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Mary Ellen Richmond (1861-1928) was an American social work pioneer.
She was born in 1861 in Belleville, Illinois and lived until 1929. Her parents died when Mary was very young, which forced her to live with her grandmother and aunts in Baltimore, Maryland. Her grandmother was an active women's suffragist who was well known for being a spiritualist and a radical. She grew up being constantly surrounded by discussions of suffrage, political and social beliefs, and spiritualism. This meant she was handed down good critical thinking skills and a caring attitude toward the poor, needy and disabled. Richmond was home schooled until the age of eleven, and then entered a public school. She had to be home schooled because her grandmother didn't believe in the traditional education system. When she was home schooled she dedicated herself to many readings, and was mostly self-taught through her dedication to learn. She graduated High School at sixteen and went to live with one of her aunts in New York until she became very ill and left Mary to fend by herself, leaving her in poverty. After living in poverty for two years in New York she returned to Baltimore and worked for several years as a bookkeeper, and became extremely involved with the Unitarian Church and developed good social skills. In 1888, she applied for a job as Assistant Treasurer with the Charity Organization Society (COS). This organization was in several cities, and was the first organization to develop a structured social work profession which provided services to the poor, disabled, and needy. Her involvement in this organization led to her contributions in social work.
Mary Richmond increased the public's awareness of the COS and for fundraising. She was trained to be a "friendly visitor," which was the term for a caseworker. She visited the homes of people in need and tried to help them improve their life situation. She began to develop many ideas of how casework could best be conducted to help those in need. In 1909 she helped establish networks of social workers and a method by which they did their work. This all started when she became the director of the Charity Organizational Department of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York.
Some books she published with her ideas: Friendly Visiting among the Poor, Social Diagnosis and What is Social Case Work. Within these books she demonstrated her understanding of social casework. She believed in the relationship between people and their social environment as the major factor of their life situation or status. Her ideas were based on social theory and that social problems for a family or individual should be looked at by first looking at the individual or family, then including their closest social ties such as families, schools, churches, jobs, etc. After looking at these factors the community and government should be looked at. This will dictate the norms for the person to help determine how to help the person make adjustments to improve their situation. Richmond focused on the strengths of the person rather than blaming them for the bad. Her focus was mostly on children, medical social work, and families. All of her ideas are now the basis for social work education today.
She also had an influence in the history of social welfare from her research and study Nine Hundred Eighty-five Widows, which looked at families, their work situations, the financial resources of widows and how widows were treated by social welfare systems.
The social workers she worked with at the Russell Sage Foundation were among the first enabled to develop methods and systems for helping needy families. Her success and leadership at developing social work and research encouraged many other organizations to continue financial support and development of the practice of social work.
- Sandra Szymoniak, Richmond, Mary Ellen.