Social Work Science for Social Justice
Emphasizing social and racial justice, the Graduate School of Social Work leads the University of Denver in research expenditures
The University of Denver may have joined the ranks of the nation’s Research 1 (R1) research institutions, but one thing won’t change: its focus on the public good.
That’s particularly true at the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), which is home to several top national and international scholars and leads the University in research expenditures. “Our scientific focus remains on racial and social justice, on community-engaged research, on interventions that improve individual and community well-being, and on translating that science into action,” says Morris Endowed Professor and Dean Amanda Moore McBride. “Although the research interests of our faculty, centers and institutes are wide ranging, the aim to advance justice unites all of our work.”
GSSW’s annual research expenditures have grown from $8 million in 2015-16 to $11.5 million in 2020–21, following a trajectory established in the late 1980s when the school began to prioritize research alongside teaching. Federal funds comprise $7.25 million of GSSW’s research expenditures, and the school accounts for 30% of the University’s total research expenditures.
“Because the Graduate School of Social Work is so strong, the University has been punching above its weight for a long time,” says Jenn Bellamy, professor and associate dean for research and faculty development. “I’m not aware of another school of social work that leads their university in terms of external funding and productivity. It’s pretty unique."
A Research & Scholarship Legacy
Under the tenure of Dean John “Jack” Jones (1987–1996), GSSW began to attract significant external funding for justice-oriented work, including a National Institute of Mental Health grant for the Latino Mental Health Project. The school received federal and state funding for the Child Welfare Training and Research Project, directed by Professor Cathryn Potter (now dean of the Rutgers School of Social Work), and Professor Emeritus Jim Moran obtained the school’s first National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grant for an alcohol and drug abuse prevention program for Native youth.
From 1996 to 2006, Dean Catherine Alter instituted supports for faculty research and significantly expanded the school’s research faculty, including hiring Philip and Eleanor Winn Endowed Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Jenson, who is recipient of the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) 2022 Distinguished Career Achievement Award. Directed by Professor Debora Ortega, the University’s Latino/a Center for Community Engagement and Scholarship (now known as the Latinx Center) was founded at this time, and the Child Welfare Training and Research Project became the Butler Institute for Families, whose faculty and staff are still among the University’s most successful principal investigators.
Jenson served as GSSW’s first associate dean for research, a position created by Dean James Herbert Williams (2007–2016), who also established the school’s first endowed professorships and its Institute for Human–Animal Connection. Led by American Humane Endowed Chair Kevin Morris, the institute employs eight research staff and uses innovative study designs to delve into critical human-animal-environment interaction questions, such as a study demonstrating the importance of cultural competency in effective community-based animal welfare programming.
Join us Feb. 16, 2022, as we honor Professor Heather Taussig with the Jeffrey Jenson Endowed Annual Research Award.Learn More
A Social Justice Research Agenda
Under McBride’s leadership, GSSW has honed its focus, emphasizing not just rigorous empirical research, but also “science for action” — including community-driven research and scholarship and translational science with public impact, all with an eye toward advancing social and racial justice.
“Some might have said you can’t do social justice research and hit the traditional markers of research output and excellence. We’ve done both,” Bellamy says. “Dean McBride has really centered justice and built our internal capacity and external reputation for public impact scholarship.”
“My experience as a PhD student at GSSW set me up to be a faculty member at a high-ranked R1 university while still grounding my research in my values and ethics,” says Shanna Kattari, PhD ’17, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, director of the [Sexuality|Relationships|Gender] Research Collective and 2021 recipient of SSWR’s Deborah K. Padgett Early Career Award. “GSSW blends its commitment to social justice with the exceptional research being conducted, resulting in high-quality research that works toward a better world.”
The Center for Housing and Homelessness Research was founded at GSSW in 2016. Led by Professor Daniel Brisson, the center provides information and expertise to communities, policymakers and practitioners to transform the lives of people experiencing poverty, housing insecurity and homelessness. Headed by Professor Lena Lundgren, the new Cross-National Behavioral Health Laboratory is addressing the global mental health and substance use epidemic through education, research and implementation of evidence-based prevention and treatment approaches for substance use disorder.
GSSW strives to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the research process by incorporating Indigenous, anti-racist and critical theory perspectives in its research courses for doctoral students, for instance. This year, GSSW also offered faculty a workshop on anti-racist methodologies — part of its quarterly Research Forum training program for faculty, staff and doctoral students. “The trick for us at GSSW is supporting these practices in becoming part of the way we do work so it’s not on the side but is fully integrated into our approaches,” Bellamy says.
Expanded faculty research support is another emphasis of the school. A new mentoring program for pre-tenure faculty provides individual meetings with Bellamy and peer mentoring meetings throughout the year. Launched last year in partnership with Senior Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Education Corinne Lengsfeld, an 18-month faculty grant development program supports faculty applying for federal funding, offering opportunities for peer review before a grant application is submitted and providing funds for needs such as statistical consultation or external review. In 2019, the school also launched its Summer Mentored Scholar Program, whereby faculty receive doctoral student support for a project that furthers their research agenda and doctoral students receive mentoring and funding for a summer research experience. The school and University also offer small grants on a revolving basis to fund faculty research, such as pilot studies or to provide community partner renumeration.
The University provides additional research support through programs such as the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of Inequality (IRISE), which facilitates cutting-edge interdisciplinary research, scholarship and creative works promoting equality and equity in historically underrepresented communities on issues of inequality, social justice and inclusivity. GSSW IRISE grantees include Associate Professor Ramona Beltrán, who is developing the Our Stories, Our Medicine Archive to reduce the health impacts of historical trauma on Indigenous communities. The project recently received a grant from the NIH National Library of Medicine to provide traditional Indigenous health knowledge alongside evidence-based and emergent practices for prevention and treatment of diabetes and cardiovascular disease among urban American Indians and Alaska Natives, who often lack access to cultural healing practices and medical resources. Funded through the National Library of Medicine’s Information Resource Grants to Reduce Health Disparities (G08), the OSOMA project will develop an interactive community-based participatory digital archive and health information website.
“Now probably more than ever the value of social work research is apparent in the issues we’re grappling with socially,” Bellamy says. “That trend is probably going to continue well into the future, and as a school we’re well-positioned to do that research going forward, and to do it with rigor.”
University leaders have emphasized that “We achieved R1 our way,” McBride adds. “At GSSW, that means faculty members determine their own unique research trajectory and define impact for themselves. We are not changing who we are or what we do. We are continuing to build on the values that define us.”