Civic minded

Amanda Moore McBride studies structures for engaging citizens

If you overheard just part of a conversation with Amanda Moore McBride, you might very well come away thinking she was either an architect or a carpenter. She talks a lot about building structures.

Amanda Moore McBride, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work, discusses upcoming field research in Peru with doctoral student Benjamin Lough. “I am passionate about applied research that can actually provide input for policy and program development,” McBride says. “I don’t want to do research that just ends up on a shelf.”

But McBride, Ph.D., assistant professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, is focused on different kinds of structures — the kinds that engage citizens in their communities and in the world and encourage them to do things like volunteer, enter government service and vote. More importantly, she is concerned with who is — and who is not — civically engaged and how privilege and economic standing are often antecedents.

“My primary research question is how to create inclusive civic structures,” McBride says. “In national service programs like AmeriCorps, there is an emerging body of evidence that says that when you take people, particularly those from disadvantaged circumstances, and put them in these programs, they’re more likely to be civically engaged over the long-term.”

McBride says that research shows that, whether building hiking trails in Oregon or working on a fundraising campaign with a nonprofit in the Bronx, these involved citizens increase their skills and may even have a stronger sense of their career direction — all while meeting vital needs in the community.

“So these service programs can be a win-win, but they have to be structured so that we’re not continuing to marginalize people,” she says.

An important but controversial aspect of building this inclusiveness and equity into civic service is providing financial or other incentives for involvement, especially for those on the margins of the community who cannot afford to dedicate large amounts of time to what is traditionally thought of as volunteer service.

“This really is about people being placed in roles where they are contributing to the public good,” McBride says. “So the questions are, ‘How do we create productive, engaged citizens?’ and ‘How do we create the environment to make that happen?’ ”

Deep roots in service

McBride’s interest in civic engagement is deep seeded and lifelong. A fourth-generation native of Batesville, Ark., she was taught early on that “all politics is local” from her grandparents and parents. Both her mother and father were involved in community organizations, and her mother later became a justice of the peace.

“I got to go to the courthouse and watch my mom up there with all these men,” says McBride, smiling proudly at the memory. “When I was in high school, she served on maybe 10 boards. I got to see how community leadership happened and came to understand that this is my responsibility, too.”

After receiving a scholarship to Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., the young premed student found herself befuddled when she struggled after her first semester. Thankfully, a professor asked: “So what are you really interested in?”

“I told him, ‘I want to influence how people connect to one another and how they engage,’ ” she says. It was a light-bulb moment.

She started taking psychology classes and became interested in counseling. But something was missing, she says. During her senior year, she took a service-learning course that included volunteer work at a nursing home where she saw firsthand the impact of social programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

“I realized that it was not just about the individual but about socioeconomic and political circumstances and how these two things fit together,” says McBride, who shortly after brought that lesson to WUSTL’s Brown School to begin work toward her master’s of social work (MSW).

Early on in her time as a graduate student, she was already being urged by faculty members to consider becoming a professor.

Amanda Moore McBride

Education: bachelor of arts, psychology, Hendrix College; master’s degree and doctorate, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University

Family: Husband, Mark McBride; son, Liam McBride, 18 months

Hobbies: Hiking, traveling, Cardinals baseball and touring with Bob Dylan (at least a few shows a year)

Professional contributions: Organized a series of five international conferences on civic service with the Center for Social Development, resulting in several notable publications, including: “Civic Service: Toward a Global Research Agenda” (McBride and Sherraden, 2004) and “Civic Service Worldwide: Impacts and Inquiry” (McBride and Sherraden, 2007)

“Amanda is an extremely talented, energetic and bright professional,” says Shanti Khinduka, Ph.D., former dean of the Brown School and a distinguished university professor. “She was easily the best student in my MSW class. Curious, industrious and thorough, she struck me and others as an ideal recruit for our Ph.D. program. As a doctoral student, she continued to impress us by her academic and organizational prowess. As expected, she has turned out to be an outstanding teacher and a solid and innovative scholar.”

Asking crucial questions

McBride graduated at the top of her MSW class and was indeed recruited to the doctoral program by then doctoral chair, Michael Sherraden, Ph.D., the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development. But she declined, wanting to gain more experience working outside of academia. She got a job at the United Way of Greater St. Louis, which exposed her to the world of nonprofit organizations and community development.

“My time at the United Way confirmed for me what I wanted to do,” she says. “While welfare reform was happening, I interviewed nonprofit organizations and asked them how they were going to cope with funding cuts and how the people they were serving were going to deal with changes in social assistance.”

But McBride says that organizing clients around the policy changes or asking them what they needed in the way of services were not primary strategies mentioned by the organizations. She again began thinking about civic engagement.

Three years after leaving the Brown School, she reconnected with Sherraden and soon was working on an experimental design project at his Center of Social Development and beginning work on her doctorate. She finally had a platform to ask those burning questions about civic engagement.

When she earned a doctorate in 2003 and entered the job market in ’04, she was asked to join the faculty of the school. She currently teaches courses in nonprofit management and community development, and all of her classes are taught from a service-learning perspective wherein her students work at agencies in the community and where they, too, learn how to seek and apply client input.

Although she has her own research agenda, she is still involved with the Center for Social Development, where she serves as research director and currently focuses on a project assessing the impact of international service.

“Amanda has been an exciting scholar from the outset,” Sherraden says. “It is an unusual step for Washington University to hire one of its own Ph.D. graduates, and it is a testimony to Amanda as a promising scholar. This has turned out to be an excellent decision by Washington University.”

Brown School Dean Edward F. Lawlor, Ph.D., agrees. “Amanda’s scholarship is contemporary and cutting edge, relevant to our students, our community partners and to policy,” he says.

A new challenge

In April 2006, McBride was summoned to the chancellor’s office. Given her research interests and rave reviews of her administrative abilities by Lawlor, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton asked her to put one more item on her already-full plate. He asked her to take the reins of WUSTL’s Gephardt Institute for Public Service, whose mission is to promote civic engagement across the University and empower individuals, especially students and older adults, to become more active citizens. She now serves as the institute’s director.

The McBride family: Amanda, husband, Mark, and son, Liam, on top of the Empire State Building.

“I think of the institute as a nexus for service across campus, bringing together student groups, individual students and faculty members — all who are engaged in the community through volunteerism, service projects or service-learning courses,” says McBride, who recently received the distinguished alumni award from Hendrix College, where she first experienced service learning. “The institute’s mission is to support and maximize those efforts for greater impact.”

“Amanda has had an energizing effect on the Gephardt Institute for Public Service and has been instrumental in moving forward its mission and its goals for the future,” Wrighton says. “Considering her leading scholarship in civic engagement, she will be a great contributor to the advancement of the Gephardt Institute, and I look forward to seeing more of what can be accomplished under her direction.”

A passion for purpose

In the end, what McBride the social architect wants to offer her profession and her University is an understanding of the civic structures that allow students and others to find purpose in their lives and work.

“I am passionate about applied research that can actually provide input for policy and program development. I don’t want to do research that just ends up on a shelf,” she says, pointing to the bookshelves behind her lined with binder after binder of notes and reports. “For example, we now have a critical moment in history. Nationwide, more youth are defining their lives in civic terms. What does research tell us on how we can best cultivate and channel that civic conviction across all of our students?”