Researchers study ways to achieve equality

Social Work Grand Challenge

graphic with the words tolerance, justice, equality, diversity, respectDamon Smith had been suspended from school more than 15 times.

“You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius you won’t. It made me want to mess up even more.”

After Ralph J. Bunche High School in Oakland, Calif., expanded the restorative justice program it had been testing, the overall suspension rate dropped from 12 percent to 8 percent from 2011 to 2012, an April 2013 story in The New York Times states.

Smith became an “A” student because of it, saying “I didn’t know how to express emotions with my mouth. I knew how to hit people. I feel I can go to someone now.”

The overuse of suspensions and expulsions hit African-American youths the hardest. And many more Americans lack access to education, affordable housing and jobs due to prejudice, bias and stigmatization.

Social workers are leading the way to address and overcome these problems as they tackle the Grand Challenge for Social Work: Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice.

Achieving Equity

Jeremy Goldbach

Jeremy Goldbach

Jeremy Goldbach believes the reason for many of society’s social problems is rooted in discrimination and stigma. There are many people, he said, who see homeless people and think “That’s OK. They’re homeless because they don’t work.”

“We have to think about the impact stigma has,” said Goldbach, MSSW, Ph.D., and assistant professor at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “All the challenges demand we have to focus on stigma to attain a general sense of equity and equal opportunity.”

Rocio Calvo, MA, Ph.D., and associate professor in the global practice concentration at the Boston College School of Social Work, where she is founder and director of the Latino Leadership Initiative and chairwoman of Diversity & Cross-Cultural Issues at the school, said despite making great progress, the point where everyone has the opportunity to advance has not been reached.

Rocio Calvo

Rocio Calvo

“We still have a way to go so everybody has the opportunity to reach their maximum potential,” Calvo said. “I mean everybody. The biggest challenge is equal access: equal access to quality education, quality health care and quality housing. It is quite complex. Not everybody has access to opportunities.”

The “epidemic problem” of high suspensions and expulsions of African-American and Hispanic students from schools in every state must be fixed, not only to give these youths a chance to succeed, but also because of the cost to society from them not graduating.

Studies prove that expulsions created what's called the school-to-prison pipeline for these youths because so many end up incarcerated, said Martell L. Teasley, LPN, BA, BS, MSW, Ph.D., dean of and professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work in Salt Lake City. 

“This is a real challenge for our profession because of the impact it has on kids, the cost to society and the fact studies show many who are expelled end up in prison,” said Teasley, who is editor in chief of “Children & Schools” and heads this section of the Grand Challenge.

Amy T. Khare, BSW, MSW, Ph.D., and research assistant professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she also is research director for the school’s National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, said addressing this grand challenge is “important as a moral and societal imperative.”

“We as social workers must prioritize human rights and equity for all people, and, most importantly, for those populations who have historically and continually been marginalized,” she said. “It’s for this reason that this topic brings together social workers from across different geographies and special populations.”

Addressing Social Stigma

America arguably has more resources than any other country in the world, but some believe there are not enough to go around, said Goldbach, a Grand Challenge co-leader who heads this area of focus.

“They think if you do better, I do worse,” he said. “The belief that there’s some finite amount of resources and we’re fighting for that presents a general barrier. That leads to a rote approach where the general public believes ‘If you get more, I get less. If you want more, I can’t help you.’”

That’s apparent in many ways across systems, like in funding, for example, where it’s set up so if one person wins, others lose, Goldbach said, and when people in politics capitalize on this, “that’s a big problem.”

“We can solve these problems, we just have to make a commitment to them.” he said. “When we stigmatize people, it results in poor health and poor opportunities in life.”

Stigmatization can be direct, interactional or structural.

“Today’s society is a little more divisive,” Goldbach said. “We tend to provide opportunities only to people we know. If we have a job opening, we don’t post it on Indeed, we call people we know. Many jobs are handed to other people who are known in your network.”

