Former special advisor to President Obama tells social work grads: “Welcome to the team”


Richard Reed, a former Special Advisor to President Barack Obama and graduate of the Indiana University School of Social Work, looked out at the hundreds of faces of social work students at commencement and welcomed them to the team.

Reed, who received both his BSW and MSW degrees from the School of Social Work, was the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremonies for the School. Reed currently is the Senior Vice President, Disaster Cycle Services, for the American Red Cross.

Reed noted that 19 years ago he was sitting where the students were waiting to walk across the stage. “I was full of anxiety, full of hope….I was full of enthusiasm and fear, not wanting to fail, not wanting to let anyone down. I was not sure if I had the right stuff to go out and change the world.”

“I’m here to tell you the skills you have learned from the folks sitting behind me (the faculty) and the folks behind you (parents) will all come together right at the moment you need them. I can tell you honest to God what you have learned has prepared you well.”

Reed said that for many of the students, the path ahead is clear and they know exactly where they are going to be a year from now, and five years from now. “For others, the path is less clear. What I want to encourage you is to let that path develop before you. Don’t worry about scripting it nine ways to Sunday and having every question answered,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the questions you don’t even know are the ones that change your life the most.”

Reed’s own life is a testament of how career paths can unexpectedly open. After graduating with his MSW degree in 1996, he was a clinical social worker at the VA Medical Center in Indianapolis and ran an outreach program for homeless veterans. One day when he walked into a homeless shelter an angry veteran was on his way out and the two collided. The homeless veteran had been asked to leave the shelter and shoved Reed out of the way.

Because of the encounter, Reed was asked to take a course on how to manage disruptive behavior. The encounter led Reed down a path that he hadn’t been thinking about and wasn’t prepared for – an education and training opportunity. He not only took the course, he began teaching the course and then became involved in education and training of 230,000 VA employees working a thousands of hospitals, medical and community-based medical clinics across the United States.

How he ended up going from the Veterans Administration to the White House is a bit of Lemony Snicket, a bit of taking some risk, a bit of having some confidence, and tremendous support and it’s a bit of recognizing you don’t know everything and you never will,” Reed said. And, “it’s a bit of faith and confidence in the principals you ascribe to.”

Reed recalled one incident that vividly reminded him of the importance of what social work values meant to him and others. He was meeting with the National Commission on Children and Disasters to receive their Interim Report. The members of the commission were questioning what the White House would do with the report and how seriously its recommendations would be taken. During the discussion, the Chairperson asked about his background. When Reed explained he had graduated from IUSSW and mentioned some of the work that he had been engaged in, the commission expressed appreciation that the content of their report would be reviewed by someone that would understand its importance and the social implications of their work.

As the students look to their own futures, Reed suggested they always keep their values and principles of social work in mind and “what got you excited, what caused you to fall in love with what I think is one of the finest and most honorable professions in the world.”

Rob Schneider