Alberto-head-shotDean Alberto Godenzi on redefining the field, towards effecting change in spaces and at tables that matter

As leaders in social work education, we recognize that we are part of a larger academic system built with many other disciplines in mind. We are late arrivers to the party; the first schools of social work were established at the turn of the 20th century.

The good news is, we are at the table. And while we may not reconstruct the ivory tower in three days, our place here affords us the opportunity to build our own reputation. Moreover, it compels us to go outside our campus walls and effect change at tables and in spaces across the globe.

At the Boston College School of Social Work, we see ourselves as changemakers who are willing to challenge existing conditions. We are forward-looking, refusing to waste time on what we can’t change, but instead, innovating on what we can do. Already, we are active collaborators on some of the most pressing social issues of our day, willing to serve as partners at every level of discussion, as long as we are creating positive change in the world. And more than that, in doing what comes naturally to social workers, that is, stepping up to contribute to solutions to society’s problems, we also serve to further our own field.

I’m optimistic that, more and more, social work higher education is in the vanguard, designing solutions to truly make a difference. The recently identified Grand Challenges for Social Work provide a unique opportunity to mobilize the field toward reaching ambitious, shared goals that could have major positive outcomes. We are proud that our own Jim Lubben is a leader in this groundbreaking initiative spearheaded by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

The fact that the Grand Challenges are a borrowed construct originated by the fields of communication and computing research marks a positive step forward in how we think about our own work. At BC, we actively seek to collaborate with professionals not traditionally considered to be partners, because we believe that an interdisciplinary approach to social work higher education is essential to making inroads in academia and beyond. Many of our junior faculty members have adopted this perspective: Jessica Black is hard at work to forge a new space between neuroscience and social work; Summer Hawkins is a social epidemiologist who applies public health data to building actionable policy-driven solutions; Erika Sabbath delves deeply into the role that environmental toxins play in occupational environments; and Rocío Calvo explores how immersion in Spanish language and Latino cultures enables social workers to see Latino communities from within.

While cross-disciplinary research is vital to succeeding in academia, we also seek to build bridges across spaces—connecting the academy with the practitioner and policymaker. Macro Practice Chair Tiziana Dearing is a former CEO and president of Catholic Charities; her executive opinion offers a profound and pragmatic voice on what it takes to mold policy regarding poverty. Immigrant Integration Lab Director Westy Egmont, who has been an advisor to each of the past five governors of Massachusetts, offers a similarly valuable perspective on migration.

Dearing and Egmont have long been at tables that matter; that they’re able to share this experience reminds our students and faculty that we can continue to occupy these spaces into the future. In January, we witnessed a proof point first hand, when Associate Professor Marylou Sudders was named Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services for Massachusetts, where she oversees a $19.4 billion annual budget and more than 22,000 employees. We are excited to follow Sudders in her drive to solve some of the Commonwealth’s biggest social ills.

In many ways, Sudders is an exemplar for how I believe we should be thinking about our profession. It’s not that the mental health counselor or the child welfare advocate working on the margins isn’t just as critically important; they most certainly are. But we needn’t limit ourselves to a definition of a social world that has developed over what social science giant Pierre Bourdieu called “accumulated history”; we can be so much more than what the narrative leading up to today says we should be.

In Bourdieu’s famous work The State Nobility, he examines how the Grandes Écoles, and the “work of consecration” carried out by these elite universities, serves to justify their own existences, and by extension, their weighted and perhaps unwarranted respective influences on society. There are always offices that will be occupied by individuals of certain pedigrees, with backgrounds in better respected disciplines. Most evidently in our nation, the road to the White House is paved in Ivy-covered brick.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t compassionately confront the stakeholders who seek to maintain this status quo, and, in so doing, establish ourselves as leaders who transcend existing spheres of influence. While we may have to wait a hundred years to see a social worker in the Oval Office, the time is now for us to overrun executive offices, in public and private sectors across the country. Just ask Sudders.

“I would expect that in 10 years, there won’t just be a Marylou Sudders who is a cabinet secretary,” she said at a recent event at the Massachusetts State House, “but there will be a host of social workers who are cabinet secretaries across the United States and beyond.”

I’m hopeful that Sudders’ prediction can come true. Let’s go out and populate all kinds of innovative spaces. Let’s contribute to our own “accumulated history,” and begin to redefine our field, today.

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