Grand Challenges for Social Work: Eliminating Racism Becomes 13th Challenge as Initiative Evolves

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By Alison Laurio

When the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative was launched in 2016, there were 12 challenges addressing critical social issues in society. At that time, it was thought that eliminating racism was a part of all 12 challenges, so that issue did not have its own challenge. All that changed in 2020, when the initiative’s leadership added a 13th challenge: The Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism.

A Work in Progress

Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and chair of the executive committee of the Grand Challenges for Social Work, said maintaining and updating the challenges is important and ongoing. He recently stepped down from his role as Grand Challenges director, and Kira Silk was named to the post.

Racism counters social work’s efforts to address all the other Grand Challenges, Barth said, and adding a challenge to eliminate racism further underscores the importance of this issue.

“Indeed, the argument could be well-made that eliminating racism and responding to its long and horrendous impact is the fundamental challenge of American society,” he said.

The book, “Grand Challenges for Social Work and Society” (second edition), was published this year by Oxford University Press and includes 13 chapters, one for each challenge and the areas they address. Another book, still in development, addresses the way each of the Grand Challenges is affected by structural and persistent racism, Barth said, and “the Grand Challenges leadership continues to seek ways to communicate about methods to eliminate racism and develop evidence behind new practices, programs and policies that redress racism’s lasting legacy.”

Achieving gender equality was another topic considered for inclusion in the original set of Grand Challenges, then not included, “because it was hard to conceptualize what interventions could reasonably address this topic,” Barth said.

Jill Messing, PhD, MSW, professor at Arizona State University and a member of the Grand Challenges initiative and NASW’s National Committee on Women’s Issues, and a team of social work colleagues addressed this concern in a special issue of NASW’s journal “Social Work,” he said, which took the position that we should mainstream gender equity into each of the Grand Challenges. 

“This is what they have done in the [second edition of the Grand Challenges] book — written a stand-alone piece that brings together the framework and strategies of gender equity scholars with those of each of the 13 Grand Challenges.”

Gender mainstreaming during the last two decades became the international development community’s strategy, writes Kristy Kelly in one example of a stand-alone piece in the book titled “Revisiting the Transformative Potential of Gender Mainstreaming in Social Work.”

“Rather than conceptualizing women as a separate category needing special attention or special programs, the aim of gender mainstreaming is to integrate women and intersectional gender equity into all elements of policy design, programming, budgeting, monitoring, and evaluation,” Kelly writes, and it has been largely adopted worldwide.

In the next phase of the Grand Challenges, which is called Going Grander, “We are looking to continue the work of making modifications to our original decisions by being more inclusive of those who want to have more voice, have new ideas, were not adequately engaged in the past, and are eager to make the commitment to refresh and expand this work,” Barth said. “This may mean launching new grand challenges, or framing new ‘working papers’ under the existing grand challenges, or making other significant changes to ensure that this effort is as influential as possible.”

Sarah Butts, NASW’s director of public policy, was named to the Grand Challenges for Social Work leadership board, he said, and “the Grand Challenges have long had the strong support of NASW’s CEO.” Barth added that the initiative looks forward to a continued partnership with NASW and other major social work organizations “as we endeavor to clarify to our allies across social work and other fields that we have the intention and capacity to strengthen society through science and social work.”

Eliminating Racism

woman running along colorful ribbons, news of racial protest floats nearby

Democrats in Congress attempted to address racism when in the fall of 2020 they filed in both houses the “Anti-Racism in Public Health Act,” a bill “to amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for public health research and investment into understanding and eliminating structural racism and police violence.” It was introduced and read but never acted on. Early in 2021, it was refiled, but again, no action was taken.

Racism was added as a stand-alone Grand Challenge in June 2020 with two co-leads: Michael S. Spencer and Martell Lee Teasley, PhD, MSW, LPN, dean of and professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work in Salt Lake City. He also is president of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work.

Spencer, PhD, MSW, is associate dean for academic affairs and presidential term professor in social work at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also is director of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Oceania Affairs at the university’s Indigenous Wellness Research Institute. In the Department of Global Health, he is adjunct professor of Global Health and of Health Systems and Population Health, and he is a research affiliate at the Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology at the university.

“I think following the murder of George Floyd, there was a sense that we couldn’t just pay lip service to this issue anymore,” Spencer said.

Work accomplished so far includes a concept paper outlining goals and a national webinar series on eliminating racism within the context of the Grand Challenges. The seven-part series “examined solutions and interventions at the intersection of racism and each of the other Grand Challenges,” Spencer said.

The series was hosted by the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work and ran from July 2021 to December 2021. It can be viewed on the Grand Challenges website.

Why racism is so deeply embedded in parts of American society and difficult to change “is the million-dollar question,” Spencer said. “It’s a question many of us have pondered.”

In talking to people about the issue, he said responses included that racism was around them when growing up, not something they were taught.

“I think that’s true for a portion of the population,” Spencer said. “And there’s a proportion of people who think ‘if it doesn’t affect me, I don’t care.’ I think we don’t really know the answer, but I think there’s a group that benefits from it. It’s very, very deep because it’s history. It was created by this country.”

This year, Spencer personally wants to focus on what can be done within the curriculum at the University of Washington.

“How can you do national work if you’re not doing it at your own home?” Spencer said. “I’m thinking we can continue to build this within our school’s mission, and also build it within the fabric and the structures of social work. I believe it’s actually part of my job.”

