Inaugural Grand Challenges for Social Work Student Competition Concludes with Accolades for Winners

April 24, 2019

The Silver School of Social Work’s inaugural #NYUSilverUp4TheChallenge Student Competition, inspired by the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative, came to a successful conclusion at the competition finals in early April. Anna Nathanson, MSW ’19, was named the Grand Challenges for Social Work Scholar for her concept addressing the “End Homelessness” challenge with a focus on how New York City can take an anti-racist stance in its efforts towards eviction prevention.

The event was the culmination of a seven-month-long, student-led competition, which was launched by the Silver School at the start of the academic year to inspire students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to apply the core social work values to address one or more of the pressing social issues in the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative. It was co-created by Class of 2019 MSW students Mary Burns and Elijah Thompson, and coordinated by Burns throughout the academic year under the guidance of the School’s Office of Student Affairs.

The competition finals were judged by Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) President and Grand Challenges Executive Committee Member; Luisa Lopez, NYU Silver alumna and Chief of Staff to New York City Councilmember Diana Ayala; and three members of the NYU Silver Faculty who are leaders in the Grand Challenges initiative: Dr. Ernest Gonzales, Assistant Professor and co-lead of the “Advance Long and Productive Lives” challenge; Dr. Neil Guterman, Dean and Paulette Goddard Professor of Social Work and Grand Challenges Executive Committee Member; and Dr. Deborah Padgett, Professor and co-lead of the “End Homelessness” challenge.

In announcing the winner of the competition, Dr. Guterman observed that the judges deliberated for longer than had been anticipated due to the high caliber of concepts and presentations. On a personal note, he said, “I was inspired by our students’ creativity in tackling these challenges. This initiative provided a great opportunity for our students to focus their projects on the major challenges that our profession faces in the coming years.

In her winning presentation and follow-up questioning from the judges, Nathanson shared what she called “a missing analytical lens that social work can provide to get us closer to the root causes of homelessness.” After citing overwhelming statistical evidence that homelessness in New York City disproportionately affects Black and Latinx residents, she asserted that “New York City's housing system is built on racial inequities.” As a result, she said, “Social workers need to acknowledge that race must play a role in homelessness prevention. At the micro, macro, and mezzo levels we must reconsider how efforts like Housing First, universal access to counsel in housing court, and housing subsidies incorporate anti-racism in their models. We cannot continue to ignore the ways that systemic racism impacts the path to homelessness.”

ViniNatalie Zaninovic, MSW '20, was awarded Honorable Mention for her concept addressing the “Ensure Healthy Development” challenge by prioritizing biopsychosocial care over the traditional medical model of care for young people in New York City neighborhoods at highest risk of poor outcomes. She noted that the medical model looks at health as the absence of illness and its decision making hierarchy places individuals and communities last. The biopsychosocial model recognizes that a multitude of factors affect health and places individuals and communities at the center of care. With that framework, Zaninovic proposed an expansion of NYU Langone’s free primary care clinic from its current location in downtown Manhattan to the neighborhoods that need it most, with teams led by social workers establishing integrated community partnerships and collaborating to deliver customized care that meets individual and community needs.

The four other individual and team finalists were Ginger Jiang, Tianyang Li, and Yao Wang, all MSW '20, who addressed the “Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth” challenge with an initiative to stop school bullying in China; Ouwen Jiang, BS ’20, who addressed the challenge “Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice” with a concept that confronts voter suppression and voter ID laws; Mary Denise Jimenez, MSW ’21, who addressed the challenge “Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment” with a concept promoting sustainable food and living; and Jean Pooley and Lexi Joondeph-Breidbart, both MSW ’20, who addressed the “Eradicate Social Isolation” challenge with a social media intervention targeted at young adults.

During the fall semester, dozens of students attended concept development information sessions and received guidance from Drs. Gonzales and Padgett, as well as Professor and co-lead of the “Eradicate Social Isolation” challenge Dr. Michelle R. Munson. Drs. Gonzales, Padgett, and Munson also participated on the review committee that vetted the submitted concepts and, in mid-December, announced the six individuals and teams invited to present them at the competition finals. All the finalists were paired with a faculty mentor who helped them build out their concepts in the months leading up to the finals.

“We believe our Grand Challenges student competition is the first of its kind among schools of social work, and we are proud to have led the charge,” said Dr. Guterman. “We hope it inspires other schools to engage with the Grand Challenges to strengthen the profession."

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