By Alicia Potter
In its mission to solve complex problems, the Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) has increased its focus on transdisciplinary research, says Dean Gautam N. Yadama. A growing number of recent initiatives, he reports, bring together faculty researchers with collaborators from different disciplines, as well as community members affected by the issues they’re studying. In addition, faculty are adopting innovative research methods—in particular, systems science—to better assess complicated issues and quantify difficult-to-measure outcomes.
“If our social behavioral interventions are to produce sustained population wellbeing, good intentions are not sufficient,” explains Yadama. “We must transcend disciplines, understand the social dilemmas in all their complexity, and then design our interventions.”
As part of these efforts, BCSSW recently hosted a hands-on workshop on community based system dynamics (CBSD)—a participatory method that engages community stakeholders to understand deep-rooted problems from their perspectives and to identify potential solutions. According to Kelsey Werner, international project development manager at BCSSW and the event’s organizer, CBSD offers transdisciplinary researchers and community members “a common language” for evaluating the connections within a system that drive social and economic disparities.
This approach, Werner adds, has gained popularity in social work over the last decade as researchers seek out methods that actively involve community members as partners. “Rather than coming in as researchers and academics and telling community members, ‘We’re going to find a solution for you,’” she says, “we’re empowering stakeholders to co-create innovative solutions.”
Four BCSSW faculty members joined academics from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as public health professionals from Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cleveland, Ohio. Several of the participants, including Werner, are involved in an obesity prevention project in Cleveland [see sidebar]. Werner led the workshop with CBSD expert Peter Hovmand, director of the Social System Design Lab, a center focused on applying CBSD to social issues at the Washington University in St. Louis, and Karen Fullerton and Julie Appel, project managers at the Friedman School.
To illustrate the effectiveness of the approach, the workshop presented participants with a mock problem to model: the effects of too much screen-time on children. Over the program’s two and a half days, participants discussed the problem’s roots and how certain behaviors have changed over time, mapped related factors, and proposed interventions, reports Werner.
The workshop’s structure, she says, was designed to shift participants away from the linear thinking typically used to address complex social problems to systems thinking. Associate Professor Rocío Calvo, who attended the training with BCSSW colleagues Associate Professor Thomas M. Crea, Salem Professor in Global Practice Theresa Betancourt, and Associate Professor Christina Matz-Costa, observed, “We began to think about social issues as being made up of moving parts that evolve and interact. ‘A’ might cause ‘B,’ but the context is constantly changing.”
Crea noted that the workshop’s mix of participants from academia and advocacy made for “robust” discussions that helped underscore how the methods build consensus among stakeholders. “It was eye-opening,” he says, “to see people with different perspectives reach agreement on the mechanism behind a problem.”
Crea plans to apply the workshop’s teachings to two upcoming projects. In partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international Catholic organization that aids displaced populations, he expects to use CBSD with stakeholders involved in special education at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya—parents, teachers, camp staff and administrators, and NGO staff. The goal of the project, he says, is to identify and evaluate interventions that will lead to more inclusive education for students with special needs and disabilities. Crea also is collaborating on a proposal with Werner and another international humanitarian aid nonprofit, Catholic Relief Services, to use CBSD to help determine the sustainability of a USDA-funded initiative, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, in the West African country of Burkina Faso.
This fall, Calvo hopes to begin using CBSD as a complement to focus groups she’s conducted. She is investigating how low-income Latinx families in the Boston area navigate social services, including housing, education, and health care. Calvo believes the methods’ equitable approach will open up further dialogue with members of this often underserved community. “As the experts of their own experience,” she says, “they’ll decide what they want to share, what they want to change, and how they want to achieve it.”
Calvo is also now partnering with Betancourt, who has a background in maternal and child health/public health and psychiatric epidemiology, to adapt a family-strengthening intervention that Betancourt designed for Somali Bantu and Bhutanese refugee families to reflect the needs of Latinx families. The director of the Research Program on Children and Adversity at the BCSSW, Betancourt has additional plans, she says, to use CBSD to analyze the challenges that refugee families in New England face—part of her groundbreaking and multifaceted research into how war and conflict affect family wellbeing.
“New methods can lead to new insights,” she says. “Bringing together diverse stakeholders through shared analysis and decision-making is exactly what we need to be doing to expand our work in communities.”
Werner reports that other workshop attendees are at work on research proposals incorporating the approach. She expects to organize additional trainings for BCSSW researchers, as well as introduce CBSD to BCSSW students through coursework and guest lectures. And this month, she and Yadama will continue their transdisciplinary collaboration with engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay to understand factors affecting the production, adoption, and sustained use of solar energy lamps in rural Indian communities.
“We hope not only to generate excitement for new ways of thinking,” says Yadama, “but also engage communities to expand our knowledge networks and better inform our interventions and subsequent adaptations to improve social, economic, and health outcomes.”
BCSSW and Tufts team to prevent obesity
Researchers from the BCSSW and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University are collaborating with the City of Cleveland to build on findings from COMPACT, a five-year, NIH-funded, multidisciplinary obesity prevention project. The new initiative is led by Christina Economos, professor and New Balance Chair of Nutrition at the Friedman School and co-founder and director of ChildObesity180.
Working with Cleveland public health professionals, Kelsey Werner, international project development manager at the BCSSW, and CBSD expert Peter Hovmand of Washington University in St. Louis are helping Economos apply CBSD and group model building in community-based childhood obesity interventions. The research team aims to replicate the international study’s goals of increasing leadership capacity among the early childhood community, and to change policies, practices, and environments that ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of young children, says Economos. Economos served as co-principal investigator of COMPACT with Ross Hammond, senior fellow in economic studies and director of the Center on Social Dynamics and Policy at the Brookings Institution, with the support of many co-investigators including CBSD expert Peter Hovmand.
The Ohio collaborators’ participation in the recent systems science workshop at Boston College, she adds, reflects an emerging partnership between the BCSSW and Tufts “to begin to take this work to other communities.”