An agent of change: Latesha Newson ’15 honored as 2023 Governors State Distinguished Alumni
When Anjanette Young needed a friend and advocate after a botched 2019 Chicago police raid on her home, she called Latesha Newson (’07, ’15). A 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient at Governors State University (GovState), Newson advocated for the Anjanette Young Ordinance, which would, among other things, ban no-knock warrants.
Young is now a GovState adjunct professor.
In addition to working to influence policies that lead to equitable and transformative change in society, Newson is also inspiring the next generation of social work professionals as a full-time lecturer and field coordinator in the University’s Department of Social Work.
“I’m here to do the work,” Newson stated. “When my life is over, I want to have made a difference.”
Newson has already made a difference on several fronts. She is currently helping to restore mental health clinical services at two sites in Chicago following the passage of the Treatment Not Trauma Ordinance and she's part of a working group charged with making recommendations to Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to expand mental health clinic services. Newson advocated for the Treatment Not Trauma bill for over two and half years.
Newson also lobbied in Springfield to change the testing policy for clinical licensure of social work professionals. “Illinois is the first state in the country to have legislation signed that provides an alternative pathway to licensure for people of color, people who don’t speak English and people with learning disabilities,” she said. “There are so many unfilled jobs … this test keeps people out of the profession, and mental health at a crisis level."
Along with fellow social work alumnus Jerry Davis-El (’16, ’18), Newson is cofounder of Generating Hope, an organization designed to support students who have been affected by incarceration.
“We advocated for the BAN the Box initiative in Springfield to eradicate the question regarding criminal background off college admissions applications ,” she explained. “People are being honest when they check the box but then they’re marginalized, and a level of profiling takes place. While the box is still on the (University’s) application, the policies have been eliminated that marginalizes these students.”
Newson’s passion and commitment to help other people drew her to social work as a career in the mental health field. Among other roles, she’s worked as a therapist and parent coach with children and families in the child welfare system.
“My father grew up in Arkansas in the 1950s in the Jim Crow era,” she said. “Hearing his stories made me want to fight for people who are marginalized. And growing up in the inner city of Chicago, I saw the struggles of people in my neighborhood (Auburn Gresham and Englewood) and I saw the struggles within my own family. I have lived experience.”
Newson enrolled in two other institutions before GovState. “The culture here fosters community, mentorship, and support. Here they wrap their arms around you and walk you through the journey. And my professors pushed me and mentored me; they wouldn’t allow me to use ‘first gen college student’ as an excuse not to excel and soar.”
It was this mentorship that propelled her into leadership roles. “I became the student liaison for the National Association for Social Workers Illinois Chapter,” she said. “I am currently serving as president of the board following in the footsteps of chair of the social work department, Dr. Gisela Grumbach.”
Dr. Phyllis West, Director of the Social Justice Initiative at GovState, also mentored Newson as she completed her master’s degree and became an officer with the Social Work Student Organization (SWSO). “She took us to Springfield to teach us how to advocate and write policy and change hearts for people in need,” Newson said. “I’ve been doing this work ever since.”
When Newson left the University with her master’s degree in hand, she knew in her heart that she’d return. Now teaching at her alma mater since August 2018, Newson acknowledges she’s come full circle. “I’m walking alongside the professors who had a hand in educating me,” she said. “It’s surreal to talk about curriculum with those I admire and look up to.”