Having Grassroots Success
CSULB’s Master of Social Work degree program looks to help students gain skills for grassroots community organization and engagement.
By Richard Manly
CSULB’s Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program is finding new success in neighborhood/community outreach with its implementation of a yearlong Capstone project for graduating MSW students.
“We are trying to help our students gain skills in social work for grassroots community organization and engagement,” said Julie O’Donnell, longtime faculty member in CSULB’s School of Social Work. “Students can do a thesis or an applied project with most students choosing the applied project.
“It is a two-semester course requirement and is considered their culminating experience,” she added. “In the first semester, the students choose a geographic area in Long Beach or a surrounding community to focus on. They actually observe in the community on multiple days, interview residents, service providers and lawmakers and gather secondary data to find the strengths and challenges of a particular community. During the second semester, students find partners within the community to create an intervention that addresses the top concerns identified through their research.”
The range of MSW community engagement projects is diverse. Students worked with Long Beach’s Parks and Recreation to train teens on college readiness, career options, how to write resumes and how to apply for jobs. CSULB students also worked with a member of the Long Beach City Council to include youth voices and perspectives, which often go unheard in the making of neighborhood plans.
In partnership with a local organization, students conducted research to identify barriers in providing healthy living conditions in downtown Long Beach and presented the findings to the Long Beach City Council to advocate for change in how the city addresses housing problems related to rent and living conditions. CSULB social work majors identified intergenerational gaps in area communities and found ways to bridge the divide with art exhibits and a storytelling event, which brought together residents of all ages. Another group developed a curriculum and trained Spanish-speaking parents at Wilson High School on substance abuse and delinquency prevention, effective parent-child communication and mental health awareness.
“Our students have done many impressive things in Long Beach and surrounding communities,” O’Donnell said.
At the end of projects, students provide community partners with a comprehensive needs assessment, a thorough description of the intervention and final results. This report can then be used to replicate the project in the future.
The MSW students are required to showcase their projects at a collaborative community research MSW student poster presentation event held in the downtown Long Beach community. Last year's event was attended by more than 300 people.
“For a program in only its second year, that is impressive,” she said. “It is a good way to teach students to assess, intervene, evaluate, disseminate and strengthen community capacity.”
The MSW project interventions aim to make things better. O’Donnell recalled an Orange County MSW project that matched 25 area service providers with more than 100 participating families.
“The principal from the school where the event was held remarked that it was the first time so many parents had participated,” she said. “The intervention gave the parents the chance to learn about services and organizations available to help them. I hope that interventions like these will allow people to access services they might not otherwise know about.”
MSW students come from many different backgrounds.
“We have a full-time and part-time program for master’s students,” O’Donnell explained, “so some of our students are new to social work, but many have worked in the field for many years. We have three specialization areas—Child and Family Wellbeing, Integrated Health that focuses on physical and mental health, and Adults and Aging. Students are required to complete their projects in their areas of specialization. These projects give them more real-life experience in their specialized areas that may set them apart from students from other schools.”
O’Donnell explains that the goal of the MSW Applied Projects class is to give students a chance to use and build on the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom to better prepare them for real-world careers. Opportunities made possible by the MSW degree are many.
“This is a versatile degree,” O’Donnell explained. “Social workers are in schools, hospitals, child welfare and mental health agencies and in agencies serving older adults. They work in non-profit organizations and do advocacy. Social workers can successfully fulfill these many roles because they understand the importance of working on all levels—with individuals, families, institutions and communities.
“They will face reality when they go out to agencies and organizations in search of careers and, when they do, because of these projects, they will be better prepared to ensure agencies are responsive to their communities or go out into neighborhoods and understand the conditions facing the people they serve,” she added. “This culminating experience will help students recognize and build on the strengths of the people they work with. This can range from parents invested in their children’s education to youth who want to have a say about what happens in their neighborhoods, to older adults who want to contribute to the next generation. It also includes advocating for policy change in the community. These are the skills students take with them to make the world a better place.”
O’Donnell applauds the balance struck by the School of Social Work between research and classroom instruction, noting that it gives students a place to put everything they have learned to good use in a real-world, sometimes messy, context.
“Students are trained to work with individuals so they understand how to interview and engage,” she said. “They learn group skills so they can run focus, task and educational groups. They learn about policy and advocacy so they can understand and change systems to be more inclusive and effective. It teaches them to understand and navigate the many systems that influence whether or not people will succeed and meet their full potential. We teach interpersonal social work practice skills, human development, research, policy and a commitment to social justice and ethics. We teach all these things.”