School Leads Effort to Identify Social Work’s Grand Challenges

September 23, 2013
by Eric Lindberg and Maya Meinert
A USC School of Social Work student speaks with a homeless woman in downtown Los Angeles.

The USC School of Social Work has kick-started a national Grand Challenges initiative to identify and highlight the most serious societal ills that social work can – and should – address.

Major challenges exist: fragmented systems of health and mental health care, problems of social stigma and oppression, a need to reform the child welfare and foster care sector. Where the social fabric is fraying or worn, social work researchers and practitioners are striving to address issues that plague society.

That’s why Marilyn Flynn, dean of the School of Social Work, initiated the Grand Challenges effort among social work scholars to take head-on the profession’s most compelling issues.

“Social work is at a crossroads,” Flynn said. “It has a large number of challenges in areas such as child welfare; it is constantly being challenged on all sides by other professions; and it has a gender problem, much like engineering, in that it doesn’t attract many men.”

Inspired by similar efforts in the field of engineering and by organizations such as the Gates Foundation, social work leaders gathered in August 2012 to begin the process of identifying the profession’s most pressing challenges, led by Flynn and Eddie Uehara, dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work.

Flynn said social work is in a comparable position to engineering, whose leaders in the United States felt a need to reinvent the profession at the turn of the century due to increasing dominance by individuals from Asia and a lack of women in the field. By identifying key challenges, she said the social work profession can begin to restructure its curriculum and educational approach, faculty activities, and research projects.

The early discussions held in 2012 led to the creation of four general criteria that each challenge must meet to be considered. Challenges must be broad and integrative issues, solvable within 10 years, applicable to the profession of social work, and universal and public in nature.

Since then, other schools of social work – including the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and University of California, Berkeley, School of Social Welfare – have been experimenting with grassroots efforts to collect suggestions and integrate that information into the larger national initiative.

USC faculty have agreed on four themes – community, health and well-being, human potential, and safety and security – that will serve as a starting point for the initiative’s executive committee, which is led by John Brekke, the Frances G. Larson Professor of Social Work Research at the USC School of Social Work, as it begins developing a strategy to elicit ideas from the professional community.

Flynn noted that although some preliminary work has been done to identify general areas of interest, the national committee is stressing a communal and grassroots approach to the project.

“We want to be more organic in how we develop these grand challenges,” she said.

Although the committee will be soliciting suggestions for individual challenges, one aspect of the initiative will be to ensure the themes fit together as a package, are representative of social work, and offer a sense of attachment and engagement to all members of the social work profession.

“Social work has the chance to capitalize on 100 years of history to make these changes, if we can be clear about what we have accomplished and what we could accomplish,” said Richard Barth, who serves as chair of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, which is coordinating the Grand Challenges effort, as well as dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

“It’s an opportunity for our field to square its scientific and social justice aspirations and to communicate more effectively within the profession and to other professions and the general public about what social work is working on, what its capacity is, what its needs are to solve important problems, why it’s a fascinating and compelling field to be a part of, and what important advances to our quality of life could occur with advances in our social work science,” he said.

In the coming months, the committee, which is housed at the academy, will begin to engage with potential contributors through the media and social media to solicit and describe challenges, explain the profession’s past accomplishments, and highlight how social work can build on its history.

Barth said the committee is hopeful that a set of specific challenges will be selected and announced to the public by early 2015.