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Faculty work to build better partnerships with communities

Every day, social work researchers examine critical social issues with a focus on developing evidence to help communities address real-world problems such as family violence, mental illness or substance use. However, because of the lengthy process for publishing rigorous studies, social workers in the field don’t always have easy or timely access to a researcher’s findings on updated or best practices.

In addition, the research agendas undertaken at universities may not always be a good fit for the issues facing communities. As a result, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations that are eager to eliminate intransigent social problems may struggle with how best to tackle these issues based on relevant scientific evidence.

Scholars at UNC’s School of Social Work understand these challenges and have begun to explore ways to bridge this knowledge gap. The key, they’ve found, may rest with one simple solution: community-focused partnerships. Such collaborations are not driven by a researcher’s interest in gathering data but by a mutual understanding that university faculty will work alongside agencies, nonprofits and government and faith leaders to ensure that a community has the information it needs to pursue desired improvements, explained Kirsten Kainz, the School of Social Work’s associate director of research development and translation.

“What we know is that many of these communities are dealing with complex situations for which there is no agreed upon solution,” she said. “Ultimately, every solution has to be negotiated across stakeholders, and it takes time. So, the first step is about building trust and relationships.”

Kainz, along with assistant professors David Ansong and Paul Lanier, clinical assistant professor Travis Albritton and research associate Todd Jensen, have been focused on just that and have spent the past year working to build partnerships with the Reidsville Area Foundation (RAF); area agencies, faith leaders and school administrators in Shelby; and the United Way of Greater Greensboro. Each of these communities has established key goals, including reducing childhood poverty, improving community health, and strengthening family well-being and economic self-sufficiency. Although the School has experts on these topics, faculty members have been firm – their aim is to use data and science to support and empower community organizations and leaders in the field.

“So often, municipalities, school districts and social services agencies want to know how to use their own data to ask and answer important questions,” Kainz said. “That’s where, I think, there is something unique that universities can bring to the table. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re working with these communities to look at their priorities based on existing data and then letting the agenda for addressing those priorities emerge from the community.”

For example, in Greensboro, Jensen has been working in recent months with United Way leaders, who are interested in ending intergenerational poverty. The organization is currently focusing much of its resources on four areas within the city where more than a third of households earn less than $25,000 annually, and the unemployment rate has hovered around 13 percent.

“They don’t just want to move individuals out of the federal poverty category, they want to move individuals quite a bit above that to a state of self-sufficiency, to a point at which given your geographic location and family structure, you have a sufficient level of income to meet all of your basic needs without any reliance on public or private sources elsewhere,” Jensen explained.

To address this community goal, the organization created the Family Success Center – a one-stop shop that offers residents resources and services to assist them with pursuing higher education and career advancements, accessing affordable childcare, and securing transportation among other needs. Jensen has been studying some of the project’s early data and has begun to help the organization think about ways to measure and track outcomes over time.

Such expertise benefits the work of the United Way by helping the organization to “humanize poverty, validate program statistics, provide world-class research, and think collectively,” said Michelle Gethers- Clark, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro.

Jensen is equally excited about working with community leaders who are willing to test new ideas.

“These are amazing people who are doing amazing things and to be at the forefront with them and in a position to support and to ultimately help them to make a difference, I can think of no better way to really embody the values of the social work profession,” he said.

Kainz and Ansong have found similar synergy in their work with RAF to improve the living conditions of people in rural Rockingham County. RAF has been testing childhood savings accounts as an intervention to help low- and moderate-income families build financial security. The intervention targets children who are entering kindergarten and who live in public housing. RAF provides $100 in seed money to participating families and matches their contributions up to $250 a year. The hope is that participating children will save and remain enrolled in the assets program through fifth grade.

For Ansong, the project and partnership fit well with his interests in youth asset development.

“In this case, the goal is to help families to begin to accumulate resources to help pay for higher education,” he said. “That’s the tangible piece. And then there’s the intangible benefit of beginning to shape a family’s and a child’s world view about the future. We know from research that in low-income families, some kids give up early on attaining a higher education because they feel their families may not be able to afford college. We know college is great, but realistically, financial issues can be challenging. So the question is can you use interventions such as savings accounts to begin to shape how kids feel and think about their futures? And can you get parents more hopeful about their child’s future and begin to prepare financially for their children’s college education.”

Having research faculty work alongside the community demonstrates the School’s commitment to “working with and for the benefit of North Carolinians,” said Jen Nixon, RAF’s executive director.

“Nothing transformative ever happens without being driven by people who care – about one another, about communities, about peers and neighbors,” she said. “This partnership builds relationships of care between the university and local community.”
Faculty members hope to explore additional projects over the next year, including a potential partnership with Head Start leaders in Rockingham County. Lanier and Albritton, who share a research interest in social supports for young fathers, recently met with community representatives who are exploring new ideas for helping young males build stronger bonds with their children and the community.

“There is a great deal of pressure, both internally and externally, for these young men to ‘step-up’ and be good partners and parents, even though they are still really just kids themselves,” Lanier said. “A lot of these fathers will be in a primary caregiving role while the mother is in school or at work, which means taking care of an infant or a toddler and all that goes along with that.”

Although the faculty members are still discussing what role they might play in assisting with this community issue, they are clear on the most important detail, Albritton added.

“I think it’s important to say, ‘We’re not doing this for you or to you,’ but whatever we come up with is something we will do together,” he said.