Grief and the Future of Social Work: An Invitation to Grow Together in Respect and Readiness

Photo taken by a doctor who goes by the Twitter handle @roto_tudor posted this photo in December 2020 – and explained that these were end of life stations being prepared at his hospital. The photo went viral with its simple yet staggering view of covid-19s’ realities.

In April of 2019, I had the privilege of getting to design a futures game for my dean colleagues of schools of social work around the United States. It was an interesting challenge – one that was intended to help everyone involved expand their thinking into various “what ifs” in the world around us – and in the face of these possibilities…what it might mean for social work as a profession to “be ready.”

One of the numerous scenarios in the game included a global pandemic in which 1/3 of the world’s population perished. This scenario was developed after studying the available projections of those studying the future of viruses and health. I played this game with my dean colleagues, but also across the United States at a series of events, conferences, etc. and heard social workers talking about it might mean to prepare for these kinds of possibilities…and just as challenging, what it means to not prepare. With regard to this particular prompt – we mused about what social work might best do to help “society” heal and recover from such a development. To a person, almost everyone who played the game would remark that we were no where near as ready as we needed to be.

And then, a year later, Covid-19 arrived, along with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (and others who came before and after them) – reflecting a breaking point for so many, dismayed and angry – and the related uprisings and community actions.

Like so many, I’ve thought a lot about this during the past year. I’ve thought about the almost incalculable grief, anger and both individual and shared trauma – as I continue to think about the future of the social work profession. What does it mean for our society to have a collective need to grieve and heal that is the result of multiplied wounds and traumas? And what, if anything, might our role be in offering the best of who we can be as a profession to simply help facilitate all that will need to happen to move forward. What is social work’s role in what happens next?

I watch the news go by – and story after story calibrating the complexity of what grieving means right now and in the years ahead. I note that we rarely have spaces to really “take in” what this all means for our communities, for our country – even as we fight for the election, for justice, for lives. Social workers all over the country are working in spaces where there has been an almost year long-covid-19-specific emergency and generations of racism and trauma prior to that.

As workers, we gather on Twitter or in other platforms and share our insights, our methods, our experiences – and early efforts at “sensemaking” are evolving for us across our profession. We compare how futile “the stages of grief” (as important as this framework may have been historically…) and related frameworks, feel right now at this moment.

I am thinking ahead as I chip away at the questions:

“Are we ready as social workers for what is and what is about to happen in terms of new levels of directly and indirectly expressed grief? (Both in individual and collective forms.)”

“What does being ready for the deep grief and anger that will inevitably evolve and appear in our world look like for the profession of social work?”

“What are the most important things we can we help each other learn and be inspired by right now, urgently, to make it through?”

“How do we honor the histories, identities, strengths, cultures and anger of the people who are grieving in the days and years to come?”

“How do we not fall into traps of ‘fixing’ or ‘rescuing’ but rather simply witnessing, getting out of the way of community solutions, interrupting privilege blinders, and investing ourselves in lifting up and supporting the voices of those most impacted right now?”

“How do we best respect the strengths of those who have been actively surviving and building health and racial justice movements and stand out of the way of these efforts, yet prove ourselves (as social workers) worthy of providing supports and expertise that is genuinely helpful?”

“How do we help to channel the grief of these times into social transformation, accountability and true justice that will do more to prevent such pain in the years to come?”

The beauty and power of the human spirit has long demonstrated its many ways to navigate grief and loss…and survive or even evolve for the better. But there are vulnerabilities so deeply exposed right now – built upon generations of loss and lack of investments, presence of racism and injustice.

This is a complicated time to be alive and seek change, healing and justice. Probably not useful is to think of this time like any other. We may need to think bigger, imagine more, potentially engage in a deeper and more humility-anchored review of our methods and maybe even “throw out” the playbook that dictates what individual or social grieving may look like according to those who established these “norms.” So often these have been developed in narrow and historical contexts that may or may not fit the world we’re in right now along with the world that is on its way. New ways of making progress, of marking, memorializing and processing “these times” are emerging – and they are powerful teachers. Among all the things we might consider doing, LEARNING for the time and space we are in may be among the most important.

