Geraldo Rivera returned to the Willowbrook neighborhood of Staten Island, NY to be the speaker at the College of Staten Island’s (CSI) Bachelor’s of Science in Social Work commencement ceremony in May 2014.
The graduates from this newly accredited program were so impressive, their chosen profession so vital, that Rivera was inspired to establish The Geraldo Rivera Fund for Social Work and Disability Studies at the College.
The Fund will provide support for public conferences, symposia, lectures, and new publications that will inform the public and continue the legacy of empowering people with disabilities, and influencing public policy.
“This generous investment in our students, faculty, and College will benefit the academic discourse and rigor on campus, and will allow us to take a leadership position regionally, nationally, and internationally as we promote research, advocacy, and dialogues around this important issue in our society,” commented College President Dr. William J. Fritz.
“This important Fund will empower the College to develop in-depth public programming that explores the fields of social work and disability studies by presenting an interdisciplinary array of global scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and thought leaders,” added Dr. Nan Sussman, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Rivera has a long history with the location of the current CSI campus, which was previously the site of the Willowbrook State School. He earned a Peabody Award in 1972 for his exposé on the inhumane conditions at Willowbrook and sparked a revolution in the way that people with disabilities receive care and services. When CSI moved to the Willowbrook site in 1993, the identity of the College became forever intertwined with the Willowbrook State School.
“Aside from being enormously gratifying, to be involved with CSI is to come full circle,” said Rivera. “Encouraging the next generation of young social workers to fight for equal rights for people with disabilities is the ultimate follow-up, ensuring that the horrors of Willowbrook never return.”
The Willowbrook Archive is housed in the Special Collections of the Library, and the College hosts an annual Willowbrook Lecture Series on the anniversary of the Willowbrook Consent Decree, which eventually was responsible for closing the Willowbrook State School.
“CSI has developed a strong orientation to the interests of people with disabilities in academic programs and more generally in campus life,” Dr. Sussman notes. “Additionally, CSI recently launched a Master’s of Social Work program with a focus on meeting the needs of people with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum, and hired social work faculty who conduct research on disabilities and publish and present their work nationally and internationally.”
An example of ongoing research includes Professors Dr. David Goode and Dr. Darryl Hill, who recently co-authored A History and Sociology of the Willowbrook State School with Jean Reiss and Dr. William Bronston, a nurse and doctor at Willowbrook whose meticulous notes served as a key resource for the publication.
This focus is critical as CSI, a senior college of The City University of New York (CUNY), has the highest percentage of students with disabilities among the University’s senior colleges, and operates a variety of services designed to assist these students and ensure their success.
“You’re going to be doing noble work,” Rivera said, praising the recent graduates from CSI’s Social Work program. “You will make a difference in the lives of the people you are working with and for. The people that need you, their lives will be materially enhanced, in a way that you will be a walking angel. For every person that you help, that you guide, that you assist, that you make their lives richer and better, your life will be similarly enhanced by it, your soul will be fed… you will be the next generation of the people who will make this world a better place.”
“We are very grateful for the establishment of The Geraldo Rivera Fund for Social Work and Disability Studies at the CSI,” Dr. Fritz noted. “Mr. Rivera’s vision so eloquently aligns with the College’s Mission, and we are proud that together we memorialize a tragic past as we strive to make a significant contribution to our understanding and empowerment of people with disabilities.”