Advocating for underrepresented communities drives social work alumna

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Christina Brewington, a 2013 graduate of the UMSL School of Social Work, serves as the co-manager of housing and clinical services at Employment Connection, an organization that helps ex-offenders and other underrepresented populations become self-sufficient. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Christina Brewington finishes speaking with first-time clients at Employment Connection, she tells them she hopes to only hear from them again under very specific circumstances.

“My goal is to not have them come back here to my chair unless they’re coming back to tell me that they’re doing great,” Brewington said.

As the co-manager of housing and clinical services at Employment Connection, Brewington plays a key role in helping members of underrepresented populations – including ex-offenders, homeless individuals, low-income residents and people with mental health issues – who walk through the door of her office on Market Street in midtown St. Louis.

The clinical department assists clients with behavioral health issues that may be impacting their ability to find employment or perform at their jobs. The housing portion helps clients find and maintain short- and long-term housing solutions, as well as advocating for them during eviction proceedings.

Brewington, who earned her BSW from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2013, worked as an undergraduate practicum student at Employment Connection and was hired full time in early 2014 – less than two months after graduation.

Employment Connection counts nearly 2,000 people on its client list per year, and Brewington said there are currently around 200 in its housing programs. One of her earliest clients was a 22-year-old man with mental disabilities who had been homeless 14 times.

He hasn’t been homeless since she first saw him in 2014. He calls regularly to tell her how well he’s doing.

“I really like what our mission is,” Brewington said. “It’s helping individuals in becoming self-sufficient. A lot of clients that walk through here are ex-offenders, and I don’t feel like that population has a big enough voice of people supporting it. That really drove me.”

Her passion for supporting the ex-offender population drew her to social work in the first place. Brewington started off in community college as a business major, but when she decided to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree, she changed course.

Through a friend, she heard great things about the UMSL School of Social Work.

“There were people I’ve seen that were going through the justice system, and I didn’t think the system was all that fair,” Brewington said. “I don’t think the voice was loud enough to support people who are being released from incarceration, to help them re-establish or reintegrate back into society. I really liked the diversity at UMSL, which I think is crucial anywhere, especially if you’re going into social work. You’re not going to have everybody look the same or act the same. I thought it was very beneficial.”

Brewington chose Employment Connection out of the nearly 600 agencies available for UMSL practicum students. She homed in on places that would give her the opportunity to work with ex-offenders and was impressed with what Employment Connection had to offer.

She made the most out of her time there. Brewington’s duties involved working under the organization’s licensed clinical social worker, but she branched out to learn about other departments. She earned “Volunteer of the Year” for 2013.

“I started finding apartments for clients, jobs for clients,” Brewington said. “I really utilized the whole agency.”

UMSL Assistant Teaching Professor Courtney McDermott, who coordinates the field education program for BSW students, said Brewington’s zeal for the work was evident during class discussions, as well as on McDermott’s site visit to Employment Connection.

In the classroom, Brewington spoke up for a population that society might have prejudged. On the job, she put that advocacy into action.

“I remember seeing the connection that she made with the clients that were there,” McDermott said. “I’ve worked with formerly incarcerated people, so I know they’re used to not really feeling like people care about them. What I remember from that visit was her ability to connect with and tap into her empathy. It’s something that stood out to them there.”

When Brewington graduated and the Employment Connection job opened up, three of the staff members told her, “You’re applying here.” In the four years since, she has worked her way into a leadership position and is going back to school for an MBA, hoping to dive deeper into the policy and administration side of the profession.

She recommends UMSL’s social work program to anyone she can, including Harold Taylor. Brewington first met Taylor as a client during her practicum. He wanted to go into social work, and Brewington suggested UMSL.

Taylor earned his BSW from UMSL in May 2017, is nearing his MSW and works on Brewington’s staff at Employment Connection.

“The biggest thing I took was how to identify my own biases, deal with them, keep them at home and make sure we don’t let it influence anything we do at work,” Brewington said. “You learned how to interact with so many different people who came from so many different types of backgrounds. That’s valuable in social work.”

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