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“My soul has taken me to task and taught me to love what others reject and to treat as a friend the one whom they insult.” Kahlil Gibran’s words have been true for me ever since I can remember.  From my first awakenings as a child to suffering and unfairness to leaving my small Minnesota town for college during the height of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War … to witnessing the inequitability of public school systems in Chicago and New York City … the Black Panther Party liberation movement … being a group home parent for seven emotionally disturbed adolescent girls … witnessing the poverty and oppression of indigenous people … and more. My heart beats for justice. And, in these difficult and challenging times, with every story I write, Toni Morrison’s words ring in my ears and tell me who I am.

"This is precisely the time when artists go to work.

There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity.

No need for silence. No room for fear.

We speak, we write, we do language.

That is how civilizations heal."

- Toni Morrison

Dorothy Van Soest Photo 3  small.jpg

Writer, social worker, teacher, political and community activist, professor and university dean—I’ve enjoyed wearing many different hats but none as much as that of novelist, to which I now devote my life and energy.

So why is it that whenever I’m asked why I write novels, I get tongue-tied. It’s not that I don’t know what to say; it’s because I have so much to say. Fiction writing called to me way back in 1964 when, with an undergraduate degree in English Literature under my belt, I told a friend that I wanted to write a novel. Then life happened, as it is wont to do—marriage, divorce, finding myself, losing myself, finding myself again, decades of professional experiences and achievements, unbelievable changes in our society—and my dream went underground. But it didn’t disappear.

Fourteen years ago, it resurfaced. I was considering retirement when, out of the blue (or so I thought), fiction writing called to me again. This time I was ready to answer. I’d come to understand that how we see ourselves is most profoundly affected, even shaped, not by objective data and theoretical discourse but by the personal connections we make through the stories we’re exposed to and the stories we tell. I needed someone to listen. I wanted to engender empathy to mend what is broken in our world by bringing it to life through people and their stories.

So that’s what I did. I began writing stories. I started by taking pieces of things that really happened, tweaked the characters and created new ones, changed the settings and the endings/outcomes. And what I discovered was that the stories turned into a kaleidoscope of my life that looked nothing like my real life, just shattered bits. So now, when writing novels, I always start with some of my own and others’ experiences and find that, in the end, most of the things that happen in my novels didn’t actually happen but that the feelings are close to home.

I’m often asked what’s surprised me the most on this journey. Well, the answer to that one is easy. I never intended to write a mystery. It started with Sylvia Jensen, the strong woman who is the protagonist in At the Center. At first I based her character on what I knew about myself as a social worker but I didn’t stop there. I kept going and asked, what if I created a character that does what I wished I had done or could have done? What if I pushed the envelope and made her an outrageous, dysfunctional breaker of rules in the cause of justice? Before I knew it, Sylvia Jensen the social worker became the sleuth who solved the mystery of a boy’s death in a foster home. Sylvia does her sleuth thing again as a teacher in Death, Unchartered and voila! All of a sudden I am creating a mystery series.

I want the Sylvia Jensen mysteries to have gripping plots, of course. But I also want them to explore mysteries much deeper, intricate and more universal than whodunit—like race, class and power—without muting what is interesting and particular about my characters’ ways of seeing things. I want all my novels to be deeper than the stories themselves. I want them to expose the truth, either on purpose or accidentally, about the human condition, to bear witness to how my characters are impacting and being impacted by the complex world in which they live.

So, in a nutshell, as novelist I still get to wear my activist, social work, and educator hats. When I write, they all work together and my heart is exposed, like a river, as I’m carried along with the story; and when I become immersed in my characters’ lives, my heart breaks open to contain the whole universe . . . and I become the change I want in the world.


Social work as a Force for Social Justice


November 10, 2010

University of Pittsburgh,

School of Social Work

Watch on YouTube

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4


I am proud to be a former dean of the UW School of Social Work and former associate dean and professor at the University of Texas School of Social Work in Austin with over 40 years of social work teaching and practice experience…


When I look back on my professional career, I can see how each step, each new position, shaped me. I started as a teacher, high school English at first, elementary school later. As a skinny and very white college student, I did my teaching internship in a poor Chicago high school that was twice the size of my hometown. At twenty-one I taught ninth grade English in a poverty-stricken Chicago neighborhood where my classroom was a corner in the school cafeteria, with no student textbooks, only a blackboard (but no chalk) and an abundance of the clanging and clattering noise of dishes and trays. In the summers I taught Headstart and was exposed to the ravages of racism and poverty on young children. Teaching third grade in an overcrowded and under-resourced elementary school in the Bronx, when millions of students were deprived of an education during a two and a half month teachers’ strike, the longest in New York history, turned my life upside down.

Teaching was no longer enough. There had to be more I could do. Social work seemed like a natural next step. For four years I was a social worker responsible for a large geographic area in the Midwest that included an Indian Reservation. The challenges of dealing with the hidden devastations of rural poverty and discrimination drove me back to the university to get a MSW degree and a focus on ways to reform institutions and change the system rather than the victims of the system. Eventually that led me to teach social work students to do the same, which led me back to school to get a PhD, which led me to conduct research and publish books and articles with a focus on diversity education for social justice, which, finally led to positions in university administration and well, for those of you who might be interested in the details,

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