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The Grand Challenges for Social Work: An Update
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 19 No. 5 P. 16

Social Work Today takes a look at the progress made toward addressing the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work.

In 2015, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare launched the Grand Challenges for Social Work, an initiative that identified 12 areas in which the profession could come together and collaborate on how best to take action.

“The focus of [the Grand Challenges] is to generate some intellectual, fiscal, academic, and practice interest around the social problems facing our society,” says James Herbert Williams, PhD, MSW, MPA, director of the School of Social Work and Arizona Centennial Professor of Social Welfare Services at Arizona State University and a member of the steering committee of the Grand Challenges Executive Committee.

Since its launch, a collection of social workers throughout the country have worked together in networks. Their progress has taken the form of research, policy recommendations, advocacy, curriculum integration, and more. Most importantly, Williams says, it has sparked a conversation.

“It has created a dialogue and a discourse across our profession,” he notes. “We are talking about big issues, big problems that are impacting who we are.”

To get a clearer idea of what their progress entails, Social Work Today speaks with representatives from each of the Grand Challenge networks, asking them simply, “What progress has been made toward the goals of your Grand Challenge?” Here’s what they say.

1. Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth
“We created the Coalition for the Promotion of Behavioral Health to guide and conduct the work of the Grand Challenge,” says Jeff Jenson, PhD, Philip D. and Eleanor G. Winn Endowed Professor for Children and Youth at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver and chair of the coalition. The coalition recently wrote and approved a strategic plan to guide its work. Members are also actively publishing papers in academic journals and other media sources.

Improving training and prevention is one goal of the coalition. “One thing we’ve accomplished in the last six to 12 months is [the creation] of three prevention training modules for students in social work and other disciplines,” Jenson says. The modules are available on the coalition’s website and hope to help schools of social work bring more attention to prevention.

Jenson adds that the coalition has actively been working to improve the infrastructure necessary to deliver tested and effective preventive interventions in states and communities. “We are involved in efforts to improve these supports in Colorado and six other states across the country.”

Finally, members of the coalition are active in a national initiative called Supporting Healthy Parenting Programs in Primary Care Settings. “The Collaborative on Healthy Parenting in Primary Care is an initiative of the Forum on Promoting Children’s Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Health at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. We are very excited to have the opportunity to include our Grand Challenge work in the collaborative,” Jenson says.

2. Close the Health Gap
“There is an increasing amount of research that is recognizing the need for settings-based research and interventions throughout social work, as well as in allied health sciences,” says Mike Spencer, PhD, MSW, a presidential term professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work and director of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Oceanic Affairs at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute. He adds that innovations in social work research have been most notably seen with indigenous communities throughout the world.

“Similarly,” he continues, “social work stands at the forefront of community empowerment and advocacy activities through its involvement with promoting community representation in the governance of health delivery systems and intervention development that is community grounded.”

The network has also been focused on prevention and advocating for access to health care and insurance for all, particularly as the Affordable Care Act is threatened. “Social work must continue to advocate and stay abreast of changes that might be impactful to those most vulnerable,” Spencer says.

“Additionally, a consensus study has been initiated through the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine titled ‘Integrating Social Needs Care into the Delivery of Health Care to Improve the Nation's Health,’” he adds. “The study report is expected to be launched in September 2019.”

3. Stop Family Violence
“Many states continue to work on responses to the exposure of children to violence,” says Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, member of the Grand Challenges steering committee, and one of four Stop Family Violence network leads (along with Trish Kohl, PhD; Shanti Kulkarni, PhD, MSW; and Jill Messing, PhD, MSW).

“More than 24 states now address in statute the issue of children who witness domestic violence in their home,” Barth notes.

Additionally, the network is focusing on the sharing of information. “An array of research and intervention efforts is endeavoring to help states to integrate information across service sectors and to aggregate state data to give a bigger picture of the longitudinal impact of violence,” he says.

For example, “NICHHD [National Institute of Child Health and Human Development] funding to the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis is helping to find efficient ways to link child abuse and juvenile justice data within states and to aggregate them between states,” Barth describes. And, “the University of Maryland School of Social Work is also in the last throes of developing methods to create synthetic data for longitudinal research so that no identifying information is provided.”

The networks leaders have also worked to connect more efficiently with the Society for Social Work and Research’s special interest group on Violence Against Women, meeting early this past summer.

4. Advance Long and Productive Lives
“Momentum is building toward implementation of paid family and medical leave,” says Ernest Gonzales, PhD, an assistant professor at New York University Silver School of Social Work, speaking on behalf of his coleads Jennifer Greenfield, PhD, MSW; Christina Matz, PhD, MSW, FGSA; and Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, MSW.

On the state level, New York implemented its paid family and medical leave program in 2018; Washington, DC, will do the same in the next several months; and the State of Washington’s will go into effect in 2020. “In just the last few months, Connecticut and Oregon became the seventh and eighth states to pass a robust paid family and medical leave bill,” Gonzales says, “and New Jersey passed a major expansion of its program. Colorado passed a bill requiring the state to study how best to implement a comprehensive paid leave program.”

