His Theater Arts Background Enhances Brandon Burton’s Social Work Skills

A former runaway youth with many talents, he found himself drawn to volunteering with children and families, leading ultimately to social work

An MFA in Directing and a career in the performing arts may seem unlikely backdrops for a social work career. But, says Brandon Burton, ”I fully believe in living your passion.”

For him, that meant serving as the Artistic Director for the Butte Center for the Performing Arts in Montana, then following his entrepreneurial spirit to own a pet care service—both callings he enjoyed before joining the social worker ranks. Today, he says, “I feel that [social work]'s a perfect fit for me, and strangely enough I'm often surprised by how my prior background in theater arts augments my work as a social worker frequently.”  

Brandon recollects, “I never actually thought about being a social worker until 2009.” That's when owning his own business—which he transformed from a one-person shop to a 25-staff operation—provided him the freedom to volunteer for various non-profit agencies, where he saw first-hand the needs of various communities.  

A History of Wide-Ranging Volunteerism
His personal history may have influenced Brandon’s volunteer choices. “As a runaway youth myself in the 1980s, I felt particularly drawn to working with children and families,” he says. [Editor's note: Brandon says he sees his family now, though not frequently, adding that his relationship “with my mom and sisters is good.”“However, it wasn't until I formally volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and was matched with a youth for a year and volunteered with Center for Pacific Asian Families (CPAF) that I really looked more into a career in social work.” 

Among his volunteer activities, says Brandon, “I became very involved in sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and community outreach awareness events and found that the number of men and positive male role models was virtually absent.” For Brandon who identifies as male, “This was not only troubling but also a fact that inspired me to become more involved in social justice as a whole.”

Upon reflection, he says, “I can't say that there was any one thing or anyone in particular that inspired or motivated me to enter a career in social work. But I can say that I feel extremely fortunate to have discovered this field.”

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A Rewarding IV-E Experience
Brandon applied to and was accepted to the University of Southern California’s Title IV-E Stipend Program, obtaining his MSW in 2013. During graduate school, he recalls, “CalSWEC was one of the most rewarding experiences. The level of support from my colleagues and instructors in the CalSWEC department was unmatched. Having the opportunity to process our experiences in public child welfare together was both enriching and encouraging. The experience certainly prepared me for what the work in public child welfare would entail. I jump at the opportunity when asked to return to USC to talk to foundation- and concentration-year MSW CalSWEC students and provide mentorship, guidance, and encouragement to them.”

Brandon credits that CalSWEC experience for affecting his career in other ways as well. Specifically, he is currently a field instructor at California State University, Northridge, where, he says, “I am excited to guide and teach my fellow MSWs into this incredible field!”

A Pioneering Role in Ventura's CSEC Unit
Brandon is also a child welfare social worker in Ventura County’s newly formed CSEC [Commercially Sexually Exploited Children] Unit in Children and Family Services. “I'm the first, and only, social worker in the unit. That's how new it is!” he says. “The benefit of this is that the collaboration and communication with other agencies and service providers are both exciting and yet daunting.” He explains, “It's exciting because the opportunities to identify resources and services for CSEC victims is so new, and yet daunting because we are all realizing how few resources and services there are at this time.”  

He takes pride in working where he does, noting, “One of the many benefits of working for the County of Ventura is that, even though it is essentially a smaller county, it is a county with an overall attitude of progressive and proactive change; it works hard at providing marginalized and victimized groups, like CSEC-at-risk and -engaged youth, the opportunities for healing and empowerment and safety.”

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Of his work, Brandon says, “I enjoy being out of the office and working in the field as often as possible; this unit offers that to me. Of course, I have the same case management duties that my colleagues in public child welfare have, but I have a bit more autonomy in my schedule. I also enjoy and prefer working in a more collaborative fashion with CSEC youth, medical professionals, law enforcement, school personnel, attorneys, and various service providers within our Multi-Disciplinary Teams designed to come together to identify the best and safest course of action.”

Still an Active Volunteer
In addition to his Ventura County responsibilities, Brandon continues to volunteer. “The most meaningful volunteer work I have done has been with Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement weekend-long camp for children and youth, and with the Mayor's Crisis Response Team (CRT) of Los Angeles,” he says.  

“Working with Comfort Zone Camp was so humbling, to witness and be a part of the resilience of children faced with traumatic loss. This organization is incredible in that it allows children and youth to return to their healing camps every year for free. As a social worker now, I can attest to and have witnessed profound change and healing in human beings in just one weekend.  

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“Additionally, working with CRT and responding to traumatic incidents to assist the families and friends of recently deceased victims were some of the most impactful crisis work I've done. Reading about grief and loss is one thing, but going into the trenches and seeing first-hand the many faces and facets of grief and loss is not something you can learn from a book.  

“Working with CRT certainly added to my perspective in the work I am currently doing as a social worker to more fully understand that everyone reacts differently to stress, trauma, and crisis. It is our job as social workers to validate, listen, and create the most appropriate holding environment we can,” says Brandon.