NASW Pioneers Biography Index

The National Association of Social Workers Foundation is pleased to present the NASW Social Work Pioneers®. NASW Pioneers are social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers. Some are well known, while others are less famous outside their immediate colleagues, and the region where they live and work. But each one has made an important contribution to the social work profession, and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, or legislation.

The NASW Pioneers have paved the way for thousands of other social workers to contribute to the betterment of the human condition; and they are are role models for future generations of social workers. The NASW Foundation has made every effort to provide accurate Pioneer biographies.  Please contact us at to provide missing information, or to correct inaccurate information. It is very important to us to correctly tell these important stories and preserve our history.  

Please note, an asterisk attached to a name reflects Pioneers who have passed away. All NASW Social Work Pioneers® Bios are Copyright © 2021 National Association of Social Workers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Skip Navigation Links
Hali Hansuli Giessler, MA, ACSW
Hali Hansuli Giessler

Pioneering Contributions

A 1955 NASW Charter Member, Hali Hansuli Giessler, MA, ACSW, is a visionary leader who has dedicated his life to taking innovative ideas about individual and societal justice and transforming them into action. Giessler broke through many organizational barriers in the social sector to pioneer ways both to eradicate service inequities based on race and to advocate for those he served. He set an example for individuals and communities, and educational, social service, and governmental organizations. 

A German immigrant, Giessler worked his way through college and graduate school with part-time jobs. After volunteering at the Townsend Community Center, a segregated African-American recreation center in Richmond, Indiana, he accepted a position making him the first and only white staff member. Despite the realities of segregation throughout the city in 1948, he made sure that the playground was integrated, welcoming to Black and white children and to the children of the Mexican migrant workers. 

Bayard Rustin, a social movement leader, joined Giessler in presenting race relation workshops. The two men conducted workshops at churches and other venues in cities and towns in both Indiana and Ohio. In 1951, after he completed his master’s degree in Social-Psychology and Community Dynamics at Earlham College, Giessler accepted a position at Flanner House, a settlement house serving a Black section of Indianapolis, officially launching his professional social work career. As the Family Consultant, he was responsible for the development of a self-help housing project.

In the mid-1950s, Giessler worked as a probation officer of the Juvenile Court in Reading, Pennsylvania, as the only social worker in the department. Giessler visited their schools or places of employment, which was considered unusual at that time. In 1959, Giessler accepted the position of Director of Home Life at the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school that continues to operate in PA today. In a move that further heightened his reputation as a true trailblazer, Giessler ended corporal punishment at the school. In its place he established a series of privileges which could then be restricted as punishments, a practice of reinforcement now commonplace in behavioral therapy. 

He moved to Detroit in January 1965 as the founding headmaster of Friends School in Detroit, FSD. Giessler was drawn to the Board’s vision of a new independent college-preparatory school, gathering students of every race, religion, and economic status. Once again transforming his beliefs into action, Giessler spearheaded many initiatives while running this independent school, including: developing techniques to teach children the meaning of “brotherhood”; creatively involving the students in the city's civic and cultural lives. In 1973 with 430 students and a mortgage-free building, Giessler handed out the diplomas to FSD’s first graduating class. 

Also in 1973, Giessler co-founded the Center for Urban Education (CUE), an independent nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping students, teachers, and others grow more knowledgeable about the many elements that make up the networks of Detroit and become more sensitive to the variety of ethnic, religious, and economic groups living and working there. Serving as CUE's executive director, Giessler worked alongside his staff to design and institutionalize the Center's Urban Seminars, offering students a hands-on broad overview of the world that exists beyond their classrooms and homes, and their “teacher workshops” utilizing the resources available in an increasingly urbanized society. 

In the 1970s, Michigan closed most of its mental hospitals, moving to community-based programs. In 1975, Giessler was contracted by the Michigan Department of Mental Health (now the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) to write a curriculum and basic textbook for the caregivers in the new adult foster care homes. Giessler's curriculum was soon adopted as legally required training for these caregivers’ State Certification. 

