Youth focus for first Pacific Doctor of Social Work candidate

Jack Scanlan (centre, blue hibiscus shirt) with family and staff from Massey's School of Social Work at his powhiri earlier this year.

Jack Scanlan, Doctor of Social Work candidate

Growing up in South Auckland, Jack Scanlan never saw himself as one day being an academic doing pioneering research about the tough community and life experiences that shaped him.

Gaining School Certificate (now NCEA Level One) then working in a factory was the predicted path for this Mangere Samoan teen. But things turned out differently, thanks to his mother’s unconditional love and support as well as encouragement from a secondary school English teacher who believed in him.

From a close to 30-year career spanning university education and working at the frontline with at-risk youth through the police, Oranga Tamariki and Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust specialising in youth justice, he is the first Pacific doctoral candidate confirmed into Massey’s Doctor of Social Work programme ­– the only one of its kind in Aotearoa. The degree (not to be confused with a Doctor of Philosophy or PhD) has equivalents in science and education, requiring a thesis that draws on a lifetime of work experience and research.

Mr Scanlan’s thesis, Ululaau: Exploring the transformational journeys of Samoan social practitioners who were former youth-at-risk to better understand effective ways to reduce Samoan youth offending, is named after and inspired by his late mother, Ululaau. And he is one of the “former youth-at-risk” also mentioned in the title. His research reflects his strong view that social work practices need to be based on indigenous knowledge, transformational change as well as community experiences and values in order to be truly effective.

 “We weren’t all angels in our youth but we changed our lives – and for some of us we’ve changed so much that we want to work with Samoan youth offenders and to be part of the solution,” he says.

“My life could’ve gone down a different track and I certainly was going down a different track as former youth at risk,” he adds, referencing youth gangs he once belonged to.

A mother’s positive influence

Mr Scanlan describes his late mother, who came to New Zealand in the first wave of Pacific migration in the 1950s to work as a machinist, as his “shining light.” 

“Everything I know in social work has been based on her teachings of respect, kindness, forgiveness and humour. My strength has been my mother who raised six children, the majority of the time by herself.”

The first in his family to finish secondary school and enrol in tertiary education, Mr Scanlan says studying sociology as his major for a Bachelor of Arts at Auckland University opened his eyes to understanding his own life. It had not been easy as the youngest child and only one at home he says, his father either absent or violent towards his mother and son when he returned. 

His degree opened the way to a job in South Auckland with at-risk youth in the late 1990s. While his heart was in the work, he felt that many of the solutions were based on overseas research, from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada – not relevant to South Auckland communities.

“I came into academia [to do a Master of Applied Social Work at Massey in 2012] frustrated that I had some good ideas but was often overlooked. ‘According to the research’ was a common line to say that my knowledge was not good enough to work with my own people and community.”

Mr Scanlan sees his Doctor of Social Work research, once completed, as part of the remedy for these gaps as well as part of the important mahi to encourage more Māori and Pacific students into social work.  

“As a Pacific person, like Māori, we are born to do social work – not because we are a statistic but because we are part of a system that works against us from the day we are born,” he says. 

He spent close to 17 years with the New Zealand Police, mostly as a non-sworn Police Youth Development Project Manager running a social service working with youth offenders and their families out of the Glen Innes Police Station. He gained a name for himself as the court “pest” because he would wait with at-risk youth in holding cells, often challenging the police in court and advocating to get them discharged so he could work with them. 

“My time with the police taught me that they are only part of the solution – the real solution comes from the community.” 

Dream job 

“I keep pinching myself that I’m a lecturer at Massey University. I’m a Samoan male from Mangere – these things are unheard of,” he says. 

“Being in the social work space for me means that behind the negative statistics [about South Auckland] portrayed in the news media are solutions from someone who has a lived experience.” 

With the social work programme at the Auckland campus going to block next year, he hopes a wananga style of teaching is more conducive to both Pacific and Māori way of learning and will “attract more social practitioners who, like me, had the lived experience but didn’t have the qualification.” 

His mother continues to inspire him as a university lecturer educating the next generation of social workers. “She taught me that there is always good in people, and you have to believe that people can change.” 

Head of the School of Social Work Associate Professor Kieran O’Donoghue says, ”Jack’s research is an important contribution to Pacific social work in Aotearoa and highlights the importance of believing in the potential of young people at risk and their ability to transform their lives.”

Massey was the first New Zealand university to offer a social work degree, 45 years ago. The School of Social Work offers nationally and internationally recognised undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in a range of disciplines including social policy and social work, and social service supervision.

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