A Journey to Social Work and Special Education Reform

The following interview was conducted as a part of our year-end fundraising campaign, Invest in Emerging Leaders, to showcase alumni and the impact that the fellowship had on their leadership journey. 

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Leah Kenney is originally from Oakland, California and currently a Columbia University School of Social Work candidate in New York City. During Summer 2016, Leah worked with Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland on health lifestyles programs. She is passionate about disability rights and mental health services.


What helped you realize you wanted in the social sector?

In Summer 2014, I worked at a camp for individuals with autism. It truly changed my life. The in-depth clinical experiences made me realize how interesting this population is. After that summer, I changed my focus in my Environmental Studies major to center around how people with autism relate to their surrounding environment. Through this, I learned a lot about channels of communication and the lack of support that many people with disabilities have.


What is your personal social change mission?

My very large social change mission is to completely restructure special education classrooms.  As of now, classrooms are not inclusive and perpetuate the stigmatization of people with learning/cognitive differences. I want the taboo to disappear.

To help me achieve this, I am currently attending Columbia University School of Social Work with a focus in law and policy.  I believe that this path will help me to work towards my social change mission.


Share a memory with us.

One day, I decided to make a point to check-in with some people in the office who I hadn’t talked to as much. When I struck up a conversation with an AmeriCorps member also working for the organization, I learned that we had very similar interests but were taking very different paths to approach them.

It helped me realize that if I go into social work, a field that is greatly underappreciated, there will still be people in other industries working towards the same goals and are willing to help me.  Especially in disability policy, people gain their inspiration for different reasons and have all different sorts of skill sets. I feel that my fellowship experience helped me realize that approaching an issue from different directions and taking a step back can only help see the whole picture.


in the coming years...

Look for me attempting to make change from the inside out. My passion lies in the public school system and I hope to somehow use what I have learned at Columbia to make an impact there.  Whether it is in curricula development, counseling, or some other area I haven’t even considered, I know that what I am learning at Columbia will help shape where I will end up.

Do you want to give more folks like Leah the opportunity to learn, lead, and impact the lives of youth in their communities?