Heather Persellin-Deere

MSW, DSW Candidate

Unity in Diversity: Integrating Religion and Spirituality into Social Work Education Through an Anti-Oppressive Social Justice Lens


The very nature of social work requires social workers to be adept at interacting with and serving wildly diverse populations as a necessary and vital part of their work. Schools of social work endeavor to equip students with the knowledge and skills to serve clients who ascribe to both familiar and unfamiliar beliefs. Nevertheless, in many social work education programs today, little time or attention is focused on religious and spiritual diversity. This presentation will begin by introducing the topics of religion, spirituality, and religious discrimination, followed by an exploration of what is currently known about how religion and spirituality are being integrated into social work education programs. Then, the focus will move to introducing a novel blended conceptual framework utilizing social learning and anti-oppressive theories to address diverse religious and spiritual topics and religious bias. Finally, the author will present a two-module curriculum intended to be seated within a social work field education seminar that utilizes the anti-oppressive social learning framework to demonstrate that religious and spiritual diversity is, in fact, a social justice issue. This curriculum is anticipated to create new opportunities for social work students to engage with religious and spiritually diverse clients and gain the necessary skills to become competent practitioners.


Heather Persellin-Deere, MSW, is a social worker and ordained minister. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Northern Arizona University with a Bachelor of Social Work, then attended the University of Kentucky, graduating with a Master of Social Work and a Military Behavioral Health Graduate Certificate. Heather is currently a Doctor of Social Work Candidate at the University of Kentucky with a concentration in social work education.

Heather cares deeply about military members, veterans, and their families and is a military spouse. Heather’s professional focus has been working with military veterans in substance use treatment, including spending an intensive year at the Center of Excellence in Substance Addiction Treatment and Education at the Puget Sound Veterans Medical Center as an interdisciplinary Social Work Fellow.

Heather’s research centers on how religious and spiritual diversity are addressed in social work and social work education. Heather’s capstone project has examined what is currently known about religion, spirituality, and social work education, proposed a theoretical framework utilizing social learning theory and anti-oppressive theory for addressing religious and spiritual diversity as a social justice issue, and created a curriculum for integrating religion, spirituality, and bias into the social work field education process.

Heather presented a poster with her systematic literature review results at the Kentucky Association of Social Work Educators’ March 1st, 2024 conference.

Heather has been married for seven years and resides in the Memphis, TN, metro area.