Stewart balances family, ministry and career along BSW path

Dec. 9, 2020

By David Miller

An African-American woman poses for a photo in front of a brick building
“Grateful for Little Hall”: Ella Stewart’s support system in the School of Social Work has buoyed her through the BSW program and into commencement weekend.

Ella Stewart walks to the front of a room, confidently turning and introducing herself to Northport police officers.

Some know her as the wife of Northport Police Department Captain, Christopher Stewart. But Ella also identifies as former victim of domestic violence, and that part of her life’s story is still unfolding.

Ella, who escaped domestic violence in 1998, has grown her voice in advocacy and awareness of domestic violence. That typically means working with victims and their family members, but police play a pivotal role, one that can often be lost in the redundancy of multiple calls, she says.

“I know it gets complicated for some of you,” she tells the officers. “I know it gets frustrating – you’ve been to this person’s house several times – but if you treat that next call like it’s the first time, it might be the turning point for a victim.”

That’s typically the message that elicits “the stare,” or, when Ella knows the officers are fully engaged and ready for her workshop, sometimes delivered in tandem with Turning Point, a Tuscaloosa non-profit that provides direct services to victims and survivors of domestic violence. Together, they cover areas like protection from abuse orders and having court advocates, while Ella shares her experiences and perspectives, and expectations both advocates and victims have of police.

“When something is your passion, it’s not a job,” Ella says. “It’s in your heart. When you’ve been on the other side of the desk, building these relationships is easy.”

This opportunity to provide professional development hinged on key pillars of social work – service, justice and the importance of human relationships – but it also showcased the hallmarks of a grass-roots advocacy campaign, like leveraging existing community relationships and incorporating clients’ voices into curricula.

Ella has learned these guiding principles in the University of Alabama School of Social Work’s BSW program since 2015, when, after nearly 25 years of promising herself that she’d one day pursue a degree at UA, she enrolled at the School. Ella will complete her BSW degree and graduate Saturday, capping an arduous path that included a full-time job, raising a family – including children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren – and becoming an ordained minister.

Ella says she’s incredibly grateful for the network of support she’s received in Little Hall during this time, from faculty like Sherron Wilkes and Dr. Laura Hopson, to her field advisors and BSW program assistant Gwen Montgomery. The sum was truly greater than its parts, Ella said, but she’s brought to tears when recalling how Hopson continually motivated her to complete her degree “the healthy way.”

“[Hopson] would tell me, ‘don’t overload yourself … you have family, and you’re working full-time … you’re gonna do this,’” Ella said.

Ella and husband, Christopher.

It was sound advice for Ella, who’d long managed a loaded schedule before enrolling at UA. Ella had been a single parent to two girls for more than seven years before marrying Chris and starting their blended family. She’d also been active with Turning Point, for whom she now serves as a board member. Additionally, since 2000, Ella has worked for the Northport Housing Authority, where she currently serves as assistant Section 8 manager, a role that has been both revealing and rewarding.

“The job has its ups and downs,” she said, “but when you hear experiences like, ‘I’m getting ready to buy a house and no longer need Section 8,’ or, ‘I’m about to open a business,’ or, more importantly, ‘I’m trying,’ it’s another reminder of the many things that have drawn me to social work.”

So, when Ella seriously considered enrolling at UA, she was uniquely conditioned and motivated to purse her BSW; she also leaned on her faith and family.

“I was a single mom, and I had my girls,” she said. “Going back to school was necessary, and my immediate daughters, the push they give … if you share something with them, it’s a done deal. They’re not going to let you quit.”

Ella will continue working for the Housing Authority for another five years, after which she’ll retire. She said she and Chris will pursue launching a consulting company and linking with housing authorities to provide domestic violence advocacy and workshops for tenants.

“I’m just grateful for my husband, Little Hall and the Northport Housing Authority for allowing me time to attend school,” Ella said. “This is all God.”