By Carolyn Crist
Terriyln Rivers-Cannon is on a mission.
The determination is apparent in her actions under
Georgia’s Gold Dome, her interactions with staff and
students at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta,
and her leadership as president of the School Social
Workers Association of Georgia.
She’s here to show everyone what school social
workers do for students.
“We speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,”
she told KNOW Magazine during an interview at the
high school this spring. “We give voice to the voiceless.”
After nearly two decades of advocating for both
students and fellow school social workers at the state
and national levels, Rivers-Cannon was recognized
this spring as the National School Social Worker of the
Year, which is a prestigious award given by the School
Social Work Association of America to those who have
made outstanding contributions to the school social
This is the first time a Georgian, as well as an African
American, has been given the honor. Born and raised
in Georgia, Rivers-Cannon is proud to represent her
home state. To be the first African American — and first
African American female — stands out even more.
“It’s a humbling experience and speaks to the work that
we’ve been doing here in Georgia for so long,” she said.
“We’ve been turning up the volume, and it feels like
someone has taken notice and said, ‘Job well done.’”
Rivers-Cannon was nominated for the award by two
state association members who served on the board
with her while she was president. They wrote letters of
recommendation that talked about her dedication to the
school social work industry, as well as her new initiatives
to promote leadership, partnerships and social media
outreach in the field.
“She’s very innovative and always thinking outside of the
box,” said Pamela Jemerson, a school social worker in
Gwinnett County who nominated her. “She has this ability
to dig deeper, involve everybody and be transparent
about what’s going on in her mind.”
Colleagues used many of the same adjectives when
describing her: Ambitious, eager, kind, thankful,
“She has the ability to look beyond her term as president
and move the organization forward long-term,” Jemerson
said. “Her ideas are never about her but about the
organization and social workers as a whole.”
For instance, Rivers-Cannon increased the attendance
for a Leadership Institute for the state association, which
features a two-day mini-conference for school social
workers to learn how to take on leadership roles in
their schools and counties. She also created an award
to recognize school social workers in the state who
implement innovative programs that help children receive
services and graduate. On top of that, she boosted
mentorship among the association and emphasized
social media promotion to reach new members and
young school social workers in Georgia.
“There are new social workers all over the state, and it’s
amazing to have new members come on board with
us,” said Dr. Jacqueline Brown, a school social worker
with Effingham County Schools who also nominated her.
“She’s done so much to get school social workers noticed.”
When school social workers in Georgia reach out for help,
Rivers-Cannon takes the call. She’ll even travel to their
county and school to give advice, and she’s lobbied on
behalf of school social workers at both the state and
federal Congressional levels.
“She’s let people know that school social workers play
an important role in schools, especially with everything
going on with mental health in this country,” Brown
said. “We’re licensed and trained and instrumental in
Winning the award
When Rivers-Cannon was notified in January about
the award, she couldn’t believe it at first. She called
Jemerson and Brown, and they confirmed — and then
they got excited together. For the awards ceremony in
April in Orlando, Florida, she invited her husband, father,
cousin, and best friend to join her. When the award
was announced and she went on stage, Rivers-Cannon
dedicated the honor to her Aunt Katie Mae Tindal, who
influenced her decision to become a social worker.
As a junior at Tompkins High School in Savannah,
Rivers-Cannon listened to her aunt talk about social
work as a professor at Vorhees College, a private,
historically black college located in Denmark, South
Carolina. After graduation, she attended Vorhees and
took a class with her aunt, who challenged her to think
critically and engage with the field.
“At first, I thought social work wasn’t for me, but
eventually my chair came from the end of the table to
right beside her,” Rivers-Cannon said.
After her aunt passed away in 1996, Rivers-Cannon
formed K.A.T.I.E. (Karing Actions Towards Inspiring
Eagles), an organization that provides outreach services
to middle schoolers through college sophomores. At the
Dr. Terriyln Rivers-Cannon is also the
first African American to win the award.
18 | KNOW • Volume 17 Issue 2