Llewellyn Cornelius, PhD ’88, who has spent his career expanding people’s awareness of the important role diversity plays in understanding society, has also played a critical role in developing a new generation of scholars to carry on that work.
He specializes in racial and ethnic health disparities research and is one of the most-cited African American scholars in social work. He took that work to a new venue in 2015 when he relocated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) to the University of Georgia to become the Donald L. Hollowell Distinguished Professor of Social Justice and Civil Rights Studies.
“Equity is a cause I’ve been passionate about my whole life,” he says.
Cornelius is also passionate about his unofficial role: as a go-to resource and tireless advocate for a generation of minority social workers, said colleagues and former students. Many called him “invaluable” in defusing the responses to the highly-charged Freddie Gray case in Baltimore, a situation Cornelius still characterizes as “explosive.”
The U.S. Census reports that by 2020, more than half of American youth will be minorities, yet the profession is not representative of the clients social workers often serve.
Cornelius, who began his career at UMB, has trained more than 150 professionals in designing and conducting outcomes research, mentored 33 doctoral students, and trained 10 fellows.
At an age when it would have been easy to rest on his laurels, why did “Dr. C” — as his students call him — decide to move to a new intellectual home?
“I promised myself 10 years earlier that if I came across an opportunity to expand my horizon, I’d remain open to it,” he explained. “I found this position fascinating, an opportunity to expand my commitment to promoting a fair and inclusive society. It was asking me to step up and do more for others than I have ever done before.”
He will serve as director of the Center for Social Justice, Human and Civil Rights and the editor for the Journal of Poverty, which is published by the center.
Growing up in a Harlem tenement, such an illustrious resumé would have been unimaginable. His father worked for the New York Transit Authority and “we ate when he got paid,” he said.
Cornelius headed to Syracuse University, where he earned his B.A. in psychology. He arrived at SSA just before Harold Washington launched his historic campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor, further igniting the graduate student’s interest in the intersection of social work and social action.
His first field placement was at Children’s Memorial Hospital, providing services to patients on renal dialysis, both at the medical center and during home visits on the South Side. “It was where I first became involved in health care and received a warm welcome to the profession of social work.”
Cornelius earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate at the University of Chicago. His PhD dissertation was titled “The Impact of Medical Delivery on the Outcome of Care for Minorities and the Poor.”
SSA moved him even closer to his true calling. Faculty such as Dodie Norton, Donna Franklin, and Frank Breul all honed his professional development and had an impact on his work, he said.
Additionally, he cites the CSWE Minority Fellowship Program as playing a key role in his upward trajectory and the importance of making good connections.
“The mentorship I received in the MFP program informed my own mentorship of others. I think it’s one of the best examples of successful initiatives we can tap into to bring more diversity to our profession.”
Former students are grateful for his help. When Nikki Wooten, also an MFP fellow, was a doctoral student at UMB, she wasn’t sure she would find a mentor who would take a special interest in her career.
“What I got in Dr. Cornelius was someone who was invested in my success as an academic and as a scholar,” says Wooten, an assistant professor of social work at the University of South Carolina. “For people of color to find someone like him is truly a rarity.”
In addition to teaching survey research, he has been involved in the design and implementation of a wide variety of studies, such as a statewide survey which examined the cultural competency of mental health providers and the evaluation of global community based HIV prevention and treatment efforts.
Cornelius’ prevention research looks at developing community responses that are culturally appropriate as well as educational, attitudinal, and behavioral change interventions. He has also examined the barriers to the successful adoption of such interventions.
Cornelius has been recognized as the fifth most-cited African American scholar in social work in a study published in the journal Research on Social Work Practice. In 2014, Oxford University Press published A Social Justice Approach for Survey Design and Analysis, which he co-authored with Donna Harrington. His book, Designing and Conducting Health Surveys: A Comprehensive Guide has been cited almost 1,200 times since it was published in 2006.
At the University of Georgia, he is engaging a new generation of multicultural scholars. He cited a recent project leading a group of local youth in creating a mural that celebrated civil rights leaders.
“I noticed the glow on people’s faces in seeing this unfold. Seeing them create something that affirmatively speaks to their own self-defined journey. Not of slavery and sharecropping, but of striving to achieve social justice. I know I’m exactly where I need to be.”