The following is an excerpt from the Fall 2022 edition of Partnering for Change, the Rutgers SSW Alumni Magazine. The theme of this edition is “Social Workers are Everywhere”. You can view this and other articles from this issue by clicking here.
There’s no such thing as a typical social worker, and nowhere is that more evident than some of our faculty members’ unconventional work experiences and research projects. Whether their focus is on business, technology, politics, or something else entirely, these educators and professionals are helping to mold the School’s next generation of students into the most dynamic social workers yet. “The social workers of tomorrow will need to address our society’s challenges from a number of different angles,” says the School’s dean, Cathryn C. Potter. “The first step in achieving that goal is to surround our students with multidimensional educators.” Here, get to know just some of the nontraditional faculty that make the School such a vibrant place.
Marla Blunt-Carter, Associate Professor of Professional Practice Marla Blunt-Carter’s social work is steeped in politics. She follows in the footsteps of her father, activist, educator, and politician Theodore Blunt, who graduated from Rutgers School of Social Work in 1968 and held positions in the housing authority, a local school district, and Wilmington, Delaware, city council, where he served for nearly 25 years until his retirement in 2008. “I saw my dad serving in different positions, and never doing just one thing,” Blunt-Carter says. “He shaped the way I saw social work.” Upon receiving her MSW (also from Rutgers School of Social Work, just like her father), Blunt-Carter returned to her home state of Delaware and got involved in politics. She landed in then Senator Joe Biden’s office as a projects manager which, among other responsibilities, entailed creating programs to support nonprofits and serving as a liaison to community stakeholders. She later was selected to be one of the 50 state directors for the 2008 Obama/Biden presidential campaign, during which she organized fundraising events, developed a local media and communications strategy, and recruited over 1,000 volunteers to perform grassroots outreach in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Her expertise in social work, coupled with this experience, earned her a spot in the Obama administration as a senior agency liaison. During the spring 2022 semester, she put her political savvy to work in a five-week political social work course. “It aligns with the social work code of ethics, which says that social workers should be involved in political and social action,” she says. “I’m trying to bring to attention the fact that politics isn’t something that only a few social workers should be involved in, but rather, that all social workers should be aware of the policies that affect society, how they’re created, how we can inform those policies, and possibly how we can draft and enact them ourselves as elected officials.” One of Blunt-Carter’s goals is to demystify the political arena for her students and instill in them the belief that the skills they’re learning as social workers are the same skills desperately needed in political spaces. Indeed, whether they’re working with a client or advocating for an entire community, Blunt-Carter believes that social workers must understand where programs get their funding, identify public advocates, and become a part of policy making. “I want social workers to understand that political knowledge is as important as any other skill,” she says. “The 21st century social work student is ready for a movement. I want to contribute to their knowledge in some way so they can do this great work that is needed now more than ever.”
Mark Lamar, Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Executive Director of the Office of Field Education When Mark Lamar arrived at the School of Social Work for his MSW in the 1970s, he mentioned to a professor that he didn’t have any relevant experience; between earning his undergraduate degree and starting graduate school, he supervised Teamsters in a construction warehouse. “That’s common for social work students, to always apologize for whatever they’ve done before, if they believe it’s not directly related to social work,” he says. “The truth is that everything informs your social work, and I challenge you to find ways in which any previous experience isn’t social work in some way.” As it turns out, Lamar’s extensive business background is unconventional but has proven invaluable in teaching the next generation of social workers. As executive director of a multiservice health care, education, and social service corporation in Mercer County, New Jersey, Lamar was immersed in the business of running a nonprofit, including fundraising, marketing, and administration. And while the budget was always top of mind, he also developed a keen interest in human resources, specifically how employees are trained, compensated, and rewarded. “I saw the value of the counseling part of what we did, but also the relationship between a happy, well-trained, satisfied workforce and good quality health care outcomes,” he says. Today, this correlation is central to Lamar’s teaching philosophy. “I see my students as the upcoming workforce,” he says. “They are the organizational leaders of tomorrow, so teaching them management skills, strategic planning, finance, and organizational assessment is important. These students are ready to help, but they also have to be well-trained and high-performing successful employees of all kinds of organizations, whether it’s health care, government, school systems, or nonprofits.” In his classes, Lamar utilizes business cases to help students understand how to run a budget and manage employees. These cases run the gamut from nonprofit mergers to buying, renovating, and budgeting for a school. Part of the goal here is to also invite students to believe in themselves and their business skills, so they can envision themselves working with a board, developing personnel policies, and running nonprofits, whether they’re working with a budget that’s $200,000 or $50 million. “In the end, social workers are stewards of the programs for people who need them, and it’s up to social workers to advocate for the resources to keep these programs going,” Lamar says. “So I always say that social workers should have everything to do with the financial, human resources, training, and other business aspects of running a successful corporation.”
