Jean Kantambu Latting seldom shied away from speaking about issues that are dear to her, such as social justice, peace-building and empowerment, during her 37 years at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW). Now, three years after teaching her last class and bidding farewell to her friends and colleagues across campus, Latting is still championing social change, and UH continues to be a part of her life.
“I have always allied with the less fortunate—people who want more than they had and were kept from getting what they wanted because of structural impediments. Helping people overcome such obstacles is an important part of what social work is about,” Latting said.
“The social work profession is as big as life,” Latting continued. “There is no aspect of life in which social workers cannot play a role. So teaching students about a field as big as life is tremendously exciting, expansive and rewarding. I learned in every class I taught.”
It was the desire to teach and pursue her lifelong dream of a social work career that led her to accept a position as a lecturer at UH in 1979. Recently separated and with a young daughter to support, Latting moved to Houston. She was eager, determined to succeed and glad to be close to family. Her mother and three sisters, one of whom was a student at the UH Law Center, resided in the city.
At that time, UH was a growing campus, struggling to shed its image as Cougar High. For Latting, life at the college, which was then the Graduate School of Social Work, had its challenges, including political divisions. When she joined the faculty, she was one of only three African American faculty members.
“I always felt accepted by my white colleagues” Latting said.
But, Latting noted she did face difficulties forming bonds with her peers because of cultural differences as well as the demands of motherhood.
“Instead of hanging out with my colleagues, I had to help my child with homework or I had to attend parent-teacher conferences,” Latting said.
That first year, Latting juggled responsibilities both on and off campus while finishing a chapter of her dissertation, which she completed in 1980. She then was awarded a doctorate in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and immediately promoted to assistant professor at UH.
Latting’s first opportunity to teach came unexpectedly just months after arriving on campus when a federally funded center where she worked was defunded. Latting, who was scheduled to transfer to an academic position in two years, was thrust into the Tools for Decision Making class after the semester had already started.
The situation, she recalled, was “challenging at best, but I loved the subject matter and eventually won over the students whose curiosity and dedication to the field won me over,” Latting said.
She, admittedly, pushed her students to excel. Over time, Latting said she gained “a reputation of being a tough but informative teacher.”
Despite or perhaps because of her reputation, Latting was honored with the first Faculty of the Year Award presented by the school’s student association in 1987. The award was the beginning of many awards and honor society inductions for Latting. In 2003, the UH Alumni Association bestowed on her the Outstanding Faculty Member Award. In 1994, she received the Cachet Award for Outstanding Educator from the nonprofit organization Women Helping Women.
Latting’s other accolades included being listed in Who’s Who in America from 2003 to 2006 and Who’s Who in American Education in 2006. Two of her most distinguished honors were being selected as a member of the UH chapter of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society in 2007 and UH’s Phi Alpha national honor society in 2012. She specially treasures a professorship named in her honor and endowed in 2005 by a Houstonian she greatly admired—the late philanthropist Maconda Brown O’Connor, who also was a social worker.
Outside the classroom, Latting was just as active, chairing two dissertation committees and serving as interim director of the African American Studies program from 1991 to 1992. She authored a book, wrote more than two dozen articles and book chapters and was a member of dozens of campus committees. One of her notable achievements was creating GCSW’s Center for Organizational Research and Effectiveness.
In spite of all her academic accomplishments, Latting remains humble and grateful for the students she taught throughout the years.
The social work profession is as big as life, Latting continued. There is no aspect of life in which social workers cannot play a role.
“They enter our college hoping to make a difference in the world and deepen their knowledge of how the environment impacts the individual and vice versa. They are bright; they are eager; and they care. What else could a faculty member want?” Latting asked. “We (social workers) have a saying ‘the self as instrument’—IT people use computers as their tools of the trade. Our tools are ourselves. So we have to learn how to use ourselves to foster in others the willingness to improve their lives and to improve the lives of others.”
Latting’s compassion is deeply rooted in her childhood. As one of five children in a blended family, Latting grew up in one of the most prominent African American families in Memphis, then a segregated city. There, she often heard stories about “people helping people” and rising above adversity, Latting said. Those stories of resilience and lessons of citizenship inspired her.
“When I was nine years old, I dreamed of opening a home for children who were crippled, which was the term that was used back then,” Latting recollected.
Her father, an attorney, and her mother, a homemaker, wanted her to pursue a career in law, medicine or a similar profession. Latting, though, had a different calling, one that she discovered as a sophomore enrolled in an introduction to social work and sociology class at Douglass Residential College, Rutgers University. The professor, Latting remembered, discussed her work with the poor, prostitutes and other people who were disenfranchised.
Most importantly, Latting said, “She humanized them. She taught us not to judge them.”
That was a turning point for Latting, who decided then that social work was her calling. Ironically, with that decision, she would follow the footsteps of another family member: her grandmother, who was awarded a master’s degree in social work from Chicago’s Loyola University in 1933.
After graduating from Rutgers with a bachelor’s in sociology- economics and a minor in psychology in 1965, Latting worked first as a social caseworker in Bronx, New York and two years later was hired as a community organizer at a settlement house in the Two Bridges neighborhood in New York City’s lower East Side.
During this time, Latting, a self-described rabble-rouser, protested for tenant rights and welfare rights and against the Vietnam War. She would later take that drive and energy to Columbia University School of Social Work, where she received a master’s degree in community organization and planning in 1971.
Latting remembered those years fondly.
“It was glorious to be in your 20s in New York City in the 1960s,” Latting said. “There was nothing else like it.”
Since those rabble-rousing days and her years on campus, Latting has slowed down … just a bit. Her days are spent working as a leadership coach and consultant and researching such topics as leadership development, workplace diversity and social change. She also is working on a book exploring social change in pluralistic environments.
Now remarried, she and her husband often travel to Austin to visit their grandchildren and their daughter and son-in-law, both of whom also found their calling as social workers.
When she’s not on the road, consulting or with other family members, Latting is at the gym, where she lifts weights twice a week, exploring philosophical questions with friends around the country and enjoying music whenever she can.
“I love musicals and plays. I don’t attend as much as I would like, but I took my granddaughter to see ‘Alexander Hamilton’ in New York last spring, and I’m still a Michael Jackson fan,” Latting said, laughing.
Looking back, Latting, who received the professor emerita title in 2008, readily admits that she doesn’t miss the rigors of academic life. Yet, she is as committed to social work and the college as she was in 1979. Just last year, she served as keynote speaker at the college’s fall research conference.
Latting also is impressed with the college’s updated vision—to achieve social, racial, economic and political justice from local to global—and its new dean, Alan J. Dettlaff.
She is equally impressed with UH’s progress.
“The university has risen in stature due in large part to President Khator’s leadership. I think she has a stronger marketing sense, and that’s the difference,” Latting said.
“People in the community,” she added, “want Houston to be great, and they want the University of Houston to be great. In the past few years, I have seen pride in the university increase in the community, and that’s wonderful.”