Shelby Boston Embraces Social Work and Her Leadership Role in Trailblazing Butte County

“I truly fell into social work by accident,” says Shelby Boston. How she arrived at her career choice may have been inadvertent, but once she made that choice, everything seemed to fall into place.

It started while Shelby was completing her undergraduate degree in Health Science at Chico State University and interning at a local nonprofit working with foster youth and teaching an Independent Living Program. As the agency received new grants, she was asked to take on new roles; eventually she became a case manager working with families in various child abuse prevention programs.

“I realized quickly that my childhood and life experiences motivated and prepared me to help others in need,” says Shelby. “I have always believed that the only things that separate social workers from the families we serve are a few choices in life and a paycheck or two.”

She recalls, "I, like many social workers, had challenges growing up. Typical stuff. My parents divorced, and my mother and I moved across the country from Florida to California when I was 10. My mom worked as a housekeeper at a hospital. Growing up middle-class and then being shot into poverty was challenging. I lived for 10 years in HUD housing in a poor part of the community.”

Shelby attributes her drive to her mom, who “instilled in me early on the importance of hard work and education. Education was important and stressed in my family because ‘no one can ever take it away from you.’”

She cites others for the guidance she received as well. “I have been incredibly lucky that along my career path I have been fortunate to find wonderful mentors and professionals who have shown me the way and encouraged me to keep doing the hard work of helping children, older adults, and families.”

Earning an MSW ‘Catapulted’ Her Career

Being a Title IV-E Stipend Program recipient was also fortuitous. “I was incredibly lucky to have participated in the Title I-VE program at CSU, Chico,” Shelby says. “The level of support was instrumental in me completing the program. As an undergraduate, I was an EOPS [Extended Opportunity Program Services] student, but I found the Title IVE program to be much more personal and geared to meeting the individual needs of myself and my cohort.”

RELATED: Read more about the Title IV-E Stipend Program

MSW in hand, she was on her way to greater responsibility. “Completing the MSW catapulted my career very quickly,” says Shelby. “Two months after completing my MSW, I was promoted into a management position within my organization, and two years later I was promoted again, into an executive position, as the Assistant Director.” Today, she is the Director of the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services.

“I believe that the Title IV-E program assisted me in reaching for and achieving my personal education and career goals. It provided me a strong foundation and opportunities I would have never had if I had not pursued my MSW,” Shelby says.

RELATED: 5 Things You May Not Know about the IV-E Stipend Program

Transitioning from Social Worker to Management

For the most part, “the transition [from social worker to management] was smooth,” Shelby says. “Occasionally there are bumps along the way, but that is to be expected. Expectations change, relationships and roles change as you promote and take on new titles.” she says. “I have always strived to listen, gather information and feedback from others when decisions need to be made.” 

Asked which she prefers, Shelby laughs, because, she says, “[S]ome days I would do anything to just do a field visit or work directly with a family. Other days, I get invigorated hearing how a program is performing and the positive impacts to the staff and families working within it. Hearing about positive unintended consequences is one of my favorite aspects of system change.”

She explains, “I have always had an interest in policy development and program development. I enjoy system change work and, along with my various teams, have been able to create and implement exciting programs to meet the needs of the citizens of Butte County.”

Continuing Butte's Pioneering Tradition by Piloting New Programs

In fact, Shelby was a key decision-maker in Butte County’s choice to pilot the Federal Case Review program and Cohort 2 of implementation of the RFA [Resource Family Approval] process. “Butte County has a history of being trailblazers in stepping out and trying new programs,” she says proudly, noting, “I see huge advantages to being a part of change and new programming. Every time we begin a new pilot, I am excited to see the outcomes. Change is challenging but good. 

“A goal of mine and my leadership team is to develop and maintain an organization that is conducive to ongoing learning," she says. "Learning organizations must commit to new things, in my opinion. Doing things the same way they were done 30 years ago may not always be the most efficient or effective. Bucking the status quo can be positive for everyone involved.”

RELATED: Read stories about other CalSWEC alumni

Shelby continues to find her work rewarding, no matter the challenges. For example, during the evacuations around Oroville Dam following February's torrential storms, the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services offices were closed for two days, and staff were activated into Emergency Operations to shelter thousands of residents. “It is really exhausting work, but fun if you like high stress,” she says.

“I thoroughly enjoy making a difference,” says Shelby. "Whether it is making a positive change for a family we are serving or the employees of our department, I am fed by making a positive impact. I like people; I like learning about people, their challenges and successes. Whether it is micro- or macro-level work, it is all important work. As the Director, I hope to model that passion for every employee in our department and families we serve.”