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A Tribute to Sybil Francis Former Head, The UWI Social Welfare Training Centre

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A Tribute to Sybil Francis Former Head, The UWI Social Welfare Training Centre

“Faculty members at UWI looked further than their own programmes as means for change. They reached out to professionals, paraprofessionals, and nonprofessionals in community life. This relates to what social work texts now advocate as a ‘strengths’ rather than a ‘problem centred’ approach. Rather than claim a monopoly on knowledge, The UWI Social Welfare Training Centre assumed that education was a shared and horizontal enterprise and that social workers’ skills must be used to release and maximize community based knowledge”.  (Beverly Stadum, Training Personnel for Family Planning Programmes: UWI Innovations for International Social Work Education. Caribbean Journal of Social Work Vol.1 March 2002 p42.)


Sybil Francis was a brilliant character whose passion for people, teaching, knowledge and social development led her down many remarkable paths and left a legacy of authentic service and excellence. Born in 1914, Sybil grew up during a time of considerable social and economic change.  However, during this time her love for people grew and she helped to give a voice to those who would otherwise be lost. She was one of the first Jamaicans to receive a formal education in Social Work from the London School of Economics in 1946 after receiving a scholarship from the Colonial Development and Welfare Organization.  While in England, she interviewed Jamaicans for her radio programme “Girl About Town.” On her return to Jamaica, Sybil worked for various agencies, such as the YWCA and Lands Department, and on committees, such as Council of Voluntary Social Services and Jamaica Social Welfare Commission, where, through her work assisted in building the lives of underserved populations.

Place in The UWI history

Prior to Sybil’s tenure at The University of the West Indies, it is important to note that welfare in Jamaica was mainly a voluntary activity and the current modes of training were based on the British model of Social Work, which did not adequately address local reality. Sybil started at the Social Welfare Training Centre (SWTC), renamed the Social Work Training and Research Centre in 2019, under The University of the West Indies, Department of Extra Mural Studies in 1962 as its first head, and over her 18-year tenure transformed SWTC and the wider campus. A few key accomplishments of Sybil:

  • The model of training that Sybil used to train paraprofessional social workers was internationally recognized as the gold standard (Fergus, Bernard & Soares, 2007). She inaugurated the pioneering Four Month Course in the Principles and Practice of Social Work.  Many senior welfare officers and social workers in the Caribbean region commenced their professional training on the Four Month Course, and the development of social work as a profession owes much to Sybil’s contribution to high quality training in the early years of the Centre.
  • Trained thousands of students in social work and social development.
  • Along with Jean Tulloch-Reid established the family planning/ family life education unit at the SWTC
  • Contributed to the development of new units, specifically:
    • Regional Preschool Child Development Project/Centre
    • Human Resources Development Unit
    • Woman and Development Unit
  • Initiated The University of the West Indies’ participation in the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and went on to become one of their Vice-Presidents. She also became a spokesperson for the role of the para-professional social workers in developing countries at the IASSW.

The foundation which Sybil created at SWTC resulted in an evolution in the practice of social work in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, it improved the service that vulnerable populations received.

Sybil formally retired at the end of the 1980/1981 academic year. However, she still had much to offer to society with her extensive knowledge and experience, therefore she remained at The University of the West Indies as a consultant to the Vice-Chancellor for an additional 10 years. She also served as a consultant for the government, private companies and NGOs.                                                                                         


All those who worked with Sybil recall her fondly, Dr John Maxwell (former Head of Department, Social Work Unit, and former Faculty of Social Sciences Deputy Dean) who knew Sybil professionally and personally recalls Sybil as a person who had “a very comprehensive view of social welfare services and a tremendous vision… Hardworking and truly dedicated to her work – her commitment and professionalism was shown when she was retained for a further 10 years by The University after her retirement. She was a very generous person, tremendously good-natured and even tempered. No one can recall seeing her lose her cool. Those who knew her personally can attest to her great culinary skills, and if you were ever invited to her home for dinner,  you would be in for a treat.”

