Q&A: Tom Crea on Global Social Work, and Bridging the Research/ Practice Gap

Crea in Jerusalem

Crea in Jerusalem

This year, Associate Professor Tom Crea was named Chair of the Boston College School of Social Work’s Global Practice program. Since arriving in Chestnut Hill in 2007, Crea has established himself as a leader in the blossoming field of global social work, and he has continued to conduct groundbreaking research with organizations across the world.

Some of Crea’s international research projects include: work on conditional cash transfers for orphans and vulnerable children in Zimbabwe; on livelihoods support for urban refugees in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa; and tertiary education for camp-based refugees in Kenya and Malawi, and for urban refugees in Amman, Jordan.

Here, Crea speaks with BC Social Work on how the university’s Jesuit mission has inspired him to develop new perspectives, his work directing the Global Practice program and the students that make it tick, and bridging the “research and practice gap.”

During your seven years at Boston College, you’ve become a leader in global practice, and you’ve established yourself as a compassionate resource for students looking to enter into clinical practice. In short, your diverse skills have allowed you to cast a wide net here. Talk about what BC means to you.  

What I appreciate most about Boston College is its Jesuit framework. The School of Social Work, in particular, is devoted to providing a rigorous course of academic inquiry to prepare its graduates to serve those living at the margins of society. As an academic with a background as a clinical social worker, I’m inspired by the idea of “research as intervention” – that research itself can be a positive force for change.

The Jesuit mission is one that of course has unfolded across the globe, and this global perspective permeates so much of what we do here in the Global Practice program. This work has changed me. Before coming to BC, I had very little global work experience; my undergraduate and master’s programs were in Georgia, and I served as a social worker there too, before heading to the University of North Carolina for my doctoral work. Now, I’m able to say that I’m working directly with colleagues in places as diverse as South Africa, Kenya, and Jordan. It’s remarkable.

Tell us more about your role as Global Practice Chair.

It’s an exciting time to be thinking about global practice in social work. This is a new field: Social workers are now at the table providing insight and expertise on all sorts of societal issues that affect the world on the whole, not just the communities in which we live and work. Jobs that were previously only filled by those with public health and international development backgrounds are now being filled by MSWs, and this makes sense. Those with a background in social work have unique tools and critical perspectives to offer to the conversation, particularly when it comes to bridging programmatic macro thinking with clinical skills and approaches.

BC has been a true leader in establishing a global social work program. We’re continually evaluating what our core competencies are as social work educators, and matching these competencies with the skills we see as being needed in the international job market. We then seek to build these skills in our students while they’re here. One way we do this, of course, is through our international field education placements.

Crea with colleagues in Zimbabwe

Crea with Catholic Relief Services staff in Manicaland Province, Zimbabwe

This is a unique program that BC offers.

That’s right. Since it’s inception in 2006, students have served communities on five different continents, at refugee camps, child maltreatment programs, women’s empowerment programs, and non-profit policymakers, to name just a few of the wide range of social service agencies in our global network. We work closely with the Jesuit Refugee Service, and recently, we were leaders in developing a campus-wide relationship with Catholic Relief Services ensuring that Boston College students will continue to go out and make a difference in places that truly need them.

Our partnerships represent a unique strength for Boston College, and our students continue to impress with the contributions they provide to the organizations we work with. They’re a cross-culturally-minded group, devoted to building shared understandings, and they’re global ambassadors intent on partnering for a common good.

I have great ambitions for this program as we continue to move forward. I hope that we can expand our outreach to the greater BC community in innovative ways, so that more students can see what we’re doing, and recognize the impact we’re having on our world. And then, join us.

I also would love to expand our own definition of global practice to include local placements here in Boston – there are many opportunities to work with refugees and with immigrants here, and I look forward to exploring these further. Already, we’ve formed strong partnerships with Westy Egmont’s Immigrant Immigration Lab, Rocio Calvo’s Latino Leadership Initiative, and Tiziana Dearing and Stephanie Berzin’s Center for Social Innovation, and we aim to build upon these in the coming years.

Despite all of your responsibilities as Global Practice Chair, you’re still finding time for your own research. What are you currently working on?

One project I’m working on that I’m really excited about is called Jesuit Commons – Higher Education at the Margins. This unique pilot program (launched in 2010) is looking at innovative ways of making higher education accessible to populations living in refugee camps and in rural areas through an online platform. Faculty members from across the world volunteer their time to teach courses in a three-year diploma program. My job has been to evaluate the program, see how it’s working and how we can improve upon it. I recently went to Kakuma Camp in Kenya, and Dzaleka Camp in Malawi where I interviewed both refugees and staffers as part of my evaluation. I’ll be presenting my findings at an upcoming meeting in February 2015.

A lot of the research I do is directed toward “system strengthening” for programs dedicated to improving social welfare. For example, I recently worked with the Ministry of Social Affairs in Palestine to help them to determine how to better devote resources to those who need them. Social workers there are inundated with work attached to delivering cash transfers to the extremely poor, and find themselves with little time to do much else. We’re trying to figure out how to reallocate resources so that other needs are addressed. It’s not easy of course, from a policy perspective, and it’s certainly not easy for the overworked social workers who are unable to do the jobs they’ve been trained for. In a similar vein, I’m currently working with Catholic Relief Services, along with doctoral student Drew Reynolds, to help them articulate a strategy for strengthening social service systems around the world. One of the main challenges is figuring out how to integrate disparate services to meet a variety of needs and populations.

How does your own clinical background, working directly with people living at the margins, affect your work as a researcher/ academic?

I remember when I was 26 or 27 years old, directly out of my MSW program, I found myself working in a resource-poor area (by U.S. standards) with families in crisis. It was overwhelming at times, and there wasn’t very much guidance in the literature about how to become an effective practitioner in the kind of environment I was in. I’d love to be able to help provide concrete recommendations based in evidence for future clinicians, and I hope that my research will lead to data-driven solutions to help a new generation of social workers, whether they’re hard at work in rural Georgia, or at a refugee camp in Malawi. In the context of the Jesuit network, I recently coined the term “evidence-informed mission work” to describe how social workers and others can best accompany the vulnerable, using the best scientific evidence available. I believe it’s my niche, or better, it’s become my job to help to bridge the research and practice gap. This is a job that I take very seriously.

The Boston College School of Social Work partners with international relief and development organizations to place students in international field placements. As a Global Practice student, you may provide training and support to case managers serving refugees and asylum seekers; draft immigration policies; help develop programs to prevent trafficking of children; write grant proposals, or evaluate the impact of housing programs on women, among other activities. We invite you to learn more about our Global Practice Concentration.


3 thoughts on “Q&A: Tom Crea on Global Social Work, and Bridging the Research/ Practice Gap

  1. Pingback: Best in Mental Health (12/29/2014 - 1/11/2015) - Social Work Career.Tips

  2. Pingback: Best in Mental Health (12/29/2014 - 1/11/2015) - SocialWork.Career

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