$300,000 awarded to the Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health to advance work at the intersection of social work and public health

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

HRSA awards one-year grant to support leadership in the field of public health social work

The Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health (CISWH) at Boston University School of Social Work (BUSSW) has received a grant of $300,000 from the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration to strengthen public health social work (PHSW) education at Boston University and nationally. PHSW is a sub-discipline within social work that draws on both social work and public health theories, frameworks, research and practice to promote health equity and mitigate human health problems, with a strong focus on health impact and population health. The grant aims to strengthen public health social work’s central role in efforts to address the unmet needs of racially diverse, economically disadvantaged and medically underserved communities. Betty J. Ruth, clinical professor at the BU SSW and director of the dual degree program in social work and public health (Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health or MSW/MPH) will serve as principal investigator on the project. The project leadership team will include Madi Wachman and Alexis Marbach from the CISWH.

For Ruth, the grant is the culmination of decades of work to advance the field of PHSW. In addition to shepherding the MSW/MPH program to its current status as a vibrant trainer of leaders in PHSW widely recognized for its excellence, Ruth has regularly promoted PHSW at national conferences and co-founded the national Group of Public Health Social Work Initiatives. In 2013, she was named Insely/Evans Public Health Social Worker of the Year by the Public Health Social Work section of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

The project, named Boston University Advancing Leadership in Public Health Social Work (BU-ALPS), will strengthen the public health social work field at Boston University, at other higher education institutions in the U.S., and beyond through four goals:

    1. Strengthen the public health social work leaders of the future. The project will provide the opportunity to 6 current MSW/MPH students to attend the APHA annual conference in 2017. It will allow the program to provide stipends to 6 students currently enrolled in the MSW/MPH program, support them in attending and submitting proposals for presentations to the APHA 2018 conference, and provide additional mentoring opportunities to enhance their skills and experience. Working with the CISWH, the project will expand on a Social Work and Health Equity Speaker Series launched in 2016 to develop an enrichment series of webinars. Open to all social work students, faculty, alumni, and practitioners, this series will focus on key areas of PHSW practice such as community engagement, cross-sector partnerships, policy brief writing, and culturally responsive trauma-informed approaches to working with communities.


    1. Promote PHSW faculty development. The project will convene a nationwide learning community to create a PHSW toolkit that can be used by educators not only in MSW/MPH programs but in all academic programs interested in enhancing the skillset of social work students to encompass a public health approach to address social determinants of health. The toolkit will include model syllabi, exercises, case studies with explications, and other teaching materials to enable educators to convey a public health social work perspective to their students.


    1. Share promising practices to enhance MSW/MPH programs. Project staff will draw on the experience and insights of thought leaders and faculty with an interest in PHSW to create a best practices guide that institutions of higher learning can use to enhance a MSW/MPH or related program. Staff will also develop a listserv to enable communication between MSW/MPH program directors and those seeking technical assistance to enhance new or existing programs.


  1. Create a strategic vision for the future of PHSW. Through an action plan working group comprised of leaders in the field of PHSW, project staff will guide a strategic thinking process about ways for the social work workforce to integrate and promote a PHSW approach in social work practice. The group will produce a PHSW action plan with recommendations and concrete suggestions for next steps for all members of the field.

“There is no question that the almost 400 people who have graduated from BU SSW’s MSW/MPH dual degree program are working in leadership capacities, pushing the public health social work model forward,” said Ruth. “But we’re one of only forty or so programs in the country. There are many more people who need access to public health social work education and who can’t either afford or access MSW/MPH programs.”

“Social work has always had within its values and goals the desire to be a high-impact profession at the level of structural change to society. And it is one of the only professions that’s everywhere—in schools, police stations, the military, prisons, health centers, social welfare institutions… we are well placed to reach people across broad systems to address the structural inequalities in our society. But we do not always work as effectively as we could, because we’re not using public health approaches. This project will help to share this knowledge more broadly. We will have a place where people can draw on PHSW experts’ collective knowledge, experience, and resources to make a commitment to using public health social work approaches. Educators will have a starting point if they want to start a MSW/MPH program or integrate public health social work into their programs. And most importantly, we will have a plan for moving the field of PHSW forward.”

“The vision of our Center is to elevate social work leadership and cross-sector collaboration to promote health, health equity, and social justice, said Sara S. Bachman, Paul Farmer professor at the BUSSW, research professor of Health Law Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health, and director of the CISWH. “This project provides an opportunity to bring that vision closer to reality by making the tools and knowledge of public health social work more accessible to the next generation of social work leadership.”

“The recent BUSSW additions of the Center for Innovation in Social Work in Health and a new specialization within the MSW program on Health/Behavioral Health Practice reflect Boston University’s commitment to advance a public health approach to address social determinants of health,” said Judith G. Gonyea, professor and dean ad interim, BUSSW. “This year-long initiative will build upon three decades of experience to enhance the training of public health social workers within our MSW/MPH program and to advance the field of public health social work nationally.”

Learn more about the BU-ALPS Project.

This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under grant number G05HP31425, Leadership in Public Health Social Work Education Grant Program, in the amount of $300,000 awarded to Trustees of Boston University. No percentage of this project was financed with nongovernmental sources. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.