On topic: Leveling the playing field

In 2016, when Mary McKay became the Neidorff Family and Centene ­Corporation Dean of the Brown School, she already had devoted her career to improving the lives of disadvantaged youths and their families. Previously, she had been the ­director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York ­University’s Silver School of Social Work.

“We were dedicated to impact,” she says. “And I think I brought that same commitment to an action agenda to the Brown School.” Here she talks about just what it takes to level the playing field in areas of social work, public health and in the latest master’s program added at the Brown School, public policy.

What it means to practice social change …

When you have social change and social justice at the heart of your mission, you have to understand that there are a set of structures, primarily structures based in racism, that really serve to inhibit the progress of individuals of color. It’s not enough to just test effective programs. What’s truly important is to dismantle the structures that are having kids of color be at increased risk for threats to their health, threats to their well-being.

Why blend disciplines …

We had the opportunity a little bit over 10 years ago to expand our school and integrate what I think about as two highly complementary disciplines: social work and public health. Why do I think these disciplines go together? Both professions are really focused on a mission of social change. So we use social work science to advance that social justice mission. Public health really gives us a new set of tools, particularly to work in the health and well-being space.

Better together …

We have an associate dean [for social work]; her name is Patricia Kohl. Her expertise as a faculty member is around evidence-based parenting and family strengthening interventions. She has partnered with a public-health ­faculty member named Lora Iannotti, the ­associate dean for public health. Lora has an incredibly important body of work that focuses on how you address children’s nutritional needs in ways that are low burden and really can work in poverty-impacted global contexts. Trish and Lora are coming together to create a comprehensive intervention that focuses on improving children’s nutrition while also simultaneously strengthening parenting and family life, so that children can grow up and thrive across domains.

Adding social policy …

How do you move graduates with MSWs and MPHs towards a social change agenda? You need to think about policy opportunities and strengths. I see social policy as a lane where we maximize and amplify our impact. We as leaders in social work and public health are willing to advance into leadership areas, where we not only lead fields, but we also lead a policy agenda.

Fighting for equity …

[Social programs typically] offer universal supports within systems. Well, for kids that have been in adverse circumstances that have not had the adequate supports early on, those supports can’t be equal. They have to be proportionate to what kids are going to need to succeed. My career has really focused on making sure that we open up lanes for all kids and families to survive, and to be really sure that we focus resources on those kids and families and systems that actually have closed lanes for kids, so that each young person has the opportunity for a vibrant, contributing life.

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