If you’re white, you tend to know lots of white people and tend to reach out to them, he said. It’s the same with resources, where people are willing to help, give and share — or not — depending on if you know them.

“Politicians use this divisiveness,” Goldbach said.

People are stigmatized for many reasons, including race, culture, sex, sexual preference, external deformity, mental health status, drug use and appearance.

The impacts include everything from physical health and behavioral health to education, jobs, housing and not getting ahead in life.

“It’s complex and it’s complicated,” Goldbach said. “There are things that buffer that — like religion — but stigma has a relationship with lots of different outcomes. The impacts, I think, are across the range.”

Lots of research has been done, but it’s “all focused on many different communities,” he said. “I’d like to see shared experiences. That’s not to say unique stuff, but a focus on things that are shared. What does not matter is the word a teacher uses. What matters is that it’s a disparaging comment.”

Goldbach believes there’s a shared space within all the Grand Challenges’ underlying outcomes.

 “I think we’d say, ‘Gosh, we all found 10 things and six are all the same across all the challenges. I think we’d have a greater impact. I think there are common elements — interventions, policies, laws — and we could do things to help all those people all at once.”

The group is addressing social stigma, according to a 2018 fact sheet, by “conducting research, raising awareness of contributions to inequity, facilitating information, education, and social marketing campaigns that seek to reduce and change the false narratives that exist about stigmatized populations.”

At Goldbach’s university, they have added a social justice course that talks about issues as they relate to each of the Grand Challenges.

“Mental health is seen as a priority population,” he said. “We’re working with a state reducing-disparities program and we’re doing some work with Native Americans. I think there are things that are happening.”

Social workers should be having conversations about this, Goldbach said, and it’s not too late to get involved in this or any of the other Social Work Grand Challenges.

“If you want to get involved, reach out,” he said. “If these are topics people are interested in, now is the time for sure.”

Integrating Latina/o Immigrants

“Families were kept apart because a husband or a wife or a child had been born in the wrong place.... This system violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his own merit.”

Saying those words as he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act on Oct. 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson implemented a law that eliminated quotas based on national origins and instituted prioritizing immigrant skills and reunifying families. And it opened immigration beyond European countries.

That story is in the February 2016 paper “Achieving Equal Opportunity and Justice: The Integration of Latina/o Immigrants into American Society.”

It states the law created “an unparalleled increase in immigration from Latin America that would transform the social fabric and the identity of America.”

Citing a 2015 article, it says, “Latinas/os account for 17.1 percent of the current U.S. population, up from 3.5 percent in 1960, and are expected to reach 28.6 percent by 2060.”

A fact sheet published earlier this year by the Grand Challenge group outlines its goals: Facilitating Latina/o integration by expanding coverage under the Affordable Care Act, reforming education policies to ensure equitable access to quality education, creating asset-based models and interventions, and attracting stronger Latina/o leadership in the human service sector at all levels — local, state and national.

Calvo, co-leader on the Grand Challenge, said when everyone has access to health care, everyone benefits.

It’s not just a problem for the population that doesn’t have it,” she said. “It’s better for society as a whole if we have met the basic needs of everyone. It’s not sustainable to live in a society where more and more people don’t have access. It touches us all.”

Calvo’s school has been conducting independent research on implementation and access to find out what is effective.

“If you want to conduct research that works for a community, you have to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. That takes time,” she said. “We know that providing access to health care and quality education works. How we provide that is a complex problem that requires sophisticated solutions. I wish I had a quick fix.”

Since many Latina/o people speak Spanish at home, it’s clear more Latina/o and Spanish-speaking social workers are needed.

“We have dismal numbers of Latino social workers,” Calvo said. “They’re very, very small.”

