How did a social worker get interested in futures thinking?

Background:   I’ve been a professional social worker and academic for more than 25 years.  During my professional journey, I’ve been privileged to work as a National Program Director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Reclaiming Futures initiative for 11 years.  During that time, it was the adventure of a lifetime to work with communities all over the US to innovate deeply related to the challenges of alcohol/drug abuse and youth in the juvenile justice system.  Our mission was to build systems of care and opportunity for young people and their families swept up in the juvenile justice system and promote public health, equity and success in juvenile courtrooms throughout the country.    During that time, we were fortunate (through the generosity of RWJF) to bring “futurists” into our initiative to help us: a) think bigger and more creatively about the problems we were up against, b) think about solutions that might seem initially impossible, and c) for the impact of ecological (economic, political, cultural, sociological and more) factors that would likely influence our trajectory – though in ways we couldn’t really know at the time.   My experience in the initiative was deeply shaped by the success of learning and applying these techniques and ways of thinking across our initiative and among a variety of professional and community member groups.   These tools and frames helped us surpass expectations for ourselves and our grantees – and to grow and thrive the program despite unprecedented environmental turbulence and disruptions.

Fast forward:  After journeying through that amazing experience, I spent a few years as a “regular” faculty member, as well as practicing artist and then, honored to become dean of my School of Social Work at Portland State University   During that time, I engaged in a multi-year strategic planning effort at both the university, as well as school-specific level.  I helped to generate (along with a WONDERFUL team of partners) our school’s first EVER strategic plan.   In many respects…planning is my jam and I thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated the work as it happened, as well as the work we’ve been able to accomplish since creating the plan (equity, systems change/reorganization, quality of life, teaching excellence, research excellence and more).    As often as possible, I wove principles of futures thinking into our efforts – and encouraged a wider lens than the traditional “short-termism” that is so pervasive in many organizational settings right now.   This past year, I have been fortunate to get more deeply reconnected with “futures” practice colleagues, scholarship, activism and work.    I have decided that there has been no place I’ve felt more impactful or connected to the things I care about than when I’m working in this space – so in June of 2019 – I left my deanship and returned to a faculty role at the SSW at PSU, and took my first ever sabbatical to spend a full year diving in deep to learn, sort, organize and connect my social work practice to futures practice – and to vector this learning as far and wide as I can throughout my social work practice and education communities.

The Point:   The future is coming.    Those who study what is coming note the likelihood of profound disruptions, unsettling escalation in global and regional inequity, as well as unprecedented opportunities as well as other features.     In social work, we need and deserve the BEST tools and frameworks we can access to do our work that somehow manage to integrate these dynamics.    While we have always innovated, futures practice might suggest that no matter how brave and creative we may be right now…we have blind spots and can get trapped in our own categorical thinking/silos (like, many would suggest, can happen with any of “the professions”). Futures thinking can jump start new possibilities with new kinds of questions, connections, and dialogues.    I suggest, we, as social workers, need some futurists among us…who can offer sector and information scans, reviews of relevant literature/books/websites and organizations, as well as spaces to make futures dialogues possible and productive…all integrating a social work perspective.

This Blog:  This blog is a space to chart my journey, discoveries, questions, possibilities, and projects related a variety of futures thinking and related resources – and then to vector related ideas across the social work practice ecosystem for some generative lift!  

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