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‘Conscience of society’: Professor Alejandro Garcia recognized for 35 years at SU, awarded 2013 Daniel and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award

Living in a poor Hispanic household, Alejandro Garcia’s altruistic beliefs began as a child with his parents.

He recalled how his mother still found a way to cook an almost unlimited amount of food for families who had even less than them, and without ever needing to discuss it.

“She just did it,” Garcia said. “And we learned from her actions.”

Now, as a professor in the School of Social Work at Syracuse University, Garcia’s own altruistic actions are being recognized with the 2013 Daniel and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award. He received the award on Tuesday for his 35 years of teaching on diversity and social policy, as well as his social work on local, national and international levels.

“There has never been a greater time for the social work profession to be the conscience of society,” Garcia said in his acceptance speech.

Garcia said while other awards he has received in the past focused on his teaching accomplishments, this was the first that looked at his work specifically in social justice.

It encompasses a wide variety of areas he focuses on, such as caring for the elderly, civil rights for minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, and work for the disabled or those who suffer from HIV.

“This is on social justice,” Garcia said, “which is my love and my passion.”

In addition to teaching classes primarily for graduate students, Garcia is an elected member of the National Academy of Social Insurance and the vice president and secretary of the Council on Social Work Education, the accredited body on social work education.

He previously held a national leadership position with the National Association of Social Workers, the National Policy Council of AARP and the National Hispanic Council on Aging.

Matthew and Alexandra Rubenstein, the son and granddaughter of the couple who the award was named after, also made an appearance at the award ceremony.

Garcia developed a relationship with the family, especially Daniel and Mary Lou Rubenstein, for whom the award was named after, because of their similar passions for social work. He recalled visiting their home and tripping over boxes of clothes they were gathering for farm workers.

Alexandra Rubenstein, also active in the social work community as a member of AmeriCorps, agrees Garcia is both very open and powerful in the social work field.

“I think he’s just a pillar in our community,” she said.

In addition to serving as a strong presence in the social justice community, Garcia was also noted for his personable personality by colleagues and event organizers.

Sonya Mangovski, public relations manager for one of the event’s sponsors, Social Workers United, said students know him both for his great knowledge and as a teacher who is easily approachable.

“He’s a wealth of knowledge,” Mangovski said. “He’s the first person to stop me, say ‘Hi, how are you? How’s everything going?’ He’s great.”

Amber Lassally, a graduate student majoring in social work and taking Garcia’s human diversity class, said Garcia encourages great class discussion. He especially encourages students to share their own personal backgrounds, because that is what makes them diverse.

Garcia showed this personality during the ceremony, as well. While organizers were preparing the final details minutes before the event began, Garcia spoke and laughed with students and strangers in the audience. He made casual comments at the event speakers, drawing laughs from them and the crowd.

The speakers noted this side of Garcia in different ways as they introduced him. Dean Diane Murphy of the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, home of the School of Social Work, mentioned how students have connected so well with Garcia that many have named children after him.

Murphy also mentioned her own relationship with him and how he had helped babysit one of her daughters when she brought her to work at the school.

“I am proud, very proud, to call him a dear, dear friend,” Murphy said.

Looking forward, Garcia said while he’s pleased with all of the work he’s done so far, he’s not satisfied yet. He feels there’s still much more progress to make.

“We still have capital punishment, we still have racism, we still have sexism, we still have handicapism,” Garcia said. “Social justice is a work in progress, as opposed to something we’re going to achieve tomorrow.”

He said he still expresses concern for growing social issues today, such as how the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent hearing of Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act will affect marriage equality, and how they will continue to discuss them and their importance.

“I’m pleased with what I’ve done, but it’s incomplete,” Garcia said. “My sense is that once I retire, that won’t stop me from continuing my social action.”

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