Making the Connection

Published in the Spring 2011 issue of SSA Magazine

Solving human problems is an enormously challenging business. Problems that social workers persistently face, like poverty, violence, homelessness or mental illness, are not easily resolved with a limited “toolbox” of interventions, let alone understood with a narrow lens that may only partially explain their source. Indeed, the concerns that we as social welfare professionals and scholars encounter are typically caused by multiple forces, including macro-level historic, cultural or economic conditions all the way down to micro-level interpersonal, psychological or even biological origins. Forging real headway in solving such complex problems requires strategies that are devised fully cognizant of this multiplicity of forces. Fortunately, SSA’s own distinctive tradition as an institution centers on gathering together great scholars and practitioners who approach social welfare concerns with a diverse set of lenses and who draw upon training from across more than a dozen different disciplinary backgrounds. There is no question that this robustly interdisciplinary culture at SSA provides a distinctive advantage without parallel in the field of social work education and research.

Building from the eminent interdisciplinary history of SSA, we have just embarked on a new initiative that will take our multidisciplinary problem-solving approach to a new level. The Interdisciplinary Scholar Network initiative at SSA will bring together scholars across disciplinary and professional niches in ways that generate innovative and more comprehensive knowledge and strategies to address intractable social problems. These networks will be anchored at SSA, led by SSA faculty, and bring together many of the nation’s intellectual and professional leaders to generate new evidence-based solutions with greater impact. This past winter, we solicited and received a wide array of proposals from SSA faculty to establish and sustain new organized interdisciplinary networks. From these, SSA will provide initial support to launch two of the most exciting proposed networks, slated to begin their work during the coming year.

The Employment Instability, Family Well-being and Social Policy Network will enhance the capacity of the field to study employment instability at the lower end of the labor market and to develop and evaluate interventions aimed at reducing employment instability and its effects on children and families. Joined by a steering committee of 12 scholars from the fields of social work, human development, psychology, economics, public policy and sociology, Principal Investigators Associate Professor Susan Lambert and Assistant Professor Heather Hill will organize a broad network of researchers, employers and policy professionals to stimulate innovative research designed to inform both employer practice and public policy. The network’s planned activities include convening a conference on conceptualizing and measuring employment instability, awarding pilot research grants, and providing training on the development and evaluation of workplace interventions and law. The participating scholars in this network are drawn from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Congressional Budget Office, CUNY, Penn State, UCLA, the University of Washington School of Social Work, and the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies and SSA.

The STI and HIV Intervention Network (SHINE) will conduct research on the biological, behavioral and structural factors that heighten vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections and HIV among ethnic minority communities in the U.S., and will develop and evaluate interventions to alleviate existing STI/HIV disparities. The network, led by Principal Investigator Associate Professor Dexter Voisin and Co-Principal Investigators and Assistant Professors Alida Bouris and Matthew Epperson, will work with 10 scholars representing the fields of social work, psychology, public health, nursing and medicine. These scholars, from Emory University, Georgia State University, the University of Kentucky, the University of Maryland, the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago Medical Center, will collaborate on interdisciplinary research projects. The network will also host research seminars and conferences and provide a centralized platform for faculty, students and community partners interested in addressing STI and HIV prevention among vulnerable communities in Chicago.

I am sure you will hear more about these new networks as they become established and engage in what we expect will become some of the most important scholarship in their respective fields.

The Interdisciplinary Scholar Network initiative is part of a larger aspiration at SSA to educate and develop knowledge “in the service of service”—to advance our mission of helping vulnerable individuals, families and communities to raise up their quality of life. I often hear questions from many who work in the field about scarce resources and how to weigh one strategy against another: “How do we justify an intervention seeking support and resources?” or, importantly, “Is there any evidence that a given intervention will work?” We hope that SSA Magazine gives you ideas and information that will help you uncover some of the answers to these questions. The question for those of us who are educators and researchers is how do we help develop and translate rigorous evidence so that it can readily be put into practice?

Two of our feature articles in this issue help distill the process of how evidence-based practices and policies are established—and how they can be implemented in practice. “The Science of Social Welfare” covers several ongoing research projects at SSA, peering behind the curtains of how evidence-based strategies are developed and tested.“Training Days” describes many of the challenges of translating the evidence from child welfare research into daily use. Our final feature describes some of the inspiring work that SSA practitioners and students have brought to one of our adjacent neighborhoods in partnership with an outstanding organization that is very close to the SSA family—the Gary Comer Science and Education Foundation.

We are interested in hearing more about what information, data and research you find helpful and informative to your work. And we ask that you continue to support our efforts to advance the field by giving generously this year to the SSA Fund. We simply could not do our great work without your help.

My best wishes to our graduates and their families and to all of you for a happy and safe summer.


Neil Guterman, MSW, Ph.D., is the Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

We welcome letters to the editor. Please send your submissions here.