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Fostering equity for all Americans

September 19, 2016

The national elections of 2016 loom ever closer. Unlike the past half century, these elections are bringing the problems of inequity in American society into exceptional relief. That is why a seminal conference held last week at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is so very important. It can help each of us address which way and what actions we must take.

From September 14 to 16, the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University hosted the first ever joint conference on the 12 Grand Challenges for America. The 12 Grand Challenges Initiative reflects a broad-based effort, led by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and the social work community, to foster economic, social and health equity for all Americans. The projects range from promoting financial capability for all, to ending homelessness and social isolation, to ending health disparities.  (Please see my earlier blog for additional background.)

It will come as little surprise that conference participants viewed economic inequities as a root cause of social and health inequalities. Solutions to economic disparities must be broad-based, including macro structural interventions (e.g., Federal Reserve Bank monetary policy promoting full employment; planned increases in the minimum wage), as well as micro interventions (e.g., job and savings counseling; job training).

A very important lesson from the conference is that our local communities represent key leverage points for bringing together joint solutions to economic, social and health inequities. With appropriate empowerment and skill building, our communities can implement solutions that are well adapted to local circumstances. They also can build self esteem and support resiliency among local residents.

Promoting essential developments in national policy were staked out by participants to be of paramount importance. Importantly, the first round of this year’s presidential debates will be held at Washington University on September 26. A summary of the Grand Challenges Initiative will be prepared for the host, Anderson Cooper of CNN, together with key questions for both candidates. These questions will focus on the candidates’ detailed plans to address the major inequities in our society.

Participants also developed preliminary plans to develop a transition document for the new Presidential Administration detailing progress to date on the 12 Grand Challenges. This document will serve as a calling card for more in-depth discussions on how the initiative can partner with the government on key program efforts.

Participants sought to broaden involvement in the initiative to include other key national, state, county and city groups, and representatives of the communities most adversely impacted by inequities. These recommendations are fully in accord with typical practice in behavioral health programs.

Fundamental framework

The fundamental premise and goal of social justice—all people are valued equally—undergirds the 12 Grand Challenges Initiative. In this framework, benefits of improved equity can accrue to persons and families who have been subjected to disparities. They also can accrue to society more generally in the form of a better prepared labor force, enhanced capability to compete globally, and a larger domestic product. Hence, social justice promotes win-win outcomes.

Work now will continue by the teams for each of the 12 Grand Challenges to identify appropriate strategies and interventions. Teams also will explore potential synergies among the solutions for the different challenges. These teams previously had not met their counterparts on other challenges.  Much enthusiasm was expressed by all about the opportunity to work together going forward.

Dean Marilyn Flynn of the University of Southern California School of Social Work perhaps summarized it best, “I am completely delighted with the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment of all who are working on the Grand Challenges. This is a huge opportunity for social work to make a major contribution to America.”

Our hats are off to Michael Sherriaden and Lissa Johnson of the Washington University Brown School who developed and hosted the conference, and to all others who contributed to its success. This conference represents a key landmark in our efforts to improve equity and opportunity in America.

More online

See the 12 Grand Challenges listed here.

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