Over her long career, U of T alumna Ellen Sue Mesbur has seen and led change in social work education
Growing up in Edmonton, community engagement and organizational leadership were a big part of Ellen Sue Mesbur’s life. Her parents were involved in Jewish organizations and other local community groups, instilling deep values of helping others and giving back.
When Mesbur, a University of Toronto alumna, set out to start her own career, she says social work “seemed like the normal thing to do” – but she wasn’t sure about the exact path her career would take.
More than 50 years later, Mesbur has both led and witnessed considerable changes in social work education – including initiatives to make programs more accessible to students. Her career has included roles as the director of two Canadian schools of social work, and deep expertise in the history and practice of social work with groups in Canada.
Today, she continues to share her experience and knowledge both as a consultant for Toronto's Jewish Family and Child Service and as an internationally recognized expert in group work through published articles, papers and presentations.
After graduating in 1967 from U of T’s master of social work program (now based at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work), Mesbur landed a job as a school social worker in Scarborough. While there, a colleague recommended that she apply for a position in the welfare services program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University).
“They hired me to teach – by taking a chance on me, that changed my whole career,” she says.
At the time, Ryerson only offered a certificate program for people with a high school diploma who had been working in welfare services.
“Most of the students would never have had an opportunity to get any kind of advanced education if it hadn’t been for that program,” Mesbur says. “It met a very interesting need in the community.”
By 1989, Mesbur became the director of Ryerson's School of Social Work and remained in that position until 1998. In 1993, when Ryerson gained official university status, students were able to pursue a bachelor of social work degree.
During sabbaticals, Mesbur was furthering her own education, attending U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and majoring in adult education. There, she received a master’s degree and a doctorate in education while studying group interaction and how it influences learning.
In the early 2000s, Mesbur started to think about retiring from teaching, but continued presenting and publishing papers on field education, working with diverse populations and the history of social work in Canada.
She also served on several boards, where she was introduced to Renison College, an institution affiliated with the University of Waterloo that had established an emerging School of Social Work to offer degree courses. Mesbur went on to serve as the school’s director for a decade before retiring in 2013.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Mesbur’s experience with online learning was an asset. Although she was no longer teaching, she met virtually each week with group work colleagues from Canada, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – educators who all had to pivot to teaching online.
“Everybody was struggling with the same things,” she says. “They were universal in the sense of worrying about the students and being concerned about the course content and student mental health.”
The group’s weekly meetings led to two published journal articles on teaching group work online during the pandemic.
Mesbur’s Jewish faith has also been important in her commitment to social work. As Jewish Heritage Month concludes, she reflects on the recent rise in antisemitism, noting she would like to see better awareness of such discrimination incorporated into educational policies and standards around equity, diversity and inclusion within schools of social work, accrediting bodies and social work associations.
“I did my master’s thesis on hate propaganda legislation – because at that time, in the mid-’60s, there was a rise of neo-Nazi activity in Canada,” Mesbur says.
“Over the years, antisemitic activity has calmed down and then gotten worse – but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it, in terms of incidents around the world. In social work, I think we have to be aware of all forms of hatred, include it in our curricula and learn how to address hate in our work as practitioners, teachers and researchers.”
Looking back, Mesbur is grateful for those who have served as her mentors and the immense impact they had on the trajectory of her career. She is proud of the legacy and contributions that faculty and graduates from Canadian schools of social work have made to the field and to educating the next generation of social workers.
“There has been so much leadership in social work and social work education from faculty and graduates across Canada, from the early days to current days,” Mesbur says. “It’s quite impressive to think about.”