Taking Social Change a Step Further

  • Students
  • Grand Challenges

Doctorate of Social Work student Deborah Villanueva saw the gaps in support and programs for the Native American youth population she works with daily at the American Indian Counseling Center in Cerritos, California. So she decided to do something about it.

She cites statistics that Native American youth are three times more likely to be incarcerated as white youth, according to data collected in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Justice. Yet culturally centric services for Native Americans that could break the cycle of relapse and reincarceration are scarce in urban centers.

She hopes that her capstone project, which she will complete before her graduation in May 2020, will bridge that gap, starting in Los Angeles County.

A degree for finding solutions

Hers is just one example of the hundreds of ideas generated by doctoral students at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work as part of their rigorous coursework. Other Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) students are working on improving outcomes for foster youth, tribal youth and families experiencing homelessness. It’s all part of an advanced practice doctorate program geared toward working professionals who want to achieve greater impact and find breakthrough solutions for social change.

For DSW Program Director Nadia Islam, students who choose an advanced practice doctorate are seeking to become scholar-practitioners ready to develop innovative solutions for society’s most intractable problems. This means formulating new ideas and approaches. She explains, “What holds social problems in place are social norms, and social norms are behavioral rules that are held in place by social expectations.” This program bucks those norms.

Design thinking

Whether through apps, community education campaigns or other innovative solutions to social problems, DSW students are learning to combine a concept called “design thinking” with executive leadership skills to tackle the Grand Challenges for Social Work, as defined by the American Academy for Social Work and Social Welfare. Their design thinking skills are demonstrated through the students’ development of a capstone project that goes beyond the development of just another social program.

Islam says it is this design thinking that sets USC’s doctorate apart. A concept articulated by Tim Brown and David Kelley at design agency IDEO, design thinking is an iterative process of creating new ideas and solving complex problems by focusing on people and solutions.

Design thinking is applied to all kinds of problems in fields as diverse as education, business, technology and health care. In the social work field, the aim is social change and innovation.

People first

For Villanueva, inspiration for her capstone project arose from her work at the American Indian Counseling Center.

One client’s story in particular stands out.

The young man told her the story of being brought into a juvenile detention center. There, justice system-involved youth were sorted by race into one of three groups or “pods”: white, African American, and Hispanic. With no Native American pod as an option, staff placed him in the Hispanic pod.

“He felt unheard and unseen for who he was,” Villanueva said. “He had no knowledge about Hispanic culture; didn’t know how to speak Spanish and had no ties to that racial group. He was from a native tribe in Oklahoma.”

That initial feeling of alienation can have lasting repercussions, as Villanueva often sees with her native clients who reject programs or services meant to help them transition back to school and into their communities.

“They just don’t feel connected,” she said.

While L.A. County has programs in collaboration with the juvenile justice system,  few tackle issues in a way that resonates with Native Americans. Programs tailored toward native youth tend to be located in or around reservations or rural areas, and don’t extend to urban centers like Los Angeles.

Working on larger scale social problems is a natural extension of Villanueva’s career in the field. After earning bachelor’s degree in social work from California State University, Long Beach and master’s degree in social work from California State University, Northridge, she wanted to earn her doctorate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to expand her efforts beyond the one-on-one to a macro-level practice.

The Rising Spirits Program may be one way to shift the conversation to the specific needs of justice system-involved Native American youth. While she’s still working out the details, she envisions programs guided by native elders that include common spiritual practices like healing circles, storytelling, smudging, and drumming. Exclusive native youth pods within the juvenile detention centers will include culturally appropriate interventions.  A post-decarceration case management process will support the native youth for a year after being released from juvenile detention centers.  Summer internships within large corporations will allow native youth to engage on hands-on skills building, improve their self-esteem, and gain invaluable work experience. A youth mentoring program will provide additional support.

It’s about providing psychological, emotional and spiritual support to this overlooked group of young people, all toward the greater goal of reducing repeat offenses.

As someone who moved to the United States from Spain as a youth, Villanueva understands the chasm that can exist between cultures and feels a kinship to the Native American individuals and families she serves at the center.

Over the past year-and-a-half she has worked with them, she sees the lack of cultural support firsthand and wants to bring that into the spotlight.

That’s not to say that conventional, evidence-based practices can’t help Native Americans, too. But when those are supplemented by a cultural-centered reintegration, Villanueva believes they’ll be even more successful.

Creating Impact

As Villanueva puts the final touches on her capstone project, she hopes to bring more attention – and funding – to the challenges faced by native youth who have been incarcerated. A first step will be her upcoming presentation to the American Indian/Alaska Native subcommittee of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Underserved Cultural Communities Unit.

“There has to be more exposure of the challenges facing these communities and what we're trying to do,” she said.

For Islam, it’s all part of a greater effort to push DSW students in their understanding of how society functions as whole and what beliefs underpin those functions.

“We’re here to challenge norms and develop innovative solutions to the grand challenges facing social work,” she said.

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)