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From Prose to Policy: Alumnus William Waldman's Journey to A Lifelong Career in Social Work
September 18, 2019

William “Bill” Waldman ‘72 always loved Shakespeare. So in his twenties, he set forth on a path to pursue a master’s degree in English. 

A job at the Essex County Welfare Board kept him busy during the day, and classes on literature and linguistics occupied his evenings. Fully immersing himself in the field, Waldman even learned specialized processes like identifying legitimate watermarks on Elizabethan portfolios. But it was the late 1960s, and his classes began to feel insignificant in light of the injustices he observed in his community.

Working at the Welfare Board in Newark, he witnessed social upheaval firsthand. During the civil disturbances in 1967 he observed armored vehicles barreling down Central Avenue, one of Newark’s main thoroughfares. The city’s entrances were secured by guards who forced Waldman to show his ID in order to access his downtown office during this time. The guards, most ranging from 18 to 21 years old, displayed outward authority, but Waldman saw right through their facades and felt their fear. One day, a particularly vulnerable guard drew his gun and nearly shot Waldman. He decided to become more involved in the Civil Rights Movement and began going to marches. Soon he learned he was eligible for a social work scholarship through his job at the Welfare Board, so he jumped at the opportunity and enrolled in the MSW program at Rutgers School of Social Work.

While juggling classes, Waldman, a caseworker, was assigned to a massive housing project in Newark by the Welfare Board. His working-class background did not prepare him for the destitution and deprivation he saw.

“At first I was overwhelmed, and I was going to quit because I just didn’t think I could make a difference,” he admits. “The poverty was brutal. When we’re in our twenties, we all think we can change the world. But it was a slap in the face to witness firsthand what the world was really like for many people. I found my calling after experiencing that,” he explains.

Meanwhile, responsibilities at home intensified. He had a wife and young child whose needs always came first. It was a daily struggle to balance multiple jobs, school work, and familial obligations.

Yet with his hard work and commitment to social justice, Waldman graduated with his MSW in 1972. Still employed by the Welfare Board, he quickly advanced through a series of supervisory and administrative positions, including administering the county’s food stamp and employment and training programs.

From 1975 through 1987, Waldman directed the New Jersey Department of Human Services in Middlesex County, where he served as the administrator of numerous county-based human services programs, managed a staff of 65 employees, and administered an $8 million budget. Deeply committed to serving the public, Waldman continued to work in various roles for the State of New Jersey from 1987 to 1998, including as Director of the Division of Youth and Family Services, Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, and a member of the cabinet for three governors.

As Commissioner of the Department of Human Services — New Jersey’s largest public agency — Waldman administered a $7 billion budget and managed a workforce of 19,000 employees who served over one million residents of the state. The department encompassed seven operating divisions, including the Medicaid program, services to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, the child welfare program, all public welfare programs, as well as services to the blind and visually impaired and the deaf and hard of hearing. He also had responsibility for 18 institutions, including psychiatric hospitals, developmental centers, children’s residential facilities, and a residential program for the blind.

Waldman later served as Executive Director of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) in Washington, D.C., from 1998 to 2000. APHSA, a nonprofit whose members include the health and human service agencies in all 50 states, as well as many agencies in counties, municipalities, and U.S. territories, aims to develop, promote, and assist its members in the implementation of sound public human services policies.

In 2001, Waldman joined the School of Social Work faculty as a Visiting Professor and ultimately became a Professor of Professional Practice. He oversaw the management and policy (MAP) program, which is designed to build knowledge, skills, and competencies of current and future leaders of nonprofit and public service organizations and to assist them in strategically managing the many challenges presented in today’s human services environment. He also served as faculty advisor for the School’s Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Fellowship and Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere Fellowship. With a distinguished career dedicated to serving the public, Waldman received numerous awards and recognitions over the years.

In 1982, he was named the National Association of Social Workers New Jersey (NASW-NJ) Social Worker of the Year, and in 2013, Waldman received the Chauncey Alexander Lifetime Achievement Award from the Network for Social Work Managers. Waldman was bestowed the NASW-NJ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. The award recognizes an individual who demonstrates the best in social work values and professional accomplishments over the social worker’s entire career.

In her address to award ceremony attendees, Rutgers School of Social Work alumna and NASW-NJ Vice President Tawanda Hubbard, who now serves as NASW-NJ President, said, “Throughout his career, Bill Waldman has been a vigorous voice for the voiceless. He has been an exceptional social worker at both the state and national levels. Most importantly, he has provided hope, opportunity, and a better life for the most vulnerable among us.”

Waldman was also given the John J. Heldrich Distinguished Leadership Award from the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey Golden Bell Achievement Award in 2018.

In honor of his dedication to the field of social work as a whole — and particularly to the welfare of children — the New Jersey Community Development Corporation dedicated a building in Waldman’s name in 2008. The William Waldman Independence House in Paterson provides housing and supportive services for young people during their final years in the foster care system.

Looking back on his career after retiring in July, Waldman marks his proudest achievements as his work on the state’s welfare reform effort and the New Jersey Kid Care program, which expanded eligibility for Medicaid for the lowest-income families and provided high-quality health care for thousands of children in lower- and moderate-income families.

Waldman reflects, “We as social workers have accomplished so much in improving the lives of our fellow citizens. We also have much further to go. Social workers have an obligation to advocate for social and economic justice and equality for all people. I think the diversity in our country is one of the attributes that makes us strong. If we fall victim to racism, nativism, and xenophobia, it will be our greatest challenge.”

For future generations of social workers, Waldman advises practicing honesty and integrity.

“One thing I always told my students was to be clear about ethics,” he comments. “In my life, with well over 50 years in the field, I made a lot of mistakes. But I never made a mistake that bore upon my personal ethics, because you can’t come back from those mistakes.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare proclaimed, “This above all: to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” No words more aptly describe the beliefs held by Waldman, a Shakespearian turned social worker — and untiring advocate of virtue. 

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