Diana Ming Chan


Diana Ming Chan: Her National Legacy by Bob Arnold, Director, NASW Foundation

Ms. Diana Ming Chan, LCSW, ACSW was a professional social worker for 54 years since receiving her Masters in Social Work from the University of Minnesota. As with many great pioneering social workers, Ms. Chan worked tirelessly in direct services during this period starting with directing youth and family programs in Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco and completing her direct service career as a school social worker in San Francisco in 2000.

Early on Ms. Chan began to share her knowledge and experience through teaching – with social work students and with the parents of the families she was serving. Ms. Chan taught at City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University and at many community agencies and public schools. Ms. Chan also served as an educator and trainer at the Shun Tin Children and Youth Center in Hong Kong.

Ms. Chan broke the “color” barrier as the first Cantonese speaking Chinese MSW in San Francisco Chinatown. She helped bring the “cultural” in cultural competence through her work and training with many social workers in clinics, churches and other private non profit organizations. She advocated for the recruitment and training of social workers of color during the civil rights and War On Poverty eras.

During the War on Poverty in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, Diana worked with a multidisciplinary team of individuals who successfully secured for the Chinatown/North Beach districts of San Francisco a designation as a “target” community. As a result, the team subsequently obtained funds to establish a broad range of agencies that did not previously exist in the Chinatown/North Beach communities. These agencies included Self-Help for the Elderly, Chinese Newcomers Service Center, Chinatown Child Development Center, Northeast Mental Health Services, and Kai Ming Head Start. Today, these agencies remain a vital and integral part of the community, providing a continuum of services to children, youth, families, and seniors.

Two other agencies began in the late 1970’s as the result of Diana’s vision. She worked with others to form North East Medical Center which made possible comprehensive, low-cost medical care to the residents of Chinatown/North Beach. Diana successfully advocated for the creation of medical and psychiatric social work positions. The other agency, the Youth Service Center (now CYC—Community Youth Center), was formed to address the needs of adolescents. Diana served on the Board of Directors of this agency and also provided training and consultation to the social work staff.

One of Ms. Chan’s greatest accomplishments was her work translating the lessons of direct service to policy. As a lifelong youth and family social worker, Ms. Chan became resolute in her conviction that prevention and early intervention were critical services to helping all students and families become or remain healthy. She saw that this was especially true for immigrant families.

In this respect, Ms. Chan personally began a monumental effort to convince policy makers to increase the number of school social workers in the San Francisco Unified School District. Unlike other states, California is a notorious latecomer to utilizing school social workers and has one of the lowest ratio of school social workers to pupils (one school social worker per 25,000 pupils). Additionally, other pupil support services personnel were underutilized in California schools including school nurses, school counselors and psychologists.

Ms. Chan committed herself to change policy by educating policy makers on the critical need for school social workers and actually increasing funding for school social workers. There is no greater social work than changing policy that results in measurable outcomes at the direct services level.

Her first task was to demonstrate the value and need for school social workers. Her request was politely declined by the San Francisco Unified School District given the dire budget situation. As usual, the threat of laying off school teachers and closing schools held higher priority than increasing pupil support personnel such as school social workers.

Undaunted, Ms. Chan reacted to this in classic professional social work fashion, “I’ll show you how important it is and I’ll give you a way to do it.” Ms. Chan organized. She formed a committee, the Learning Support Services Advocates (LSSA) to find a way to increase school social workers in the district. She teamed with the NASW California Chapter and the NASW Foundation to endow the “Learning Springboard” fund of nearly $1 million to pay for half the salary of two school social workers. Additionally these school social workers would take on social work interns from San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley to provide social work services in the schools.

Fresh from this success, Ms. Chan did not stop. Her LSSA included a school nurse, which led to joint advocacy efforts by social workers and school nurses to increase pupil support services in the schools. She is well known in school support circles in San Francisco for her innovative and effective dumpling diplomacy. She invited top policy officials to her home to share a delicious Chinese dinner and to hear about her passion for school social work. With the nurses, Ms. Chan was able to effectively lobby the Board of Education $1.5 million to hire five school social workers and five school nurses. In the following year, the number was doubled for each profession.

