With a commitment to equity, innovation and transformation, the Mandel School leads with action
By Daniel Robison
Since Dexter Voisin, PhD, assumed leadership of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences in early 2022, he and his leadership have asked alumni, faculty, students and stakeholders: What is the Mandel School all about?
From hundreds of conversations and comments, an answer became evident:
Equity. Innovation. Transformation.
Not only is this the new tagline for the Mandel School, “these are values that capture who we are as an institution—and more importantly—where we’re heading,” said Voisin, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Dean in Applied Social Science.
While there are countless examples of each of these principles in action during the institution’s 108-year history, three recent stories—involving faculty, students and alumni—highlight how the Mandel School community is advancing the social work field, translating research into practice and action and leading positive social change.
When the Ohio Supreme Court offered Adrianne Fletcher, PhD (SAS ’05), the role as its first-ever director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), she saw a one-of-a-kind opportunity to take her research and expertise into one of the state’s oldest, most tradition-bound institutions.
Taking a leave of absence from the Mandel School, Fletcher and her family moved to Columbus.
“I felt a responsibility to try to make an impact at the court, and I felt called to the position,” said Fletcher, an assistant professor of social work and faculty member since 2017. “My charge was to bring a fresh approach and new ideas into an institution that stands for equal justice and the public good, but knows it can better uphold those principles.”
Reporting to then-Chief Justice Maureen O’Conner, Fletcher identified ways that the state’s highest and lower courts could better reflect Ohio’s diverse demographics and create opportunities for better access—including for people with disabilities and language barriers. She also suggested ways to implement initiatives to promote these goals and values.
For instance, Fletcher updated training on implicit bias for hiring panels throughout courts in Ohio and often worked with, and taught at, the Judicial College—one of the court’s nine divisions—which provides training for judges and attorneys across the state.
“Dr. Fletcher is a perfect example of the many ways our alumni and faculty move into non-traditional spaces and break barriers,” said Voisin. “She’s done a tremendous job of elevating voices, perspectives and narratives of minoritized communities.”
Fletcher returned to the Mandel School last summer and took on an advanced role as its inaugural associate dean for equity and belonging. In her new position, Fletcher is responsible for ensuring the Mandel School can better embody its values—from elevating equity to practicing antiracism—throughout its internal practices, curricula, hiring and engaging with communities.
“We are building a community of inclusivity, belonging and mutual respect—and diversity, which is more than just race. It’s ability and disability, religion and gender, and other natural parts of being human,” said Fletcher, who also recently was named the School of Medicine’s vice dean of diversity, equity and inclusive excellence. “When we broaden our perspective in talking about these issues, we touch on aspects of everyone’s identity, which helps get buy-in and promotes learning.”
Fletcher rejoined the Mandel School just as the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling barring the consideration of race in higher education admissions. The historic decision and ongoing research into effective strategies tto strengthen DEII education are shaping how the Mandel School and university approach the subject matter and teach students.
“Our work is undergoing a transformation,” said Fletcher. “We’re really going to be emphasizing a culture of equity and belonging for students, faculty and staff.”
In the near term, the Mandel School is re-tailoring its equity and belonging programming for the differing needs of international students, underrepresented minorities and other groups on campus.
“No matter who we are—a social worker, a student, a judge or an attorney—biases are a part of the human condition,” said Fletcher. “As social workers, we should be examples for how to work our way forward through our society’s thicket of race and culture.”
Every time students start their journeys at the Mandel School, they join educational programs that have been recognized for being among the most influential and forward-thinking in their field.
“Curricular innovation in social work education has really been the hallmark of the Mandel School since its founding,” said Emeritus Dean Grover (Cleve) Gilmore, PhD.
The school’s founders and earliest faculty created an atmosphere in which they continually sought the best ways to teach and train students “so they could tackle the problems they’d encounter as social workers,” said Gilmore. “It’s part of the DNA of the school.”
The Mandel School’s latest era of educational innovations was captured in a recent white paper—“Competency-Based Social Work Education: 25 Years of Innovation and Leadership”—that chronicled the school’s role in advancing curricular planning, assessment and delivery of social work education.
The paper was authored by Gilmore; Associate Professors Zoe Breen Wood, PhD, David Hussey, PhD, Mark Chupp, PhD; Assistant Professor Marji Edguer, PhD (WRC ’80; SAS ’85; GRS ’17, social welfare); and Paul Kubek, who served as consulting writer and project manager.
“Our curriculum is continually built on a history of innovations—and it’s an evolution that’s always ongoing,” said Edguer, co-chair of the curriculum committee at the Mandel School. “No matter how successful any effort has been, we can always improve aspects of the education we provide.”
Since the mid-1990s, faculty and administration have collected data measuring student achievement in particular abilities and competencies. In some cases, the data has led to entire initiatives—years in the making—to be set aside.
“We’ve made mistakes and corrections. Ultimately, we follow the lead of students,” said Gilmore. “At times, we’ve had to be very honest and acknowledge that simply because we’re content experts, hard changes are necessary if students aren’t achieving.”
In 2002, the Mandel School was the first of its kind to launch what’s known as a competency-based, or ability-based, social work education.
“We were leaders in looking at educational outcomes—what students should be able to know, do and believe when they leave,” said Wood. “We changed the focus from giving information to students to evaluating how confident they are in performing their career roles.”
