Terriyln Rivers-Cannon is on a mission.
The determination is apparent in her actions under Georgia’s Gold Dome, her interactions with staff and students at Booker T. Washington High Schhol in Atlanta, and her leadership as president of the School Social Workers Association of Georgia.
She’s here to show everyone what school social workers do for students.
“We speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” she told KNOW Magazine during an interview at the high school this spring. “We give voice to the voiceless.”
After nearly two decades of advocating for both students and fellow social workers at the state and national levels, Rivers-Cannon was recognized this spring as the National School Social Worker of the Year, which is a prestigious award given by the School Social Work Association of America to those who have made outstanding contributions to the school social work profession.
This is the first tijme a Georgian, as well as an African American, has been given the honor. Born and raised in Georgia, Rivers-Cannon is proud to represent her home state. To be the first African American – and first African American female – stands out even more.
“It’s a humbling experience and speaks to the work that we’ve been doing here in Georgia for so long,” she said. “We’ve been turning up the volume, and it feels like someone has taken notice and said, ‘Job well done.'”
Rivers-Cannon was nominated for the award by two state association members who served on the board with her while she was president. They wrote letters of recommendation that talked about her dedication to the school social work industry, as well as her new initiatives to promote leadership, partnerships, and social media outreach in the field.
“She’s very innovative and always thinking outside of the box,” said Pamela Jemerson, a school social worker in Gwinnett County who nominated her.” “She has this ability to dig deeper, involve everybody, and be transparent about what’s going on in her mind.”
Colleagues used many of the same adjectives when describing her: Ambitious, eager, kind, thankful, and humble.
“She has the ability to look beyond her term as president and move the organization forward long-term,” Jemerson said. “Her ideas are never about her but about the organization and social workers as a whole.”
For instance, Rivers-Cannon increased the attendence for a Leadership Institute for the state association, which features a two-day mini-confrence for school social workers to learn how to take on leadership roles in their schools and counties. She also created an award to recognize school social workers in the state who implement innovative programs that help children receive services and graduate. On top of that, she boosted mentorship among the association and emphasized social media promotion to reach new members and young school social workers in Georgia.
“There are new social workers all over the state, and it’s amazing to have new members come on board with us,” said Dr. Jacqueline Brown, a school social worker with Effingham County Schools who also nominated her. “She’s done so much to get school social workers noticed.”
When school social workers in Georgia reach out for help, Rivers-Cannon takes the call. She’ll even travel to their county and school to give advice, and she’s lobbied on behalf of school social workers at both the state and federal Congressional levels.
“She’s let people know that school social workers play and important role in schools, especially with everything going on with mental health in this country,” Brown said. “We’re licensed and trained and instrumental in helping students.”
Winning the award
When Rivers-Cannon was notified in January about the award, she couldn’t believe it at first. She called Jemerson and Brown, and the confirmed – and then they got excited together. For the awards ceremony in April in Orlando, Florida, she invited her husband, father, cousin, and best friend to join her. When the award was announced and she went on stage, Rivers-Cannon dedicated the honor to her Aunt Katie Mae Tindal, who influenced her decision to become a social worker.
As a junior at Tompkins High School in Savannah, Rivers-Cannon listened to her aunt talk about social work as a professor at Vorhees College, a private, historically black college located in Denmark, South Carolina. After her graduation, she attended Vorhees and took a class with her aunt, who challenged her to think critically and engage with the field.
“At first, I thought social work wasn’t for me, but eventually my chair came from the end of the table to right beside her,” Rivers-Cannon said.
After her aunt passed away in 1996, Rivers-Cannon formed K.A.T.I.E. (Karing Actions Towards Inspiring Eagles), an organization that provides outreach services to middle schoolers through college sophomores. At the awards ceremony in April, her aunt’s oldest son was able to attend and support his cousin.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see her give tribute to my mom,” said Stephan Tindal, a Jacksonville, Florida resident who has worked as a middle school teacher and social worker as well. “Seeing my younger cousin accomplish so much is fulfilling for me. She’s part of history now.”
Tindal watched as Rivers-Cannon raised her first son as a young mother, as well as how she cared for three younger siblings, nieces, nephews, and other family members.
“Teen moms have more pressure on them to suceed, and I’ve seen Terriyln persevere and make a way to continue her education, care for her son, and love her family,” he said.
Her college roommate and best friend of 30 years was also proud to see her walk on stage and accept the award.
“No person I know is more deserving of this,” said Linda Everett Nichols, assistant principal of South Lake High School in Groveland, Florida. “When we met, we had an automatic bond, and I knew she would be a lifelong friend.”
