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Answering the Call: USC Social Work Faculty Take on Grand Challenges

  • Grand Challenges

As a call to action on urgent problems such as homelessness, the health gap and mass incarceration, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is taking part in the Grand Challenges for Social Work. Organized by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, this a national effort to achieve societal progress by identifying specific challenges that social work can play a central role in overcoming.

The Grand Challenges promote innovation, collaboration and expansion of proven, evidence-based programs to create meaningful, measurable progress on solving these and other urgent social problems within a decade.

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work faculty are helping to lead this effort. Among those faculty are John Brekke, the Frances G. Larson Professor of Social Work Research, who is part of the Grand Challenges executive committee.

“One of the challenges we’ve always had in this profession is how to embrace science and research in general. It’s not enough to be well-intentioned and to want to do good things. We have a lot of good knowledge that can help guide people and train them in how to do that most effectively,” Brekke said. “The Grand Challenges are actually a reflection of that larger idea of how we can move and use scientific findings to help reshape our society. The profession as a whole benefits from that.”

Here are the Grand Challenges where USC faculty are making a difference.

Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice

Historic and current prejudice and injustice bars access to success in education and employment. Addressing racial and social injustices, deconstructing stereotypes, dismantling inequality, exposing unfair practices, and accepting the super diversity of the population will advance this challenge.

The USC LGBT Health Equity Initiative was created to lead scientific inquiry into the physical, emotional and social health of LGBT youth, and adults and families, and guide best practices for achieving health equity for this population. Led by Assistant Professor Jeremy Goldbach, the initiative’s work is guided by scholars, community leaders and nationally recognized experts in the field of LGBT health who are committed to advancing research, collaboration, training and outreach activities to facilitate dialogue, broaden awareness and promote social change.

Rainbow street
Equity and Social Change

“The Grand Challenge to achieve equal opportunity and justice is committed to ensuring that the world is focused on ending social stigma and improving access to services for marginalized communities. [We have] integrated this into our doctor of social work program, and it is a cornerstone of [a] new [master of social work] course on social justice.”  -- Jeremy Goldbach, assistant professor and co-lead of this Grand Challenge

Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth

Strong evidence shows us how to prevent many behavioral health problems before they emerge. By unleashing the power of prevention through widespread use of proven approaches, we can help all youth grow up to become healthy and productive adults.

Families in the Parents as Teachers program, piloted by Associate Professor Dorian Traube, receive live personalized visits that take place online, along with child health and development screenings, community support referrals and group gatherings with other parents.


This project is a prime example of how preventive health services can be taken into a home setting through telehealth technology. Our hope is that by using the latest in secure, user-friendly technology, more families will have access to critical early intervention services. At the same time, we are opening the doors to communicate with a new generation of families who are surrounded and immersed in technology on a regular basis.

- Dorian Traube, associate professor

Stop Family Violence

Assaults by parents, intimate partners, and adult children frequently result in serious injury and even death. Proven interventions can prevent abuse, identify abuse sooner, and help families survive and thrive by breaking the cycle of violence or finding safe alternatives.

Sexually abused by a partner when she was a young woman, Adjunct Professor CarolAnn Peterson has been immersed in understanding and addressing domestic violence for 35 years, providing consultation and training on the subject and designing services for domestic violence victims. She serves as a member of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Domestic Violence Steering Committee, which is determining how to enhance services provided to abuse victims in shelters. Peterson created the school’s course on domestic violence and is one of nine faculty members who rotate teaching it.

Domestic Violence
Confronting Domestic Violence

“As difficult and overwhelming as domestic violence can be for both victims and victim advocates, there is a light at the end of tunnel.” -- CarolAnn Peterson, adjunct professor

Close the Health Gap

More than 60 million Americans experience devastating one-two punches to their health—they have inadequate access to basic health care while also enduring the effects of discrimination, poverty, and dangerous environments that accelerate higher rates of illness. Innovative and evidence-based social strategies can improve health care and lead to broad gains in the health of our entire society.

Ellen Olshansky, chair of the Department of Nursing at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, finds a natural partnership between social work and nursing. Her research and work looks at health as much more than the individual, and includes social contexts, ecology and environment of the patient to close health gaps.


In order to address the health care needs of our patients, we must address their social context and social justice. People who have less, people who live in poverty, people who are not afforded the dignity that all human beings have suffer in ways that other people do not.

- Ellen Olshansky, chair of the Department of Nursing

Advance Long and Productive Lives

Throughout the lifespan, fuller engagement in education and productive activities can generate a wealth of benefits, including better health and well-being, greater financial security, and a more vital society.