Gilmore, who served as dean during most of the era covered in the paper, said the school aimed to “avoid having a catalog of courses that are individually very good but may not hold together very well,” he said. “Instead, we worked backward from the outcome of a competent social worker.”
The competency-based approach, first pursued at the Mandel School, has been influential on a national level. In 2008, the Council on Social Work Education proclaimed that all social work schools needed to develop such a program.
“It challenges social workers to think and learn beyond one’s expertise and pursue lifelong learning,” said Kubek. “As this approach has become widely adopted, it’s having a significant impact on the field.”
The scholars also cite the 2020 launch of the school’s Change Agent Intensive as a recent innovation. This one-week, cohort-based intensive program offers all new students a range of experiences, before classes begin.
“We’ve created a powerful way to welcome them into the professional world of social work,” said Chupp. “It builds a community of learning and support, and it introduces them to the neighborhoods and people they’ll be working with in Cleveland.”
Added Chupp, “Immediately, we see them asking the kinds of questions that can foment changes in how programs are run and services are delivered. We see a presumption in them that we can do better, and they take that into the field and their careers.”
Over the last quarter-century, the school’s faculty continually returned to a foundational aspect of its curriculum—the student-learning experience—to ensure each course and semester built on the next, in an organized and coherent way.
“We can’t expect our students to connect and integrate the different parts of their education unless we do,” said Hussey.
The Mandel School’s level of emphasis on curriculum development is rare—not only for a school of social work— but for any school in higher education, said Gilmore, who launched the white-paper project as dean.
Its authors view the work as part historical document and as a testament to current and future faculty “so they realize this is an important mission,” said Wood, “and that engaging in this activity is valued here.”
Ultimately, it’s the profession that benefits, the authors agree.
“We’ve always aimed to empower students to create change,” said Edguer, “while at the Mandel School and as social workers.”
In Cleveland, pronounced socioeconomic and racial disparities, which disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic residents, correlate with traumatic occurrences—including violent crime, child maltreatment and food insecurity.
In 2018, researchers at the Mandel School’s Center on Trauma and Adversity helped launch a project to address the issue and offer support. Every worker at the city’s 22 recreation centers—nearly 300 individuals, from desk staff, custodians, security personnel and others—have been trained in trauma-informed care, which means they can identify signs of trauma and address it constructively.
The initiative has become the country’s first system of trauma-informed recreation centers.
“This is a creative way of addressing unmet needs that stem from racialized poverty in low-resourced neighborhoods,” said Voisin. “We aim to meet people where they are. We partner with them, listen and respond in ethical and culturally appropriate ways.”
A dozen social workers and counselors also rotate among the rec centers, working directly with patrons—kids, adults and seniors—to process and work through trauma.
“It’s one thing to say you’re in the community—it’s another thing to be of the community,” said Eugenia Cash-Kirkland (SAS ’92), support services director at Cleveland’s Division of Recreation. “Our social workers and counselors build relationships in neighborhoods and help people who otherwise aren’t likely to receive mental healthcare anywhere else.”
At the outset of the initiative, the center’s faculty teamed with nonprofit Frontline Services to teach rec center staff about trauma’s causes and its lasting effects on behavior and well-being. The staff also received training on how to integrate trauma-informed care into everyday operations. The approach is characterized by several key principles and practices—safety, trustworthiness, peer support and flexibility.
“We want these spaces to feel safe, restorative and healing across all interactions and the environment,” said Megan Holmes, PhD, professor and co-director at the Center on Trauma and Adversity. “We want everyone—kids and adults—to walk in and be greeted and treated in a way that doesn’t further trigger trauma and can help promote healing from difficult experiences.”
As a sign of the city’s commitment to the endeavor, the rec centers are now known as Neighborhood Resource and Recreation Centers.
“A patron showing signs of trauma isn’t going to have their first interaction be with a social worker or counselor,” said Amy Korsch-Williams (SAS ’04), faculty affiliate of the center and senior instructor at the Mandel School. “All workers are trained to respond in ways that are compassionate, that perhaps will flip negative interactions, so people are moving together rather than apart.”
When counselors and social workers work with a patron, “it’s not just a referral; we do a ‘warm handoff,’ where we support you in whatever you need,” said Cash-Kirkland, “which was not there before.”
Faculty from the Center on Trauma and Adversity recently summarized findings from the project’s first phase in the journal Behavioral Sciences. The paper details how a trauma-informed approach has promoted a range of positive interactions at centers.
Having mental health professionals meet with patrons after family members or friends have been hurt or killed is one way in which this approach has proven especially effective.
“It’s made a huge difference,” said Cash-Kirkland, “It mobilizes support at difficult times in the community.”
During the project’s next phase, ongoing evaluations will continue to inform efforts to fine-tune the approach until it’s “woven deeply into the fabric of the centers,” Holmes said. “Our goal is to provide the tools to do this work on their own, and step back.”
Added Korsch-Williams, “In some ways, you could say we are trying to create an accumulation of good.”
Moving forward, the Mandel School will continue to integrate principles of equity, innovation and transformation into its curriculum, research, student experience and other areas as part of an “anti-oppressive, anti-racist and decolonizing approach to social work,” Voisin said.
“We will be more proactive about influencing our profession through equity, innovation and transformation. These have been the soul of our school for years, even if we just put this into words,” he continued. “We’ve inherited a legacy of dedication to these principles, and our future will be built upon them.”