This post is an invitation to join me in deepening your own commitment as a social worker to “be more ready” for the grief, anger and the evolution of the trauma of our times as it unfolds. This means being ready for it’s presence – as well as it’s powerful expressions and hopefully, the healing that will result.

It is an invitation to open up what you think you know about grief – and prepare to have it expanded dramatically, geometrically – exponentially, and to allow it to transform your own practice, and your own life towards anti-racism and liberation.

We must find our rest where we can, and prepare individually and collectively, for our role in the evolution of healing and justice that will needed ahead. Social work is a profession that operates throughout spaces where grief, loss and injustice are plentiful and deeply focused. But it is important that we also stand open to how much more we have to learn from what is happening around us.

If we are white, we have additional work to do to honor and learn from the particular complexities, strengths and power of BIPOC, Queer, and disabilities communities who have been living though collective trauma before covid-19 arrived, only to have it multiplied. We have work to do to promote and amplify solutions, methods and expressions related to grief that come from members and leaders in these communities – as they inevitably grow and flourish in the days and years to come. History shows us the clear sustaining power therein. And, we have work to do to interrupt the power and perspectives of privileged people who over-analyze and over-interpret how the problem and potential solutions – should be framed and acted upon.

To support this, I’ve gathered up items which are signals of how issues of grieving, collective trauma and anger at injustice along with related issues of healing and transformation are being framed and discussed in the academic literature and popular media. These are windows to help us consider more about the future of grieving, the future of trauma recovery, the future of healing…and to nurture our deepest consideration of our role in what lays ahead. I urge you to spend some time in this overview – and to explore how what is happening is both like and unlike what has happened before, and how the healing from it will need to be correspondingly dynamic, creative and responsive. This list is only a start, intentionally pulling from a wide variety of places, and deeply imperfect and incomplete…but it is a place to begin to think bigger, pull voices and ideas that represent current and new worlds, and stretch into what comes next.

Our better world ahead is counting on us to be ready and to bring our imaginations, our sense of justice, our anti-racism, our skills, our openness, and our humility to bear…are we ready? What kind of future, of healing, will we build together?

Women of Color in Tech and/or Futures/Foresight Work

Have you seen the film “The Social Dilemma?” In a previous post, I shared a couple of fine reviews specifically concerning the lack of diverse representation in the film – particularly when it comes to breakthrough thinking, practicing, research and imagining about the future in tech and beyond. Most concerning is the lack of inclusion of the voices of Women of Color who have been conducting important work in this space for many years. Of course the issues in the film are important. But the way the story is being told is incomplete from where I sit. This post is singularly dedicated to amplifying the voices and work of some of these extraordinary people that I have been learning from on my own futures journey. It is by no means exhaustive. But no study of the future, or equity, of imagination and of shared possibilities in tech or beyond it is complete without their collective vision, intellect and passion. I offer this list with gratitude and admiration.

This is an essential learning space for social workers committed to future readiness and the expansive and equity-centered thinking that is required to thrive there.

(an incomplete list – ever in development)

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Ruha Benjamin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Expert on algorithmic racism, bias and tech justice. Presentation of her work.

Pupul Bisht, MA – specialist on decolonization frameworks for foresight and worldbuilding.

Meredith Broussard, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University. Specialist on artificial intelligence and bias. Presentation of her work.

Adrieene Maree Brown – Author, pleasure activist and poet. Presentation of her work – Emergent Strategies.

Kimberly Bryant – Biotechnologist and Founder, Black Girls Code.

Afua Bruce – Chief Program Officer, DataKind, public interest technologist. Presentation of her work.

Joy Buolamwini, Research Assistant, MIT Media Lab, poet of code, data scientist and algorithmic justice activist. Presentation of her work.

Octavia Butler, Author and MacArthur Genious Award Recipient. Overview of her work and relevance today. Interview with Ms. Butler.

Rumman Chowdhury – Global Lead for Responsible AI at Accenture, AI expert. Presentation of her work.

Courtney Cogburn, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Social Work, Columbia University. Filmmaker, psychologist, VR expert. Presentation of her work.

