PhD Alum Brings Social Work Ethos to State Government

January 14, 2019 @ 9:28 pm
By Communications Office

With a career merging social work and politics, doctoral alumna Mathylde Frontus has found her seat at the table. She was sworn in November 15, 2018, as a member of the New York State Assembly, representing Brooklyn’s 46th district.

Running on a strong anti-corruption platform, Dr. Frontus (PhD’15) won the seat left open by incumbent Pamela Harris, who had been convicted of appropriating Hurricane Sandy restoration funds for personal use. The 46th district, which includes Coney Island and part of Brighton Beach, had been hit particularly hard by the 2012 storm.

After prevailing in a cliffhanger Democratic primary marred by malfunctioning polling equipment and followed by a two-week-long manual count, Dr. Frontus went on to beat her Republican opponent with 53 percent of the vote to 43 percent.

Dr. Frontus believes social work has been an exceptional training ground for her political career. She told the Brooklyn Daily that her study of social work “provided me with a crash course in understanding human beings and how to meet people where they are, along with learning how to be a good listener, how to help people with their problems, and how to lead.”

In an exclusive interview with us she elaborated, “In essence, social work informs the lens with which I view the world and informs the way I view myself, which is as an agent of change and a social justice advocate. Politics is one way I can help others and be of service to my community.”

The child of Haitian immigrants, Dr. Frontus ran on her long record of community service and leadership in the the 46th District. In 2004 she founded Urban Neighborhood Services, a small local agency that offers services in housing, employment, legal referral, financial literacy, counseling, and youth leadership—one journalist has called it “the definition of local and grassroots.” A few years later, in 2010, she started up the Coney Island Anti-Violence Coalition, which later became a collaboration, bringing law enforcement officers, local government leaders, students, educators, clergy, and tenant leaders to the table to address the violence that has plagued the community for decades. And, since earning her doctorate, she has been running her own consultancy offering mental health services to underserved communities as well as capacity-building advice to behavioral health organizations across New York City.

In her conversation with us, Dr. Frontus, who has taught courses in advocacy at the Columbia School of Social Work, emphasized the compatibility between social work and politics. Social work prepares individuals for elective office because “it is rooted in trying to ameliorate human suffering while simultaneously empowering others to achieve their self-determined goals,” she said. “Relatedly, politics is about harnessing one’s power as a leader to help improve the circumstances of one’s community.”

Students need not limit themselves to any one social work concentration, she pointed out, in order to prepare for a political career.

“Whether one has a background in mental health, social policy, community organizing, or social enterprise administration, a social worker will understand the importance of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, which lead to political acumen and a commitment to fairness, equality, and social justice.”

Asked if she had any advice for social work students and graduates who aspire to run for office one day, she offered these three pointers:

  1. Stay focused and determined. A modest campaign fund, the polling data mishap, press reports favoring her opponent—Dr. Frontus did not allow any of these variables to sway her from the goal of winning.
  2. Learn as much as you can about the science of politics. As part of her preparation, Dr. Frontus studied campaign strategy at the Latino Leadership Institute, which empowers minority candidates running for office.
  3. Find your “center”—your reason for running. Candidates “must stay rooted in their reason for running, which I hope will be tied to the betterment of their friends, families, and neighbors,” Dr. Frontus observed. “That’s the bottom line and should be the yardstick by which we measure our work.”

So will Dr. Frontus someday take her political ambitions beyond Albany? Should she do so, she would belong to an esteemed tradition begun over a century ago by Montanan Jeanette Pickering Rankin. Seven years after obtaining a degree from the School of Philanthropy, which is how the Columbia School of Social Work was then known, Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916.

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