The Power of Place


Photo of Boston’s Innovation District courtesy Paul Giamou – Getty Images

By Stephanie Berzin and Tom Crea

Our school’s Fall 2015 magazine highlights innovators who inhabit new arenas in social work, finding novel ways, as Dean Godenzi writes, “to effect change at tables and in spaces across the globe.” At BC Social Work, our points of entry may differ—we are social workers, neuroscientists, public health scholars, social entrepreneurs, sociologists, managers, clinicians and executives, practitioners and researchers—but our motivation is the same: to build a more just world.

In order for us to be successful, we recognize that, more than dwelling only in metaphorical space, geographic place matters deeply; social science research demonstrates that where someone lives and works can have an impact on educational and health outcomes, even imagination and hope.

By drawing on this power of place, our school has built a set of partnerships to put place-based collaboration at the center of our work. Beginning this past summer, we are exploring and building spaces that bridge research and practice on our Chestnut Hill campus, and off campus, with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston (CCAB) and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimac Valley.

At home, we’re imagining a shared “Google-like” ideas accelerator space designed to bring internal talent together to spark new thinking and collaborations. We’ll also invite practitioners and community members with whom we work to enter this space to add their unique, informed voices to our conversations. Their perspectives can only broaden our own.

The second space will be at the Yawkey Center in Dorchester, a resilient, passionate Boston neighborhood in constant battle with the realities of holding one of the city’s highest rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime. Here, BC Social Work will conduct research rooted in the needs of local residents, while seeking to improve upon our own cultural competence and practice.

We are both serving in leadership roles at the third space in Boston’s coveted Innovation District, home to the city’s best in technology, design, and biotech. From these offices, BC Social Work will work with the vast United Way portfolio and other Boston nonprofits to inspire innovation from within these organizations, with the end goal of maximizing positive impact in some of the most vulnerable communities in Boston and beyond.

This collaboration with the United Way provides particular value from our perspectives as practitioner and researcher. We envision real opportunities to actively bridge the divide between these two worlds that so often seem to exist on separate planets, and to do so over the course of a long-term relationship with a distinguished and well-respected organization. By combining innovation with evaluation, we hope to shape new relationships between social scientist and practitioner. Instead of “research informing practice,” we hope that “research will become integrated with practice,” as social service agencies come together with the United Way, with Boston College, and with professionals in innovation to find solutions to the city’s social issues.

The fact that this novel forum exists in the Innovation District provides us with the opportunity to take advantage of a space not often considered in circles of social work education and inquiry, and to mine the technology and business sectors for their knowledge, skill sets, and, in particular, for their ideas on social entrepreneurship. We also have the chance to gain a foothold in their place, and remind them that, as citizen innovators of our world, we all have a responsibility to care for those who may be less fortunate. There’s no doubt that having cutting-edge enterprise on your side is a significant asset for making things happen.

Ultimately, though, innovation won’t matter unless we can find a way to empower communities to address their most pressing challenges from within. Already, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimac Valley works day in and day out to do just this, through its oversight of more than 200 independent health and human service agencies. We look forward to offering our resources to enhance and expand their already significant influence.

Of course, when we dream about how we might define ultimate success for this project, we think broadly about our potential to shape our field: How can we become a symbol for future work between the academy and the world outside? If we can inspire other partners to replicate a truly integrative and collaborative model in future contexts, and apply it to serving those living at the margins in the spaces and places where they reside, that would be a game changer.

Berzin-head-shottom-crea-headshotStephanie Berzin is the co-director of the Center for Social Innovation at BC Social Work, and a designated “Change Leader” by Ashoka. Thomas Crea is the chair of BC Social Work’s Global Practice program. Together, they are leading the school’s collaboration with the United Way.

This column is reprinted with permission from BC Social Work Magazine. Visit the online version of this year’s edition and read more about our school’s changemakers — the faculty, students, and alumni who are devoting their lives to creating social change.   

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