SSL Program, Part 2: Why a Master's Degree in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management?

By Nicole Marwell and Monica Meriweather

News Type
Nicole Marwell (l), Crown Family School podcast w/soundwaves, and Monica Meriweather (r)

Associate Professor Nicole Marwell and alumna Monica Meriweather, AM ’21, discuss the Crown Family School’s Master’s Degree in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management (SSL). They explore Meriweather’s background, why she chose the Crown Family School and the SSL Program, as well as her experiences and what she has learned from the Program.

We'd like to thank Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College, who composed the music.

Iframe Video

Listen and subscribe on LibsynApple PodcastsSpotify, or Stitcher.


Announcer: Welcome to the UChicago Crown Family School Podcast. This is part two of a two-part episode where Associate Professor Nicole Marwell discusses the new Master's of Arts Program in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management with two alumnae, one a leader in the field, and another, a recent graduate of the program.

Nicole: Hello, everyone! I am Nicole Marwell, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, and I’d like to welcome one of our first alumni from our new Master’s in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management, Monica Meriweather. Hi, Monica.

Monica: Hi. I’m Monica Meriweather. I am currently working as an Healthy Chicago Equity Zone organizer at SWOP, the Southwest Organizing Project, and I just graduated from Crown Family School in August of this past 2021 year.

Nicole: Great. So before Monica and I start our conversation, I first want to tell our listeners a little bit about the Crown Family School and also about the SSL program. The Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice is dedicated to working toward a more just and humane society through research, teaching, and service to the community.

As one of the oldest and most highly regarded graduate schools of social work, the Crown Family School prepares professionals to handle society’s most difficult problems by developing new knowledge, promoting a deeper understanding of the causes and human costs of social inequities, and building bridges between rigorous research and the practice of helping individuals, families, and communities to achieve a better quality of life.   

The Crown Family School offers graduate work leading to both the AM and PhD degrees, including a Master’s in Social Work, Social Policy and Social Administration and the program that we’re here to discuss today, the Master’s in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management, which we call the SSL.

The SSL educates leaders focused on creating a more inclusive and just society. Our program provides students a deep understanding of the organizational and policy environments shaping social sector action alongside the most up-to-date skills in organizational management, leadership, analysis, and strategy.

Our program is unique in its ability to provide students with knowledge about how mission-driven organizations and their programs operate in their communities, as well as deep conceptual thinking about how these organizations can respond to complex social problems. Our program’s foundational social justice perspective distinguishes us from similar programs located in other kinds of schools. Our flexible program has both a full-time 12-month option and a part-time 21 month option.

Day, evening and weekend classes are available. Both of our options include 12 courses plus a summer practicum. Our in person program allows ample opportunities to spend time with professors and learn from colleagues in an intimate setting. So Monica, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Monica: So prior to becoming a student at Crown I taught for six years, so I ended up doing Teach for America as a 2013 Corps member. And that was quite a bit of time after I graduated. When I graduated college I thought I was going to law school, so I ended up working for a couple different law firms trying to figure that out. But the economy was absolutely insane, and I knew that the law degree I wanted was going be focusing more on public interest, and so I just couldn’t weigh the pros and cons of spending that much money on law school and knowing that I wouldn’t have that much return in income, and so just really thinking about how best to utilize my talents to help people is kind of what propelled me into the classroom and to apply for Teach for America.

I knew that I cared about education policy and I cared about helping people be able to have like the best choices they can in education was, in my mind was like the first step to doing that work. And then if you’re going tell people what to do with their lives in the classroom you should actually have experience of working in the classroom. So I taught, the—my placement school was in Dallas. I taught two years of 8th grade English.

Then I took a year and I became a talent manager at a charter school in that…in Dallas also, and that gave me a different perspective on just hiring teachers, those that are looking to be teachers, just even the pipeline for education jobs in general. And so I knew I had a little bit more energy to go back into the classroom, so I came back to Chicago, where I’m from, and I taught for four years at— Noble charter school, two years of 9th grade and then two years as a 12th grade counselor.

And then I knew I wanted to move beyond the classroom trying to figure out how to help people. I wasn’t really sure what that work looked like. I knew I wanted to stay in nonprofit, but I wanted something that would help me combine the skills I already have to kind of refine that, to give me the ability to lead a nonprofit, essentially, and so the program just kind of came along at the right time when I was trying to figure out what was next.

Nicole: So can you tell us a little bit about what specifically attracted you to the Crown Family School and to the SSL program?

Monica: So when I first applied—it was the first year of the program, so I was looking at focusing on not social work in school or social work with people, but more working with organizations and institutions, so I was kind of looking at that particular degree. But it didn’t fit exactly what I wanted or needed, and so… And I had a friend who had done the traditional social work program who’s a social worker now, actually a therapist, and she’s using that, but that’s not the road that I want to go down.

