Cultivating Seeds of Change

May 14, 2021

Priscilla Day, longtime social work professor, to retire in May. The impact of her three decades of work reaches considerably beyond UMD.

Priscilla Day is a Master Gardener. It’s a title earned by those with an exceptional knowledge of gardening. But beyond plants, Day’s masterful nurturing and cultivation techniques extend to ideas and people.

Priscilla Day

“I like to plant seeds and pursue ideas,” says Professor Day as she humbly reflects on her career. For nearly three decades she has done so as a faculty member in the UMD Department of Social Work

An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Day has long been committed to bridging relationships between the university and tribal communities and increasing American Indian college enrollment. She has been instrumental in shaping culturally responsive curriculum and programs during her time at UMD and ensuring inclusivity on campus.

Day’s research focuses on tribal child welfare and American Indian family and cultural preservation. The impact of her work reaches considerably beyond UMD. It has influenced the way all of Minnesota’s child welfare workers are trained. She is also called upon for her expertise in ongoing, national-level tribal child welfare work. 

Three Decades at UMD 

As Day retires later this month, she’s recognized for many significant contributions to UMD. In 2016, Day was honored with the prestigious University of Minnesota President’s Award for Outstanding Service. She has won the admiration and respect of colleagues for her skillful collaboration, unique style of leadership, and passion for pursuing social justice. 

“Professor Day’s integrity and commitment to service are unparalleled,” says Dean Jill Pinkney Pastrana of the College of Education and Human Service Professions. “She’s an incredibly effective educator and leader who has had a tremendous influence on UMD students, colleagues, and programs over the years. Her tireless work has made UMD a more inclusive and welcoming place and will have an enduring impact.”

In 1987, Day was one of the first students in UMD’s Master of Social Work program. She was recruited by an American Indian faculty member, Professor Joyce Kramer.  

“Joyce was the first Native faculty I ever had. That was really meaningful to me,” says Day. “I began to see the power of education at that level.”

After graduating, Day returned to work for her tribe in Leech Lake in mental health services. Encouraged again by Kramer, Day later applied to work at UMD and became a faculty member in 1993. “I thought about it as a way to make a powerful difference in people’s lives,” Day says. 

Day rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1999. While at UMD, she helped to start a conversation about educational disparity and the need for an educational pathway from tribal colleges. This led to the development of the UMD Bachelor of Social Work program.

“Her vision for what the Department of Social Work needed to be to support American Indian students was visionary,” says Bree Bussey, director of the Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies (CRTCWS). Bussey is an alumna of the MSW program and was mentored by Day. “Having Priscilla as a constant in the Department of Social Work made a big difference for me as a student and scholar.”

Day served as social work department head twice. She says she used this role as an opportunity to make some changes and worked to “institutionalize and embed a more inclusive way of working” within the department. 

CRTCWS, which is based within the Department of Social Work, benefited from Day’s vision, hard work, and leadership. For more than 13 years she served as the center’s director, garnering national attention for its trailblazing work and bringing in millions of dollars in external grant funding.

“During that time we really took the center from an on-campus focus to a community-based focus,” says Day. She talks about cultivating different voices and skill sets during this process in an effort to assemble a powerful team that could work together to make lasting change and be sustainable once she retired.

Day is praised by her CRTCWS colleagues for this leadership style, which creates a nurturing atmosphere that encourages and supports others. “She sees things in people that they don’t necessarily see in themselves. She helps them realize their potential,” says Karen Nichols, CRTCWS associate director.

Bussey says one of the most important lessons she learned from Day was the difference between leadership and authority. “Leaders grow other leaders,” says Bussey. “You find strength in other people and then celebrate and grow those strengths.”

Broader Impact

The CRTCWS is nationally recognized for its work to improve American Indian child welfare practice. This groundwork laid by Day and her team was also instrumental in starting the Tribal Training Certification Partnership to train all new public child welfare and tribal workers in Minnesota on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Karen Nichols, CRTCWS associate director, credits Day for her “incredible hard work and diligence” and also for the humility with which she approaches her work. “It’s not about Priscilla Day, it’s all about families and children … that’s one of the things that has made her so well respected.”

Nichols also lauds Day’s commitment to offering American Indian cultural activities and immersion experiences to non-Native students and child welfare workers. “She’s gone out of her way to help social workers understand why it’s so important to follow the law of ICWA,” says Nichols. The education and training doesn’t just present information, it helps get at why it’s important so that social workers making decisions get it in their hearts—‘What I do and the decisions I make really do matter to families and kids.’” 

Bussey points to Day’s skill in creating spaces where people come together to learn, unlearn, and engage in systems change work together. “Often we talk about her unique ability to help non-Native people understand how they can become allies and work across systems for change,” she says. “That takes a certain kind of leadership. The work she’s done is challenging work. Her ability to navigate challenging situations has been a critical aspect of everything.”

In addition to her many leadership roles at UMD, Day has held a number of state and national leadership positions. She served as the board chair of the Leech Lake Tribal College Board of Trustees, as a board member for both the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) and the American Indian Social Work Educators, and on the CSWE Commission on Educational Policy.

Day has initiated many enduring projects that have an impact on communities in Minnesota and beyond, including: the Culture and Language Institutes, Raising Healthy Anishinaabe Children research, the Annual Summer Institute in American Indian Child Welfare for tribal child welfare workers (2007-present), the Annual Winter Institute which became the Minnesota ICWA Conference (2010-present), Cultural Competence Learning Circles and several curricula for the Minnesota Department of Human Services on the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

When asked about her greatest accomplishment, Day points to her former students who are “committed to racial, economic and social justice and strengthening the voices of tribes in the university and at state and national levels to change systems for a more equitable future.” 

Retirement Plans

May 21 is Day’s official retirement date. But she’s not slowing down anytime soon. Day will continue to serve as a consultant for several national organizations, including the Children’s Bureau Capacity Building Center for Tribes, the Center for Native Child and Family Resilience, James Bell Associates, the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, and the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. 

With retirement, Day expects to have a more flexible schedule where she can focus on the projects she’s most passionate about and attend more community and cultural events. She calls herself a “voracious reader” and looks forward to having more time for reading, gardening, boating, and spending time with her family (including three children and 10 grandchildren), friends, and dogs on the Leech Lake reservation where she lives with her husband.

I’m grateful to the University both for my master's degree and for giving me this opportunity. I believe I made a lasting contribution,” says Day. “Having the opportunity to do this work with the tribal community, I’m grateful for that—it’s been really rewarding. I’m proud of the work I’ve done.”

Feature image above: Bree Bussey (left) and Priscilla Day (right) with Leech Lake Child Welfare Director Dawn Eckdahl at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Summer Institute in American Indian Child Welfare.