Kishonna L. Gray, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Communications and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois. Author, researcher and game developer – expert in equity and inclusion in gaming. Presentation of her work.

Walidah Imarisha – writer, educator, Afrofuturist, poet. Presentation of her work.

Anab Jain – designer, futurist, filmmaker and educator. Co-Founder and Director of Superflux. Presentation of her work.

Ingrid La Fleur – Afrofuturist, artist and pleasure activist. Founder of the Afrofutures Strategies Institute. Presentation of her work.

Kwamou Eva Feukeu – Futurist at UNESCO with specialization in decolonization of futures methodologies, and emerging issues of foresight in Africa. Co-Presentation of her work with Riel Miller.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., Founder of Urban Ocean Lab. Climate Scientist and Marine Biologist. Presentation of her work.

Shalini Kantayya, Filmmaker, documentarian. Director of “Coded Bias” film.

Aarathi Krishnan – Humanitarian futurist. Presentation of her work.

Vanessa Mason – futurist specializing in “the future of belonging.” Research Director at Institute for the Future.

Alondra Nelson, Ph.D. – Professor, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study. President of the Social Science Research Council, science scholar. Author of “The Social Life of DNA.” Presentation on “Society after Pandemic.”

Claire Nelson, Ph.D. – futures and foresight leader with focus on global issues. Interview about her work.

Safiya Noble, Ph.D.- Associate Professor of Information Studies and African American Studies. Author of Algorithms of Oppression. Co-Director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. Presentation of her work.

Tawana Petty – digital justice advocate and Director of the Data Justice Program for the Detroit Community Technology Project.

Devon Powers, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University – specialist in trends and trend analysis. Presentation of her work.

Sushma Raman, MPA – Executive Director of the Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, author and expert on the future of human rights. Presentation of her work.

Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D. – author of the Alchemy of us: How humans and matter transformed one another. Brief film/interview.

Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D., Professor of Practice, Government and Technology – Harvard Kennedy School. Founding Director or the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard. Presentation of her work.

SR Toliver, Ph.D. – specialist in literary possibilities of speculative fiction for educators with focus on Black femme/female sci-fi and fantasy.

Ytasha Womack, Afrofuturist, author, filmmaker, scholar and dance therapist. Presentation of her work.

Alisha B. Wormsley – interdisciplinary artist and cultural producer. Creator of the “There are Black people in the future” project. Brief film about her work.

Meeting Download from the Institute for the Future’s Annual 10-Year-Forecast – September 2020

The week before last, the Institute for the Future (where I have a Research Fellowship affiliation) had their annual “Ten Year Forecast” meeting. It is always a robust, engaging – and sometimes unsettling gathering. I learn so much every year – thought I’d summarize the high points I took away.

I did a download of the meeting – check it out!!

You can see overviews of previous years’ meetings here.

The Future and Children

There are many important things to think about and focus on in foresight practice: the future of politics and government, the environment, the future of work – and many others. But on balance – a focus on the future of children ranks among the most urgent. And this is especially true of those of us who study and work on social and community problems born of gross inequalities, racism and structural disadvantage.

My work is to urge and prepare social workers and other youth workers to be thoughtful, determined, visionary and foresightful about their practice in the months and years to come. We hold and utilize many tools to accomplish our goals. We provide and/or help create many essential services towards healing and restoration and we continually revise and reform our services – sometimes so much so, we feel it is important to take them down and reimagine them. We conduct advocacy and resist. We try to address our own shortcomings both personally and systemically – to assure that we ourselves are not part of the problem. But persistent questions – and questions of the future – continue to present themselves in our complicated practice ecosystem. What should shift most urgently, and in what ways, in our world on behalf of the well-being of children? What should not shift at all? What is shifting now in ways we are barely tracking? Who is making those decisions? What is their agenda? How can we better question and challenge our assumptions about what is and isn’t possible? How creative can we be in co-creating better immediate and long-term futures for children and youth around the world…and how ready are we to do just that?