And so when I saw this new SSL program I was like oh, this actually does bridge that gap that I’m looking to fill to be able to figure out what I want to do with my next role. And so just looking at the Crown Family School’s history, and what they’ve stood for, and justice has always been a big thing for me, and so I thought that that would be a great place for me to study and kind of enhance my skills for my next career plan.

Nicole: Great. Can you talk a little bit about how you think the program enhanced the skills that you came in with as well as enhanced your ability to understand the social sector?

Monica: I think it just pushed me to think about things that I didn’t really consider. Like I really appreciated your class. Honestly, it was probably one of the most difficult classes for me because it was a lot of new knowledge, like there wasn’t a foundation or a base that I came with coming in and talking about the institutions and understanding the three sectors and how all the sectors fit together, and how they work to make the lives that we live every day. I just never had thought about those parts.

And so really thinking about how those work together and how—and then what would my role personally be in that cog in the system, and so how to advocate for people, but there’s something about learning the actual skills and understanding of the systems to be able to figure out how to work within, but also how to work without.

I always believed if you’re going to break the rules you kind of got to know the rules first before you start breaking them. And so I really appreciate Crown for giving me the foundation and the understanding of just a different way to think about and approach to problems that do exist in the nonprofit sector.

Nicole: That’s great. I appreciate your…your comments on my class. I'm wondering if there’s another class you think about that you feel really was a skill-building opportunity for you that was unique, really, to this program.

Monica: I appreciated your class because it was in a theoretical framework, so there’s a couple theory-based classes but then also classes like management essentials, and also classes that I took, all the management ones that are learning more about you and reflecting you as a manager.

I think Inclusive Leadership was really important in allowing us space to really examine ourselves as leaders, and so that when we go out and we work with people, you have to have an understanding of the biases you bring, the…the understanding you bring, and how you see the world, and how that impacts how you lead. And so I really appreciated the space to have the time to think about that. One of the most challenging classes I took was your class, Key Issues in Social Sector Governance.

Nicole: So you’ve touched a little bit on this, but can you say some more things about what you’ve gained from this program that you didn’t have before?

Monica: I think the theoretical understanding was really important. Also just thinking about there are a lot of nonprofit leaders, unfortunately, are not leaders of color, but they’re impacting communities of color, right?

And so really just being able to dive into the data and understanding the whys, even the class I took that was only a five week class, we talked about fundraising, we read Edgar Villanueva’s book, “Decolonizing Wealth,” and just understanding the implications of the money that nonprofits get, and how they impact people, and is it dirty money, is it good money, should we take all money.

And so just really asking ourselves those questions, and so when we are in a position to receive or advocate for an organization for people, for a community, how do we want to do that work. And so like I really appreciate components to a lot of the classes as I was trying to learn more about the industry and the foundation.

Nicole: So can you tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing now?

Monica: So the work I’m doing now, it’s very interesting. Like I appreciate Crown because the way I even ended up here is very much through the school. So I had an opportunity to do an internship with City Colleges, and so my manager there was really great in helping me understand like what was next. And so like I was like maybe I’ll stay at City Colleges and try to find an opportunity. And that didn’t work, but she was able to use her networking skills to connect me with one of her classmates, actually in a program [aimed for] Chicago, but for those that were already in leadership positions.

And so I ended up meeting my current manager and talking to her about community organizing. It’s something that really wasn’t on my radar. My experience in the classroom kind of made that transition very natural. Throughout the pandemic, before the pandemic, in my 20s, before I even applied to Teach for America, I’d always spent a lot of time in the West Side, South Side communities in Chicago just trying to figure out how to best assist and support communities in achieving their goals.

And I think this work was just naturally something that worked, and like, it’s like, just like kismet, fate, or whatever. And so that’s kind of the work that I’m doing now, really thinking about what does equity look like, what does access to public health look like. A lot of the work is contingent on … Well, it came about because of this idea…because of the fact that the life expectancy for Black individuals in Chicago is far less than the life expectancy for white individuals in Chicago, and like what is causing that, and why does that exist.

And so I’m just really excited that I get to help answer questions and ask questions about things that I’m really interested in, and I really want to make sure that every Chicagoan, especially Black and Brown Chicagoans, can live their best life, and so this work allows me to try to begin to figure out how to do that with…in tandem with the community.

Nicole: Yeah. Can you…you…I wasn’t sure if you said that the internship you did at City Colleges, was that from your practicum for the SSL or that was something else?

Monica: That was something else. My practicum was working with a small nonprofit. So what I appreciated about being at Crown, at UChicago was because I was one of two full-time students I was able—well, there was four of us, but two that were full-time doing the SSL program. I wanted to make use of all the resources that UChicago and SSL provided, and so I ended up doing that internship because I just wanted to learn more and get more experience.

