and how it could be envisioned or undertaken. I was incredibly fortunate to talk to people who graduated from social work in the 1960s, all the way through the 2000s. People who had had international experience, people who had been at the highest levels of government, people who were committed to frontline work, people who would take social work into other professions. It really amplified for me that the principles, the knowledge and the experience of our profession has a broad value in our society. The title or the role really doesn’t matter; it’s about how you take that knowledge and how you apply it.

What are some of the misconceptions people have had about the field? What needs to be better understood about it?

One of the things I think still shapes the way of public thinks about our profession, is this idea that social workers are a bunch of do-gooders guided by their hearts. Social work is evidence informed. It relies on gathering data. It includes clearly understanding the client experience as well as what we can learn by incorporating and critically analyzing statistics and historical data to inform the decisions that we support clients in making. We need to be skillful in connecting hearts and minds

Social workers themselves need to understand both the good and the bad of our profession’s history. This includes being very clear about all of the harm that our profession has caused and is still causing, and the responsibility that we have to acknowledge and be open about that painful and often traumatic history. Whenever we ignore the hard and painful histories, I think that increases the chances that we will just make those mistakes again.

In addition to your work at U of T, you maintain a psychotherapy practice. What advice or insight can you offer to graduates interested in doing something similar?

My practice is intentionally very small. It took me quite a while to dive into this work. One of the things that I heard really clearly in my training was the importance of being responsible and accountable. People trust us with the intimate details of painful experiences in their lives, so I took very seriously the professors and clinicians who said that doing this kind of work is something that you do only when you’re ready for it and only when you have the right supervision. I made sure that before I started that I had somebody lined up who would be my supervisor, somebody I could check in with, who could help guide my work. I don’t think any of us should ever be trying to do this work on our own and not as brand-new graduates.

What is the focus of your practice?

There is clear evidence that racialized people are overrepresented in the client population of social work, but incredibly underrepresented among service providers. In my practice, I am very interested in issues that are connected to race, ethnicity, culture, and how that impacts our experiences. I’ve been told again and again: “you’re the first person who actually looks like me or who has some understanding of what my experience might be like.” So that’s a focus of the work that I do. I’m also interested in trauma work and how that very often can be connected to experiences of race. I’m very inspired by the work of Jane Middelton-Moz, Rebecca Martel and the MSW ITR field of study.

You’re currently chair of the Hart House Board of Stewards. Could you tell us about that role and your involvement with heart house?

Hart House is an incredibly exciting place on campus and has been a student hub for more than 100 years. It recognizes and it’s designed to support the idea of holistic wellness. You don’t come to university just to extend and build your mind. Hopefully, you’re also building your body, emotions, connections, and community, too — and Hart House is a space focused supporting all of that. The Board of stewards meets monthly and is an opportunity to get together with staff, Hart House community partners, and most importantly, representatives from the student committees. It really is a space for supporting experiential learning for students as well as a place of respite.

Hart house also exemplifies the change that our university and our society has engaged in over the life of the University. When it was first established, for example, it was a male only space. Acknowledging that history and being intentional about how we include and create opportunity and space for the diversity of our current community is important. For Hart House’s 100th anniversary, art reflecting Indigenous culture and history, done by Indigenous artists and chosen by an all indigenous panel, was hung in the Great Hall, the biggest and most powerful space in the house. It really speaks to Hart House’s evolution and what can happen when we are committed in community not just to doing different but to being different.

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