The two met in 1986 during their first year at Vorhees and became roommates for the rest of their time in college. They also joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority together. Rivers-Cannon had a two-year-old son then, and Everett Nichols marvels at how she was able to balance school, two jobs, social life, and her personal and professional development in the school social work field.
“Once you meet her, your life will never be the same,” Everett Nichols said. “It’s an honor to know her and a privilege to call her my friend.”
After graduating from Vorhees with a degree in criminal justice, Rivers-Cannon decided to attend Florida State University to pursue a master’s degree in social work. Following that degree in 1993, she moved back to Savannah and began work as a medical social worker at Memorial Medical Center. She and her husband, Audrey Cannon, a U.S. Army staff sergeant who worked at Fort Stewart, met three years later. They married within a year and added another son to their family.
During her career, Rivers-Cannon has served as a social worker in various settings, including hospitals, schools, and juvenile justice. She’s been part of Atlanta Public Schools for more than a decade, earning an educational leadership doctorate from Argosy University in 2007. She and her husband are now settled in Snellville, Georgia.
“School social work ties in all of my interests with mental health, juvenile justice, and medicine,” she said. “It all falls together, and I see it every day working in this field.”
She’s recent completed her first year at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. She enjoys connecting with high school students, who can often think and process their emotions like adults, but still need guidance to make smart decisions about their futures.
“They’re ready to conquer the world,” she said. “Once we sit and talk and they get all of their energy out, we can have a real conversation about what they need to do.”
Rivers-Cannon shares her life experiences and treats the students as logical, practical adults. She won’t sugarcoat life or “dress it up like a sundae,” she says. Instead, she likes to discuss real-life strategies and what consequences may happen as a result of a decision, such as moving out of their parents’ house before graduating or securing a job.
“I want them to be as prepared as possible, not set them up for failure,” she said. “I want them to make a real plan, be self-reflective and know how to take care of themselves.”
Rivers-Cannon is focused on present-day concerns as well. With more mental health issues on the radar and youth suicide rates higher than ever, she often talks to students about peer pressure, bullying, and the influence of social media. It’s important for school social workers not to brush off students’ concerns as “silly” or allow these incidents to pass by their radar, she said.
“What kids face now is so different from 5-10 years ago,” she said. “I take each case and each incident seriously and take time to see where their head is. It’s important for them to let off steam.”
The teachers and staff have also appreciated her strong voice and leadership during her first year at the high school, said Booker T. Washington High School Principal Tasharah Wilson.
“She is a veteran social worker that goes above and beyond the call of duty for children and families,” Wilson said. “She is a leader among her peers and doesn’t mind speaking out on behalf of her students or her colleagues. We are very proud of her and confident that she will continue to blaze new trails.”
As Rivers-Cannon moves into her second year at the school, she will step into the president emeritus role for the School Social Workers Association of Georgia, where she’ll continue to encourage recognition and state policy changes from the Congressional floor. This year was the first time that the school social workers had an official day at the Georgia Capitol, for instance, and she homes for a similar resolution next year.
She often finds leadership support as a member of the National Association of Social Workers, the School Social Workers Association of America, and the National Association of Professional Women, which connects female executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs across the country.
Rivers-Cannon also belongs to the Georgia Association of Educators.
“Being visible and active, as well as empowering and encouraing our colleagues, it is vitally important,” she said. “There’s power in numbers, and we make change together. We are one droplet alone, but together, we are a body of water.”
She’s always found the membership valuable in terms of the connection and leadership with a profession that is outside of hers but related to her daily work.
“When it comes time for advocacy, strength and partnership, you want to have that voice who can hear your voice,” she said. “When I need a sounding board, I pick up the phone and GAE is there as my safety net.”
In turn, GAE welcomes members who help children across a spectrum of services, both inside and outside school. Social workers, in particular, are an intricate part of the school system who help to meet students’ needs beyond the classroom.
“Educating the whole child is so important, and school social workers take care of our children,” said GAE President Charlotte Booker. “We’re elated that Dr. Rivers-Cannon won this national award, and we’re so proud of her.”
In the year ahead, Rivers-Cannon and colleagues will continue advocating on behalf of Georgia’s 600 school social workers. Currently, there is about one school social worker for every 2,475 children, and Rivers-Cannon would like to see that ratio improve. She’d like to ensure that a school social worker is available in all of Georgia’s 159 counties since many rural areas don’t have one. She’ll also continue to speak at the national level about the importance of school social work and leadership.
“Being visible and active, as well as empowering and encouraging our colleagues, is vitally important,” she said. “There’s power in numbers, and we make change together. We are one droplet alone, but together, we are a body of water.”
Original article available at GAE KNOW magazine, Summer 2019 edition.