UNC School of Social Work celebrates its centennial next year — we have provided 100 years of service to the people of North Carolina, graduating more than 5,000 students over that time. We continue to stand on the shoulders of the School’s founder and first director, Howard W. Odum, who believed strongly in the dignity and worth of all people and their right to be full and equal participants in a free and just society.
Since our earliest days, our work has always begun with learning to understand the social landscape in which people live: You have to understand before you seek to intervene.
Social workers stand with, support and work in partnership with the most disenfranchised, underserved, marginalized people in society. Some of our social problems have not changed since 1920. People still wrestle with poverty, homelessness, racial injustice, substance use disorders, interpersonal violence and mental illnesses.
In many ways, however, how we approach those social problems has changed significantly. We are preparing our students to be social workers, researchers and professors for a new era when nonprofits and other non-government organizations have a leading role in seeking solutions to some of our world’s greatest challenges.
Our students are very entrepreneurial in their approach to social work. They work “in the field” beginning in their very first semester. They learn to conduct an environmental scan. They learn to assess which evidence-informed intervention strategies will be most effective. They actively look for new and novel solutions.
We foster that entrepreneurial approach through our Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, which provides our students with face-to-face opportunities to learn from and with social innovators, both in the U.S. and in other countries. We actively seek opportunities for our students to work on social entrepreneurship projects in our community. The SIE Lab itself is a great space for coworking and other collaborative activities for our students and our faculty.
That focus on innovation continues in the classroom, where our faculty provide every student with models of innovation in social work. Here are a few examples:
- Amy Blank Wilson focuses on helping persons with mental illnesses, whether she is helping to create a “tiny homes” community for persons with mental illnesses or working with persons who are incarcerated in North Carolina prisons. She works with collaborators from many other organizations. In the classroom, she shares what she is learning through her research and shows students how they can identify problems, explore solutions and bring collaborators together.
- Trenette Goings works to prevent substance use disorders in youth, especially minority youth. She and her students determined that video messaging was one of the most effective ways to reach those youth, so they scripted and produced a promotional video to show ways that teens could easily reject cigarettes and alcoholic beverages at parties.
- Josh Hinson knows that many refugees who have resettled in North Carolina are legal immigrants from war-torn countries who have undergone a great deal of trauma. He and his students work with those refugees in direct practice, using evidence-based approaches to address trauma. Josh also teaches a course in macro practice, helping his students learn how to plan and deliver services from an organizational level and how to support policies that can help these refugees.
Our students learn directly from professors who are developing practices that are going to become models for our profession — experts who are not only discussing social work innovation but are actually creating it.
Our “bench science” is not in a laboratory; it’s out in the real world. Our professors spend less time in the University and more time in the community. We ensure that our students are involved in this real-world exploration.
We also partner with our colleagues from other disciplines, especially across healthcare professions — we believe this is key to solving contemporary challenges. A great example is our UNC-PrimeCare project, which is part of the University’s focus on interprofessional education and practice.
Through UNC-PrimeCare, we are embedding social workers in doctors’ offices and dentists’ offices. It makes perfect sense — patients must resolve all kinds of issues before they can address their health care, whether the challenge is finding transportation or addressing childcare or even facing anxiety. Social workers are becoming essential partners in health care practice. Our school has become a national leader in this initiative. This, too, is part of our commitment to innovation.
As we approach our centennial, we have gathered as a school — our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni, and our community partners — to identify our priorities as we begin our second 100 years of service. Together, we have adopted a new mission statement for the 21st century: “Advancing equity, transforming systems and improving lives.” Our vision is to be the leading school of social work in the nation for impact: accelerating discovery and the translation of knowledge into action.
Simply put, we create change to help people. We have done this successfully for 100 years. We are ready for the next 100 years!