PROFILE ON NAKIA McMORRIS
“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” - Marc Anthony. This phrase perfectly describes Nakia McMorris and the love she has for her profession.
There was a time that if you had told Nakia McMorris that she would be leading a team of social workers and field officers in Jamaica, she might not have believed you.
Standing at just 5’feet tall, McMorris is the embodiment of ‘likkle but tallawah’ as she serves in the capacity of Senior Manager for the Community Development arm of the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ).
HAJ’s main activities include property development, the construction, and sale of housing solutions for low to middle-income earners and the regularization of tenure on land through titling services (hajl.gov.jm). So what does any of this have to do with social work, and how did this Business Admin major with a focus in International Finance and Marketing go from working with dot-coms on Wall Street in the areas of project management, marketing and finance, to where she is today?
AN UNLIKELY BEGINNING
Born in the United States of America, Mrs. McMorris returned to Jamaica as a child where she completed her primary and secondary education.
However, after 5th form she decided to return to the United States where she did another year of high school in the Golden State of California. After completing that year she was accepted to the University of California, Santa Barbara; however, she decided to attend the University of Miami (UM), as she had become home sick. It was there that she pursued her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a focus in International Finance and Marketing. Away from attaining her degree, she shared it was one of the best decisions of her life as she formed core friendships at UM that have helped to shape who she is today.
After UM she moved to New York City to join the “dot com movement” and worked with a Wall Street-based company in the areas of project management and marketing. Then in 2001 the unthinkable happened; “The World Trade Center fell down. Simultaneously, the bubble was bursting for dot-coms so a lot of us got laid off. I stayed on but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I kinda felt it wasn’t business.”
She later learned about a New York-based organization named Community Empowerment and Transformation Project (COMET) which worked with inner-city schools throughout New York City. At the time they needed math teachers and because of McMorris’s finance background, she was able to master the required math curriculum. She did a short teacher’s training course offered through the COMET programme and worked with the organization for two years.
In addition to working with COMET as her day job, McMorris also volunteered with the Police Athletic League (PAL), was a math tutor and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. This gave her the opportunity to interface with various communities - more so those considered to be ‘under-served communities’ - a term for which she does not have much affinity.
Eventually, she began to realize that she liked working with people. She attributes much of this to her mother. She noticed that she thrived with young people.
“Initially I thought it was because of my height - I'm short. A lot of young people gravitated to me.”
McMorris was also a youth leader at her church in Brooklyn which, no doubt, was a wonderful training ground for her eventual profession.
One day there was a light bulb moment: “A friend of mine who was doing her Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) said, ‘why don't you do an MSW? You’re the perfect fit’. That was never ever a thought. Growing up in Jamaica, you never really heard about becoming a social worker. It’s either lawyer, doctor, business person, accountant, engineer, etc. ...which is why I chose business in the first place and my family owned their own business.”
TRANSITIONING INTO SOCIAL WORK
McMorris decided to visit Columbia University in New York City to get a better understanding of what an MSW would entail. “For most of us who aren't exposed to social work you just think child services. It is extensively more than that, and I think New York was the best place to introduce it to me because New York is such a diverse city,” she stated.
McMorris had all intentions to remain in New York to complete her degree, but life changed for her. So she relocated to Maryland and it was there where she completed her MSW with a focus on management and community organizing and a minor in mental health and substance abuse at the University of Maryland.
“I chose to do macro social work because, based on my exposure to community programs in Brooklyn, I knew I wanted to work with people. But at the same time I also wanted to have the requisite skills to design and manage programmes, as well as contribute to policy implementation.”
In the United States a Masters in Social Work in combination with Master in Business Administration or Juris Doctor is common because both of the latter fields overlap so closely with executing social work. However, because McMorris already had a Bachelor in Business Administration she already had the base skills to carry out programme management. Completing her MSW allowed her to learn about the clinical aspects of working with various populations and simultaneously manage such facilities.