Federally, bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The House bill—the Family and Medical Insurance Leave, or FAMILY, Act—is more comprehensive than the Senate’s New Parents Act, which applies only to parents, not all caregivers. “Despite the drawbacks of the New Parents Act, its introduction highlights the bipartisan acknowledgement that some form of paid leave is urgently needed in the U.S.,” Gonzales says.

5. Eradicate Social Isolation
“In my opinion, the greatest progress has been elevating awareness of the negative health impact of social isolation on individuals and communities,” says Sandra Edmonds Crewe, PhD, MSW, ACSW, dean and a professor of social work at Howard University. “Coleads [of the Grand Challenge’s network] have published in books, journals, and periodicals. Additionally, presentations at social work conferences have focused on social isolation across the lifespan—a life course perspective.” This means that the focus has not just been on the isolation of older adults but also on individuals of all ages.

“Network colleagues have completed systematic reviews on children and adolescents,” Edmonds Crewe says. “Also, there is focus on social exclusion that addresses the impact of racism, xenophobia, sexism, gentrification, and other attitudes that separate and cause groups of individuals to be excluded and experience social isolation at a macro level.”

The network will also be holding a media blitz on this year’s National Good Neighbor Day, September 28. A day that celebrates not only having but also being a good neighbor, the Grand Challenge’s leaders hope to highlight the importance of social networks.

6. End Homelessness
“The Grand Challenge to end homelessness (GCEH) has used varied means—both local and national—to influence homeless services to promote the prevention, early intervention, and, ultimately, the end of homelessness in the U.S.,” says Deborah K. Padgett, PhD, MPH, a professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University, speaking on behalf of her Grand Challenge colead Benjamin Henwood, PhD, LCSW.

Padgett and Henwood coauthored the book Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems and Changing Lives, which was published in 2016, and have lectured globally about the Housing First approach. Additionally, “we have been expert witnesses in lawsuits designed to improve homeless services and reduce police harassment in Miami, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC,” Padgett says.

“Nationally,” she continues, “the most recent initiative of the GCEH is the ‘2020 Essays on Ending Homelessness: A Resource for the Presidential Election.’ We are soliciting creative and innovative essays with recommendations for ending homelessness from nine national leaders in homelessness policy and research.” The essays will be released this fall.

The network has also been focused on incorporating awareness of homelessness and the Housing First approach in curriculum and field instruction, working with the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services and partnering with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to create a curriculum guide.

7. Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment
A great deal of the progress made by this Grand Challenge’s network has been research based. “They are too numerous to list,” says Samantha Teixeira, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at Boston College School of Social Work. For example, Teixeira and John Mathias, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at Florida State University, “are working together to bring together community practitioners, residents, and interdisciplinary researchers to promote research that leads to action to reduce environmental health disparities through an interdisciplinary research conference,” she says.

Additionally, members of the Grand Challenge network have contributed to an upcoming issue of the Journal of Community Practice that will be on ecosocial work. And colead Lisa Reyes Mason, PhD, MSW, an associate professor and PhD program director at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, edited with Jonathan Riggs, PhD, MSW, the recently released People and Climate Change. “Our new book advances the Grand Challenge by diving deeply into people’s lived experiences of climate change, calling attention to how the unequal impacts of climate change are a pressing and urgent social justice issue,” Reyes Mason says.

In terms of policy, the network has been paying close attention to and advocating for actions such as the Green New Deal. Teixeira is collaborating with a team of professionals “to examine the social work implications of the proposed Green New Deal and to call social workers to action around environmental justice policies,” she says.

8. Harness Technology for Social Good
“There has been a lot of progress on the state and local level,” says Claudia Coulton, PhD, Lillian F. Harris Professor of Urban Research & Social Change and a distinguished university professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, speaking specifically of efforts to “unlock government data to drive solutions to social problems.”

“Specifically, the progress has been in building integrated data systems across agencies—building those systems not for client services but to harness the data for both policy analysis and practice improvement,” she explains. “We have many more states and localities that are working in partnership with social workers and researchers, as well as individuals concerned about the whole system of social support for families.”

This progress allows for a broader view of family needs. “We will get a broader, as well as more in-depth, understanding of how these systems are working together, who is being touched by these systems, what the successes are, and where the gaps are. We call it harnessing the data, but a key to that is integrating it,” Coulton says.

9. Promote Smart Decarceration
“There is a great deal of current research underway on policies and practices that may impact decarceration,” says Matt Epperson, PhD, MSW, an associate professor and director of the Smart Decarceration Project at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. “Criminal Justice and Behavior is dedicating a special issue to smart decarceration research, and that issue should be in print some time in 2020.”

Additionally, courses and curriculum are being created to help train upcoming social workers on decarceration. This work includes the authoring of a guide for instructors and students entitled “Smart Decarceration Practice Behaviors for Social Work Competencies.”

