The Maryann Mahaffey Movement: Memorializing a Detroit social justice pioneer

Maryann Mahaffey City Council

Maryann Mahaffey empowered social change in Detroit as a social worker, author, educator, civil rights activist, volunteer and political leader. For over 60 years at the local, state, national and international levels, Mahaffey put into action her deep commitment to solving critical social issues. Holding steadfast in her ideals, she supported the most vulnerable of our citizens and advocated for equal rights as Detroit City Council president for 12 years and as a council member for 32 years. To memorialize and honor the impact Mahaffey had on the Detroit, it's residents and the social work profession, the Wayne State University School of Social Work has launched the Maryann Mahaffey Memorial Campaign.

Maryann MahaffeyMahaffey’s youth was rooted in the value of hard work and the importance of education and equality. Born in Burlington Iowa in 1925, Mahaffey grew up witnessing her wallpaper salesman and gas station operator father work 12-hour days to support his family during the Great Depression. After visiting Little Rock, Arkansas in high school, Mahaffey came face-to-face with the reality of racism in the South and was encouraged by her civics teacher to explore civil rights advocacy. Mahaffey was further encouraged by her mother to advocate for equality, including a woman's right to vote and earn an education. After Mahaffey's mother was not permitted to complete high school, due to her family's fear of women being overeducation, she insisted that her daughter finish school and launch her career prior to marriage. Throughout her career Mahaffey earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell College, a Master's in Social Work from the University of Southern California and her Doctorate of Humanities from the Detroit International School of Ministries.

Honored in the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, Mahaffey became a champion for women's rights, filing the precedent-setting lawsuit, which established a woman's right to run for office using her birth name, leading the fight to open the doors of the Detroit Athletic Club to women, and she enacted an ordinance explaining and prohibiting sexual harassment of city employees. As a Detroit City Council president and member, Mahaffey successfully collaborated with community residents and groups to ensure fairness in allocation of community development block grant funds (directing funds to neighborhoods, not city departments), and enacted many ordinances protecting vulnerable people, including the homeless, children in day care, homeowners facing eviction, and seniors facing utility shut-offs. She created the first-ever Disabilities Task Force, led by persons with disabilities.

There was also another legacy Mahaffey left: the hundreds of students and rising stars that the Councilwoman taught and mentored, including the late Detroit City Council Member and President Erma Henderson, the current Dean of the Wayne State University School of Social Work Sheryl Kubiak and members of the WSU Board of Governors. Mahaffey worked as a faculty member in the Wayne State School of Social Work from 1965 to 1990 and taught classes on methodology, community planning, policy development and supervised field placements for students in Metro Detroit. “Maryann was a teacher and mentor to many current leaders in Detroit, social workers and non-social workers alike," stated Dean Sheryl Kubiak. “It was her example of activism steeped in integrity and social justice that was so attractive to many of us.”

Mahaffey, a proud social worker, was the first woman elected as president of the National Association of Social Workers, co-edited a seminal text (Practical Politics: Social Work and Political Responsibility), was a member of the executive committee of the International Federation of Social Work and initiated the creation of the Detroit Mayor's Task Force on Malnutrition and Hunger, which she also chaired.

To honor and memorialize the impact Mahaffey made in Detroit and at Wayne State, the Wayne State University School of Social Work is participating in the Maryann Mahaffey Memorial Campaign, which includes the following efforts:

  • The garden space is currently walled off, but after we "Tear down the wall" it will become more open and inviting.
    The Wayne State University School of Social Work Maryann Mahaffey Memorial Garden. This space faces Woodward Avenue in the heart of Detroit and will connect the Wayne State School of Social Work to the community and citizens on whose behalf Mahaffey advocated. Together, we will "Tear down this wall" that currently separates the garden from our Woodward/Detroit community. This renovation and naming is a fitting tribute for a pioneer who empowered social changes in Detroit and who had a strong love of gardens and the outdoors. Gifts to support this endeavor will help maintain and enhance this garden that will bear Mahaffey's name. DONATE HERE
  • Maryann Mahaffey Community Projects. This program will support Detroit-based community projects aligned with Mahaffey's legacy and the causes she championed throughout her life, such as ADA compliant/all-play recreational
    Rendering of the new memorial garden.
    equipment for children, ensuring that support for the most vulnerable of our Detroit community will continue. Mahaffey's political career began in the 1960's with an appointment as a special full-time consultant to the Detroit mayor on parks, recreation, and social service. A Detroit City Council resolution and park naming with disability accessible playground equipment would honor the values Mahaffey held dear. Gifts made to the School of Social Work Dean's Discretionary Fund in memory of Mahaffey will support university and community projects in her honor at the discretion of the dean. DONATE HERE
  • Maryann Mahaffey Community Event. The Wayne State University School of Social Work and the Walter P. Reuther Library are collaborating on an event to be held on Thursday, December 12, 2019 from 5 to 9 p.m. honoring Mahaffey’s legacy. This event will bring together the Detroit/Wayne State community, social workers, former students, union members, peace/justice activists and everyone inspired by Maryann. Attendees will be able to view portions of the newly acquired Reuther collection of her papers and hear from a community activist keynote speaker. Visit the WSU Event Calendar for additional details.

For more information on Maryann Mahaffey and how you can support the Maryann Mahaffey Memorial Campaign click here.

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