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Sustainability takes spotlight at ASU-hosted social work educators conference

Assistant Professor, Shanondora Billiot, School of Social Work, Lisa Reyes Mason, GADE, conference

Shanondora Billiot (left), assistant professor of social work at ASU, speaks with interim Dean Lisa Reyes Mason of the University of Denver after Reyes Mason's keynote remarks at the annual GADE conference in April on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Mark J. Scarp/ASU

April 25, 2024

The academic discipline of social work not only educates future social workers who help people cope with life’s challenges — it also advances research that furthers social change.

To further that mission, roughly 70 directors of university programs that prepare the future leaders of the profession — the earners of doctoral degrees in social work — gathered this month at Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus for the prestigious Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) annual conference.

Its theme “Sustainability in Social Work Doctoral Education” reflects the evolving, and somewhat surprising, challenges surrounding sustainability that affect how social work educators are preparing professionals for the present and future, a conference organizer said.

When people hear the word “sustainability,” they often think of environmental sustainability, said David Androff, an ASU professor who supervises the university’s social work doctoral program, adding that we don't always consider the political, financial, economic, social and community dimensions of sustainability.

“It’s an under-explored role for social work to play," Androff explained. "The hard sciences tend to dominate the conversation, yet every sustainability issue has a social work component.”

GADE supports PhD and Doctor of Social Work programs at research universities, such as ASU, that educate students for careers as researchers and educators, Androff said.

“GADE has grappled with supporting newer-practice doctorate programs, which are offered by a range of universities and are in the process of being accredited by the Council of Social Work Education. Scholars discussed the future of doctoral education in light of these trends,” he said.

Androff moderated a rare panel of past, present and future GADE presidents, who discussed the current state of the art in social work doctoral education. Panelists included ASU School of Social Work Director and Distinguished Professor of Social Policy Elizabeth Lightfoot; Professors Mo Yee Lee of Ohio State University and G. Lawrence Farmer of Fordham University; current GADE President Denise Burnette of Virginia Commonwealth University; and incoming President Mimi Chapman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The conference keynote speaker, interim Dean Lisa Reyes Mason of the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, said social workers should start with being mindful of their interconnectedness with the world around them.

She told the gathering that “sustainability is increasingly a subject that doctoral students want to study and write about and teach.”

Reyes Mason cited several sustainability issues that social work leaders should concentrate on in their work and study, including water insecurity, air pollution, increasing levels of greenhouse gases, climate change and the practice of “redlining” in local zoning.

The consequences of such issues are vast, Reyes Mason said, and include food and water shortages, harms to physical and mental health, and detrimental effects to social connectivity and financial security.

Although she said she knew she was leaving her colleagues with “more questions than answers,” Reyes Mason advised them to “connect the dots, find hope and take action” on these pressing concerns by crafting localized, sustainable solutions for social workers to implement in their work.

Doctoral social work educators need to change how they teach about the Earth, she said.

Sustainability is a growing interest among social work doctoral students, said Reyes Mason, who recommended greater communication and collaboration among educators while offering more interdisciplinary experience and training.

Androff said these concerns will inform social work throughout the 21st century.

“Doctoral degree holders are the thought leaders of the entire field. They set the intellectual agenda,” Androff said. “They are the future of the academy in social work.”

Burnette and Chapman said before the gathering that doctoral social work educators must more fully embrace sustainability issues.

Burnette, whose term as president ends this year, said GADE members “are striving to prepare current cohorts of students to anticipate, welcome and plan for change by partnering with other disciplines and sectors to ensure high-quality, equitable and sustainable futures for all.”

Chapman said doctoral students need guidance from mentors to deal with a rapidly changing society that is rife with uncertainty.

“To be sustainable and sustaining, doctoral programs need to assist students with the range of career goals that they might have,” Chapman said. “Doctoral study is hard. So, even more important than the specifics is the reality that doctoral programs must function as entities that encourage students — encourage them to strive for excellence in their work, encourage them to develop meaningful scholarship that makes a difference, encourage them to support one another and to allow themselves to be supported, and to encourage them with the confidence that they can do hard things, and often even enjoy them.”

Lightfoot said the school was honored to welcome so many at the top of the social work discipline to ASU. 

“Hosting so many high-level academic leaders on campus allowed us to showcase our school’s world-class faculty,” Lightfoot said. “We also were able to introduce national leaders of our profession to the ASU Charter, which meshes very well with the tenets of social work.”

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