Social Justice Warrior Saunteel Jenkins finds her passion as a social worker advocating for the Detroit community

Welcome to the first in a series of Wayne State University School of Social Work alumni profiles. Read as we proudly share the important and exciting work our Social Justice Warriors have undertaken as they promote social justice in Detroit and southeastern Michigan.

Lifelong Detroiter, Saunteel Jenkins (BSW '98, MSW '99), discovered her passion for social work early. "I wanted to be a social worker before I knew it called was social work." The former Detroit City Council member and president, and current CEO of The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW), Jenkins credits her mother for fueling her passion to serve and empower the community. "My mother was not what you would think of in today's terms as a community advocate, but she held a matriarchal role in our home and community. All of the kids in the neighborhood knew my mom and knew my house."

Saunteel Jenkins
Photo: Crain's Detroit Business

With her sights set on working with children, Jenkins chose to pursue both her BSW and MSW degrees at Wayne State University and says the School of Social Work strengthened her passion for social work. Upon admission to the BSW program, she was awarded a research fellowship and mentored by then Associate Dean Phyllis Vroom. "She was a great mentor. She supported me, my thoughts around social work education and research. As a young woman, she helped build my confidence".

An unexpected field placement during Jenkins' senior year with the office of then Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, changed the course of her life. While there, Mahaffey encouraged Jenkins, who was pursuing an Interpersonal Practice concentration, to explore the impacts of poor public policies on children, and to realize the connection between public policy and social work. "Maryann said social workers put Band-Aids on wounds caused by poor public policy." Jenkins was also impacted by Mahaffey's support during her field placement. "Maryann helped young women develop their own voice and helped build confidence. She gave us a lot of freedom and encouraged honesty." Moved by Mahaffey's unwavering passion for social change, Jenkins became focused on serving the community through policy and engagement.

Shortly after completing her MSW degree, Jenkins returned to Mahaffey's office as a policy analyst and later chief of staff. This eventually led to Jenkins serving as a member and president of the Detroit City Council. During her time on council, Jenkins was known as an independent voice. She was first elected in 2009 and in 2013, was voted by her colleagues to serve as Council President - the first council member in 90 years to be elected by the body for a leadership role. Jenkins was reelected in 2013 as one of two at-large council members.

Today, Jenkins is celebrating her fifth year as the CEO of THAW, a non-profit organization that provides energy assistance to Michigan residents in need. Since its inception in 1985, THAW has provided over $200 million in utility assistance to over 250,000 families across Michigan. THAW's impact has been felt throughout Michigan, as they have assisted families in all 83 of the state's counties.

THAW has launched several programs since Jenkins took the helm in 2014. One of the most recent is iHeal, which is an energy assistance program for medically vulnerable individuals and families. iHeal is designed to help those who are experiencing health conditions that are impacted by weather, or who rely on electricity or natural gas to power medical equipment in the home.

Saunteel Jenkins
Photo: Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press

Jenkins says her social work training has been critical as she serves as CEO of THAW. "We weren't looking at the household or person holistically." Jenkins went on to say "THAW was solely focused on utilities and is now focused on stabilizing the entire household." Since joining THAW, Jenkins explains that focusing more on the family circumstances, events, and policies that led to unaffordability helps THAW advocate for better policies.

Jenkins has also served as director of the residential treatment program at Mariners Inn, a homeless shelter for men fighting addiction. She acted as director of national business development for a private education company that provided tutoring services to children in at-risk schools across the country.

Jenkins' connections to Wayne State and the School of Social Work have remained strong as she was recently named to the School of Social Work Board of Visitors. She is excited to partner with the school and consults on matters of diversity, strategy, and vision. "I am honored to be asked … and look forward to the role I can play in strengthening the School and supporting students through their academic careers." Jenkins also serves as a member of Wayne State's HIGH (Helping Individuals Go Higher) Program Board of Advisors.

In addition to her work with Wayne State University, Jenkins currently serves as the board president for the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC). She serves as a member of the Henry Ford Hospital & Health Network Board of Trustees and Michigan Saves Board of Directors. She is also a member of DTE Energy's Community Advisory Council and the International Women's Forum.

Jenkins advises students who are interested in pursuing social work to keep an open mind when deciding on a concentration. "Try different things, volunteer at different organizations, stay open, because you never know where you'll find your passion."

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