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Social work doctoral graduates awarded prestigious postdoc fellowships for novel research approaches

  • Students
  • Research
Adriane Clomax and Rory O'Brien
credit: Amber Knowles (Clomax)

Academia can be a competitive landscape, but for two doctoral candidates completing their PhD studies in May 2024 at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, it has been an opportunity to lift each other up. The educational journeys of Adriane Clomax (she/her) and Rory O’Brien (they/them) mirrored each other as recipients of the Oakley Fellowship endowed by the USC Provost. Only eight such fellowships are awarded to PhD candidates university-wide each year. As they now embark on the next phase of their social work careers, both have secured presidential postdoctoral fellowships from two of the leading universities in the country to further the exemplary work they began at USC. 

“I always tell Rory they are my good luck charm,” said Clomax. “We need to keep applying to things together.” 

Clomax and O’Brien are breaking ground in their respective research that supports underserved populations. Clomax is focused on the impact of employee-owned business in reducing the Black wealth gap, and O’Brien on changing policy and facilities for LGBTQ+ youth in educational settings. Both feel they received tremendous institutional support and mentorship during their studies that validated their unique voices and perspectives. 

Creating new paths to prosperity for Black communities

As the eldest sibling, and eldest grandchild, in her family, Clomax began her academic journey carrying the dreams of her parents and grandparents with her — to become a doctor or receive a master’s degree in business. Now, receiving her doctoral degree in social work, with an integrated business focus, she has certainly lived up to her family’s expectations. Her dissertation entitled “Searching for the Good in Capitalism: An Investigation of Employee Ownership,” creates a nontraditional, but highly effective, structure for business ownership that offers new pathways to prosperity for Black communities.

Her research finds its roots in a job she held with the Department of Parks and Recreation in her hometown of Chicago, following the completion of her Master of Social Work (MSW). The position allowed her to assist with a summer employment program to combat youth-involved violence. Clomax witnessed firsthand how supporting themselves through steady employment could be the difference between good and bad outcomes in a young person’s life.

“Using employment as an anti-violence strategy was effective,” Clomax said. “Giving young people well-paying jobs, particularly young people from lower-income communities, can have ripple effects through communities and build them up.” 

On the other hand, she also became acutely aware of how few and far between those good jobs were, and the difficulties in securing one without social, educational or economic advantages. Clomax became frustrated by the unequal distribution of resources and personal politics within the government system in Chicago. 

Unsure what her next step would be, Clomax knew she wanted to keep exploring ways to improve prosperity for underserved Black communities. A former mentor and alumna of the social work PhD program at USC, Dnika Travis, eventually encouraged Clomax to apply for the doctoral program, and to seek out Professor Michàlle Mor Barak. 

“Michàlle is amazing,” Clomax said. “She is a rock star in the field, but she will take her spotlight and shine it on you, whether you think you’re ready or not. She would create instances for me to stand up and represent her because she felt I had amazing things to say and put out in the world.” 

Clomax credits Mor Barak with much of what she has been able to achieve, for building up belief in herself and her ideas, and the career trajectory she is on now. 

“Adriane’s work is innovative and interdisciplinary,” Mor Barak said. “She has skillfully created national and international collaborations to foster research on understanding broad-based employee ownership. Her work is highly relevant for understanding and promoting social justice. It has been a pleasure working with her and I am confident that she has a brilliant career ahead.”

During her PhD studies, Clomax attended a meeting of the Institute of Employee Ownership at Rutgers University, where research findings were presented that suggested employee ownership had the potential to close the wealth gap. 

“One of the biggest drivers of the wealth gap is capital gains through the stock market, and building wealth by selling stocks,” Clomax said. “When you work for an employee-owned business, you are gifted stock from your company rather than paying for it yourself. The longer you are with the company, the more stock you receive, and the more that stock increases in value. As a result, people can retire with huge capital gains. And Black and Latinx families are not really doing that.”

The concept of how employee ownership could potentially move a person with little educational or socioeconomic advantage into financial stability through long-term, generational wealth-building became the foundation for her dissertation. It is the work Clomax will continue in the fall as a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. Her next step is to create a program and system of information dissemination to educate Black business owners on how they can increase the standard of living and retirement options for their workers. 

“Maybe we’re not closing the income gap yet, but what this can do is provide a really nice living for folks who otherwise would not have this outcome option,” Clomax said. 

Connecting policy and personal impact for trans youth

Growing up in a suburb of Sacramento, O’Brien cannot remember a time when advocacy was not a part of their life — as a child with their parents, in high school and as an undergraduate in college — on issues ranging from anti-war to sexual, reproductive, racial and economic justice. Their interest in policy was a natural extension of those experiences. 

While working in Sacramento on a statewide project for LGBTQ+ mental health advocacy, O’Brien was introduced to the faculty leaders and work of the Center for LGBTQ+ Health Equity (CLHE) at USC Social Work. They felt the Center was the place to take the next step in their evolution as an academic, researcher and scientist influencing policy that made a meaningful difference in people’s lives. 

“It's been a joy to see Rory develop as a scholar,” said John Blosnich, director of CLHE and O’Brien’s dissertation mentor. “They have a depth of practical experience and compassion about their work that has really shone in this PhD program. Their ambition is also remarkable, always seizing opportunities and striving for the highest caliber venues to share their work on LGBTQ+ health equity. I can't wait to see what comes next for Rory.”

With a dissertation entitled, “A Multiple Comparison Case Study of Los Angeles Area Public High Schools: LGBTQ+ Policies and Facilities, Student Advocacy, and Change in Policies and Facilities Over Time,” O’Brien’s research focuses on understanding the adoption and implementation of California educational policies intended to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ high-school students. They conducted an intensive study in ten high schools across five school districts in the Los Angeles area, including document collection, focus groups and campus observations through on-site visits. What O’Brien uncovered was a complicated system, varying from district to district and school to school. But there were some gems that stood out, with policy models that all schools should follow. 

In many ways O’Brien feels that their work has come full circle, from micro to macro policy and then back to how the policies impact individual lives. Their aptitude for the technical aspects of policy implementation have been particularly important in studying the ways in which these policies are implemented on the ground, and the barriers that are sometimes more technological than human. One example is how challenging it is to change the name of a transgender youth within school systems because the system was not originally built to accommodate it. And the inability to provide a name change within the system can have a profound impact on the youth’s educational experience. 

“There’s so many different ways to implement name change policies and so many pitfalls, some of which are very technical,” O’Brien said. “The goal of my research is always geared toward how to best inform the efforts of policymakers to adopt well-structured policy that is going to be implementable on the ground. Then to put evidence in the hands of social justice advocates who can push for that well-structured policy.” 

O’Brien points to the PhD faculty, dissertation committee and cohort of fellow candidates working across social work topics that supported them through a long and complex dissertation project. 

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do this work, especially considering that my work is illegal today in so many states,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien will continue their work in the LGBTQ+ space in their President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, providing important data to guide policy decisions.

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)