Moving the Needle

Gautam N. Yadama, the ninth dean of the Boston College School of Social Work.

Gautam N. Yadama, the ninth dean of the Boston College School of Social Work.

New Dean Gautam Yadama Begins Tenure Eager to Build on Existing Successes

This July, Boston College named the gifted scholar and teacher Gautam N. Yadama as dean of the School of Social Work.

Yadama comes to BC from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, where he served as a professor and assistant vice chancellor for international affairs. During more than 25 years at the Brown School, Yadama built a strong reputation as a researcher in the field of global social work, venturing into places across Europe and Asia to examine the interplay between local communities themselves and the government and nongovernmental organizations that serve them, towards creating effective interventions to address the most pressing social ills.

Yadama’s strong interest in international social work is rooted in his own upbringing in India, as well as a career dedicated to solving social issues in countries all over the world. Fluent in English, Telugu, and Hindi, Yadama has also served as director of international programs at the Brown School and as a visiting professor in India, Nepal, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, and the Republic of Georgia. 

In this Q&A with Innovate, he discusses why he decided to come to Boston College at this stage in his career, his hopes for the continued success and growth of the school, and his philosophies on education and leadership.

Thank you Dean Yadama for taking the time to speak with us today. We are delighted that you have started here at Boston College, and look forward to learning more about your vision for the school in the coming weeks, months, and years. Tell us about why now was the right time for you to take on this position, following 25 years at The Brown School at Washington University (St. Louis).

Gautam Yadama: Now is such a critical time for our field; it is a time when we are called to tackle a multitude of complex problems that have remained unaddressed for decades and that have perpetuated social, economic, and health inequalities. The profession of social work must innovate inclusively with those embedded in these problems and suffering as well as with other allied disciplines, in order to find ways to build productive societies. This we must do here in the neighborhoods of Boston, in the favelas of Rio, in the aimags of Mongolia, or in the slums of Mumbai.

In 2016, in new and exciting ways, schools of social work across the world have the tools to effect positive change for impact never before seen, and Boston College is at the forefront of those institutions thinking differently about how to engage and collaborate with the most vulnerable. Already, I’ve noticed that BCSSW has a critical mass of faculty with a focus on working with our newest immigrants and refugee populations. With our strength in clinical practice and place-based social work, there is enormous opportunity for social work innovations from the individual to the community. To strengthen our communities that are socially and economically dislocated for many decades, we have to meld interventions from regional and community development to improve the livelihoods, health, and mental health of people that have been marginalized. Lessons from our research and practice here at home are relevant for our work abroad and vice versa. Our Global Practice emphasis and a focus on social innovations gives us that possibility to take lessons from one place and apply it elsewhere to leverage practical knowledge across geographies and societies.

In returning to the roots of social work practice, we emphasize solution-based social work to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities. BCSSW is a place where a strong clinical focus intersects with our know-how of social and economic institutions and communities to help scale our interventions for the greater good. Micro and macro practice are rooted in the traditions of social work – we should not choose one path at the expense of the other. For the common good, we need functioning individuals and families as well as communities. At Boston College, it’s already so clear to me that the clinical informs the macro, and the macro’s roots are firmly entrenched in the clinical. This is what is so exciting to me about this place: with the right innovations and careful calibration, we can move the needle on solving some of the most intractable social issues of our day. Change starts here, in the classrooms of McGuinn Hall and in the work we undertake with our partner organizations around the City of Boston, and abroad.

You speak often about the imperative for social workers to work within the communities in which they serve; as you mentioned, it’s an explicit part of the mission of our school’s many programs and partnerships that we champion. Tell us more about why this is so important.

GY: Too often in the past, our profession on the whole has gone into communities with a normative point of view, mistakenly believing that what we’ve learned should provide all the answers to solve a problem. What if we pause and give space to those embedded in the social dilemmas to tell us about their perspectives on the problem and possible solutions? It is a powerful act of empowering. It is a genuine invitation to collaborate towards a common goal to improve the quality of life.

I think that we forget sometimes that all of us are not that different, in that we all want every day to be a better day. But where we do diverge is in our understanding of just what a better day may be and what are the means to get there.