“One of the most exciting decarceration efforts,” Epperson says, “is bail reform. In states like New Jersey and California, and in cities like Washington, DC, and Chicago, formal legislation, as well as grassroots efforts are being deployed to either eliminate or drastically reduce the use of punitive cash bail.

Additionally, in 2018, the First Step Act was signed into law. “The First Step Act signaled to the country that there is bipartisan support for substantial criminal justice reforms,” says colead Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, an associate professor at Florida State University College of Social Work and founding director of the Institute for Justice Research & Development. Pettus-Davis began meeting with White House officials and legislators in 2017.

“This legislation underscores that we are at a unique moment in time in this country in which there is moral will, political will, and fiscal will for transformation of the criminal justice system.”

10. Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality
Much of the progress made by this Grand Challenge has surrounded the development and planned implementation of CDAs—child development accounts (also known as child savings accounts)—says Trina R. Shanks, PhD, an associate professor and director of community engagement at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. The concept was originally proposed as a universal asset building model in Michael Sherraden, PhD’s 1991 book Assets and the Poor. Michael Sherraden has been leading a statewide experiment of CDAs for 12 years in Oklahoma called SEED OK.

To date, five U.S. states operate statewide CDAs and four are in planning. In addition, a growing number of cities have implemented CDAs. Social workers have provided leadership in research and policy design and have led conferences and events on CDAs, as well.

The reducing extreme economic inequality network is also focusing on pay, as well as paid time off. “Some cities or states have taken steps to require employers to offer adequate wages and protections against earnings loss for health reasons,” says Jennifer Romich, PhD, an associate professor and director of the West Coast Poverty Center at the University of Washington. “In Seattle, I’m part of evaluation teams for our paid sick leave law and our $15 minimum wage.”

Additionally, “Among the Grand Challenges there is ongoing effort to make extreme economic inequality a matter of public discourse,” says Laura Lein, PhD, dean and a professor emerita at the University of Michigan. “We have collected a number of policy options, and we see social workers active in trials of child development accounts, provision of basic income, increased minimum wage, and policies that stabilize work schedules and income.”

11. Build Financial Capability for All
The Grand Challenge to build financial capability and assets for all (FCAB) shares the CDA progress with the reducing extreme economic inequality challenge—both having identified it as a target area. “These two Grand Challenges are closely linked,” says David Rothwell, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences at Oregon State University.

Beyond CDAs, Rothwell—with other network members—has been assessing asset limits. “TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and the major welfare programs in the country include these asset limits,” he says. “They vary by state, but to be eligible for assistance, you need to spend down your assets to a certain amount. This is a disincentive to be financially capable and have financial well-being,” he explains. The network has been working on its policy brief regarding asset limits and recently had a paper accepted for publication.

Additionally, Margaret Sherraden, PhD, a research professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, and FCAB Grand Challenge coleads Jin Huang, PhD, MSW, and Julie Birkenmaier, PhD, MSW, LCSW, have led FCAB curriculum development, both in the United States and in Asia. Margaret Sherraden and Birkenmaier are authors with J. Michael Collins, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, of the textbook Financial Capability and Asset Building in Vulnerable Households.

“In today’s world, financial capability and asset building are critical components, and we need to ensure our students are well trained in this area to be able to continue helping our clients move toward greater financial and economic well-being,” Margaret Sherraden says.

12. Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice
The Grand Challenge to achieve equal opportunity and justice is working to address gaps in access to education, health care, housing, and employment—issues at the core of the United States’ ever-growing inequality. One significant step toward these goals has been the launch of the School Success Project. Through the collection of data and use of evidence-based methods, the project hopes to help schools reduce the disproportionality of discipline for all minority groups. The School Success Project’s website launched this past spring.

“We need to understand better the long-term consequences of systemic inequity,” says Rocío Calvo, PhD, an associate professor at the Boston College School of Social Work and coleader of the network. She adds that the network has been focused on research that shows how institutional inequality impacts the opportunities for advancement of vulnerable populations.

Additional progress includes advocacy through the drafting and sharing of position statements by organizations such as CSWE, as well as the 2018 publications of Preparing Bilingual, Bicultural Social Workers to Serve the Growing Latino Population in America, a special issue of the Journal of Teaching and Social Work edited by Calvo, and Facing Segregation: Housing Policy Solutions for a Stronger Society, edited by Molly W. Metzger, PhD, and Henry S. Webber, MPP.

Although, as seen above, significant progress has been made since the Grand Challenges launched, the networks do face obstacles. Some are unique to the specific Grand Challenge, such as the Grand Challenge to create social responses to a changing environment.

“One of the greatest challenges toward continued progress is in making social workers aware of their role and responsibility in addressing both the causes and consequences of climate change,” says Lawrence Palinkas, PhD, Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. “Many social workers feel there are more immediate issues to deal with, even if they acknowledge the seriousness of the problem.”

But the No. 1 challenge, heard throughout the networks, was the need for more: more funding, more resources, more research.

With (and even without) those, the leaders and dedicated network members of the Grand Challenges for Social Work will continue the progress already made.

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.