The Council on Social Work Education’s 2017 report on U.S. social work programs in 2016 states:

  • Full-time MSW social workers graduated: Chicano/Mexican American, 1.3 percent; Puerto Rican, 1.2 percent; other Latino/Hispanic, 9.8 percent.
  • In the practice doctoral program, there are not numbers because there are not enough Latina/os.
  • In the research doctoral program: Chicano/Mexican American, not available; Puerto Rican, 6; other Latino/Hispanic, 11.
  • Faculty: Chicano/Mexican American, 76, or 1.3 percent; Puerto Rican, 96, or 1.7 percent; other Latino/Hispanic, 201, or 3.5 percent.

So Calvo founded the school’s Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) in January 2013. She is director of the program, which uses a different approach: It’s asset-based, and it’s in Spanish.

“When you’re bilingual and you’re bicultural, you have cultural assets and you have language assets,” she said. “That’s an asset-based perspective.”

“By teaching in Spanish, you change the cultural framework. You bring other perspectives to your practice. It’s not only for Latinos, it’s for anybody who has a Latino focus in their work.”

Spanish is spoken not only in the classroom, but in field placements, where supervisors also speak Spanish.

“I’m proud of having five doctoral level Latino students on the path to becoming social work faculty,” Calvo said. “Only 13 graduated last year in the whole country.”

“The U.S. is now more diverse than ever, but we don’t have equal opportunity for all. That might not affect you, but it’s going to affect your kids and your grandkids.”

Success for African-American Youths

Martell Teasley

Martell Teasley

African-American youths can succeed at school, but the climate in schools has to change, Teasley said.

“It takes time, it takes commitment and it takes knowledge of African-Americans,” he said.

Cultural and racial biases and misunderstandings have resulted in more black children being suspended, expelled or referred to special education classes than any other group. Statistics quoted in the group’s paper, “Increasing Success for African-American Children and Youth,” include that fewer than 65 percent of African-American youths graduate from high school nationwide. That rate is declining, and there are states with graduation rates below 50 percent.

The statistics hold true even when these youths represent small percentages in student populations. One study found African-Americans are 52 percent of students suspended in San Francisco schools, although they comprise 16 percent of the student population.

Another study of 13 Southern states found, on average, African-Americans make up 24 percent of public school population but are 50 percent of expelled students. “In 132 of the 3,022 school districts evaluated, African-Americans were ‘suspended at rates five times or higher than their representation in the student population.’” They comprised 100 percent of suspended students in 84 districts, 75 percent or more in 346 districts, and 50 percent or more in 743 districts.

These youths also are referred to special education in larger numbers for concerns of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance and learning disabilities, Teasley said.

African-Americans make up 16 percent of public school K-12 students, but they’re 57 percent of special education populations, he said.

Cultural and racial biases and misunderstandings are a contributing factor, according to the paper, which states the group faces “greater negative perceptions, bias and stereotypes than white children.”

Such biases also have an impact on students, particularly black males, Teasley said.

“If a teacher sees a little assertiveness in class, they view it as aggression,” he said. “There’s a notion that they can’t do mathematics. There’s a lack of understanding in their language style, the norms and how they’ve been raised.”

There are several programs being used to address the problem, and Teasley sees restorative justice as one of the most promising. It has shown to strengthen relationships with teachers and other students, improve discipline, reduce violence and decrease disruptive behaviors so students become a part of the school community. It can incorporate use of peer juries, victim-offender mediation and a restorative circle, where students can discuss issues, concerns and conflict resolution.

Positive Behavorial Interventions & Supports (PBIS) involves three tiers: one-on-one intervention, small-group work or whole school-level interventions, Teasley said.

“It’s an evidence-based approach to reduce problems based on levels,” he said.

Use of behavioral health service teams, which can involve the entire community in redressing problematic behavior in schools, “shows signs of promise,” Teasley said.

“We do know these will work, but we don’t have enough people trying them. Cost is a big challenge, and training is a challenge.”

The cost to individuals, schools, communities and the nation is even higher if this challenge is not addressed, because the social cost of school dropouts nationally is estimated to exceed $90 billion a year, the school success paper states.

