Social worker Elizabeth Fuchs follows a dream formulated at UMSL
Elizabeth Fuchs was one of the three University of Missouri–St. Louis students Professor Margaret Sherraden chose to present a project at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City as part of the annual state Undergraduate Research Day in the spring of 2012.
Fuchs and her fellow undergraduate social work classmates presented the findings of their semester-long study into the limited health care options available to legal, non-resident immigrant children in the state. After a day of interacting with legislators, visitors and other interested passersby milling around the Capitol, Fuchs decided to embark on a new fact-finding mission.
This one led her to the rotunda, where then-State Senator Jolie Justus was addressing a group from the National Association of Social Workers in town for Social Work Advocacy Day.
Justus, who served from 2007-2015, was the first openly gay member of the Missouri Senate.
“She was paving the way,” said Fuchs, BSW 2012, MSW 2013. “I thought, ‘I want to do this. I want to be this person. I want to stand in the middle of the rotunda and pump people up and have them go out and create change.’”
In the five years since earning her master’s degree at UMSL, Fuchs has put that vision into action. She is the manager of public policy at PROMO Missouri, the statewide organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality.
Fuchs spends nearly half the year – when the General Assembly is in session – in Jefferson City helping to promote PROMO’s legislative agenda and policy aims. She spends the rest of the year working to connect legislators with their LGBTQ constituents from PROMO’s home base in St. Louis.
In May, Fuchs was named one of The Advocate magazine’s annual “Champions of Pride” for her work. The LGBTQ-interest publication, which has been around for more than 50 years, included only one representative from each state.
“Dreams come true,” Fuchs said. “There are so many people in this state who are champions of pride and, lucky me, I just got a little spotlight shining on me. When I was a kid, I would read The Advocate: this young, baby gay. Now, here I am in it.”
Fuchs went away for college right out of high school, but after a year – “pretty fun, but I didn’t really accomplish a whole lot,” she said – came back home to St. Louis. She spent more than a decade as a bartender in the city before deciding it was time to finish her education. When she did, she picked UMSL, where her mother, sister, brother and multiple cousins had all earned degrees.
She went into her first social work class with Associate Teaching Professor Linda Wells-Glover thinking that she wanted to work in the school system.
“We were doing an overview of the populations you could work with as a social worker, and one of the populations was LGBT people,” Fuchs said. “I was like, ‘I can work with my people? OK, sign me up!’”
Wells-Glover still remembers where Fuchs sat in that 40-person class. Unwilling to blend into the seatback, Fuchs differentiated herself with her engagement in discussions and willingness to challenge herself and classmates. Wells-Glover also taught Fuchs in a diversity course later in her undergraduate career before working with her as a graduate teaching assistant in the MSW program.
Fuchs’ “cultural immersion project” from the diversity class especially stands out in Wells-Glover’s mind.
“She chose to simulate what it would be like to be homeless. She literally spent a weekend living out of her car,” Wells-Glover said. “It was her challenging herself in a much deeper way than many of the other students did, because she really wanted to get a sense of what it would be like for clients that she might be working with. I was just so impressed.”
Sherraden, now professor emerita of social work at UMSL, saw that same intellectual curiosity and drive in her social policy class. Fuchs took a leading role in the semester-long immersion into immigrant children and health care policy in the state of Missouri.
“This was not her issue. She was interested in LGBT issues,” Sherraden said. “But she dove right into this project. Her level of enthusiasm about a topic, it’s somewhat infectious. I think people know that and respond to her organizing efforts. She’s highly committed to equality, human rights and social justice.”
During her time at UMSL, Fuchs interned at SAGE Metro St. Louis, the local arm of the national advocacy organization for older LGBTQ people. While it used to be its own entity in St. Louis, SAGE is now a part of PROMO.
Fuchs worked for Saint Louis Effort for AIDS after graduation. During her time with EFA, she presented on best practices in asking two-part gender questions when state and local officials are collecting population data at the inaugural Transgender Spectrum Conference in 2014 in St. Louis and the 27th annual National Conference on Social Work and HIV/AIDS the next spring in New Orleans.
Since moving to PROMO, Fuchs has concentrated her efforts on trying to “add sexual orientation/gender identity to any level of policy that we can.”
“In Missouri, you can still be fired for being LGBT. You can be denied housing and can be refused public accommodations and public services,” Fuchs said. “Because we know that at the state and federal level there are no protections, we work at the local levels, with municipalities, or even on a smaller scale than that, with institutions. The biggest part of my job is really building relationships with our elected officials and creating bridges to the other side of the aisle.”
Wells-Glover said Fuchs is an engaged alumna, always willing to come back to UMSL to speak to a class or help out with a professional development workshop. Fuchs also has hosted 11 social work practicum students – most of them from UMSL, Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University – at PROMO over the past two years.
It wasn’t so long ago that she was in their shoes.
“I was brought up by my mentors. I’m trying really hard to bring up that next generation of warriors,” Fuchs said. “That’s a really important piece that UMSL taught me. We bring each other up with us.”
She has thought about following Justus’ example even further and running for office, vying to become an openly gay member of the General Assembly, but she’s happy with the current state representation from her district.
And she’s especially content fighting for policy gains on behalf of the LGBTQ community, a penchant she discovered at UMSL.
“I can’t say enough about how UMSL was so influential in my career,” Fuchs said. “The people who saw something helped to cultivate it, and I was able to grow because the environment was so warming. I never felt like my school didn’t support my identity. I never, ever felt that way.”
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