The mission of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging is to advance research whose goal is to enhance optimal aging for persons in minority and low-income communities.

Alzheimers infographic
Optimal Aging

“At the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging we tackle real problems that affect the quality of life of the nation’s growing population of adults, and our primary mission is to enhance optimal aging for persons in minority and low-income communities. Our central focus is to develop a program of research and innovation based on sociobehavioral interventions and policies that optimize health, mental health, family relationships, and systems of care.” - María P. Aranda, associate professor and executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging

Eradicate Social Isolation

Our challenge is to educate the public on this health hazard, encourage health and human service professionals to address social isolation, and promote effective ways to deepen social connections and community for people of all ages.

USC Telehealth, a virtual, outpatient behavioral and mental health clinic that uses videoconferencing technology to provide evidence-based care, serves a broad range of clients with diverse demographic backgrounds and motivations for seeking therapy. These include anyone from parents of children with special needs to active duty military, veterans and their families.


By increasing access and options for evidence-based behavioral health services, Telehealth most benefits individuals who face multiple obstacles to care, including geographic and mobility constraints.

- Nadia Islam, associate professor of clinical practice and clinical director of USC Telehealth

End Homelessness

Expand proven approaches that have worked in communities across the country, develop new service innovations and technologies, and adopt policies that promote affordable housing and basic income security.

There has already been a fundamental shift in focus toward ending homelessness, as opposed to mere management of the problem that was prevalent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Eradicating homelessness will involve addressing systemic issues related to poverty and income inequality at the federal government level. It will require policy changes to increase affordable housing, the minimum wage and disability benefits.

Homelessness infographic
Challenge Accepted

“We do believe homelessness can be ended and that the Grand Challenge will be a pretty significant part of that story. Our intent is not to create a new initiative so much as to leverage our profession and advance what has clearly been articulated by many people as a real possibility, even though it is hard to imagine.” -- Assistant Professor Benjamin Henwood, co-lead of this Grand Challenge. View our infographic on homelessness.

Create Social Responses to Changing Environment

Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.

The majority of people who are most deeply affected by environmental change–including climate change–are those that have few to no resources. Changes relating to environmental racism, deterioration of infrastructure, rural to urban relocation, and refugees forced from their places of origin due to inhabitability issues also make this challenge a focus on social justice.

Historically, social workers have been left to “clean up the mess” in terms of delivering services to people who are already traumatized. The approach of combining macro, mezzo and micro is still a rather innovative idea with regard to this problem. By thinking about what their role is with regard to all three tiers, Professor Lawrence Palinkas, who co-leads this Grand Challenge, proposes that social workers can make a major difference in solving the problems of environmental change.


Our approach has really been to nurture the millennials and build this Grand Challenge from the ground up. The question becomes do we educate specialists in environmental change or do we educate everybody about how environmental change relates to whatever they are doing?

- Lawrence Palinkas, Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health

Harness Technology for Social Good

Innovative applications of new digital technology present opportunities for social and human services to reach more people with greater impact on our most vexing social problems. These new technologies can be deployed to more strategically target social spending, speed up the development of effective programs, and bring a wider array of help to more individuals and communities.

The Children’s Data Network, directed by Associate Professor Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Jacquelyn McCroskey, the John Milner Professor of Child Welfare, is a data and research collaborative focused on the linkage and analysis of administrative records to improve the health, safety and well-being of children, especially those in the child welfare system.

“Nobody had thought to pose these kinds of questions before,” McCroskey said. “By linking administrative data, we give agencies the perspective they need to provide better services for children on the county, state and national levels.”

Promote Smart Decarceration

Develop a proactive, comprehensive, evidence-based “smart decarceration” strategy that will dramatically reduce the number of people who are imprisoned and enable the nation to embrace a more effective and just approach to public safety.

Rather than focusing on negative outcomes and factors that increase delinquency, Assistant Professor B.K. Elizabeth Kim has approached the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum, exploring protective factors that prevent adolescents from engaging in risky behaviors. Her research on the topic suggests a promising effect of increasing protective factors based on the social development model.


If you provide a young person with positive opportunities, teach them skills to become engaged and provide recognition, they will be positively bonded to you,” increasing the youth’s receptivity to advice such as avoiding drugs and staying in school. “We need to prevent young people from ever getting involved in this revolving door of juvenile justice involvement and set them up on a positive trajectory.

- B.K. Elizabeth Kim, assistant professor