From Professor to Professor Emerita: Dr. Joan Pennell Retires after 20 Years of Honorable Service to the Department of Social Work

When Dr. Joan Pennell moved to North Carolina from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, in December 1997 to take the position of Director of the Social Work Program at NC State, she thought she had arrived in heaven. With its flowering trees and mild temperatures, North Carolina was a blossoming paradise compared to St. John’s, which in December becomes a rocky sheet of ice of an island in the Atlantic Ocean. As she settled into her new position at NC State,”summer hit, and I realized that my Canadian ‘summer’ attire was totally inadequate and was ready to head back North” recalled Pennell about her move South. Perhaps it was tempting to take advantage of her dual US and Canadian citizenship and return to St. John’s, but Dr. Pennell possesses a true traveler’s spirit and despite the summer heat, found a home in North Carolina and NC State. And so did her husband who plays old time and bluegrass music at least three to four times a week.

Prior to living in North Carolina, she never stayed rooted to one place and has lived in several US states as well as abroad. Originally from Massachusetts, Dr. Pennell was born into a Pennsylvania Quaker family, and experienced her first move early in life. As a toddler Dr. Pennell and her family (pictured below) moved to France because her father received a Fulbright Fellowship and then was appointed Director of the Fondation des États-Unis (US Foundation). While living in Paris, she attended her first school and learned French at an early age. From France, her family moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where her father worked for the United Nations at a time when Haile Selassie was the reigning emperor. and Joan attended her first American school, suddenly having to learn how to spell in English. To this day, she still slips into French spellings of some words! Returning to the United States, she lived in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Massachusetts.


After graduating from Earlham College in Indiana, she and her husband, Charley Pennell, moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, so that she could obtain her MSW at  Dalhousie University. The picture shows her riding on her bicycle to classes on the icy roads in Halifax, Nova Scotia! Next, the couple relocated to Toronto where her husband attended graduate school and she held her first social work position as a child protection worker. From Toronto, the Pennells moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where their three sons–Ivan, Daniel, and Benjamin–where born.  They liked to joke that the sons had three nationalities, Canadian and American but also Newf! Here Dr. Pennell taught at Memorial University of Newfoundland. At this time, she also helped to found the first shelter for abused women and their children in Newfoundland and co-facilitated support groups for abused women.

Wishing to return for her PhD, she applied for and received a Canadian fellowship. She and her family moved to Pennsylvania for her doctoral studies at Bryn Mawr College. Her Canadian fellowship paid for tuition and books (and there were a lot of them) and supposedly for her living expenses. Given that her youngest son was 10 months old and the eldest was eight years, the allocation for living expenses was quickly translated into babysitter payments. The very rambunctious threesome certainly ensured that  the babysitter earned her keep! Oddly enough, the sons today are all quiet and quite well behaved.

 She was contacted by the School of Social Work at  University of Manitoba about a faculty position, and she readily accepted because of the School’s interest in a feminist scholar. While living in Manitoba, Dr. Pennell was invited by an Aboriginal family violence center, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, to co-facilitate a group for abused women. An Ojibway elder provided teachings within the Medicine Wheel, and Dr. Pennell learned about how immersion in cultural traditions is a pathway to healing and peaceful relationships. After three years (in the coldest place she has ever lived), the Pennell family once again was packing boxes to transfer back to Newfoundland where Memorial University offered appointments to both her and her husband. Here she taught Social Work, helped to found and then chair the PhD Committee, and served as the School’s Interim Director.

Before returning to the to the US in 1997, Pennell was a principal investigator (with Dr. Gale Burford) for a Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada, demonstration of family group decision making in situations of child maltreatment and domestic violence. Three diverse sites—Inuit, rural, and urban—hosted the demonstration project. She was appointed to the National Crime Prevention Council (Canada), chaired its Youth Justice Committee, and promoted social development strategies for crime prevention.

Despite settling in North Carolina, Dr. Pennell still has that traveler’s spirit, best demonstrated when she says she “thrives on learning from different cultures and was happy to move to North Carolina.” Truly, something about North Carolina must resonate with her since this is where she has “lived the longest of any place” and she “looks forward to retirement here.”

When asked about what inspired her to enter the field of social work and embark on her successful career, Dr. Pennell recalled, “I knew that I liked working with people and wanted to create positive change. I also knew that I wanted to do something different from my parents, who were both educators, so I decided to become a social worker. What I was forgetting was that both my father’s parents were settlement house workers and were very involved in juvenile justice reform. My mother’s family, as Quaker farmers, were part of the Underground Railroad and hid escaping slaves behind their basement fireplace.” “When I became a social work practitioner and then professor, I knew I wasn’t doing something ‘different,’ (from my parents) just being where I belonged.”

When Dr. Pennell became Director of the Social Work Program in 1999, it consisted of only a BSW (Bachelor of Social Work) program. Through hard work and perseverance, Pennell and her social work colleagues were able to establish an MSW (Master’s of Social Work) program in the transition from program to department status. She directed the Social Work Department for nine years, before becoming the founding director of the Center for Family and Community Engagement (CFFACE), a public service and research center in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS) where she conducted and disseminated extensive research on family engagement, and was awarded over $14 million in grants. For their work, Pennell, CFFACE, and her partners received the Opal Mann Green Engagement and Scholarship Award and the Gary Ander Making a Difference Award for Family-Driven Care. As a community-engaged scholar, Dr. Pennell also received the university’s Alumni Association Outstanding Researcher Award and was inducted into Academy of Outstanding Faculty Engaged in Extension. Additionally, Pennell is a founding member of the national Academy of Community Engagement Scholarship and was inducted into the Academy of Community Engagement Scholarship, a national organization to recognize and advance community-university collaborations to promote the public good.

