How we make space for diversity, inclusion, and belonging in social work research

Connecting the Dots image#CWConf20 is at the end of this month (February 28th)! As we gear up for our annual conference, we sat down with several of our researchers to ask them a little bit more about how we can foster a sense of belonging by being more inclusive and valuing diversity in our research methods. Here’s what the group had to say:

What do diversity, inclusion, and/or belonging mean to you in the context of social work research?

ANNA: Social work research is unique in that our Code of Ethics puts service and social justice at the center of our work. Part of our responsibility as social workers is to think critically about how structures and systems have marginalized people and then use this information to improve what we do. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging cannot happen for people who have been historically kept from being part of the conversation. We have to be intentional about creating that space. For me, I want to be part of projects where the people most impacted by the issue of study lead me through their experiences and identify where things can be improved.

KAITLYN: At the Society for Social Work Research Conference this year, we attended a plenary session led by Feminista Jones, a black feminist speaker, writer, and former social worker.  She asked us to think about the origins of social work, which are rooted in white saviorism. When I think about our discipline having started from that place, it reminds me about how we have to be vigilant about bias and discrimination while also being mindful of inclusion at every level. Those things are easy to say, but the actual follow through takes work.

From a research standpoint, this involves looking at the measures and scales we use and figuring out if they were validated using a diverse or inclusive sample. If a tool was validated using an upper class, white, heteronormative sample that is not reflective of the general population, we have to be careful about how we use it in our research. Is there another measure or scale that was tested with a more representative sample? Can you reach out to the author of the original study to discuss modifications to the measure or scale that would address these issues?

LAURA: Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are not an inherent part of research. In social work, we must critically evaluate the way we design studies, recruit participants, ask questions, analyze results, and report findings to ensure that we reflect a full spectrum of perspectives from individuals who are culturally and demographically diverse. In order to do this well, we must be intentional about engaging stakeholders throughout the research process, learn from their expertise, and recognize our own privilege and biases along the way.

SWETHA: To me, diversity, inclusion and belonging in social sciences research is:

1) Acknowledging the historical and current inequities of race, gender, and class that influence a population’s wellbeing, and

2) Addressing the influences of race, gender, and class when discussing outcomes or acknowledging that those influences were not examined.

In doing program evaluations, I think there is some pressure to make programs generalizable with minor adaptations to address some of these differences in experiences. However, I’ve noticed a more recent shift towards really examining the origins and outcomes of these human experiences into research, but we still have lots of opportunity for improvement.


What are some examples of past research designs or program evaluations that you thought did a good job of bringing a uniquely inclusive perspective to the table?

KAITLYN: Within my first year at our Institute, I got to jump in on SHINE, a qualitative sexual health needs assessment, and was excited to see that the interviews focused so heavily on sex positivity and non-heteronormative relationships. This is so important, especially for kids in foster care who are at greater risk for negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes and who receive so much shame and fear-based messaging about sexuality (if anyone talks to them about it at all).

LAURA: Over the past five years, I’ve had the privilege to work with Dr. Rowena Fong on a multi-site project that focused on developing, testing and implementing evidence-based interventions and practices to achieve long-term, stable permanence for families formed through adoption and guardianship. In Nebraska, we partnered with the Winnebago Tribe to adapt the Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) intervention, which you can learn more about here. It was clear right away that our work at this site was going to look different from other sites. Culturally, there were differences between the state and tribe in the way they thought about adoption and guardianship. Even the way they defined kinship and relatives was different. Rather than trying to fit the tribe’s experiences into a traditional research model, Dr. Fong worked from the bottom-up, learning from the tribe’s experiences, building an understanding of tribal customs, and tailoring our research approach to fit within the context of the tribe.

SWETHA: After attending a program evaluation workshop, one question that really stuck with me was “for whom does this program work for?” Lately, this question has been at the forefront of my mind when I’m thinking about social work research and program evaluations. I think that there’s often a disconnect with the populations we’re aiming to better serve and the feasibility of accessing services by those populations. I think this question serves as a great reminder on why we’re studying specific groups of people in the first place and really understanding what systemic barriers we’re up against.


What do you wish to see in the future in child welfare or social work research that will further incorporate social justice values into the work?

ANNA: Child welfare and social work research are inherently complicated systems. There is a desire in both of these fields to generate a one-size-fits-all approach that can relegate certain groups to the margins rather than bringing them to the center of the intervention. I think the more we can integrate intersectional approaches to supporting people who are impacted by multiple systems of aid and oppression, the greater impact we’ll have on our desired outcomes in research.

KAITLYN: Research cannot happen without funding. Because of this, it can be easy to feel like your hands are tied by the strategies and guidelines laid out by funders. However, we can seek out foundations and funders that not only incorporate diversity and inclusion in their funding strategies, but also demonstrate this in the work they support. We can also make it known throughout the process of securing funding that our priorities land in this realm, which is why we want our research to remain central to those sentiments too.

SWETHA: I think there needs to be more research done on the impact of housing and living wage in child welfare and social work research. Particularly around discussions of race, I think it would be valuable to incorporate economic stability, environmental factors of housing, and living wage as part of social justice.