Distinguished Contribution to Social Justice   

Elijah C. Nealy, PhD, MDiv, LCSW* 

Elijah C. Nealy, Ph.D., M.Div., LCSW, brings 25+ years-experience in clinical practice, program development, and advocacy work around addiction recovery, mental health, family therapy, anti-racism work, LGBTQ+ concerns, community building models of practice, and integrating spirituality in clinical practice.  

For the past 12 years, he has worked extensively with trans and gender diverse children, adolescents, and adults, and their families. Dr. Nealy is the author of Transgender Kids and Teens: Pride, Joy, and Families in Transition (Norton) published in hardback (2017), translated and published in Italian (2018), and released in paperback and on Audible in 2019.  

An out transgender man, Elijah currently serves as Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Saint Joseph (CT) and is ordained with Metropolitan Community Churches. Widely regarded as a dynamic speaker, Dr. Nealy provides trainings and consultation around work with LGBTQ communities and has published numerous book chapters and journal articles.  

I’m not sure I know what constitutes a “distinguished” contribution to social justice. What I do know is that social justice is the passion that animates and drives me. It is my conviction, my calling, and my vocation - deeply rooted in, and sustained by, my faith and spirituality.  

 The application for my BSW program asked why I wanted to be a social worker.” I wrote, “I want to change the world.” Today I serve as assistant professor and MSW Program Director within the Department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice. AFTA is the community that continually challenges me to think systemically and holistically about individuals, families, communities, and the larger society. You have nurtured and affirmed my voice as a scholar and enabled me to continually stretch clinical work.  

 AFTA is the community that enables me to connect the dots between my clinical practice, academic work, and social justice efforts. You have been my mentors, my colleagues, my friends, and even my accomplices in this work to create a more just world. You embrace me, make me laugh, and dance with me when the revolution seems overwhelming, or even hopeless.  

 You invite me into deeper self-reflection about my social locations - the places in my life where I experienced privilege and power, as well as areas where I encounter marginalization and oppression. You insist I explore my white privilege and supremacy, as well as sexism and misogyny, even as a transgender man. You encourage me to step up and out of my comfort zone to take responsibility for the ways I am complicit with systems of oppression and structures that exclude, rather than include. In this sense, you have been my community of accountability.  

 You invited me to learn from you and have been open to learning from me. You bore witness to and celebrated my becoming a visible man in the world. You have been family when my own family rejected me. These are profound gifts.  

 So, for this community to say I have made a “distinguished contribution to social justice” is the highest honor I could receive. Your affirmation of my commitment to “change the world” and work to create more equitable communities that empower all families to embrace their whole selves in relationship, provide equitable resources that enable their inherent resilience, and empower them to move from being clients to change agents means everything to me.  

Presenter: Michael LaSala, Ph.D., LCSW*  

I am delighted and honored to present Elijah C. Nealy the 2020 AFTA Award for Distinguished Contribution to Social Justice. Elijah is an extraordinary scholar, clinician, and advocate whose innovative work addresses the needs of an extremely marginalized and vulnerable population. Fortunately for us all, he has committed himself to educating family therapists and other human service professionals about the experiences and needs of the transgender population, and he has quickly established a well-deserved national reputation in the field. His thoughtful, compassionate book, Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy with Families in Transition is already a seminal text in the field of clinical work with transgender youth and their families.  

 What makes Elijah’s work extraordinary is his willingness to reveal himself, as copious self- disclosure runs throughout his work. He uses his personal experiences to effectively draw in the reader and uses himself as a case study on the impact of societal and institutional transphobia. From someone less skilled, this material could easily veer into victimhood, self-indulgence and, perhaps worse, sensationalism; his hardships and vulnerabilities are effectively used to engage and enlighten, and are a testament to his humanity, resilience, and generosity. His commitment to using his own experiences to teach others is particularly evident in his book chapter entitled: No Single-Issue Lives: Identity Transitions and Transformations across the Life Cycle, which could serve as a master class on intersectionality and interlocking oppressions. It is a testament to Elijah s quickly growing reputation that he has been tapped by Monica McGoldrick and Ken Hardy, prominent figures in family therapy, to write two chapters for the third edition of Revisioning Family Therapy: Addressing Diversity in Clinical Practice. Another indication of his growing influence is his calendar full of guest speaking engagements just try getting on his schedule! Elijah is clearly in demand. 

 For too long, cisgender scholars (like this writer) have been writing about transgender people, and I am delighted that the field is beginning to be led by pioneers such as Elijah who themselves are transgender and are finally taking hold of a narrative that is rightly there’s. As his son so aptly puts it (described in one of his articles), Elijah is a transformer. He exemplifies the spirit of this award which I greatly look forward to presenting to him in June.