Lessons For Us

Sybil’s impact is felt even to this day, and her work and ethic has left us with many lessons, six of which are described below:

  • One of the legacies of Sybil’s stewardship of the SWTC was: “Always run with a good idea even if it did not originate from you”.  
  • In undertaking community development projects, Sybil maintained it is critical – right from the start - to involve your client group in the conceptualisation and development of policies and programmes, and to continue to do so throughout the implementation. 
  • Sybil always emphasized the need to take an inter-agency approach – the social worker should be a catalyst and anchor point for coordinating the role of all agencies involved in supporting a case, a family, a project or a whole community.
  • Sybil demonstrated that it is important to recognize and sustain the leadership role of the social worker as the agent ‘on the ground’ for coordinating change and improvement in the lives of people.
  • Sybil said to her students that they might need to ‘break the rules’ to get things done in starting a project, because they would need to demonstrate the potential for an intervention or collaboration.  She would say to remember that the perfect can be the enemy of the good: Don’t wait until all the pieces are in place – get the ball rolling, garner support and build momentum – and then you’ll be surprised to see who wants to get on board with you!  These lessons for students reflected the methods that Sybil used in building programmes and institutions during her tenure at SWTC.
  • Also, Sybil recognized the importance of ‘setting projects free’ and urged students to build ownership on the ground to grow and sustain projects.  She would say you don’t have to hold onto projects to keep them alive and if you try to hold on to them, you might be constraining their independence and further development.


Personal Notes From Those Who Have Worked With Her

Dr Luz Longsworth, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Principal, The University of the West Indies, Open Campus

“Mrs Sybil Francis is an icon of The UWI and especially of the former School of Continuing Studies, now a part of the Open Campus. Her pioneering role in developing social work as a discipline in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean cannot be over emphasized. Her love and commitment to the well-being of the communities lit a fire that has led to a robust Social Work programme in The UWI that has contributed to community development over the decades. Sybil Francis’ true legacy is seen daily in the faces of the army of trained Social Workers and the hundreds of thousands in Jamaica and the region who have benefited from her vision.”


Cerita Buchanan, Head, Social Work Training and Research Centre, The University of the West Indies, Open Campus.

"Sybil Francis was a stalwart in social work in the Caribbean. A gentle giant who made significant contributions to family planning and social work education in Jamica and the region. In my interactions with her, and while observing her teach in her 90s, she had a gentle way of commanding the attention of all around her.  Her spirit and legacy will transcend her time with us. May her soul rest in peace."


Lincoln Williams, former Head of Social Work Training and Research Centre

Sybil was very supportive of her successor Geof Brown (1981– 1992) and continued in her support for Geof’s successor, Lincoln Williams (1993-2017).  At Sybil’s 100th birthday celebration in May 2014, Lincoln Williams was able to thank Sybil for her substantive contribution to social work and social work education not only in Jamaica but throughout the Caribbean region through the residential programmes at the SWTC. “As a good leader, Sybil showed us that you do not always have to lead from the front, but instead, you have to bring people together to work to achieve a common goal. Sybil is both a model and an inspiration for social work in the country and in the region”.  Sybil’s response to Lincoln Williams was to direct the thanks back to The UWI and her staff teams, and especially to John Maxwell at the Faculty of Social Work.  She said: “They did the work and I got the credit”!! Sybil added that she kept collaborating with others to look for new ideas and approaches to tackling social problems; some ideas worked, some didn’t, but she cautioned against fear of failure getting in the way of innovation. It was this pioneering spirit that imbued the SWTC in its mission then as it does to this day.


Janet Brown, Former Social Worker, Caribbean Child Development Centre, The University of the West Indies, Open Campus

“My first memory of Sybil Francis was when she met with my husband Geof Brown in Toronto as a potential candidate to be her successor. In September 1981 we packed up for Jamaica for Geof to take up the post she left vacant. I asked Sybil on this same visit if there were any possibilities for me and she said that they had interviewed several unsuccessful candidates for the post of Social Worker at the Caribbean Child Development Centre, a division at the time of the School of Continuing Studies along with SWTC. Since the post was still open I applied, and Geof and I got our appointment letters the same day and began work the same week. She was very supportive to both of us in our new positions. I remember her most for her wonderful humour and smiling face. My last memory of her was when Rose Davies and I visited her at her home as she approached her 100th birthday. There, still was her wonderful humour and smiling face as she recalled anecdotes and stories from earlier times on campus and after. She left a strong legacy at SWTC and in her long social work career; she has more than earned a peaceful eternal rest.”

 Sybil Francis’ legacy is still standing strong, and she will be missed dearly.