Career Highlights 

Giessler joined NASW in 1955 and was elected to attend several NASW Delegate Assemblies. He remained active in the organization for over 50 years, serving in a range of capacities, including both Vice President and President of the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter.

In 1983, he was named the State of Michigan Social Worker of the Year. In the late 1950’s he worked as a Juvenile Probation Officer, introducing new attitudes and practices. Starting in 1959, he did likewise as the Director of Home Life and Director of Family-School Relations at the Milton Hershey School.

 In 1963, Giessler was asked by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to serve as the Assistant to the Director of a Peace Mission and Study Seminar. This was to be the first such mission approved by the State Department to travel behind the Iron Curtain. The group of 28 social workers, ministers, and educators spent six weeks in Prague, Warsaw, East and West Berlin, along with time in cities in Holland and London. 

In 1965, when Giessler moved to Detroit, MI to become the Founding Headmaster of the Friends School in Detroit, he started a school that went on to educate children in Detroit for the next 50 years. Using the curriculum that Giessler wrote in 1975 for the Michigan Department of Mental Health, he and his colleagues - over many subsequent years - taught over 1000 caregivers about the safe, humane, and respectful outpatient care of adults newly discharged from often long term inpatient facilities.

Giessler's board contributions included current service to: Franklin-Wright Settlements (and, before the merger, the Sophie Wright Settlement), since 1965; Grosse Pointe Academy since 1969; and the Children's Center of Wayne County, since 1970. Additionally, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Giessler served for several years on the Board of Consultants of Adult Service Centers and the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Agency of the Retarded. 

Biographic Data

Hali H. Giessler was born February 6, 1927 in Kassel, Germany. His parents, both active in social causes, met while working at the Berlin East Settlement House. His mother had been invited by Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, to come work with her in America. 

When Giessler was 12, his family fled Germany after five years of Nazi scrutiny. They had to split up, with Giessler leaving the country alone with his younger sister. The family reunited in Holland and left by ship to the United States. Starting with almost no English, Giessler graduated from Imalea Pusey Warner Junior High School in DE, then attended the Westtown School in PA, graduating in 1945. He attended Earlham College, receiving his BA in Sociology in 1949 and his MA in Social-Psychology and Community Dynamics in 1951. 

Significant Recognitions and Awards

Giessler was named the Social Worker of the Year for Metropolitan Detroit and for the State of Michigan in 1983. The Detroit City Council passed resolutions honoring Giessler in 1983 and 1989, and in 1991, he received the Spirit of Detroit Award of the Detroit City Council for outstanding achievement or service to the citizens of Detroit.

 In 1993, he received the Outstanding Alumni Award of the Earlham College Alumni Council, which recognizes alumni who "have made notable contributions in their fields to the benefit of society at large.” And in 2015, Giessler received the Lifetime Achievement Award from FranklinWright Settlements. While deeply appreciative and humbled by these honors, Giessler admits to yet one more dream: Becoming a NASW Social Work Pioneer. 

Significant Publications

Adult Foster Care Education Program, Monograph, 1975. Adult Foster Care in Michigan, a textbook for Adult Foster Care Training published by the State of Michigan and the Center for Urban Education, 1975.


Newly Inducted NASW Social Work Pioneer Hortense McClinton 2015

Nominate A New NASW Pioneer

Please note, Pioneer nominations made between today’s date through March 31, 2023, will not be reviewed until spring 2023.

Completed NASW Pioneer nominations can be submitted throughout the year and are reviewed at the June Pioneer Steering Committee Meeting. To be considered at the June meeting, submit your nomination package by March 31. To learn more, visit our Pioneer nomination guidelines.

New Pioneers 

Congratulations newly elected Pioneers!  Pioneers will be inducted at the 2023  Annual Program and Luncheon. Full biographies and event details coming soon.