UW News

September 28, 2006

Dialog with a dean: A conversation with Edwina Uehara, dean of the School of Social Work

Of the six UW schools of health science — medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, dentistry, and social work — social work is most often thought of in relation to the social sciences, rather than the health sciences. In reality, social work spans many disciplines and looks at society through a particular lens — that of social change and justice.

UW School of Social Work Dean Edwina Uehara shares some of her thoughts about social work and the direction of the school.

Q: Many people on campus don’t realize that the School of Social Work is one of the University’s six schools of health sciences.

A: Social work is centrally involved in health and health issues. Much of our research is concerned with understanding the influence of the larger social context on the health, mental health, and well-being of individuals and families. And our graduates work in a wide variety of health care settings, from large urban hospitals to rural community mental health clinics. I am particularly excited about what the School of Social Work has to add to the current campus conversations around global health. As many health experts agree, social factors are as important to determining good health as are medical interventions. So our particular type of health scholarship can contribute much to this conversation.

Q: Is the central focus of social work justice and social change?

A: Social work’s mission is to promote social and economic justice for all members of society. Clearly, some segments of society flourish and prosper more than others — and so our particular commitment is those who suffer disproportionately from the fall-out of society’s problems — poverty, racism and violence, for example. Social workers engage in a very wide variety of service and social change roles. They are legislators, policy analysts, community organizers, executive directors of social service agencies, gerontologists, and case managers. The strategies, tactics, and methods they use vary, depending on the settings and populations they work with. But the overall goal is the same: to enhance quality of life, particularly for society’s most vulnerable members — and to do so in ways that support the inherent problem-solving strengths of individuals, families, communities and cultural systems.

Q: Isn’t the School of Social Work one of the country’s elite schools?

A: It depends on what you mean by “elite.” The UW School of Social Work has a world-class faculty, staff and student body. It is ranked among the top in the nation, and we typically garner around $26 million in federal research funds per year — an enormous accomplishment. And our faculty has one of the highest publication rates of any social work school in the nation. So if by elite you mean “outstanding” and “excellent” in the field, then yes, we are one of the elite schools. But if by “elite” we connote a sense of “divorce” or “removal,” then that’s a very different thing. The School is, and in the future will be increasingly more, connected to the community and the world beyond the University’s walls.

Q: You’re taking the helm of a school at the top of its game. What’s your vision for the school?

A: In a sense, the aim is to “change the game” a bit. As you suggest, we are a highly successful school. We have among us some of the nation’s most respected and accomplished social work scholars, social scientists, practitioners, and educators. We possess an exceptionally broad and deep research portfolio. And we’re very highly respected by our peer institutions. So where do we go from here — what’s next for a top-flight school of social work?

In thinking about that question I think it’s helpful to consider the larger context within which the School and the University operate. Over the past decade and a half, both critics and friends of higher education have pressed universities to engage more deeply and directly in solving real-world problems, in partnership with communities and public/private stakeholders. Now, perhaps more than at any other point since the founding of the American research university, what society seeks is our steadfast commitment to building knowledge that will reinvigorate democratic processes and address dramatic and seemingly intractable social problems, from poverty and homelessness to inequalities in access to education and health care. No university is better prepared for this kind of sustained “civic engagement” than the University of Washington — and no unit on our campus is better prepared for leadership in civic engagement than the School of Social Work. In the coming decade, I envision the School directing more of its time and talent toward large-scale civic engagement — harnessing our collective capacity to address real-world social problems, in close collaboration with partners from the University and the public, private and nonprofit sectors. I believe the School is both supremely well prepared and eager to take this kind of leadership!

Q: What are some of the problems you want to tackle?

A: In deciding specific directions, we will definitely build upon our signature strengths. Our faculty has much to contribute to redressing racial and ethnic disparities in health and mental health, creating human services that empower and dignify communities of color, promoting healthy aging, and preventing problems experienced by economically disadvantaged and vulnerable children and families. My exploratory dialogues with deans of other UW schools and colleges, state and county executives and legislators, nonprofit community-based agencies, and philanthropists and friends of the School all suggest a great eagerness to partner around large-scale problem-solving in these areas.

Q: As a Japanese-American, you are the first person of color to hold the dean’s position at the School of Social Work. What were the influences that led you to social work as a career?

A: I am immensely honored to have been chosen to serve as dean. And as the first person of color to hold this post, I feel very deeply the weight of this historical moment.

I am a third-generation Japanese American, a 53-year-old baby boomer. My father was a career Air Force officer, and due to his military assignments, I spent most of my high school years in Bangkok, Thailand. This was during the late 1960s — the time of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the social experiments of the “Great Society.” All of these shaped my worldview and sense of identity, my commitment to social justice, and a passionate belief in the possibility of social change. I later spent my last year in college in the University Year for Action (UYA) program, which was much like VISTA and the Peace Corps, but for undergraduates. My UYA assignment took me to work with small Washington school districts struggling to respond to the challenges of racial and cultural diversity. I worked with “problem-solving” teams, composed of parents, students, teachers and principals, to devise local solutions to challenges. It was my introduction to community development and social work — and it was consciousness-raising, challenging, absolutely exhilarating work. From that point on, there was no doubt and no turning back: I was committed to social work as a profession.