In order to do this, not only do social workers benefit from getting good foresight training and preparation, but they need to look at current trends around us…and…just as important, imagine and engage in foresight to think through what is just around the corner from them. What is our preferred future? How can conceptualizing and building that vision be as democratically anchored as possible? I would suggest that there is almost no more important ethical imperative for social workers committed to the well-being of children, and to cultivate a futures eye and related skills. As the song says, we are already late. To love children, is to commit to a future in which they can flourish. Let’s get to work.

I’ve gathered an assortment of reports, articles and links to other resources that will spark your thinking and connect you to big ideas related to how many important facets there to this vital question “what is the future of children?” This is a tool kit for the future – use it well! One last point – I’d especially like to highlight below the section on youth activists. A quick review of the landscape of youth activism affirms how deeply their focus and impact is growing – and how much we as adults have to learn from them, with them.

Practicing foresight involves a variety of additional steps to imagine preferred futures, consider undesired ones and how to avoid them, and stay open to possibilities beyond what we might be able to consider at this moment in this rapidly changing practice landscape. The goal of foresight is to inform our actions in ways that have maximized our collective intelligence, imagination and agility. Learning and thinking across categories and levels (what Futurist Bob Johansen calls “Full Spectrum Thinking”) is required. This page is a start in that process — to stretch open our thinking with each other and imagine both intersections, options and pathways. Other information about foresight can be found throughout this blog and with a host of great organizations such as IFTF and others.

The first report listed below “A Future for the World’s Children” – co-sponsored by Lancet, WHO and UNICEF is perhaps the most important of them all. As covid-19 has disrupted so many things – the well-being of children of young people surely is one of the most dire.

Here’s a brief film about the report

This comprehensive and groundbreaking internationally focused document prioritizes the following steps to center children’s well-being in the future:

– Put children at the heart of our vision for a sustainable humanity

Stop predatory commercial advertising and marketing practices

Reduce carbon emissions that threaten the future of children and young people

Boost investment in the health and wellbeing of children and young people

Work across all sectors to deliver child-friendly policies

Ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard

I look forward to ongoing gathering with advocates, social workers, families, policy makers and children/youth themselves to engage with the essential work of future building. There has never been a more important time.

Multi-Issue Reports/Organizations

A future for the world’s children: A Lancet, WHO and UNICEF Commission report (2020)

Children’s Defense Fund

Climate Change

Climate change threatens the future of all children (2020)

Climate change poses a threat to children’s health worldwide (2019)

Children on the front line: The challenges of climate change (2014)

Anti-Racism

Diversity, Data, Kids announces the child opportunity index 2.0 (2020)

How to raise an anti-racist child (2020)

A guide to equity and antiracism for educators (2020)

Diversity, Data, Kids website – many good resources here (http://www.diversitydatakids.org/)

Equity

The Children’s Equity Project releases equity roadmap for early education (2020)

How racism harms children (2019)

The impact of racism on child and adolescent health (American Academy of Pediatrics – 2019)

Children’s understanding of equity in the context of inequality (2016)

Poverty

How economic equity and hope for the future could reduce child abuse and neglect in the US (2019)

Roadmap to reducing child poverty (2019)

Technology

Children and media tips for technology from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2018)

Parenting in the age of screens (2020)

EduTopia’s Digital Citizenship resources and web page

Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on gaming (2010) – thought this is ten years old now, it is a must watch for anyone interested in the well-being of youth and gaming. Still packs a wonderful punch and still very relevant.

Artificial Intelligence

Why kids need special protection from AI’s influence (2020)

Draft policy guidance for children and AI (2020)

Children and AI: Opportunities and Risks/UNICEF

Kids are surrounded by AI: They should know how it works (2019)

How will AI effect child development (2018)

Health

Overview of CHIP (Child Health Insurance Program) (2020)

The impact of disparities on children’s health (2020)

Designing the future of children’s mental health services (2020)

It’s time to focus on the future of children’s health insurance coverage (2019)

Establishing a Child Rights, Health Equity, and Social Justice-Based Practice of Pediatrics (2015)

The future of children: Policies to promote children’s health (2015)

Queer Youth

What do Queer youth want for their future? (2019)

Generating a revolution in prevention, wellness and care for LBGTQ youth (2014)

Covid-19 Impacts

After covid-19: A future for the world’s children? (2020)

