An Interview with Dr. Eboni Calbow
By: Sara Lowe, Girls Empowerment Network Communications Intern
It’s easy to see why Eboni Calbow’s calling is social work. Eboni is incredibly intelligent yet effortlessly humble. She’s spent her career understanding how to empower and serve, how to pave her own way forward, and guide those who come after her. She approaches every relationship and interaction determined to meet people where they’re at. Her official title is Dr. Calbow, but “my students call me Eboni,” she says, “because that’s who I am.”
Sara Lowe: Can you tell me a little about your college experience?
Eboni Calbow: I actually was somebody who graduated from college really early. I did an intense high school college prep program. So when I got into undergrad I only spent two and a half years there. My parents did not go to college. And for myself and my twin sister, they were just like “college first.” You know--”you need to go to college” and “you need to pick something practical because you want to be able to make money and make a decent living.” I had no idea what I was thinking, picking business. That's essentially a math major-- which was not necessarily my strong suit!
Sara: You’ve mentioned you were really driven in middle school-- always striving and stressing about being the best. Why do you think that was?
Eboni: I know that it is one hundred percent because in black culture, education is the way. Like education is supposed to be the only way that you can try and equalize all the inequity in society. If you are educated, you're told nobody can take your education away from you. You always have that to back you up. You're told from a very young age that you need to be well educated. So in middle school--that was the first time that I was in a true gifted program, a magnet school. And the stakes were very, very high. Even then, there were probably less than 10 of us that were black. And you really could not afford for anybody to do poorly because that was going to be reflective of the entire group of black students.
Sara: Can you tell me about your experience with Girls Empowerment Network (GIRLS)?
Eboni: GIRLS-- GEN at the time-- was where I did my internship when I was getting my MSW. I had no idea what I was going to be able to contribute to this because it's so huge, just working at a nonprofit for the first time as an MSW student. I had no social background, no kind of knowledge of this world -- I mean, really limited about nonprofits. And I was like, “OK, we're just going to dive right in” because that's what you're supposed to do: dive in. And so I showed up on my first day of internship. Julia Cuba Lewis was my clinical supervisor, so she was the person I did all my supervision with and got started. And it was just... it was the most incredible year.
Not only did I get to learn about co-facilitating and working with groups and working with middle school girls in general; it was also a chance to do something professionally that I hadn't done before because I was coming from the business world and just learning social work and how a nonprofit agency is a business that functions in a really different way than corporate America. But on top of that, [GIRLS] was a really nurturing group of people. Julia has a really specific style about her, a specific leadership style that nurtures you into the kind of professional that you want to be.
Before she decided to pursue a career in social work, Eboni was determined to join the corporate world. But instead of being impressed that she had completed her degree in less than three years, her potential employers simply didn’t believe her. “I had people directly tell me [...] ‘ You graduated from high school two years ago. There's no way that you did a business degree.’” “They just didn't believe you?” I asked her. “And I completely disregarded it, imagine that! Yeah, I guess it feels very bizarre now when I like when I think about it.” She eventually signed on with a temp agency and worked in several finance and accounting positions. But she kept thinking “This is not where I’m supposed to be.” She started thinking about her time in college. She was a first-generation college student and went to school in Florida, three states away from her family in Texas. She thought about how confusing her college experience was, especially as a first-generation woman of color, and how much more secure she would have felt with a mentor, with someone to point her in the right direction and guide her through the complexities of the academic world. She finally decided to explore a counseling career, applied to the School of Social Work at UT, and was accepted.
Eboni loved that social work was completely centered around service. Her time in the MSW program was extremely challenging and demanded a constant giving of oneself to the communities that needed to be served. But she loved it! She felt as though she had finally found “her people” and the work that she had always been called to do.
Unfortunately, Eboni graduated into the 2008 recession. “I spent six months job-searching and getting down to my last penny, and decided I would go back to business because I knew I could get a job. So I did, but still knew that I could find a way to make it about social work.” She worked in mortgage servicing, advising clients whose homes had been foreclosed because of the housing market. “For me, as a social worker, I felt like we had to make sure that we had exhausted every possibility to make sure these people could keep their home, no matter what the circumstances were that landed them here.”
