Marlene Saunders, DSW, MSW, has demonstrated, for more than half a century, a steadfast commitment to the profession of social work. Saunders has dedicated her entire career to advocacy and grassroots community engagement, especially uplifting Black and Brown communities that have historically been and continue today to be impacted by poverty, disenfranchisement, and marginalization. She believes that true, sustainable change cannot happen without the involvement of a community. She thinks that ordinary members of the community are best positioned to identify solutions to solve their own problems if they have the capacity and resources to do so.
It is Saunders’ deeply embedded social values of strengths, empowerment, and resilience that have buttressed her decades of committed community organizing work. She has helped to build the capacity of organizations and communities in the state of Delaware. She has helped them gain access to much-needed resources, whether in the form of grants, salaries, stipends, and programs, or through access to HIV/AIDS testing and medicine or COVID testing and vaccines.
For more than 50 years, Saunders has been a diligent and hard-working community social worker. The communities know her, and she knows them. She is quietly known as “The Community Whisperer” throughout the state of Delaware.There is no doubt that the specific contributions Saunders has made to poverty-impacted communities have led to profound positive changes in the lives of those who are disenfranchised and marginalized. More importantly, those changes were not just material or measurable ones: they were positive changes, instilling pride and dignity in the people and communities she has touched.
Saunders has been actively involved in the Women’s March Sussex - Delaware (WMS-DE) where she was elected vice chair in 2021. A chapter affiliate of Women’s March National, WMS-DE is a women-led, inclusive coalition, with a mission to harness the political power of diverse women and their allies in Sussex County. A member since 2019, Saunders was elected Vice-Chair of Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice (SDARJ) in 2021. A non-partisan organization, SDARJ educates, informs, and advocates for racial justice, equality, and equity.
In February 2021, Saunders was elected vice chair of the Sussex County Democratic Committee. In 2020, Saunders was appointed by State Senator Sarah Lockman to the Infrastructure & Environment Sub-Committee and is a Steering Committee member of the Community Air Monitoring Network. These positions enable her to advocate for environmental justice for overburdened Black and Brown communities in New Castle County and in Sussex County where water and air pollution are of major concern.
In 2020 Saunders was elected as a commissioner of the town of Bridgeville. Tired of inequities and injustices in poor, segregated communities, Saunders has used her position of influence to successfully promote civic participation among constituents from North Bridgeville.
In 2015 Saunders initiated a partnership between Delaware State University, NASW-DE, Department of Health and Social Service, and the State of Delaware Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, to offer training for practitioners on Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), an evidence-based approach to identifying patients who use alcohol and other drugs at risky levels.
In 2014, as the Executive Director of NASW-DE, Saunders invigorated the DE Chapter and revived its Annual Conference. From 2012 to present, Saunders has served as a board member of Beautiful Gate Outreach Center, a non-profit organization located in an African American community in Wilmington. She has helped to design projects aimed at reducing emotional and physical risks to the community. Projects have included HIV/AIDS testing and prevention counseling and lead poisoning testing, remediation, and prevention for those living in older homes in Wilmington.
In 2010 Saunders obtained a significant grant from the State of Delaware Department of Correction to train Delaware’s probation and parole officers. The training focused on the use of cognitive behavioral theory, reality therapy, motivational interviewing, diversity, substance abuse, human behavior and the social environment.
As chairperson of the Department of Social Work in 2007, Saunders, initiated a partnership with the Mental Health Association in Delaware to create the first ever People of Color (POC) Conference for Southern Delaware. The conference enabled human service providers to gain a greater understanding about cultural competence and its relationship to and effects on mental health for BIPOC who resided in communities located in southern Delaware.
Saunders revitalized the NASW-DE chapter, expanded partnerships, and strengthened relationships with organizations such as the Department of Health and Social Services, Interdenominational Ministers Action Group, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, and the Board of Social Work Examiners.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Saunders established herself as a strong social work organizer and leader in and around the Philadelphia, PA region. In 1985, Saunders started her career at Delaware State University (DSU). She led the process to reaffirm both the BSW and MSW accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), managed initiatives to increase the number of MSW students at the Dover and Wilmington campuses, and expanded the curriculum to include courses and field placement assignments. DSU is proudly still the only institution to award the BSW or MSW degrees in the State of Delaware.
Since retiring from DSU in 2014, Saunders has served as the Executive Director of NASW, DE Chapter, consults with several agencies like Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitative Facilities (CARF) around specific accreditations issues and grant projects. Saunders was instrumental in leading the charge for multi-tiered licensure in Delaware, which was obtained in 2015. She is an active member of the National League of Women Voters and coordinated a massive get-out-the-vote campaign in Delaware for the 2020 Presidential Election. Additionally, Saunders has served and continues to serve on numerous Boards of Directors of non-profit organizations in the State of Delaware.
Marlene Anita Saunders was born in Bridgeville, Delaware in 1944. She received her BA at Delaware State University (Dover) in 1967. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, she received her MSW in 1972, an Advanced Certificate in Social Welfare Policy in 1988, and her DSW in 2001.
Significant Recognition and Awards
- 2016 Humanitarian Award, NAACP-Wilmington Branch
- 2008 Community Outreach Worker Award, Beautiful Gate Outreach Center, Bethel
- 2008 Social Worker of the Year, National Association of Social Workers, Delaware Chapter
- 2007 Service Provider Award, State of Delaware, Department of Correction
- Saunders, M. (2020). “Enough Is Enough”: An Historical Perspective: Long Lasting Health Disparities in the Midst of COVID-19 and the George Floyd Incident. Journal of Public Health, (scheduled publication, September 2021).
- Saunders, M. (2011). The Human Genome Project: An Historical Perspective for Social Workers, Social Work in Public Health, 26:4, 336-348, DOI: 10.1080/19371918.2011.579041
- Kingsberry, S. Q, Saunders, M. A., & Richardson, A. (2010). The Effect of Psychosocial Stressors on the Mental Health Status of African American Caregivers of the Elderly. Families in Society, 91, 408-414.
- Rhodes, W., & Saunders, M. (1993). The effects of racism and prejudice on Children. New York: Gladden Foundation.
- Blankertz, L., Cnaan, R., & Saunders, M. (1992). Assessing the impact of serving the long-term mentally disabled homeless. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 19, 199-220