Jane Wenger Clemens looks back over a lifetime of dedication to social work and recognizes the early influence of her family in creating an awareness of the needs of others. In the 1950s, her uncle pastored an interracial church where blacks and whites worshipped together and respected each other, her mother reached out to neighbors experiencing difficulties, and her dad valued learning about different people and places.
In the 1960s, Jane and the rest of the Wenger family joined a national grape boycott in support of farm workers’ demands for fair pay and better working conditions. Early on, these experiences created a passion for social justice that instilled in her the desire “to do what I could do for the betterment of all people,” she said.
Clemens’ desire has led to a 40-year career in social work, including 17 years as an associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). Her dedication was recently recognized by the Virginia Social Work Educators’ Consortium. At their annual “Rally in the Valley” this fall, Clemens was awarded the Ann Meyers’ Lifetime Contribution to Social Work Education Award.
“I feel surprised and humbled to be chosen to receive this award by my colleagues,” Clemens said. “It is a tremendous honor and I am very grateful. I value the opportunity to teach emerging social work professionals about ways to work toward social and economic justice in our world, and to receive this honor for my contribution is very rewarding.”
Besides expertise and teaching skills, Clemens also brings personal investment to her students – a quality recognized by her colleagues in the applied social sciences department at EMU.
“She helps students understand that self-care is a cornerstone of the ability to care in a sustainable professional life over the long term,” wrote professors Deanna Durham and Carol Hurst and professor emeritus Elroy Miller in their nomination of Clemens.
Former students of Clemens shared their appreciation of her shaping influence upon hearing of the recognition.
“She was one of those professors who considered the personal development of students to be just as important as the professional development,” said Chaska Yoder’ 14, who is serving Habitat for Humanity with the service learning organization PULSE (Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience). “Jane often talked about the importance of seeing the gifts and skills that clients bring to the helping process. This strength-based approach goes hand in hand with the asset-based approach to community development that I’m currently working with in Pittsburgh.”
Clemens was also a social worker in Pennsylvania – notably, working in a prenatal clinic years ago as part of a team dedicated to reducing the infant mortality rate. In Philadelphia, certain areas had a disproportionate infant mortality rate, and Clemens’ team spread awareness about prenatal resources and worked to break down barriers between families and health care.
Clemens has also worked in retirement communities and a school for children with disabilities in Pennsylvania, participated in Mennonite voluntary service on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, and promoted continued education for adolescents in Ohio. During her 2012 sabbatical, Clemens lived and worked with low-income families in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.
A lifetime of hands-on work and anecdotes has enriched Clemens’ teaching style for students such as Litza Laboriel ’14. “Her experience and passion for helping others motivated me throughout my time at EMU,” said Laboriel.
Alicia Horst ’01, MDiv ’06, executive director of NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center, also remembers Clemens fondly. “Jane taught a caring way of being that calmly listens and lowers potential anxiety in the room,” says Horst. “She brings a gentle curiosity and laid-back conversation.”
Seeing her former students in leadership positions and advocacy roles in the field of social work is “extremely rewarding,” Clemens says. People go from being students to colleagues, and some, like Horst, now supervise current practicum students. Clemens sees this stage of her life’s work – contributing to students’ education – as the planting of seeds. Her students go on to sow and cultivate exponentially more social work ‘fruit’ than even Clemens did in her proliferous career.
Clemens’ personal values of social justice and peace led her both to a profession and to teaching at EMU. “We work at social justice as a community,” she said. “To empower students to go out and work for social change” is the capstone of a vocation spanning decades.