I truly believe that if we can understand the viewpoints of those who are steeped in a problem, and who must face the realities associated with these problems each and every day, we will be much better equipped to help them to find the kind of better life that they seek. Even as they may share a reality based in poverty, the recent refugee who has arrived at Logan Airport speaking no English and carrying no possessions may have very different hopes and dreams than the subsistence farmer toiling away in the sun-battered fields of rural India. If we can better understand how the world works for each of these individuals and their communities, we can begin to do the work necessary to empower them to create those better lives many so optimistically seek.

First and foremost, we do this work here in Boston because we serve the communities who welcome us. This is critically, and most fundamentally, important. But even beyond this, there is an opportunity to think bigger so that the work we do here can help to inform work people are doing with the disenfranchised elsewhere. Time and time again, in my role as principal investigator on international border-spanning research projects, I’ve seen how like-minded academics and practitioners have taken the lessons learned from colleagues far away and applied them successfully to create positive interventions at home.

Yadama at work with a community in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Yadama at work with a community in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Collaboration is also very important to you – it has marked your work from your early days as a practitioner at the Federation for Community Planning in the Hough Neighborhood of Cleveland, to your most recent position at Washington University in St. Louis. Tell us more about the imperative to work together, across the academic/practice line, and across disciplines alike.

GY: As I mentioned before, the problems that we are being called to address are ever more complicated. But just because problems are more complicated, doesn’t mean that we are less compelled to understand them fully. I’ve seen firsthand in my work in agencies like the Federation for Community Planning that good intervention is always based firmly in a good understanding of the problem and of the community itself.

As practitioners and administrators and professors in social work, like anyone in any profession, we have our limits. The closer we get to the edges of our knowledge, the more our ability to design interventions at a high level is challenged, and it’s here, at this juncture, where we often begin to fail the people we serve. The good news is, we have the opportunity to join hands with our cognate disciplines to fill in the knowledge gaps when they come up, and develop innovative, real-life solutions that make a difference. It’s so exciting to see that Boston College Social Work is already doing this, through collaborations with the fields of neuroscience, public health, nursing, the environment, and immigration, to name just a few.

Trans-disciplinary practice and research is the future of social work expanding on the rich tradition and foundations of social work practiced by the likes of Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and Frances Perkins in the early days and later by Ruby Pernell or Herman Stein. All of them responded to the social imperatives of their day, but forged an understanding of social work practice as collaborative and they recognized the need to work with communities and other disciplines to address critical social challenges at home and abroad.

My own research is grounded in understanding and forging interventions to solve present day challenges of the rural poor in India. The challenges of the poor in rural India do not come in neat packages confined to the disciplines of social work, public health, environmental studies, or law. For instance, the poor are forging livelihoods from land they might only have tenuous rights over. In order to secure their livelihoods, we have to mobilize communities to adopt and sustain new social, health, and technical practices that are difficult to sustain. Therefore collaboration with families and communities and allied disciplines is essential to produce lasting improvements in the lives of the poor.

As is the case for so many of us, your current position as dean of BCSSW is deeply, and widely, informed by your past life and work. Tell us about the origins of your foray into social work, and how your life’s work will inform your philosophy as dean.  

GY: As a very young person growing up in Hyderabad, India I attended a Jesuit school, St. Patrick’s, where the fathers and brothers instilled in me the core values of service. From that early age, I have been keenly aware of the crushing realities of poverty and my responsibility as a citizen of the world to try to find ways to alleviate them.

Also very early in my life and later, in my twenties, I remember spending time with my father who worked as a forester and later on in forest policy, and I began to see that beyond the biophysical beauty – the actual trees that my father cared about – were communities of people dependent of these forests for their living. It was then that I had an early epiphany – that even the wilderness was more than just trees and thickly forested space – it was the people who resided there. Of course there is a rich tradition of seeing forest and human linkages, but we all have to discover these connections for ourselves.

Since then, I’ve tried to adapt the perspective that, in everything I do, it is always the people who matter first – whether on a data collection project helping non-profits better understand their clients in Cleveland’s neighborhoods, or researching the social, health, and environmental effects of cook stoves on women, children, and communities in rural India, or serving as dean of the School of Social Work here at Boston College.

I believe that it is a dean’s job to channel the school’s collective vision and ensure that everything we do is leading us closer to realizing that vision. For this reason, I am currently on a listening tour of the school, because I know, from all my life experiences, to realize the BC Social Work we aspire to, we must build it on a set of shared ideas, and collaboration.

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