After a year in mortgage servicing, she landed her first social work position at Communities in Schools as a Care Coordinator. “I loved it. I loved care coordination. I loved Communities in Schools. Wherever you go, these social workers are so kind and are so welcoming.” Finally, Eboni was a social worker. She was dedicated to understanding the complex layers of why certain students, particularly students from minority and/or low-income communities, often struggle to succeed in school. “A kid is not going to be learning if they're struggling with undiagnosed mental illness or they’re struggling with limited resources at home and no food, no lights, no water.” She wanted to make sure that she was as equipped as possible to help the kids she served, so she decided to pursue another degree: this time, in education. “I am somewhat of a crusader, I will admit, and so somebody else might have just been like ‘This is not for me and I'll find something that's a better fit.’ And instead I was like ‘I'm going to go back to school and become an educator. So then I can walk into these school doors and say I'm a fellow educator, just like [the teachers].” Nearly six years and one Ph.D. in Education later, Eboni became a social work professor at the University of Texas, where she’s been ever since. Now, she helps her students-- some of whom have never had a black professor-- realize their own dreams of becoming social workers. “Girls Empowerment Network started all of this for me,” she says. “And then here I am 10 years later doing this for other students.”
Sara: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing girls today?
Eboni: Well, it’s all about making sure that you are comfortable in your strength, and all of your strengths, because everywhere you turn there’s something else that really challenges you about who you are as a person and what you're dedicated to. Sometimes it makes you rethink whether or not you’re working as hard as other people. It makes you confused about what your value is to the outside world. So it's really important that girls know what they're worth and reinforce that within themselves and then start to push back and challenge other people to recognize that value as well. I think there's so many opportunities to do that. When I identify, I always say I'm black first and then female because it took a really long time before anybody even acknowledged me gender-wise because they were focused on my race. So their ideas about black people and about what black people could accomplish [came] first. And then it was like a double whammy when it's like ‘well, she's also female.’ And somehow that has just like lowered the standard, when really it elevates it. I think women work so hard to make the world equitable. And you're working at that while you're still having to work at whatever your primary task is.
Sara: A lot of progress has been made and the world is a better place for women, but there’s still a lot of oppression happening for women all over the world. Do you have hope for the future?
Eboni: Well, I think that’s the basis of everything that we do. Social justice begins with hope. You always have to be hopeful about what's still to come.
Feminism ramped up a lot when elections came around. And instead of feeling like that was something that was excessively negative, like ‘our country is divided’ or ‘women are divided;’ it wasn't so much that, it was just that we needed to have a check-in with ourselves and say ‘let's be authentic.’ And if we're looking at this authentically we do come from very different ideas, very different parts of the spectrum, and we're all still this bigger community. So how can we be fostering that connectedness rather than fostering all the negativity around it? And so I feel a lot of hope when I see younger girls working at that.
Girls are more connected, too. Relationships are better and friendships are better. People that are younger are doing a way better job of acknowledging the differences and embracing each other anyway. And that gives me a lot of hope.
Sara: Who’s your hero?
Eboni: Oh man, so many. So many. Well, this may sound like the most cliche answer in the world, but I'm in love with Michelle Obama. I wish that she was my family member of some variety because I just-- in my life, I feel like there are so many challenges that I just didn't know I would make it through. There were so many things I felt I would have regrets about not challenging more or being complacent, or internalizing negative things or any of the stuff that wasn't productive for me as a person. And somehow she managed to get through eight years of being in the national spotlight where there were challenges on literally every side and, on top of that, her life as a regular black female in the US and the world. As a parent to her kids and a partner to her husband. Her ability to have done that for eight years and still be so gracious and graceful, and then to continue the work after having done that work for a decade and continue to put herself out there? That is admirable in a way that... she is definitely a unicorn.
So she’s one of my nationally recognized heroes. But when I think of my role model in my day to day, it is my mom and my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins. I come from a very, very strong cultural background. Our family is black and Southern and has all of the things that come with that. And it's very female-oriented and female-dominated. So in my day-to-day those are the folks at my home that taught me that once I leave my doorstep, I've got to contend with the world. My mom taught me how to do that and continues to teach me how to do that every day. So I soak up good lessons from people as big as Michelle Obama and as nationally recognized as that, and then the people that should be nationally recognized in my eyes. They live in my own home.
Sara: And our classic question: what advice would you give to your middle school self?
Eboni: Oh, for my middle school self I would say “Take it easy.” I should have been way easier on myself. I was so driven to be the best academically, to be the best friend I could be, to be the best sister I could be. There was just a ton of pressure and so much falling apart over the smallest of things. ‘My clothes are wrinkled’ or ‘they're not even the clothes that are in style’ or ‘I can't afford to dress like everybody else dresses’ or ‘what am I gonna do about my hair?’ or ‘what are my friends going to think?’ What do I say? What do I do? How do I act, you know? I would just say for my middle school self: take it way easier on yourself. Who you are is good enough. People are friends with you because you're a likable person. Life doesn't have to be as difficult as it is. And if there are challenges, if there are things you need help with, then you can go seek help. It doesn’t have to be an individual process, it doesn’t need to be on your own. Build your community. Build your tribe. And be yourself. People like you-- for you!