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It's in Her Blood: Family Secret Defines Life's Work for Professor

  • Opinion

In the sweltering summer heat of California’s Central Valley, with the low throb of a swamp cooler rumbling through the frame of her grandmother’s Victorian house, Marleen Wong learned a secret that would change the course of her life.

As the eldest grandchild, she had been her grandmother’s confidant from a young age, helping her navigate Fresno’s public transit system and translating from Cantonese to English and back again during errands into the city. Now she sat at the kitchen table, just 12 years old, listening as her grandmother described being sold into servitude as a child in Macau.

“When she was 5 years old, a rich couple came to her home,” Wong said. “Her mother pushed her toward these people and said, ‘This will be your mother and father now.’ She looked at her and didn’t understand. She never saw her mother again.”

Brought to San Francisco just before the earthquake of 1906, her grandmother helped look after the couple’s young children despite being one herself. One day, the father was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout in Chinatown.

“She was treated differently after that,” Wong said. “The children she was helping raise, the mother of the family began to understand what it was like to be an orphan, to be alone.”

At 17, her grandmother was released from servitude and placed in an arranged marriage with a man 20 years her senior. The new couple set down roots in Fresno and opened a successful wholesale food business.

Wong’s grandmother, despite the trauma and chaos of her childhood, found peace in her new home, cultivating strong ties with the local Chinese community and establishing herself as the matriarch of the family.

“In a profound way, it’s led me to a very deep interest in crisis intervention and disaster response and recovery,” Wong said. “Out of this terrible life crisis, in which she had been lost to her parents and sold because they were in terrible poverty, she came to be a very joyful person. Those early losses weren’t predictive of her life to come.”

Finding her way

Inspired by her grandmother’s resilience, Wong pursued a career in mental health and recovery from trauma, ultimately becoming an internationally known expert who has been called to the scenes of numerous national and international disasters, including the terrorist attacks in Oklahoma and New York cities, school shootings in Columbine and Newtown, earthquakes in Japan and China, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before assuming her current role with the USC School of Social Work as a clinical professor and associate dean of field education, she led crisis response and recovery for Los Angeles Unified School District and helped develop a popular evidence-based program to relieve posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety among children traumatized by violence and bullying.

In addition to her grandmother’s influence, Wong traces much of her career success to her family’s strong Christian faith and the values of stewardship and altruism emphasized by her parents.

“I had to think not about myself but what I could do for others,” she said.

Interested in social work from the start, Wong got a summer job in Los Angeles with the Department of Public Social Services, where her aunt worked as deputy director. In the evenings after work, they would attend community organizing meetings held in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty.

As an intake staff member that summer, Wong learned to listen to people’s problems and began to focus on eliminating her personal biases. She relied on the lessons taught by her grandmother, who served as the unofficial social worker for many in the Chinese community in Fresno. She recalled days spent playing outside and hearing laughter and weeping from the windows of her grandmother’s home.

“Because she was open, which was very different from most Chinese women of her generation, they came to talk about their problems,” Wong said. “She always told me to watch people. Listen to them and observe them, because there is so much to learn. That is a real strength of social work, to observe how people conduct themselves.”

Despite the clear effect of her grandmother on Wong’s professional path, including her decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work from California State University, Fresno, and a master’s degree in social work at USC, she didn’t fully recognize that personal influence until her mid-20s, when someone brought up a story about a family in crisis and Wong burst into tears.

“It just became clear to me. It was in my DNA,” she said. “This is what I had to do, and it wasn’t because I was a victim. It was always about her.”

Many young children experience traumatic events like her grandmother, she said, arguing that it is important to recognize that those risk factors don’t necessarily have to lead to poor outcomes in adulthood.
“It’s not a death sentence to a happy life,” she said. “There are always turns in the road where people can intervene. There are still things we can do to make a difference.”

Doing her duty

After completing her degree at USC in 1971, Wong worked in outpatient and inpatient psychiatry at Saint John’s Hospital for several years before joining the Los Angeles Unified School District as a psychiatric social worker. She was content to remain in that role until the first big crisis of her tenure, a shooting at 49th Street Elementary School.