Woojin Jung, Assistant Professor and Core Faculty, Global Health Institute Woojin Jung became interested in social work when she realized that many of the world’s social safety nets weren’t reaching families in need. “Particularly in developing countries, even if you have the best intention to identify vulnerable populations, it’s very hard to reach them because of a lack of data,” she explains. For example, the most recent census data in Lebanon is 80 years old, she says; and even in countries that do collect ongoing national data, it’s incredibly difficult to glean insights about individual communities. When a crisis like COVID-19 hits, organizations don’t have years to generate data in the old-fashioned ways. That’s why Jung’s research focuses on utilizing social media and computer imaging to enhance prediction of poverty, and ultimately help match public resources with vulnerable communities around the world. The benefits of social media are fairly obvious: data is generated frequently, and many posts are geolocated. Jung tracks topics like job loss, famine, and hunger, and matches these topics to very specific areas. For one project, Jung collected all the Twitter data from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia over the course of three years and utilized this data to locate populations in need. But this method does have its drawbacks. “You need a computer or phone, electricity, and the internet to generate social media posts,” Jung points out. “So while it can be telling when a certain district has two posts in one week and another has 14,000 posts, it does limit the data we can generate from some of the poorest areas.” That’s why Jung also utilizes satellite imaging, which is collected at least twice a week (sometimes daily) and can reveal roads, water sources, building footprints, and other attributes associated with development. “You can also see illumination at night,” she says. “In the least-developed areas, it will be pitch black at night, and this can help us identify which areas might need more help.” Artificial intelligence is also deployed here, specifically via an intuitive machine-learning method that detects features that signal poverty to local people, such as unpaved roads. She then can put this data to work for various organizations. In Zambia, for example, Jung is working with the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services to identify poor districts that need resources like fertilizers and seeds. “Right now, because of a lack of data, all the districts are getting similar amounts of seed,” she says. “This is not ideal, because aid is not being deployed in proportion to poverty.” Instead, the Ministry is seeking poverty estimates at the district level so they can adjust their upcoming budget to allow for increased aid in the neediest districts. “Industries like finance and IT use these advanced methods,” Jung says. “The humanitarian sector is far behind, but we have human life at stake. We are the ones that need to use these methods the most.”
Karun K. Singh, Professor of Teaching Karun K. Singh’s path to social work was a winding one. Originally interested in English literature, he switched gears and pursued a degree in psychology when he arrived in the United States from his home in Mumbai, India. But something still wasn’t clicking. “I wasn’t sure what to do next, and a professor recommended I explore social work,” he recalls. “My reaction was, what’s that?” After one visit to the career center, Singh was hooked. “I read about social work and I loved it,” he says. “Once I finished my MSW, I realized that I loved macro level work and wanted to focus on management and leadership in human services and health care organizations.” Singh’s interest in nonprofit management led to the development of the Singh Strategic Planning Measure for Excellence (SSPMX), an evidence-based survey instrument designed to help nonprofit human service organizations achieve superior performance. The SSPMX is a questionnaire and planning tool for key stakeholders, such as executive directors and board members, which includes 10 main process tasks and a glossary of terms. With the completion of each major process task, participants can articulate a desired planning outcome that has been achieved. “While my instrument is meant for organizational-level strategic planning, you can also use it at the program level,” Singh points out. For example, the NYC Police Foundation’s Options program, which helps the city’s youth build decision-making skills and access career development opportunities, began using the SSPMX this summer to optimize its operations. Singh was also tapped to provide assistance as a board member of Wynona’s House, a prominent New Jersey child advocacy center, which also started using the SSPMX over the summer to help facilitate its strategic planning process. For Singh, it’s all about adapting and applying the best possible business practices to the nonprofit sector and running nonprofits like successful for-profit organizations—with one caveat. “In the for-profit sector, executives are hoping to beat out their competitors, but I want my students to learn how to design strategic collaborations among compatible partners,” he says. “There’s a growing recognition that no single organization can solve seemingly intractable challenges on its own. It’s going to take a focused coalition of agencies coming together to implement effective solutions, including nonprofits, government agencies, and local businesses.” Singh’s students learn the nuts and bolts of management practice and theory, and then put that knowledge to work in various case studies. They learn fundraising and marketing. And they learn to perceive and analyze organizations like humans—as complex systems that must adapt and change with their environments. “I’m training my students to become advanced, research-informed managers and leaders in the field of human and health care services,” he says. In May 2022, his students voted for him to receive the Outstanding Professor award in the Management and Policy specialization at graduation.