UB’s School of Social Work establishes Institute on Sustainable Global Engagement

People with disabilities at a meeting in Moldova.

Through the efforts of the UB School of Social Work's Institute on Sustainable Global Engagement, organizations in Moldova are supporting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Release Date: March 31, 2014 This content is archived.

“This work is important because people around the world are united by similar issues and concerns. ”
Laura Lewis, director of field education, School of Social Work
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Two professors in the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work have launched a graduate student and research institute to encourage global activities that extend trauma-informed treatment, human rights perspectives and other themes championed by the UB school to other parts of the world.

The Institute on Sustainable Global Engagement is the brainchild of Laura Lewis, director of field education, and Filomena Critelli, associate professor.

“After seeing faculty and students involved in an increasing number of global activities, we felt it was important to make these more visible,” says Lewis.  

“We have students completing their social work practicum in other parts of the world — Macedonia, Thailand, South Korea — and a growing number of partnerships with non-governmental organizations and schools of social work.  These experiences can be transformative for students and for participating faculty.”

Lewis says the institute will encourage students and faculty to think about social problems more broadly and learn new ways of responding to these concerns. 

“Our study abroad trip to the post-Soviet Republic of Moldova, for example, increases our understanding about what is happening on the world stage and events in Ukraine,” says Lewis. “We hope to further attract innovative projects and partnerships. This work is important because people around the world are united by similar issues and concerns.”

The new institute begins its work with an International Association of Schools of Social Work-funded project regarding transnational migration. The project will examine the experiences of transnational families who live for prolonged periods of separation due to the migration of one family member. This phenomenon is one by-product of an increasingly globalized world and illustrates the ways in which a global lens is increasingly necessary to understand and address social problems, according to Lewis and Critelli.

The institute’s planned activities include research and partnerships that emphasize cross-national collaboration to address educational opportunities. There will be cross -national research projects, faculty research and scholarship focused on global issues that identify innovative social work and multidisciplinary responses to them.

“Social workers need to be more knowledgeable and have an understanding of the larger political and social issues that are going on in the world,” Critelli says.

“We really recognize that as social workers — and preparing people to work in social work — there is a need for a greater global perspective to the work,” Critelli says. “So much of what we do is very connected to globalization and to global trends.”

“Our School of Social Work emphasizes ‘from local to global’ in its mission statement,” says Lewis. “So it’s building on the current existing foundation of the school’s global activities, emphasizing our curricular focus on a trauma-informed — and human rights issues.”

A trauma-informed approach recognizes that trauma is present in a large percentage of the population and works to avoid repeating the trauma. A human rights perspective complements this approach and is fundamental to social work because of its emphasis on universality of rights on the basis of being human. The rights-based approach represents a shift from looking at social problems, such as poverty or lack of education, as “needs” to understanding them as “rights for all,” emphasizing the need for respect and advocacy to ensure these rights.

“We see these ideas integrated in the work of our colleagues in other parts of the world and have much to learn from them,” says Lewis.

“When you live your life in one country, it’s easy to lose sight of all the ways you are privileged. Working in an academic institution in the U.S., we have access to resources.  I’ve seen people doing great work in countries like Moldova, where Amazon.com does not deliver.  The books we can share and materials make a tremendous difference there.  But you see people doing tremendous work. These people are being forces for social change, supporting the rights of people — people with disabilities, for example — building community supports where there have not been any before.”

Colleagues at Prerana, an NGO in India that operates a shelter for children of brothel workers in Mumbai, asked the young residents what they think social workers need to learn.

“Social workers should ensure that they possess a non-judgmental attitude and do not force their choices upon children,” the residents answered.

“And that really sums it up,” says Lewis.

The two social work professors are connected around their shared interest in international social work. Critelli launched a course on this topic in the School of Social Work in 2008.

One of Critelli’s particular areas of expertise has been research based in Pakistan, where she has chronicled how women’s activism has helped curb dramatic widespread violations of women’s rights.

In India, after meeting with social workers at a college, a hospital and several non-governmental organizations, Critelli and Lewis learned their Indian counterparts take a different approach. Not only do they work with clients on an individual basis, they also go back and advocate on a governmental level for changes in policy.

“We don't often operate that way in the U.S.,” Lewis says.

The two also have twice traveled together to India, where they saw many innovative programs and witnessed firsthand the application of human rights approaches to address such social problems as child labor and commercial sexual exploitation. 

They are seeking ways to sustain partnerships with these organizations to promote professional and scholarly exchanges, and engage in joint research to seek solutions to these issues.

“As social workers, we care about the equitable distribution of resources, we care about the needs of marginalized populations and we care about basic human rights,” says Lewis. “We see work being done that is truly inspiring and there is always potential for collaboration.  I get excited about bringing together faculty, practitioners and students using online tools.  Technology makes it possible to continue conversations from a distance; conversations that first began face-to-face.”

Currently, the two are working on a project related to transnational migration, with post-Soviet countries as their focus.

For more information on the Institute on Sustainable Global Engagement, visit the institute’s website at http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/research/isge/ or contact center directors Lewis at lalewis@buffalo.edu and Critelli at fmc8@buffalo.edu.

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