As children left their classrooms and spilled onto the playground one afternoon in 1984, a 28-year-old man who lived across the street opened fire from a bay window with a high-powered rifle and two shotguns.
A 10-year-old girl died on the scene, a 24-year-old man jogging nearby was hit by gunfire and died several months later, and a dozen other people were injured. The perpetrator killed himself as police officers stormed the house.

“It was one of the first school shootings that received big media attention,” Wong said. “We knew about counseling but we didn’t know about trauma counseling. The word trauma had never been applied to children before.”

Coupled with the sharp uptick in gang violence in Los Angeles in the 80s, the shooting spurred district officials to establish a crisis response team. Wong volunteered to help develop the program, again driven by a sense of duty and conscience.

“I don’t know that I wanted to be a part of it, but I felt like I had to be a part of it,” she said. “Kids just didn’t come back to school. Teachers were traumatized. They were in shock and fear. It had always been assumed that school was a safe place.”

As a result of the efforts of Wong and her colleagues, the district became the first in the nation to have a districtwide crisis response and recovery team. After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, school leaders asked Wong to lead the mental health and trauma recovery process for all schools.

Although no campus had been physically damaged, racial and ethnic tensions had flared up among teachers and school employees. Wong spent the following summer leading group sessions and guiding conversations about their personal and professional experiences in an effort to bring them together.

“They all saw things from a different perspective,” she said. “I had to be the person who created a safe environment for people to talk.”

One particularly memorable discussion centered on a white firefighter who had been shot in the face while battling a blaze during the rioting. Some teachers lamented the fact that he had been injured while trying to help and others argued that he shouldn’t have placed himself in an unsafe situation.

As the debate grew increasingly contentious and people began arguing about whether white people were heroes or black people were making things worse, an older black woman stood up and brought the discussion to a halt.

“My son is a police man and I’m terrified for him every day,” she said. “It’s not about whether he’s black or white, it’s because he’s a police man. You have the luxury of talking about this in the abstract, but I live this every day.”

By humanizing the conflict, Wong said, teachers and employees shed racial and political overtones and gained an understanding of how the riots had affected their coworkers.

That experience and many other crises she faced during her time with the school district helped Wong refine her ability to respond to disasters. She began to gain attention on the national scene, receiving invitations to speak at the White House and being asked to assist schools affected by violence and natural disasters.

“Those life experiences built my capacity to do this work at another level,” she said. “That’s the beauty of social work. As you get older, you have more and more professional and life experiences that are integrated and that help you gain some sense of what is needed to improve the lives of others.”

Helping those in need

She has since traveled across the world to speak about crisis intervention and the psychological effects of disasters and violence on children and adults. Most recently, she joined a humanitarian mission organized by the USC School of Social Work in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands and displaced millions in the Philippines.

Wong’s colleague, clinical associate professor Annalisa Enrile, had worked closely with organizations in the Philippines focused on combating child trafficking, and reached out to see if they needed help.

“They realized that children were more at risk than ever, especially children who were orphaned by the storm, and that they didn’t know enough about disaster recovery to even know where to start,” Wong said. “We wanted to bring our expertise in disaster response and recovery, community organizing, and bringing people together to rebuild and rethink their mission and goals.”

In addition to Enrile’s connections, the USC delegation leveraged the knowledge of clinical assistant professor Vivien Villaverde, a native of the Philippines who knew teachers, doctors, and health care workers in the community. By the time they arrived, they had attracted the attention of many involved in the recovery effort, including the acting ambassador of the U.S. embassy, the United Nations disaster response team, and the head of USAID for Southeast Asia.

After being briefed on the situation by those officials, the USC group offered guidance to nearly 90 individuals on topics such as the phases of disaster recovery, the needs of specific groups such as older adults and orphaned children, and the increased risk of child abuse. Wong described a variety of psychosocial services, including an intervention she helped develop known as Listen, Protect, Connect, which is designed for people without mental health training.

Wong plans to return to train others as the recovery progresses, including teachers and social workers, and is hoping to develop an immersion program for students to offer support and help rebuild the community.

As she reflected on her long and successful career dedicated to improving the lives of others, Wong returned again to the indelible influence of her grandmother.

“She would be proud,” she said. “I feel so lucky, so fortunate to have these experiences and this life.”

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