The majority of Dr. Pennell’s research and public service in North Carolina has focused on family engagement and restorative approaches. She conducted a demonstration of family group conferencing in child welfare and directed training, technical assistance, and evaluation of family-centered meetings and family engagement in child welfare and schools. Pennell also served as researcher of the NC Community Child Protection Teams Advisory Board (Community Child Protection Teams are citizen review panels for improving public child welfare in North Carolina). Partnering with a local shelter for abused women and their children, she developed a model of safety conferencing to address domestic violence. Furthermore, she has evaluated a fathering program for men who have committed domestic violence, and with the Center for Court Innovation, she studied alternative approaches to intimate partner violence.

Outside of the state, she was as an external evaluator of Family Team Meetings for the District of Columbia Child & Family Services Agency. She served on the Advisory Committee for the Quality Improvement Center on Child Welfare Involved Children and Families Experiencing Domestic Violence; Stakeholder Group Member, Preventing and Addressing Intimate Violence when Engaging Dads (PAIVED); and the Advisory Group for the Campus PRISM (Promoting Restorative Initiatives for Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses).

As part of her academic efforts, Dr. Pennell has presented on and influenced restorative practices across Canada and the United States as well as in Australia, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand, Taiwan, and United Kingdom. Her editorial work includes the review board of Child Welfare, the International Advisory Board of the International Journal of Restorative Justice, and the editorial board of Contemporary Justice Review. She has also co-authored Community Research as Empowerment: Feminist Links, Postmodern Interruptions (Oxford University Press),Widening the Circle: The Practice and Evaluation of Family Group Conferencing with Children, Youths, and Their Families (NASW Press), Family Group Conferencing: Evaluation Guidelines (American Humane Association), and Safety, Fairness, Stability: Repositioning Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to Engage Families and Communities (Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform). In total, she has over 200 publications.

Throughout her career filled with expansive research, international travel, publishing, and contributing to the profession of social work and NC State, Dr. Pennell also served as a mentor to countless faculty members and students. One of her mentees Dr. Willa J. Casstevens of the Department of Social Work said of Dr. Pennell; “Dr. Pennell has been a highly valued mentor for me since I started my academic career at NC State in 2006. Her international expertise in the area of family-group conferencing is particularly noteworthy. I hope that she will continue to remain active in this area after retirement and I wish her well in her future endeavors. I also want to thank her for her many years of service to our department and for being an inspirational professional in the field of social work.” Dr. Karen Bullock, Head of the Department of Social Work at NC State, had this to say about Dr. Pennell and her time at NC State; “When I arrived at NC State as tenured faculty member, Dr. Pennell ‘took me under her wing’.She created opportunities for me to get involved in research at CFFACE. The community engagement with grandparents and children in Foster Care was an enrichment experience that I will forever appreciate. I wish Dr. Pennell all the best in her future endeavors.”

To honor Dr. Pennell and her work at NC State, The Department of Social Work in collaboration with H&SS and CFFACE hosted an Alumni Homecoming Event and Retirement Celebration for Dr. Pennell on Saturday, November 4, 2017. The brunch celebration, included a welcome and kind send off from Dean of The College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr. Jeffrey P. Braden. Additionally, Dr. Tom Birkland, the Associate Dean for Research and Engagement for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who has worked extensively with Dr. Pennell in her work with CFFACE also spoke about his work with Dr. Pennell; “Joan has been, for me, a sounding board, a resource for information about engagement, and an unfailingly helpful and patient member of the college. Her patience and calm are particularly welcome in an institution where processes are sometimes not clear, and where change and progress can sometimes seem slow. Joan’s patience and understanding have helped her and CFFACE advance to where it is today, as a crucial resource for the people of the state of North Carolina.Her leadership in engagement has made this university a better place, and has enriched the communities in which she’s worked. And NC State is one of those communities. Joan and her work are central to the success.”

When asked about her plans post-NC State, Pennell stated that “As a professor emerita, I will continue my connection to the university through research on two long standing areas of interest: family engagement in decision making and restorative approaches to resolving family violence. I will also be traveling to exchange ideas with others, including at the 2018 International Conference on Victim Protection, Legislation and Practice, sponsored by the Taiwanese Association for Victim Support, and held in Taipei City, Taiwan. I will be presenting on “Alternative Approaches to Stopping Family Violence against Child and Adult Victims: Promising Developments in the United States.” Pennell said that in her retirement she “look(s) forward to slowing down so that I can focus—whether on family, friends, or scholarship” and that she “greatly enjoy(s) being around students and will miss not seeing them as often.”

(Above – retirement gift given to Dr. Pennell)

On the cusp of retirement, Dr. Pennell shares that she is “happily amazed at how the social work department continues to grow its BSW and MSW programs”. Her advice for the next generation of social workers? “Stay true to your touchstone of social justice, and you will make a better world for all of us.”

3 responses on “From Professor to Professor Emerita: Dr. Joan Pennell Retires after 20 Years of Honorable Service to the Department of Social Work

  1. David C Fitzpatrick says:

    What a lovely tribute to a great colleague and contributor in so many ways.

  2. Chris Budnick says:

    Congratulations Dr. Pennell. Thanks for your support over the years.

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