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Cooper-Lewter - Agent of Change“Walking Alongside” the Marginalized at Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina

USC College of Social Work alumna Dr. Stephanie Cooper-Lewter has been working as an agent of change in South Carolina—but not in ways that many would expect of a social work professional.

As the Senior Director of Research at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, Dr. Cooper-Lewter is engaged in a field that she says often is “not the first thing on the radar” for social work graduates. “A lot of students don’t think about philanthropy,” she said. “But we need social workers to be a part of the conversations about investing in different social issues.”

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina is a faith-based philanthropic organization that addresses the root causes and effects of poverty in South Carolina. Established by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, the Foundation employs a wide array of strategies to reduce and eliminate poverty through grantmaking, research, evaluation, capacity building, education, and advocacy. For example, the Foundation offers free training through the Carolina Academy for individuals and organizations that are making an impact in South Carolina communities. The Foundation also supports the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, an outgrowth of the Foundation’s Fatherhood Initiative, which engages noncustodial fathers in the lives of their children and Healthy Learners, an outreach ministry to uninsured children across South Carolina

While Dr. Cooper-Lewter’s role within the organization is manifold, her primary work focuses on research, grant review, and evaluation. She also contributes to strategic planning for the Foundation. As a researcher, she looks at poverty through a statewide lens, examining different issues that have an impact on poverty and recommending best practices to others. However, most importantly, she ensures that this work is intricately connected with the community itself.

For example, Dr. Cooper-Lewter developed Foundation Listening Sessions that have been held throughout the state. In each session, community members who have experienced poverty are invited to share their stories directly with the organizations that help them. These Listening Sessions provide an opportunity for the Foundation to delve into issues facing families that experience poverty in different communities. Simultaneously, the Listening Sessions affirm the inherent value, strengths, and dignity of those who have walked the path of poverty. Dr. Cooper-Lewter then shares the knowledge gained from the Listening Sessions research with the communities that the Foundation serves.

Dr. Cooper-Lewter, who has worked at the Foundation in a full-time capacity since 2009, said her training as a clinical social worker and a social work scholar adds an important perspective to her work. For her, the advocacy and social justice inherent in social work complement the core values of the Foundation. She said her social work perspective shapes her understanding of how to best evaluate community needs and the impact of grant-making. Her training also enables her to “walk alongside” the nonprofits that the Foundation funds, as well as the people whom the organizations directly serve. Dr. Cooper-Lewter loves knowing she is helping to make an impact on the lives of those most marginalized and in need in South Carolina.

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