But that doesn’t mean big institutions aren’t important components to community change. The challenge can be getting those institutions to talk not just to each other but also to the people they serve. That communication is, at its core, the job of Frank Farrow, A.M. ’71, and the organization he heads, the almost 30-year-old Center for the Study of Social Policy, based in Washington, D.C.
The Center for the Study of Social Policy may not sound like the kind of organization that would put on-the-ground community work at its heart—after all, the words “study” and “policy” are in its title. Its goal, however, is to make sure that policies and efforts to help in-need families and children are grounded in rigorous science and real-world research. CSSP’s theory of change puts families and children in the center of a multifaceted model that includes building protective factors for families, reducing risk factors for children, strengthening local communities and connecting all of this to systems change and policy— and infusing it with a fierce commitment to equity across lines of race, ethnicity and culture.
“I don’t think it’s possible to make a difference in families’ lives if you don’t work on all these levels,” Farrow says. “We draw on high academic standards and research, but use that knowledge base for the very applied work of rough-and-tumble policy, action and application.”
Both of Farrow’s parents worked in social services jobs (his dad for the state of Pennsylvania and his mother for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Central Pennsylvania), and he decided after graduating from Yale University with a major in English that he would follow in their footsteps. “I chose SSA for graduate school because it seemed to have the strongest sequence and focus on community organization. I was interested in learning about strategies for making change that involved mobilizing and applying pressure through citizen action,” he says. “What expanded my thinking was SSA’s then-growing focus on policy and systems thinking and the ability to ‘toggle back and forth’ among policy work, gaining knowledge of community dynamics and processes, and innovative forms of direct service.”
At SSA, Farrow found a group of faculty members, with former Dean Harold Richman at the helm, who encouraged community work but demanded that students understand the policy implications and theory as well. After Farrow graduated he spent several years in social policy and regional planning and evaluation in the Chicago and Hartford areas before returning to Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. and run the University’s Woodlawn Social Service Center, a multi-purpose facility run in coordination with The Woodlawn Organization. The Ph.D., however, never happened. “I became much too involved in trying to develop new services in Woodlawn,” Farrow says.
In 1980 Richman suggested Farrow take a few months to go to Washington, D.C., to work with policy activist Tom Joe and another SSA alum, Judith Meltzer, A.M. ‘71, who at the time were helping the Carter White House develop a welfare reform agenda for the new administration. “A couple of months turned into a year,” Farrow says, “and became the early work of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which was originally created as a policy arm of the University, with Harold Richman serving as a co-founder.” CSSP became an independent nonprofit in 1982. Except for four years as the director of the Social Services Administration in the Maryland Department of Human Resources in the mid-‘80s, Farrow has served in some capacity at CSSP ever since, and he became the director in 2001.
The SSA roots and Harold Richman’s vision for the organization still gird CSSP today, Farrow notes. “SSA at its best does several things: It keeps a human heart at the center of its work and tries to prevent policy from disconnecting from the realities of people’s lives. When I worked in Woodlawn, at the same time I was having intense policy seminars with Harold Richman. Those might seem like two different worlds, but they shouldn’t be,” he says.
CSSP keeps the SSA connection alive in many ways, including having a number of alumni as former and current staff at the center. Farrow has been an enthusiastic participant in the annual Washington Week career program for current SSA students, and this year he and his colleagues put together the first annual Harold Richman Public Policy Symposium, the first in a series of forums intended as a way to honor the former dean.
“Harold had the gift of holding very high expectations for the young people he worked with, and simultaneously provided practical advice, helped us make important life choices, and always urged us to act with a fierce sense of integrity. I was just one of many other young people—literally thousands, I think—whom he inspired,” Farrow says.