Nicole: And so what did you do for your practicum? One of the really exciting things about the SSL is that we have as a sort of capstone on the program, as you know, the opportunity to do a ten week executive level challenge working in an organization. I wonder if you can tell us a little about what you did for your practicum and how you think that helped you, you know, sort of put a capstone on the skills you learned in the SSL.

Monica: So, what was really important to me was trying to figure out how to utilize my skills and things I was learning in the classroom, but also making sure I could help someone that really needed it. So I have a younger sorority sister that I went to undergrad with that was starting an organization that focused on making sure those that were housing insecure had access to housing,—and also developing pathways of housing for Black individuals in Chicago that just didn’t know how to go about that.

And so she was starting her nonprofit from scratch and trying to work on it. And I was just like how about we pair up together? I’m gonna use the space that I have to be able to help you because I know that having someone to be able to dedicate the work that you need to support it, because basically she’s kind of a staff of one with a few volunteers. And so I wanted to make sure that I could utilize that practicum as a tool to help someone that really needed it, so I could also learn the skills, but I could also have the impact on the communities that she’s working with to ensure that they had the programming needed to be able to meet the goals of her org.

Nicole: That’s great. It’s really important to us that people be able to shape that piece of the program in a way that is meaningful to them, so I’m glad to hear that you've had that opportunity. Another important component of the SSL is the community-building and networking that takes place within the cohort of students. It’s a relatively small program, a cohort of somewhere between 15 to 20 students. Can you talk a little bit about the relationships you built with the other students in your cohort and how you think that’s impacted you?

Monica: Yes. I think that if anyone was to ask me like what’s my favorite part about the SSL program it’s always going be the people. It’s the people that I was able to commune with in classroom and just learn from. There’s so many smart, ridiculously capable, awesomely minded people that participate in this program.

And I think that I appreciate all the professors that offered the space and taught us things, but I think a lot of my learning truly came from those individuals, and just being able to meet and have my ideas pushed and stretched, and like having that real life application of understanding oh, I thought this is how it worked, and then having experience to be shared that kind of allowed me to grow from their experiences.

Nicole: Yeah. Do you have an example of something like that that you could share with us?

Monica: So, one classmate that I worked with, she works with the county government right now. So just even seeing how a lot of things that she was able to apply from the—take the readings and kind of apply that and say this is happening in real life was a very great perspective. And talking to her offline about her experiences was really great to help me figure out like what do I want to do next, right?

I think as a cohort we’ve been pretty supportive about some people have been in roles that they’re like I’m here, but this is not necessarily the work that I want to do, but I’m trying to figure it out. And so being able to have those conversations, even in an online setting, and really getting to know one another.

Nicole: Yeah, so speaking of things that come next, what are your plans for the future when do you see yourself continuing in an organizing role, or what’s your next step?

Monica: I’ve been trying to like define and refine this—for me, whatever role I want to work in, I want to make sure that we are putting money in the hands of the people that can really have impact on the communities that need it. And so I think organizing for me is a great place to really have conversations and…and get to know people and understand what are the actual needs, and so that whatever I end up doing next, just having that understanding—like the same reason when I said like I went to the classroom because it was like if I’m going to do education policy, how can I tell people what to do in their classroom if I’ve never experienced what they’ve experienced.

And so I think this is just kind of the ground for me. I don’t know what comes next. I do want to grow in the space. But I also, that priority for me is helping people be able to have choice to live the best lives that they want and best being under their definition.

Nicole: So why might you recommend the Crown Family School, and particularly the SSL program to others?

Monica: I would recommend the Crown Family School, kind of going back to that, like that sense of community that does exist within the School, right? And so one of the thing that like I’m very sad about, but I also know it was the time, just like everything was online, and so we didn’t have that in person interaction. But even without having that, I still felt very much part of a community, and so I can’t imagine how much more it would feel to be able to be in class, to be able to grab coffee after class and continue a conversation that happened ten minutes ago.

And so I think there’s just really a lot of really smart people to learn from and to ask questions from, and utilizing that space. I’ve talked to quite a few prospective students, right—like if you’re looking for a way to enhance your skills, if you’re looking for a place to really challenge your ideas about the world and how we help people, it’s a great place to be and a great space to learn.

Nicole: That’s a great recommendation. Monica, I want to thank you so much for appearing with me on the podcast. It’s great to hear about your experience. And if you are interested in learning more about the Crown Family School and the SSL program, visit crownschool dot uchicago dot e-d-u slash s-s-l.

Announcer: The Crown Family School would like to thank Associate Professor Nicole Marwell and alumna Monica Meriweather for this conversation. We'd also like to thank Augusta Read Thomas, UChicago University Professor in the Department of Music, who composed the music. If you would like to learn more about the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, please visit us at crownschool dot uchicago dot e-d-u slash s-s-l.

Listen and subscribe on LibsynApple PodcastsSpotify, or Stitcher.