Impact of covid-19 and lockdown on mental health of children and adolescents: A narrative review with recommendations (2020)

Evaluating 2019 US census child poverty data in the wake of covid-19 (2020)

Justice for families impacted by covid-19 – Children’s Defense Fund (2020)

When it comes to screens during lockdown, kids need a guide not a disciplinarian (2020)

Juggling Financial Stress And Caregiving, Parents Are ‘Very Not OK’ In The Pandemic (2020)

How burnout became the norm for American parents during covid-19 (2020)

The Future of Families

Families in Flux/IFTF (2020)

Parenting in a digital age – new hopes and fears (Webinar – 2020)

A future of work that compliments family life (2020)

A look at the future of the family (2019)

The future of working families: How we care for our children (2019)

9 different visions of what families will look like 50 years from now (2015)

Future of families to 2030: A synthesis report (2011)

Education

Schools of the future: Defining the new models of education for the fourth industrial revolution (2020)

How will covid-19 change our schools in the long run? (2020)

Upcoming tech trends that will shape the future of education for children (2019)

Will we make the future of education equitable (2019)

A model for the future of education (2018)

Children and Immigration

Looking at lasting effects of Trump’s family separation policy at the Southern border (2020)

Immigrant students: Our kids, our future (2018)

Youth Activism

6 youth-led political movements to inspire you to vote (2020)

Youth activism is on the rise around the globe (2019)

These 10 young activists are trying to move the needle on climate change, gun control, and other global issues (2019)

Youth in revolt: Five powerful movements fueled by young activists (2018)

Futures Programming and Education for Children/Teens

Into the future NYC

Teach the Future

Gathering Resources for the Launch of the national Social Work Health Futures Lab!

In just a few weeks, we’ll be doing a (delayed) launch of the national Social Work Health Futures Lab due to Covid-19 (like so many).

Although we have been busy getting things ready behind the scenes for months – our official start is a little later than intended. In preparation for those wishing to get involved/apply – I’ve pulled some futures-oriented creative thinking resources together to stimulate idea building! Stay tuned for more to come – but in the mean time – please explore (most of these have appeared on this website in the 18 months, but have been revised for this entry). Watch this space for news and announcements including the launch a new Social Work Health Futures website and application process.

What if social workers – dedicated to improving well-being and health in all its forms – were futurists? What would we do? How would we do it? What tools, techniques, theories or frameworks would we use? How would we balance the so often urgent needs we encounter and are often responsible for addressing – with longer term horizons and a deep responsibility to not only react to current events, but to work in community to shape a better future for all?

Soon, we’ll have a chance to explore these questions and many more. For now – dive in and think about your own social work practice. What is the future of (your) area of focus? Who gets to decide that? What is the future of social work itself?

Looking forward to continuing to learn together and building what comes next.

The future of health equity – a curated annotated bibliography

Short films to boost your futures literacy

Governments using/adopting foresight and futures frameworks

New words in futuring: Alphabet of futures thinking

Covid-19 specific

Afrofuturism

A social work futurist goes to a future of medicine conference – download

Big ideas for future thinking – social change palooza!

Epistemic injustice tools and ideas for better futures

Ethics round up

Police abolition: A futures lens

Organizations doing futures/foresight work

Webinars/Interviews – Laura Nissen and social work futures

Social Work and the Future in a Post-Covid 19 World: A Foresight Lens and a Call to Action for the Profession – Article by Laura Nissen

Futures in Social Work – Summer 2020 Reading List!

There is a lot going on in the world and plenty to think about regarding the past, present and the future – and the ways they all intersect in very real ways right now. I salute and support important reading that we can all benefit from doing this summer regarding race and equity – and many fine lists have surfaced in recent weeks.

Numerous readers of this blog, have also asked for a “futures favorite” reads that explore topics especially relevant to social work and social change activities. So as promised, I prepared one here! These intertwine issues of power, imagination, equity, social determinants of health, identity, race and economic justice – as well as the role of technology, climate, the economy and other social drivers undergoing rapid transformation in the world around us.

These are my “top twelve” at the moment. If you’d like a deeper dive into other ideas of things to read/explore, I’d invite you to other posts in this blog related to readings.