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.

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


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

Two Upcoming Opportunities to Talk Futures with Me!! (Updated July 13, 2020 with link to the finished webinars)

Note: Links to completed webinars have now been added below! It has been a very busy season after being a very strange time. Like so many…life got very slow, and then it seemed to speed up all at once. As the springtime gets into full swing and we are all adjusting to new Covid-19 realities, there is much interest in futures-related topics. The future is definitely here. Opportunities to learn and engage with futures thinking are plentiful – and many are discovering the benefits to a futures lens as we enter what is hopefully a recovery and reconstruction towards a post-covid 19 world.

In then the next couple of weeks – I’ll be doing a couple of open and free national presentations on how social work might be part of that, and wanted to share them in this space.

This coming Tuesday, May 19 (at 9 a.m. PST), I’ll be interviewed by Kathi Vian, Futurist with the Institute for the Future and one of my mentors in futures work. I’ll be talking about both the new project that I’m doing to build futures thinking capacity in social work, as well as my work with my Portland State University Futures Collaboratory on an interdisciplinary campus-wide futures project. This is a free “Foresight Talks” webinar and you can find out more and register for that here. Link to finished webinar!

On May 21st, May 28th & June 4th, I’ll be doing a series of three webinars for the National Network for Social Work Management on futures thinking in social work. These were intended to be “in person” sessions and a keynote at the spring NNWSM conference in New York City – but like so many good things – it has gone online. All of these sessions are 10-11:30 a.m. PST. Link to finished webinars!

Webinar 1: Futures thinking for post-normal times: A new resource for social work

Webinar 2: The process of foresight: How futures practice can enhance social work practice

Webinar 3: Evolving on purpose: Possibility spaces for the future of social work and social justice

You can read more of the details and register for these free sessions here!

Hope you can join in!!

Hiring Social Work Faculty that are “Future Ready”

The term “future ready” is popular – one sees it frequently in day to day life. But what does it mean for social work faculty and for Ph.D./D.S.W. students currently intending to make higher education – and the preparation of the next generation of social workers their careers?

This past year, I had a number of occasions to explore this topic with faculty and a variety of doctoral students at various levels of their preparation. Given consideration – one can imagine that a brand new doctoral degree who is looking at a 30 year career ahead simply must assume disruption, complexity and challenge that is unprecedented in the history of the academy – and in social work. If I were hiring right now, I’d be looking for people have been thoughtful, analytic and curious about these types of dynamics and first and foremost – are committed to being rigorous lifelong learners.

I thought I’d share my developing ideas here in the blog. I welcome the opportunity to continue to develop these ideas – because of course the process of getting ready for what comes next is ALWAYS a work in progress and never really done.

High priority for “future ready” social work faculty:

  • Clear orientation towards a practice/research ecosystem that is undergoing significant and systemic turbulence.   A prospective future ready faculty member would have the analytic capacity to identify how these trends (economic, climate, migration,  technological and others) would impact vulnerable people now and in the future with related courses of research and/or practice to remedy/address without compromising social work values and ethics. An ability to articulate risks/opportunities in the future with regard to his/her/their practice area. 
  • Clear orientation towards a higher education ecosystem that is undergoing significant and systemic turbulence.  A prospective future ready faculty member would be prepared and engaged in efforts to simultaneously preserve important elements of the traditions of higher education with ideas, experiences and accomplishments that indicate capacity to participate in intentional systemic evolution without compromising social work values and ethics.
  • Skills related to educational, analytic and/or communication technology in higher education.  A demonstrated ability to positively contribute system-wide in this area.
  • Orientation towards “cognitive load management” given the influx of competing demands.   A prospective future ready faculty member would have skills and an ability to articulate how he/she/they manage competing demands and “noisy” educational/practice settings (given that this dynamic will likely increase not decrease in the future).
  • An ability to articulate and apply social work values and ethics in new kinds of practice challenges (e.g., artificial intelligence, increased use of technology) with a specific eye towards emerging and potentially ill-defined equity challenges of the future.    Orientation towards the need for and commitment to continuing to evolve social work ethics given 1 and 2 above.
  • Ability to articulate frameworks for and skills with 21st century equity work with developed sensibilities about how equity work will change in the future (esp. as related to technological and political variables) in both higher education and social work practice settings.  This may include but is not limited to concepts of “tech design justice.”
  • Ability to articulate plans for and articulate desire to manage going learning and personal career-long development with an understanding of, respect and passion for being impactful given 1 and 2 above.
  • Ability to span local to global (and back again) in new ways as the interconnectedness across geopolitical boundaries increases in the years to come.
  • Ability to work in interprofessional contexts and contribute meaningfully in interdisciplinary settings.

Special thanks to Dean Eddie Uehara and Dean Nancy Smyth for guidance and input on these ideas.

I’ve posted a PDF here if you’d like a copy of these ideas – and they are shared with a Creative Commons 4.0 license.