Diana so profoundly touched many social workers on a personal, as well as a professional level, that the Asian Pacific Islander Social Worker Council, in collaboration with the NASW California Chapter and the NASW Foundation, has established a scholarship fund to honor Diana’s memory and support her legacy. If you would like to support Diana’s vision and passion for the social work profession, the Asian Pacific Islander Social Work Council invites you to make a tax-deductible donation to the Diana Ming Chan Scholarship Fund. This scholarship fund will contribute to the education of graduate social work students, especially those with bilingual skills. Checks should be payable to “NASW Foundation—Diana Ming Chan Scholarship” and sent to:
NASW Foundation
Diana Ming Chan Scholarship Fund
750 First Street, NE, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20002-4241

Click here to view Diana’s NASW Social Work Pioneer® Profile.

To leave a tribute to Diana, please click on the comments link below.

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  1. Mrs. Chan was a dynamite woman. She exuded a presence that not many can. I met Mrs. Chan just a few months ago when she came to speak to my colleagues. Because of her we have a job. We are the therapists that have benefitted from her endless support and drive to maintain mental health services in the public schools. I have witnessed first hand the changes in the students’ lives. I am honored to work for SFUSD and even more honored to know that Diana Ming Chan spearheaded the whole project. She will be missed dearly and boy, she sure does have large shoes that can never be filled.

  2. This is really sad news but she led a wonderful, wonderful life doing every thing she wanted to do from fighting the good fight for social workers down to her beautiful backyard garden. I was very close to Diana as we promoted the Learning Springboard in San Francisco and imposed ourselves to replenish school social workers in SF Unified School District through the voter-approved 2004 Proposition H – Public Education Enrichment Fund that brings nearly $500 million to the school district to support such non-mandated, unfunded essentials. We served together for two years on the PEEF Advisory Committee to insure that regular funding went to support Learning Support Services. Due to her health she did not return in 2006 but we stayed very close in contact about the decisions of the committee in budget recommendations and the politics of it. She was very intrigued and had an amazing insight on how to overcome the many obstacles we encountered. I will miss her a great deal and all she has done for to overcome discrimination and to the social work field.

    Bruce Wolfe

  3. We’ll Miss Her

    Social work was saddened by the unexpected passing of Diana Ming Chan (see obituary in this issue). Diana was one of those social workers who worked hard and effectively but never called attention to herself. When NASW began strenuous efforts to promote the image of social work, she was one of our “poster” ladies.

    Asian Americans, and in particular, Chinese Americans in California, learned early on to not display a high profile because of the tremendous racism and discrimination stemming from the 19th century Chinese Exclusion Act. Diana just did her social work and she did it well. Hundreds of children and families, many of them Chinese and immigrants, benefitted from her prevention and treatment efforts in the San Francisco schools and communities.

    Diana was very gracious, a gifted artist and dancer, but ever the organizer and leader. Her home was the setting for many a social worker meeting with great food, and great ideas, plans and actions. Recently, at a school social worker meeting, someone mentioned that San Francisco schools have a great school social work program. It was Diana’s will and determination to greatly increase the number of school social workers in San Francisco schools and she did just that. Forming a movement, working with coalitions and applying her own personal resources, nearly every school in San Francisco now has a school social worker or social work intern.

    I’ll miss Diana not only for her great public and community work, but also as a very special person who made you feel at home and inspired to do good and great social work. Thanks Diana.

  4. Mrs. Chan was a gracious and delightful individual whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I was President of NASW. She hosted a dinner with others from the Asian /Pacific Island social work community in the Bay areain my honor at a lovely restaurant .We were joinwed by her husband, who made the effort to attend after having just flown back from Singapore that afternoon. I remember him as a someone who was extremely proud of his wife and her accomplishments as a professional social worker
    I send my heartfelt condolences to the Chan family and to the California(especially San Franciosco ) social work community

  5. What a precious gift Mrs. Chan was. I was priviledged to spend the day with her a few days before she died. We had lunch and walked in the park. I’m so grateful to have been able to know and work with such a wise, insightful, and FUN person. We will all miss her smile and her wisdom.

  6. I actually saw her several days before she passed away. Although I didn’t know her very well she was one of the nicest people I have ever met. She was always smiling and cheerful. She definitely will not be forgotten.

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