Tribute to Dr. Dorothy I. Height

Elizabeth J. Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPH
NASW Executive Director

We use the word “great” casually in our every day speech. Depending on how the word is expressed, it can be a synonym for “ok,” or “good,” or as a cynical substitute for disappointment or negativity. Seldom do we hear the word “great” used as its orginal definition intended– markedly superior in character.

What constitutes greatness?   It could be courage, brilliance, goodness, ability, power, or a combination of those traits.   For me, greatness is defined by the name Dorothy Irene Height who died on April 20 at age 98. Her eulogy and all of the tributes to her in the past week, have recalled a great woman, a great activist, a great leader and a great force. She was all of those things. She was also a great social worker and the recipient of NASW’s 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Social Work.

I had the honor of co-chairing the Intercultural Cancer Council’s Height Jury which selected individuals  to receive an award in her honor which recognized individuals with significant achievements in addressing the unequal burden of cancer borne by underrepresented individuals. I also was honored to give a social work tribute for Dr. Height when she was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame in 2004. As a result, I had the wonderful privilege  of meeting with Dr. Height several times over the past decade. Each time I knew I was in the presence of greatness.  The best way I can describe it is that she had a greatness of spirit and a greatness of purpose. Each time I came away  renewed and enriched.  Just being with her made me feel that I could do more, should do more. She had that effect on people.

Dr. Height wasn’t simply a part of history; she created history. She spent her career and her life working to make this world a better place. Her focus included civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. Her counsel was sought by individuals, organizations, communities and presidents. At the time of her death, she was the Board Chair of the Legislative Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and she was Emerita President of the National Council of Negro Women. She was also an ardent supporter of the social work legislation named in her honor–the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Social Work Reinvestment Act (H.R. 795/S. 686).

The funeral service for Dr. Height ended with the gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine (I’m Gonna Let it Shine).” May the light of Dorothy. I. Height live on, and may her beacon reach every one of us and reinforce our purpose and our profession so that we can honor and further the legacy she left us.

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