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.

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Gary Bess

Specific Pioneering Contributions 

Gary Bess, PhD, MSW, has contributed to the social work profession through his more than 40 years of macro social work practice, which has included directorships of two free medical clinics in southern California for the underserved; and since 1991, as the founder and principal for Gary Bess Associates (GBA) resource development and program evaluation consulting firm for health and human services agencies.  

Through Bess’s leadership, GBA is credited with supporting the development of more than 50 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) throughout the United States that serve thousands of residents in low-income communities each year who are at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. GBA works with FQHC applicants to determine the range and depth of primary care, behavioral health, oral health, and other services that meet stringent federal compliance requirements. 

Bess’s primary accomplishments occurred in the context of GBA as a for-profit corporation, which he established in 2011, 20 years after he began consulting. Today with 16 employees, five of whom are graduate social workers, and as a grant writing trainer, Bess continues to underscore his belief that a social work education is an ideal foundation for grant writing.  

Each year through new requests and funding renewals, GBA assists organizational clients in receiving more than $50 million in public and private grants, and resources such as professional liability coverage the purchase of reduced wholesale medications through the Federal 340B Drug Program; staff social workers support the success of new FQHC-designated health centers, by providing training and technical assistance on health center and nonprofit management, governance, and clinical practices. GBA’s specialization in services for racially and ethnically marginalized populations has led to the firm serving as national cross-site evaluators for federal agencies such as Indian Health Services, the Agency for Native Americans, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  The organization’s grant- writing and evaluation services have helped communities in Native American reservations and Alaska Native Island communities, Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and the East Los Angeles Barrio.  
Career Highlights 

Bess earned his MSW from Case Western Reserve University, MA in applied sociology from Kent State University, and a DSW from the University of Southern California (USC).  He earned his PhD as an older student, having practiced as a macro practitioner and adjunct faculty member at UCLA and California State University (CSU) in Long Beach and Chico.  In his role at Chico, before the advent of the MSW Program there, Bess coordinated a distance MSW program for students matched with CSU Long Beach, CSU Humboldt and CSU Channel Islands.  He also created a certificate program in nonprofit management that ran for several years at CSU Los Angeles. 

Before initiating his consulting business in 1991, Bess provided 10 years of service as executive director for the South Bay Free Clinic and Los Angeles Free Clinic, managing a capital campaign to build a new facility in Los Angeles for low-income patients. Bess expanded the firm’s consulting services to include program evaluation, which contributed to publications on evaluations within Native American communities. 

In 2021, Bess was honored by the California Social Work Hall of Distinction Committee as an inductee.  Bridging macro social work practice and the importance of contributing to social work knowledge, Bess has published in refereed journals and other publications.  In 2022, he was the lead author for a contribution to the Encyclopedia of Social Work titled “History of Leadership and Leadership Development in Social Work Practice, Including the Military.”  In 2019, Bess also co-authored an article: “Transforming through leadership: A qualitative study of successful American Indian Alaska Native behavioral health leaders . 
Bess continues as a Board member for the Network for Social Work Management (NSWM), where he served as president and has been a member for more than 20 years.  In recent years, Bess joined colleagues to present on nonprofit management in China for NGO managers through a partnership between NSWM and Chinese Normal University.   
Biographic Information 

Bess was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Kent State University for his BA in English literature and MA in applied sociology, before attending Case Western University for his MSW.  Between undergraduate and graduate school, Bess worked in New York City for the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) as its national student campaign coordinator. During this time, he worked summers in Israel for the UJA, reaching out to college students and offering discounting tours of Israel.    

Upon receipt of his MSW, Bess was again hired by the UJA to serve as Young Adult Leadership Coordinator in Los Angeles. This brought him to the West Coast and led to his next career steps as executive director for the South Bay Free Clinic (1979 – 1985) and the Los Angeles Free Clinic (1985 – 1991).  In 1986, Bess married Cynthia Ratekin, who obtained her Ph.D. in educational psychology from UCLA. Upon his wife’s graduation (1991), she accepted a position with California State University Chico. The family’s move with two young children, Katie and Grayson, was the catalyst for Bess to begin his consulting career.  

Today, Bess continues as a principal for GBA with his daughter, Katie Strautman, DSW, as the firm’s co-principal.  As he transitions toward less involvement with GBA, he has added a new volunteer post, visiting the county’s Juvenile Detention Facility weekly with his dog, Kodiak, who plays with young detainees in one-hour “dog therapy” sessions. 

Two seminal life-changing events have occurred in Bess’s history. On May 4, 1970, he was a freshman on the campus of Kent State University when Ohio National Guardsmen fired on protesting students, killing four and wounding 11.  Among the wounded was his roommate, who survived without lasting injuries. This event molded his social activism.  Secondly, in 2018, the Northern California Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, where he and his family had lived for more than 20 years, and which served as the base for GBA. The GBA office buildings were lost as well as the homes of seven employees.  GBA regrouped with employees scattered across California and pivoted to a virtual office structure within one week. This model of service delivery was well established for GBA before COVID-19 caused other businesses to move in the direction of virtual conferencing.  NASW provided a recovery contribution to Bess during this time. 

Significant Recognition and Awards 

 In 2021, Bess received a lifetime achievement award by being inducted into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction. This was in addition to the NASW Chico Chapter’s recognition for Lifetime Achievement in the early 2000s. He currently serves as a volunteer member of the NASW Administration and Supervision Section Committee and co-authored an article for its newsletter on consumer board member participation. 

Significant Publications

As noted above, Bess’s leadership article for the Encyclopedia of Social Work was published in 2022. He has also published five journal articles on facets of program evaluation for Native American services and outcome reporting, including two in the American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research: Journal of the National Center. 

He was the lead writer for the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services, Child Adolescent and Family Branch, on conducting participatory community needs assessments for tribal training and technical assistance.

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.