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Dr. Richard Estes
Professor has translated social concerns into international action.
Poring over The Grapes of Wrath as an undergraduate more than three decades ago, Dr. Richard Estes, SW'67, was struck by the plight of the fictional Joad family -- tenant farmers ousted from their Oklahoma land by dust storms and a bank foreclosure. He wanted to find a way to help the real Joads of the world. Estes, then an English and philosophy major at LaSalle University and now a social work professor at Penn, says, "I was very taken by John Steinbeck's writing, and by others who had really described issues of poverty, forced migration, problems of war, and resettlement. What I looked for ... was a way of translating the concerns that came to me from the reading of literature around the world into action." And so a career in social work began.
"It's an honor for the school as well as for Professor Estes," says Dean of the School of Social Work Ira Schwartz. "One thing that is particularly significant about the award ... is that it recognizes contributions that he's made to international social work, which I think is the first time such contributions have been recognized by the profession in this way. It's also significant for [Penn] and this school, because one of the President's major priorities is globalization."
For five years, Estes has been helping create private foundations in China. Today there are more than one thousand such organizations, including the China Literature Foundation, which awards prizes to talented writers. "Under [old-style] Communism you wouldn't single people out as special, so this is an expression of the free market, the emergence of individualism, and a recognition of the importance of recognition itself for people in order to stimulate them," Estes says. He has also been working with various organizations to improve social programs in post-Communist Mongolia, where 40 percent of the citizens are classified as poor.
After graduating from LaSalle, Estes enrolled in Penn's School of Social Work, earning his master's degree. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley and joined Penn's faculty nearly 25 years ago.
His introduction to international social work, in 1978, was turbulent. Estes received a Fulbright award to teach and conduct research in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. "I was there with my wife and children and being shot at and spat upon," he recalls. "Our home was right across from the great mosque where everybody would assemble each day to protest against the Shah, so we had literally tens of thousands of people marching in front of our house, wrapped in -- in the case of women -- black shrouds -- but in the case of men -- burial shrouds ... prepared to die."
One day the wall surrounding his family's apartment was marked in red -- an ominous sign, because Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that the streets of Tehran would run red with blood. The U.S. Embassy airlifted his family and other dependents to Turkey, but Estes had to stay behind six more weeks, moving between friends' homes for safety. He taught at a school of social work, which sent over a jeep in the mornings to drive him out of Tehran for clandestine classes in social development and community organizing.
"What [the experience] solidified for me was the need to focus on societies undergoing rapid economic development and [its impact] on the social and political life of those countries," Estes says.
Estes developed an index to track changes in social conditions worldwide, such as education, the status of women, and economic development. But the most persistent problems today, he believes, are conflicts stemming from differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or linguistics. He gave as examples hostility toward U.S. immigrants and the slaughter of nearly one million people in Rwanda's civil war. Estes has been doing his part to promote greater understanding. This fall, for instance, he will attend a poverty conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, addressing cultural differences that divide the people of its 6,000 inhabited islands.
-- By Susan Lonkevich
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified 6/11/97