PSU launches a national cohort of Social Work Health Futures Fellows

In a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 26 national social work experts will take on topics from social media to climate justice

Laura Nissen on PSU campus
Laura Nissen is the director of the National Social Work Health Futures Lab.

Portland State University School of Social Work has launched a national cohort of 26 social work experts from around the U.S. and Canada, who will spend the next 18 months learning about how to apply a futures lens to some of the most challenging problems of society. The project is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Social Work Health Futures Fellows will work together on pertinent research, studying topics including:

● The relationship of social media and technology to human health and well-being
● Use of artificial intelligence in relation to health (including the exploration of algorithmic racism as well as vital problem-solving opportunities)
● Geopolitical issues shifting the nature of place and identity
● Power and control of individual well-being, especially with regard to vulnerable people
● The impact of climate change and climate justice on human health
● The future of work for marginalized populations
● The access to and use of technology as a tool of power and set of health rights

Endorsed by the National Association of Social Work, the Council on Social Work Education, and the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work, this initiative aspires to helping to prepare a new generation of the profession.  

“As COVID-19 has taught us, the world can change very quickly — and the future is a work in progress,” said Principal Investigator and National Social Work Health Futures Lab Director, Laura Nissen, Professor at the PSU School of Social Work and a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. “The future we want requires our attention and our collective ability to both imagine and then build together in new ways. This initiative provides a new kind of space for social work to imagine our role in the world that is unfolding right now, and in the years to come especially as it relates to the health and well-being of communities, and to the future of health and human rights.”  

This project builds on ongoing work Nissen has been engaged in exploring and inviting social workers nationally to consider futures and foresight methods in their practice.  

This national learning collaborative comprises a diverse array of social work educators, researchers, practitioners and students who competed in a national call for proposals. They submitted proposals that required them to imagine an “artifact from the future” to illustrate their ideas and commitment. These included interviews with themselves from the future, maps of new community mutual aid networks and future press releases noting important breakthroughs in social welfare policy.  

“The new Fellows have already indicated their deep enthusiasm, vision and passion to help steer the profession towards effectiveness and innovation in the years to come,” said Mit Joyner, President of the National Association of Social Workers. “We’re so excited to learn with and from them as they progress through the work and learning of the lab.”  

“Portland State University has a long tradition of asking innovative questions and providing the leadership to partner with communities to answer them,” said PSU President Stephen Percy. “We are excited to continue this tradition with this project — and celebrate the chance to welcome leaders from around the country to learn with us and cultivate readiness to build a more equitable and healthy world ahead.” 

“Our Portland State University is proud to provide a convening space for these vitally important dialogues for our profession nationally,” said PSU School of Social Work Dean Jose E. Coll. “How will emerging trends in the world regarding human health and well-being surprise, challenge and stretch us as a profession? How will our unique strength as a profession contribute to the future of well-being and health in vulnerable communities around the world? This effort will give us rare protected space and the opportunity to engage in exploration of the answers to that and many other related questions.”

The project will also shine a light on the ways the future of work might impact social workers themselves who work with social determinants of health issues, including the ways that roles, tools and methods may expand and become even more interdisciplinary and more technological in the coming years. These explorations may lead to a host of new ideas about how to best teach and prepare the next generation for effective leadership and practice in a changing world.

At Institute for the Future, Lyn Jeffery, Distinguished Fellow and Director of IFTF Foresight Essentials, said, “Social workers are building the future, one interaction at a time, through their work at the intersections of health, identity, technology, environment and equity. IFTF is pleased to be partnering with Dr. Nissen and PSU to help shape new perspectives in social work futures especially related to the future of the social determinants of health. We look forward to collaborating with the new lab as it builds the necessary tools and perspectives to overcome the limitations of 'short-termism,' fostering a deep bench of foresight leaders within the social work field.”   

The lab is being coached by Jake Dunagan, Director of the Government Futures Lab at IFTF, who added, “Social workers are also social inventors – agents of possibility, and architects of a better society.”  

Please contact Laura Nissen for additional information at The website for the Social Work Health Futures Lab is