“In part, this cost reflects the link between high levels of out-of-school suspension and entry into the prison-industrial complex. Civil Rights Project data show about 68 percent of state prison inmates lacked a high school diploma in 1997.”

And a recent nationwide study by the Civil Rights Project found “suspensions in 10th grade alone produced more than 67,000 dropouts in the U.S. and generated social costs to the nation of more than $35 billion.”

Teasley said achieving success with the challenge “all hinges upon changing school climate. Nothing works unless you have changes in school climate.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all,” he said. “You have to see what’s going on in a particular community. Is there cultural bias? Are there poorly trained teachers? Sometimes people just don’t know what to do. What’s needed is data-driven information in settings and inter-professional collaboration.”

Fair Housing, Inclusive Communities

Amy T. Khare

Khare co-leads the Fair Housing and Inclusive Communities area of the challenge. It aims to reverse the trend of increasing economic segregation through development initiatives on neighborhood stabilization and inclusionary investment strategies, and broadening partnerships between academic institutions and community organizers that work on affordable and equitable housing initiatives, according to the challenge group’s 2018 fact sheet.

Part of the problem is geography, Khare said.

“Communities of all sizes and diverse backgrounds are intentionally created through policies and practices in ways that exclude certain populations while meeting the needs and rights of those who are more affluent,” she said.

“The economic context is changing in so many ways. The middle class is shrinking, producing economic and racial segregation that leads to further separation. This means people are living, working and going to school with people who have similar backgrounds.”

That produces the opposite of what history has shown: Integration is helpful in creating the hope for immigrant populations and achieving the American Dream, Khare said.

“All of us have had our own experience of being in the majority population or the minority population,” Khare said. “Many have experienced not seeing the American Dream being reached in life. It’s up to social work to promote the rights for people of all backgrounds.”

One recent study shows that more racially and economically integrated metropolitan areas have lower gun violence. It shows that people living in areas with a higher level of integration have higher levels of income, education and prevention of violence, she said.

There’s an impact on people living in non-integrated areas, Khare said.

“One out of four faces a precarious housing situation,” she said. “For almost every first-year field placement student, housing comes up as an issue in training. It’s impossible to address mental health, physical health and the emotional challenges a population faces unless they have housing. It’s hard to work on elderly issues or gun violence unless the conditions people are living in (are) safe.”

Strategies outlined in the group’s paper “Fair Housing and Inclusive Communities: How can Social Work Move Us Forward?” include moving low-income households into higher opportunity areas, preserving affordability in diverse neighborhoods that are in the process of gentrifying, and targeting investment to high-poverty areas and areas tipping in that direction.

Khare believes social work training should include more information on addressing housing issues so that students understand the policies and learn the strategies to help get people housed.

“I grew up in Kansas, where we were encouraged not to cross the railroad tracks,” she said. “But what I learned as a social worker is the more we cross bridges and tracks, the more we can learn about our shared humanity with all people.”

Right for the Challenge

Social workers are in a unique position to address this challenge because they can adapt to many different settings, Goldbach said.

“You can find social workers in every section of the community and in every problem that exists,” he said. “In order to solve these problems, there’s a need for a multi-disciplined approach. We can help instruct other fields about a problem and how to deal with it in a more comprehensive way.”

Khare said the field was founded in the settlement-house movement of equitable integration principles.

“We have learned key lessons that we continue to learn from,” she said, “and we should continue to promote them.”

Teasley said the Grand Challenge is advancing social justice, which is a huge issue for fairness and equity.

“We are attempting to promote equality,” he said. “We are giving young people a chance in life. That makes a real difference.”

Calvo said social workers already are at the forefront because “we work with the most underserved populations.”

“We’re able to navigate different systems, work with other disciplines, and we know populations well,” she said. “We have a skill set that is unique to our profession ... and the ability to lead the conversation.”

The complex issues involved can be solved only by working with varied disciplines and those with a different expertise, Calvo said.

“That skill set matches us well,” she said. “That’s what we do.”

Grand Challenges Papers