Alumna Alishia Agee-Cooper poses with her son on UW Tacoma's Grand Staircase.
Sticking to the Plan
September 20, 2023
UW Tacoma alumna Alishia Agee-Cooper is using her education to transform the state of Washington's approach to child welfare.
“I made a five-year plan after graduation and I stuck to it, and that’s why I’m here in this moment,” says UW Tacoma alumna Alishia Agee-Cooper, ‘15, Social Welfare, ’17, Master of Social Work. The moment Agee-Cooper mentioned is substantial, but not just for her.
Agee-Cooper’s plan was never just about herself. “My community comes first,” she said. Community in this sense means Agee-Cooper’s family, biological and chosen, as well as those with lived expertise who are impacted by systems. Agee-Cooper’s definition of community also refers to the individuals and families she helps as part of her work.
Family preservation, keeping children safe, providing parents needed support and tools to address their disease, tools for families to thrive and grow together, partnering with community and building natural supports are central to Recovery Court’s mission. “I coach my team to engage families from day one and that we are part of their community and we make a difference by collaborating with families, with community,” said Agee-Cooper.
This philosophy is rooted in data and in Agee Cooper’s lived experience. At one point in her life Agee-Cooper struggled with addiction. The state of Washington intervened and removed her son from their home. “When I was at my lowest, I was met with hardened souls and I needed to be met with hope and a little bit of love,” she said. “I was full of shame, and it would have been so meaningful to have someone who could see me as a human, a neighbor or their kin.”
Agee-Cooper struggled, but did get back on her feet. “Thankfully, I reunited with my son, but the process was hard,” she said. “I was faced with systemic barriers that felt never-ending and were enough to make anyone want to give up.”
Instead of giving up, Agee-Cooper decided she wanted to affect change. “I wanted more,” she said. “My son, he motivated me to want to be financially stable. I grew up in a middle-class home and I wanted to be able to provide that for him.”
Agee-Cooper’s first step toward long-term stability took her to Pierce College. She remembers taking daily bus trips from the Hilltop neighborhood to Pierce and fretting about getting back on time to relieve her childcare provider. In this instance and in others, Agee-Cooper found support. “My son’s provider, Ms. Mary C., stepped in and made sure he got to and from her facility, every day, until I got a vehicle,” she said. “With that support I could focus on my education.”
When it came time to transfer, Agee-Cooper wanted a community, not just a school. “UW Tacoma just felt like home, it felt like somewhere I could belong,” she said.
Agee-Cooper chose a school but she says social work chose her. “People saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and they helped open doors that would have remained closed because I would have been too afraid to knock,’ she said.
A first-generation college student, Agee-Cooper found success at UW Tacoma, so much so that she returned to campus to complete her master of social work degree. It helps that she had support from her mother and from professors who encouraged her to keep going. “I thought I was a fraud,” she said. “I had several professors tell me that I belong, that it’s normal to feel this way.”
Agee-Cooper’s connection to UW Tacoma remains strong. She is frequently asked to visit social work classes and provide guest lectures. She also recently accepted a role as the campus’s representative on the University of Washington Alumni Association’s (UWAA) Board of Trustees. Agee-Cooper is the first female to hold that position at UW Tacoma.
The UWAA has more than 60,000 members across all three campuses. “Tacoma is part of something bigger,” she said. “We’re a small-but-important piece of the UW. I want to be a good representative for this campus and I also want to infuse that UW Tacoma spirit into the larger conversation about the future of UW as a whole.”
In addition to DCYF, Agee-Cooper is also a consultant for the Children’s Trust Fund Alliance’s Birth Parent National Network and the Capacity Building Center for States, part of Children’s Bureau’s Child Welfare Capacity Building Collaborative. The organizations have different missions but share a similar goal of achieving better outcomes for children and families.
Agee-Cooper’s passion for child welfare led to her get involved with Casey Family Programs’ 21st Century Research Agenda. Casey, established by UPS founder James E. Casey in 1966, is interested in creating “long-lasting improvements to the well-being of children, families and the communities where they live.”
“We started from the bottom to try and figure out where there are gaps in child welfare,” said Agee-Cooper of her work on the research agenda. “The next step is to conduct participatory research in some of these areas and to utilize those findings to improve policy, program design and practice. If we want lasting change, real change, agencies and institutions must transform the way we do research and that starts with treating those who utilize these services as experts.”
Agee-Cooper’s commitment to others has attracted attention. In June the American Bar Association named her one of its 2023 Reunification Heroes. The award celebrates “parents and those who rally around families to make reunification goals a reality in child welfare cases.”
“It meant a lot to me to be recognized in this way,” she said. “My achievements are not mine alone. I share them with every person who took a chance on me.”
Agee-Cooper made a five-year plan. Part of that plan included becoming a licensed social worker and using her skillset to help families. “My education provided me with the opportunity to see the history of social work and child welfare in general,” she said. “It also helped identify for me how to address racial disproportionality in child welfare and how to gather data to see where differences can be made.”
This knowledge is a critical component of Agee-Cooper’s current five-year plan. “I want to continue to elevate lived-expert participation and solution creation, decrease negative outcomes for families and children of color and impact the way that research is done on families,” she said. “I want child welfare agencies to build trust and strengthen communities by partnering and making genuine connections with parents and families. That’s what I would like to see happen in the next five years.”
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