“The Grand Challenges are supposed to be what our profession does. We’re speaking out on what’s important, and actual work needs to be done by all those who call themselves social workers. It’s a call-in, and it’s part of our work.”

That means social workers should meet, organize and amplify the work of others and some of what they’ve done themselves. He would like to see it as a movement within the profession.

The pandemic created challenges, but racism already was prevalent, Spencer said. “I think the goal of this Grand Challenge is to put out to people racism is something we as professionals care very deeply about.”

Economic Inequality

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Trina R. Shanks, PhD, MSW, M.Phil, is the Harold R. Johnson Collegiate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan School of Social Work in Ann Arbor and faculty associate at the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research. She is co-leader of the Grand Challenge to Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality and one of the editors for the new Grand Challenges book.

“Given the history of sexism, racism and anti-Black sentiments in the United States, most issues present gender and racial inequities,” Shanks said. “Regarding economic inequality, white males on average earn higher income and are hired into jobs with better benefits and working conditions. Wealth is more unequal than income, and historically white households have had a net worth eight to 12 times that of Black and Latino households.”

The gaps between those at the top and others are striking, she said. “Based on a survey of American families in 2019 called the Survey of Consumer Finances, the median yearly income of non-Hispanic white families ($68,000) exceeded that of non-Hispanic Black families ($39,000) and Hispanic families ($43,000) by a large margin.”

In that survey, white families have the highest level of both median and mean family wealth: $188,200 and $983,400, respectively, she said. Black and Hispanic families have considerably less wealth than white families. Black families’ median and mean wealth is less than 15 percent that of white families, at $24,100 and $142,500, respectively. And Hispanic families’ median and mean wealth is $36,100 and $165,500, respectively.

“Economic inequality often has intergenerational repercussions in addition to historical and current racism that is baked into institutional structures,” Shanks said.

For example, she said, white families and European immigrants were the most likely to benefit from the 1862 Homestead Act, then their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are more likely to have access to land and capital than the children and descendants of formerly enslaved people or more recent non-white immigrants.

“Similarly, if white families were the ones to take advantage of the GI Bill and favorable home ownership conditions of the 1950s and 1960s, then their children had a considerable foundation of wealth and growth in equity from which to build that other households did not,” Shanks said. “And if a family has only a legacy of poverty and economic struggle, then they have little or no economic benefit to pass on to the next generation.”

In addition to generational disparities extending across generations, she said, “geographic segregation and current-day racism tends to replicate and bake in the same inequalities. Stereotypes about the type of people that ‘deserve’ the benefit of the doubt regarding economic opportunity often perpetuates racial and gender inequity.”

When people do not have dependable income and regular work hours, they can fall further behind. And without wealth and enough savings to navigate unexpected expenses, it’s easy to fall even more behind and become discouraged about one’s ability to save or invest in the future, Shanks said, and this does not even take into account targeting for scams and inappropriate financial products.

Social workers are well-suited to help clients navigate resources and services targeted toward the poor, but are not always prepared to help families build wealth and make sound financial decisions, she said.

“Many of us in the Grand Challenges to ‘Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality’ and ‘Build Financial Capability and Assets for All’ advocate for things such as child development accounts, removal of asset limits, and other approaches to these entrenched problems,” Shanks said.

Challenge co-lead Jennie Romich said social workers can help turn these situations around by working on “policy reforms at the local, state and national levels by drawing attention to how historic policies have caused these inequalities.” Social workers also can advocate for more balanced tax structures, Romich said, and they can work to cultivate pro-equity voters.

Romich, PhD, is director of the West Coast Poverty Center at the University of Washington School of Social Work, where she is a professor and teaches social welfare policy and policy practice.

Partnerships Are Beneficial

NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW, has been active in Grand Challenges work. He participated on the leadership board for more than five years and is a contributor for the Grand Challenges book’s commentary section. Below is part of what he wrote.

“As the Grand Challenges advance in coming years, we need to leverage even more partnerships with allies and partners outside the profession. We need the benefit of other perspectives, experience and expertise. We need to leverage the common ground between our commitments and those of other disciplines and sectors. By leveraging today’s critical issues, we can build a broader constituency base that includes new partners, clients, communities, and practitioners from all fields of social work practice.”

“It’s been said that ‘social work is the special sauce’ for addressing society’s grandest challenges. Perhaps the Grand Challenges are the special ingredient that bridges, solidifies, galvanizes, and powers social work to contribute grandly to creating a more just society that ensures a vibrant social fabric, a more compassionate social safety net, and truly centers individual and family well-being at the forefront of all policy and social development decisions.”

Grand Challenges for Social Work

The Grand Challenges for Social Work was launched in 2016, initiated by the American Academy for Social Work and Social Welfare. It calls for “bold innovation and collective action powered by proven and evolving scientific interventions to address critical social issues facing society.” The initiative began with 12 challenges, adding a 13th challenge in 2020 to Eliminate Racism.

The original 12 challenges are:

  1. Insuring Healthy Development for Youth
  2. Closing the Health Gap
  3. Building Healthy Relationships to End Violence
  4. Advancing Long and Productive Lives
  5. Eradicating Social Isolation
  6. Ending Homelessness
  7. Creating Social Responses to a Changing Environment
  8. Harnessing Technology for Social Good
  9. Promoting Smart Decarceration
  10. Reducing Extreme Economic Inequality
  11. Building Financial Capabilities and Assets for All
  12. Achieving Equal Opportunity and Justice


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