School of Social Work

No. 28 M.S.W. Program in the U.S.

Sara Van Tongeren, Rev. Jane Addams and Jeffrey Sorenson pose with their social justice awards from the city of Holland, Michigan

VCU social work alum Sara Van Tongeren, Rev. Jennifer Adams and Jeffrey Sorenson received social justice awards from the city of Holland, Michigan, in January.

For VCU School of Social Work alum Sara Van Tongeren (M.S.W.’08/SW), a “surreal” seven-hour city council meeting in August 2020 was delayed gratification for the passage of a long-awaited nondiscrimination policy in Holland, Michigan. 

And now, the city of Holland’s Human Relations Commission is honoring Van Tongeren (M.S.W.’08/SW) and her fellow advocates for their good work. 

To mark Martin Luther King Jr. week celebrations in January 2021, the city presented its social justice award in government and community relations to Van Tongeren, a therapist, and colleagues Jeffrey Sorenson and Rev. Jennifer Adams of Out on the Lakeshore, an LGBT resource center in Holland. 

“It is an honor to receive this award,” Van Tongeren says. “It was not earned in singularity, but in solidarity through the voices of many that rose up and shared stories of discrimination that they endured while they were yet to be protected. This was not an event that occurred in one meeting, or even one year. It took many people, working hard over 10 years, for the city to be ready. I am honored to be a part of this new beginning for our city and to be an example for our state of Michigan, to put pressure on the state level to enact a statewide non-discrimination law.” 

Van Tongeren, a Florida native, has been in Michigan since 2012 after her husband and fellow VCU alum, Daryl Van Tongeren (Ph.D.’11/H&S), took a faculty position at Hope College. The year before, the city had narrowly defeated a nondiscrimination ordinance, 5-4.

“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “In fact, we almost did not move here because there were not protections.”

But nine years later, as a long night turned into the early morning hours of Aug. 20, 2020, the council passed the nondiscrimination policy by an overwhelming margin of 8-1. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, dozens lined up to speak before the council, turning the meeting into a marathon session.

Van Tongeren, Sorenson and Rev. Adams requested in December 2019 that the city adopt nondiscrimination protections.

Standing outside Holland City Hall at 2 a.m. Aug. 20, 2020, after the 7.5-hour meeting at which the resolution passed by an 8-1 vote.

“A seven-hour meeting – in the middle of a pandemic, no less – seems surreal,” Van Tongeren says. “The vote took place at around 1:30 a.m. People say democracy is messy, but this was obviously a beautiful moment as well. My head was so foggy, and yet you could sense the energy and significance of what was happening. I still am in awe to be a part of this. There are so many community members that I have been working for years on this, and I was honored being the public voice of their work.

“When I opened my practice here in Holland I primarily saw LGBTQ people who had experienced narrative and systemic trauma. The fact that it was passed 8-1 was a huge step of progress. But this is only the first step. There has been so much hurt, now that there are protections, LGBTQ people can actually work on their quality of life here. 

“There is still way more community education to do, and trauma to work through. But now, as someone told me ‘we are street-legal.’ There is a healing step toward knowing your presence is not only acknowledged, but also protected, that can begin the work of living here.”

Sara Van Tongeren earned her VCU M.S.W. in 2008. Credit: Anna Stubbs Photography

Van Tongeren says the original ordinance was presented as “the right thing to do,” but a coalition of advocates – therapists, social workers, nonprofits, churches and community members – knew they needed more council support before pushing the ordinance again in 2020.

“Our behind-the-scenes work was helping elect the leaders on our council who would vote for this ordinance,” she says. “And then we worked to educate the ones on council about the issues. We worked closely with the ACLU of Michigan to make sure we presented our council with a comprehensive ordinance that protects all of our citizens. It provides protection against discrimination for people because of age, race, national origin, color, disability, education, familial status, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, height, marital status, religion, source of income or weight.

Van Tongeren says a social work perspective is rooted in addressing issues like systems of oppression and how clients are situated within those systems. 

“We should be working to dismantle those systems, rather than only diagnose our clients,” she says. “I am a social worker at my core. Our work is bigger and we can get involved in our community to help use our skills as clinical social workers to advance our communities’ policies. We are on the frontlines of listening to those who come in our office. We are positioned uniquely to do something with what our community is telling us. Let’s use our voice to amplify the voices of those that are often silenced. It is time to rise up.” 

The Van Tongerens are co-authors of the book The Courage to Suffer, addressing suffering from a research and clinical perspective that was informed by Sara’s work with clients and Daryl’s research on meaning. Connect with Sara on her website or on Instagram

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