The University Record, October 30, 2000

Social Work focuses on advancing social change

By Nili Tannenbaum
School of Social Work

The School of Social Work’s success in forging grassroots partnerships with communities is illustrated in an innovative collaborative project led by Prof. Larry Gant (shown here in an Ann Arbor campus classroom) in Detroit’s Empowerment Zone, in which computer equipment, training and Web site development have changed the way many community services are offered. Gant says the project has resulted in increased student access to computers and training in computer use; facilitated lower income family ownership of affordable computers and Internet access; and enhanced technology readiness training. Photo courtesy School of Social Work
The School of Social Work has moved beyond the traditional model of social work and is reinventing the profession to shape policies and practices. With a productive, interdisciplinary faculty whose publications are regarded as definitive and whose peer-reviewed articles offer direction for the translation into policy and practice, the School is making a difference in the scholarly, policy and service arenas, with work that makes a real difference in the lives of citizens in a broad spectrum of society.

Departing from traditional concepts of the social work profession, the School has achieved and maintained a top-tier ranking from U.S. News & World Report, and is recognized as a leader in the field.

Through a diversity of disciplinary viewpoints, the School contributes a unique interdisciplinary perspective on many issues that involve disenfranchised segments of society. Social workers, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, social workers and psychologists work collaboratively on competitively funded external research and in training the next generation of leadership in practice and academe.

The School contributes to the field of social work through high-visibility scholarship in which faculty write important articles and books, secure competitive funding for major research investigations, and apply research findings to help communities, vulnerable populations and social work service systems.

One of the School’s mottoes is “Building Leadership for a Changing Society,” reflected in the translation of research findings directly into various communities, where they’ve had demonstrable impact.

A long-term cost/benefit analysis, done by Mark Holter, assistant professor of social work, and funded by the Flynn Foundation, addresses the transition of homeless individuals from shelters to community housing. The study provides a replicable, clinically successful, cost-effective model of service delivery that can be adopted by other communities.

“Research on the homeless,” Holter notes, “has generally been done in larger urban communities. This study is one of the first to focus on the costs of interventions in smaller communities, and it hopefully will help different cities deal with problems that affect cities of all sizes.”

He also collaborates with Carol Mowbray, associate dean for research and associate professor of social work, on a National Institutes of Mental Health study on consumer-run mental health programs throughout the state. The two projects represent fairly recent research outcomes innovations, and are among a handful of studies to measure operational effectiveness.

Studies on social and environmental determinants affecting maternal and child health, conducted by Kristine Siefert, professor of social work, and her colleagues, are likely to contribute significantly to our understanding of high rates of health and mental health problems in low-income women and children.

Siefert notes that household food insufficiency is common among poor single-parent families, and has been associated with maternal depression and with psychosocial problems in children. Siefert recently presented her findings at the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds two of her studies. “Food insufficiency is a modifiable risk factor,” Siefert says. “Our preliminary studies suggest that assuring an adequate household food supply could help prevent the onset or recurrence of depression and other health problems in this population.”

The School’s success in forging grassroots partnerships with communities is illustrated in an innovative collaborative project led by Larry Gant, associate professor of social work, in Detroit’s Empowerment Zone (DEZ). The DEZ has changed the way many community services are offered with computer equipment, training and Web site development.

EZLink is a community-based, rather than university-based, demonstration project with at-risk youth, adults and communities. Gant says the project has resulted in increased student access to computers and training in computer use; facilitated lower income family ownership of affordable computers and Internet access; and enhanced technology readiness training.

“All elements of the community—children, family, teachers and residents—are actively involved in all phases of our project,” Gant says. “We teach them something about the role of research and evaluation. They help Xus interpret and explain findings, and suggest different approaches to collecting data and other information. And they buy into worthwhile approaches if they can result in improvements.”

Another program translates University expertise to community organizations, providing an opportunity for training individuals for non-profit organizational leadership. The work is done through the Center for Non-Profit and Public Management, directed by Diane Kaplan Vinokur, associate professor of social work, and Janet Weiss, professor of business administration and of public policy, in collaboration with the School of Business Administration and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

According to Vinokur, the program is designed to “training the next generation of community leadership and management for the 21st century, using empirical research on the parameters and issues facing the non-profit sector using an interdisciplinary training model.” The program includes an interdisciplinary doctoral seminar funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research.

The School also has an impressive portfolio of peer-reviewed collaborative research, including grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), major foundations and corporate sponsors. The School’s research environment is a vigorous one, with impressive growth in research funding. In the recent fiscal year, external multi-year research funding experienced an increase of more than 75 percent. The School’s research inventory is characterized by multiple collaborations and links with such units as the Ford School, Institute for Social Research and other areas across campus.

Two recently funded studies also illustrate the impact the School’s faculty can have on communities.

Mowbray directs an educational intervention in evaluating disadvantaged mentally ill populations. This represents one of a number of research projects done in collaboration with the Detroit-Wayne Community Mental Health Agency. The study is funded by the Center for Mental Health Services of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. The Michigan Supported Education Program (MSEP) reaches more than 200 Wayne County residents each year to help them restart their education and their lives. The research program has involved a number of doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to do their own NIH-funded research. As Mowbray notes, “Supported education gives many people with severe mental illness a change in identity—from patient to student—and a corresponding sense of hope and of the potential for recovery.” Mowbray’s original work in the Detroit area has been expanded to sites in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Flint. A recently awarded grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education will support technical assistance for replicating supported education in four Midwest states.

The Social Work Research Development Center on Poverty, Risk and Mental Health involves a core of social work faculty working with social work doctoral and master’s degree students and faculty in psychology, psychiatry and sociology. It is directed by Sheldon Danziger, professor of social work, with Siefert and Dean Paula Allen-Meares as co-principal investigators.

The Center’s research emphasizes the integration of poverty research and mental health research in order to inform and effect practices and policies. A key project focuses on the labor market as well as health and mental health barriers to the employment of single mothers. “Because welfare reform has been implemented in a booming economy,” Danziger notes, “there has been a large increase in employment among single mothers. But some have multiple barriers that prevent them from working, and others work, but do not earn enough to escape poverty.” The National Institute of Mental Health recently renewed funding for the program.

Major gifts to the School from the Lurie Family Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit have led to the creation of two endowed faculty chairs. These made it possible for the School to recruit experts in targeted areas through the Marion Elizabeth Blue Endowed Professorship of Children and Families and the Sol Drachler Chair in Jewish Communal Services.

In addition, an incremental challenge grant from the Lurie Family Foundation will provide seed capital to match other major gifts and enhance the School’s programmatic efforts by providing student fellowships for work on children and families.

As the School approaches the 80th anniversary (in 2001) of its original location in Detroit and its 50th anniversary on the Ann Arbor campus, it does so with a legacy of strong support from a generous and committed community of key friends. The School’s alumni also represent a strong, participatory body. The School approaches its anniversaries with clear goals.

“The vision undergirding our research, instructional and service agendas addresses the inequalities and disparities in society and in vulnerable populations—especially women and children, impoverished communities and families, and the aged,” says Dean Paula Allen-Meares. “Through our high-profile research and our service that has community impact, we are able to help create systems and policies that enhance the well-being of citizens in our state and throughout the country.”