For Jama Shelton, MSW ’04, the decision to pursue social work arose organically through an unlikely source: theatre. From 1997 to 2002, she lived in Texas and worked with LGBT youth aged 14-22 on community-based art projects. She conducted week-long residencies in which the teens were asked to do writing exercises and come up with visual imagery that were eventually compiled into a video performance workshop presentation.
During that process, Shelton, now director of the True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Project, said, “Inevitably what would happen is a young person would end up disclosing some traumatic experience that had happened to them. I did not feel like I had the skillset to responsibly handle that information with them. I thought, ‘I need to know how to manage those situations when they come up, and make sure I’m doing it in the right way.’ So I made the decision to go to social work school.” She felt confident in her background working within a community setting, but wanted her graduate program to endow her with a strong clinical foundation. NYU’s Silver School of Social Work fit that bill, so she bade farewell to Texas and headed to New York City to start the next chapter of her life.
Shelton always planned to work with LGBT youth, but had not decided on a specific area of focus. Her first-year placement at the Brooklyn Women’s Shelter helped her hone in on her vocational specialty. Shelton’s own experiences with homelessness—her family kicked her out of their home after coming out to them after college—did not prepare her for the harsh realities of the homeless system in New York. “I had no idea—I am from a small town, I didn’t even know about shelters. It blew my mind.”
In the last year of her MSW program, her student loan funding ran out, and faced with the possibility of leaving school, Shelton turned a seemingly insoluble problem into an opportunity. She reached out to everyone she knew in New York City, asking if they knew of any job opportunities, and she learned of an opening at the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing for homeless LGBT youth. She was hired in the spring of 2004, graduated from NYU that May, and remained at the center for nine years, advancing from clinician to director of housing.
As her work at the Ali Forney Center shifted into more macro levels of social work, she became increasingly aware of, and frustrated by, the “macro-level barriers that young people are facing.” She explained, “I went in to social work wanting to focus on individual clinical work, but I noticed the connections between macro systems’ impact on the individual, so I decided to go back for my PhD.”
Shelton pursued her PhD in social welfare at the CUNY Graduate Center at Hunter College. Her dissertation used qualitative research to examine the experiences of transgender and non-gender conforming youth who had experienced homelessness—a population that, at the time, was very rarely discussed. Shelton found innovative ways to incorporate elements from her arts background into the study, asking her subjects to visually map their journey through drawing. “What I was really looking for were the places where their journey—in terms of gender identity and expression—intersected with their journey in terms of housing and homelessness, and how the two were related.” Shelton completed her research and received her doctorate last May. The study, yet to be published, has already received two awards, and Shelton is working on several articles and planning to write a book on her findings. She sees concrete, broad-based policy implications from the work.
Shelton currently works at the True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Project, the only national organization exclusively focused on the issue of LGBT youth homelessness. Through awareness-building programs and initiatives focusing on public education, advocacy, empowerment, capacity building, and inclusion, the Forty to None Project seeks to help bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender homelessness. Shelton also works as an adjunct faculty member at NYU Silver and Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work. At NYU Silver, she teaches an undergraduate-level course on homelessness, as well as a master’s-level advanced social policy course with a focus on LGBT issues.
When asked to impart wisdom to MSW students, Shelton emphasizes the importance of possessing an awareness of both micro- and macro-levels of social work: “Regardless of what someone studies, it is so important that people understand the connections between the two, and figure out how to integrate their work with individuals and on the systemic level. In my social work career, I’ve held every sort of role possible—working with individuals, being an administrator, being a program developer, doing research, doing systemic change work—and I think it’s sometimes hard to see the connections between those. As social workers, it’s important that we push each other, and push ourselves, to see that we’re not working in a vacuum. We’re connected to a larger movement.”
By Penelope Yates, MSW ’16