Women of Wisdom

Women Of Wisdom: Debra Daniels

By Katherine Pioli

Debra Daniels, U of U Women’s Resource Center, on the power and importance of mentors.

Growing up in Ogden, Utah in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Debra Daniels, 63, was too young and far removed from the powerful events of America’s civil rights movement to truly follow or understand the social changes happening during that time. Even so, the ideas of social reform, social justice influenced her life from an early age.

Debra Daniels, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is the Director of the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Utah. A program within the University, the Women’s Resource Center has long been a critical link keeping women in higher education—advocating for childcare and for the hiring of women staff and faculty; offering counseling, grants and scholarships, support groups and tutoring. Reflecting on the path that brought her to this important place Daniels still seems a bit incredulous. Her story, as she tells it, reminds us how important it is to have people around us who support our dreams.

Powerful role models

“My parents did not have the luxury of a formal education,” Daniels begins. We are sitting in her office at the Women’s Resource Center. A copy of her bachelor’s in social work certificate  from Utah State University (1979) and her masters in social work from the University of Utah (1984) hang on the back wall.

“My father, Willie B., was a cook on the Union Pacific railroad and was often gone for six to 10 days at a time,” she says. His long absences left her mother, Nellie Ruth—“a strong woman”— alone to provide both the necessary encouragement and discipline to keep the family of six youngsters in line.

Daniels was the second youngest and the only girl. She and her brothers were expected to lend a hand around the house, cleaning and cooking. “It wasn’t just women’s work,” she says, “my Dad was clear about that.”

But there was plenty of free time. Nellie Ruth worked as a domestic for the family of a local doctor. After work on long days of summer she would gather up the children and take the family fishing in nearby streams and ponds. It was, Daniels recalls, her mother’s favorite pastime.

Though neither of Daniels’ parents had a high school diploma, they did possess an innate emotional, social and political intelligence. They were tolerant, civic minded, even progressive, says Daniels.

“They voted regularly. They read the paper and kept abreast of the news in our community and the nation. Education was the most important thing for us [children] to have. And they had a welcoming home. I could invite home any of my friends and they were welcome even if I was not invited into their homes in return.”

In the evenings, when Daniels’ father was home from his long stints on the rails, she remembers him putting on vinyl recordings of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Daniels listened intently to these speeches, absorbed their words. Today she still remembers the Fun Town speech, the origins of which came from Dr. King’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail, a letter snuck out and released to the public while he was still behind bars:

As we pass Fun Town so often in the car [my daughter] would look over to me and say: daddy I want to go to Fun Town. Well I could always evade the question when we were going by in the automobile because we were passing by and I could jump to another subject and I didn’t want to tell my little daughter that she couldn’t go to Fun Town because of the color of her skin.

Encouragement and opportunity in education

Daniels always did well in school. Education was a priority for the family and she was inspired by her teachers—like her 6th grade teacher, an African American man who told stories to the students about living abroad in England, who taught them how to play cricket and who loved to read books aloud to the class. As a debater in high school, she delved into the arguments behind equal housing laws and other social justice issues and wondered if she might be able to make a difference some day in politics. But she wasn’t really sure where her schooling would lead her or even how long it might last.

College, for Daniels, was an uncertain part of her future until, while in middle school, she was recruited to Upward Bound, a federally funded educational program with a special summer learning intensive through the Utah State University. The only catch, she recalls, was that the students would live on campus during the seven-week course. She could not imagine her parents, with their vigilance over their only daughter, allowing her to attend a co-ed boarding program. A few adults from the program, including the woman chaperone for the girls’ dorm, paid a visit to Daniels’ parents at their home. They answered all the Daniels’ questions about the program and made a strong case for allowing their exceptional young daughter to attend. To Debra Daniels’ surprise, her parents agreed.

Four years later, she found herself packing up her little blue VW bug and driving back to Utah State University, this time for college.

It seemed like all of the women in Daniels’ family, and those her family knew and were close to, were teachers, including her idol, Aunt Sarah. Fashionable, intelligent and charming, Daniels’ aunt was also beloved by the students she taught at the Intermountain Inter-Tribal School in Brigham City until the school’s closing in 1984. On the few visits she paid to her aunt’s classroom she remembers admiring the relationship she had built with her students. It seemed only natural for Daniels, as she began setting her life’s path, to declare her major in elementary education. It didn’t stick for long. After switching briefly to special education, Daniels settled on social work.

“I saw mistreatment, that there were voices that were not being heard. Society was saying, these people don’t matter and I knew that wasn’t right. Social work is a profession that requires compassion and humanity and personal accountability. You learn in this kind of work that you are not somebody’s savior. It tests your own humanity while making visible the humanity of others.”

Again, Daniels excelled in school. When she left, she received a letter from her college advisor. It was an unbidden letter of recommendation for graduate school. She recalls reading it and thinking incredulously: This is me?

Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize what is special about yourself without someone else shining a light on it for you. Again and again throughout our conversation Daniels, a profoundly intelligent, accomplished woman —approachable and warm—reflected on those who helped her continue reaching for what she was capable of. These mentors, teachers and parents alike, hold a special place for Daniels. “It is so important,” she says, “as we walk the path before us to extend our hands to those coming up behind.”

Daniels becomes the mentor

Along the course of Debra Daniels’ long career of service—with the Children’s Aid Society of Utah, Phoenix Institute, YWCA, Benchmark Behavioral Health, Rape Recovery Center—she has been recognized many times over for her work and dedication. She is a recipient of the YWCA Outstanding Achievement award and the Susa Young Gates Award from the Utah Women’s Political Caucus, for contributions to women and human rights, and of the Inclusion Center for Community and Justice 44th Humanitarian Award and the Linda K. Amos Award for Distinguished Service to Women of the University of Utah. Alongside her team at the Resource Center—“incredible people; they are real fixers”—she helps women find a safe and secure path toward an education with help of a strong and supportive community.

But maybe none of this would have happened without a few words from her father. Not long after she had left USU with her bachelor’s in social work, she was spending some time with her father when he turned to her and asked: “When will you be going to graduate school?” She remembers it being less a question than a statement. It was the first time she realized how much it meant to her parents to see her continue. With the support of her professors and her college advisor already pushing her in that direction, her parents’ blessing was the last piece.

As Debra Daniels reminds me at the end of our conversation, “We don’t do anything on our own.”


Katherine Pioli is a teacher at Salt Lake Arts Academy and CATALYST’s associate editor.

This article was originally published on February 1, 2019.