Magazine Feature / People

Jean East a product of mother’s feminism

To understand Jean East, associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work and a winner of the 2006 Distinguished Teaching Award, you need to go back to 1916. That’s when her mother, Margaret, was born.

Margaret East was, according to her daughter, an “early feminist.”

“Mom went to college, a rarity then, and studied history —  especially women’s history, another rarity,” Jean East says. “She stood up for women’s rights and even got her master’s degree studying  [suffragist] Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”

That passion for women’s rights and social justice was passed on to the younger East, who says that she “knew early on that she would be in a helping profession.”

Indeed. Armed with an undergraduate degree in Spanish and sociology, East traveled to Puerto Rico in 1971 with Volunteers in Service to America, where she taught English.

Upon returning to the U.S. a year later, she moved from her home in Baltimore to Colorado because she had more opportunities to use her Spanish. In 1973, East became a social worker with the city of Lakewood, working with early offenders and their families.

“I quickly realized that I didn’t know enough,” East says. “So I went back to school.”

After earning her master’s degree at DU in 1979, East joined Catholic Charities and quickly became associate director in charge of 18 programs. After 11 years, she again decided that she “needed to know more” and began her PhD program at DU.

This is when East’s passions, skills and connections began to converge. Following in her mother’s footsteps, East studied women’s issues, particularly women in poverty. And she got her first taste of teaching.

“It was 1991, the second year of my doctoral program,” East says, “and I taught my first class. I thought, ‘Oh, I really like this. I’m good at this. I could see myself doing this!’”

In 1995, East graduated with her PhD, landed a teaching job at the University and started a nonprofit organization called Project WISE — Women’s Initiative for Service and Empowerment. It offers support services to metro Denver women who are making the transition from welfare to work and those who are maintaining employment.

In 2001, it won the El Pomar Award for Non-Profit of the Year in Colorado.

“We always had a dream to design a program or agency based on sound social work principals,” says East, who started Project WISE with friend and fellow DU graduate Sue Kenney (MSW ’79).

East received the Social Worker of the Year award in 2003 from the Colorado Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She says her community work feeds her teaching, which is yet another passion.

“I validate each student’s experience, and I let them know that they don’t come to my classroom as a blank slate,” she says.

“I find ways to use each student’s experience and I also enjoy exposing them to new ideas, watching them grapple with concepts.”

Nola Miguel (MSW ’06) says East’s community involvement makes her teaching more relevant.

“As a field instructor, she was out there with us — speaking Spanish, guiding us through workshops,” Miguel says. “Her ability to work directly in the community makes everything she says that much more significant and useful.”

East says her proudest moments come when former students call to tell her what they’re doing with their education. She keeps a little notebook to record those calls.

“I got six calls last week from former students,” she says. “That’s when I know I’ve done something good for the community, because these people go out there and work and change people’s lives.”

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