During her second year, she was selected to intern at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This agency seeks to ‘improve affordable homeownership opportunities, increase safe and affordable rental options, reduce chronic homelessness, fight housing discrimination by ensuring equal opportunity in the rental and purchase markets, build safe communities and support vulnerable populations. “The United States and other developed countries use social workers in various industries because at the core of all operations are people, and where there are people there are needs that must be met, and social workers use their skills to address those complexities,” she shared.
McMorris worked with HUD for six years. “It was at that time that I became interested in housing and gained a deep understanding of the importance of housing in nurturing successful human beings, family systems, and establishing communities that incrementally support the backbone of the development of a country.”
After returning home to Jamaica, McMorris started working at Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) where she continued to work on fundamental community issues.
“Though I have worked in the states, the basic needs of persons are the same no matter where you go in the world The difference in countries is how governments prioritize the provision of their support systems; but we all bleed - rich or poor. Every human being needs stability and support. The components are the same: shelter, food, clothing and love which comes in the form of support services from family (guardians) or government systems. However, those who have access to resources - power, money and in JA, “links” - can address their basic needs and those who don’t live on the fringes of society barely surviving. My mission is to help those who don’t have the resources, to assist however I can, to get access on their behalf.”
The arena she has been guided to assist in is the housing sector. “It is such an important component of survival. I try to advocate however possible.”
She further lamented on the lack of attention that the importance of housing is given. “I don’t think housing is given the attention it needs. But I reflect on the thesis statement of my graduate school acceptance essay – ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has’ (Margaret Mead). I have made up my mind that I would not give up on advocating about the need for stable housing even if I am the only voice in the forest. Someone will hear me or, if not me, someone one day. I just have to keep fanning the flame. I guess this is life sometimes.
HAJ: MAKING THE SOCIAL WORK CONNECTION
the HAJ serves informal communities by issuing lots and processing land titles for individuals seeking property ownership. Through these activities, the HAJ is on a path to contributing to the improved quality of life of Jamaicans through social transformation by providing housing solutions, services and security of tenure while maintaining financial viability.
McMorris strongly believes that in many cases basic human needs as outlined in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs are not being met. “In my space at HAJ I'm trying to meet that need from the housing-stability perspective. Housing is a basic need and Jamaica doesn't fully embrace that yet. Most of the communities that we serve now, their housing stock is zero to nothing.”
Her role as the Senior Manager for Community Development is to “get the persons to come in to get their titles”. She further went on to say, “In my current role, away from just providing the title, in a small way I am trying to work with other agencies to provide a wrap-around provision of services for those who are trying to acquire their title. Where possible, we try to guide them to additional support services offered in the country..
“Social Workers are trained to look at how people interact with their environment. With the use of empirical data and experience we know what works or doesn’t to support positive human development – access to stable housing matters in supporting positive human development. For me as a social worker, within the housing sphere, I am committed to working incrementally in establishing Jamaica as a place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.”
A WORD TO PROSPECTIVE SOCIAL WORKERS
McMorris had a message to those interested in social work or currently pursuing the degree. “Emotional intelligence and introspection are critical to being a progressive social worker. These attributes are usually nurtured from an early age. It’s difficult to learn it in school. “You have to sincerely like to interface with people . You have to be good at problem-solving. Life is complex. There are so many permutations to outcomes.. Empathy and understanding the concept of power is very important to being a social worker. I had an entire course on this in graduate school. Clinical and field practice really reinforced these two concepts. Simultaneously, you must be pragmatic. Everyone, cannot be or doesn’t want to be assisted – and that is OK. You have to learn how to balance the two. Mentors are also a valuable source of support for self-development. Just like people, social work is dynamic so you must be willing to wisely change your perception.”
Of her role at the HAJ she says, “It's not the sexiest job and not a lot of persons publicly recognize what you do, but I love what I do and I appreciate and admire the people that I serve.”
Nakia McMorris is available on WhatsApp at (876) 527- 5005.
( 876 866 8637
Jamaica Association of Social Workers
University of the West Indies
Social Welfare Training Centre
Mona, Kingston Jamaica