Posted on March 18, 2021 by Amanda Cerreto

UTSA assistant professor of social work Jelena Todić has been accepted into a cohort of social work experts from the U.S. and Canada.

JelenaTodic Spotlight The Social Work Health Futures Lab is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and hosted by the Portland State University School of Social Work. The 26-member cohort will spend the next 18 months learning about how to apply a "futures" lens to some of the most challenging problems of society.

The fellows will work together on pertinent research, studying topics such as the relationship of technology and human well-being, geopolitical issues shifting the nature of place and identity, and the relationship between climate justice and health.

"I am grateful to have been selected as a Lab member," Todić said. “The Lab will be a generative space that will nurture my imagination and courage to think big. I look forward to bringing that energy to my work at UTSA.”

This cohort's project builds upon ongoing work that Laura Nissen , principal investigator, the lab director and a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, has been engaged in exploring and inviting social workers nationally to consider foresight methods in their practice.

The project will also shine a light on the ways the future might impact social workers who work with social determinants of health. The fellows will explore the ways that social work 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.

“The transdisciplinary and solutions-focused Lab orientation mirrors the college's vision for the role we want to play in San Antonio and beyond,” Todić said. “I am also looking forward to bringing the innovative work we are doing to the national conversation.”

Even before learning of the project, Todić had developed a course for UTSA master's students called Social Determinants of Health. The overarching theme for the course came from an essay written by Arundhati Roy , asking readers to imagine the pandemic as a portal to a better world. This forward-thinking viewpoint fits in harmoniously with the theme of the Health Futures lab.

“In the course, we were looking at health inequities in San Antonio and the U.S. We examined research evidence that can inform our thinking about how to eliminate health inequities,” Todić explained. “We also studied transformative frameworks like prison industrial complex abolition and solidarity economy to help us see what's happening to us right now as an opportunity to arrive somewhere else: a post-pandemic world that is healthier for all of us. So when the call came out, I was ready. We were already experimenting with the future.”

Todić sees the fellowship as a chance to bring back exciting new ideas and practices into the classroom, but also as a way to frame her research and advance the goals of the UTSA Department of Social Work.

“I think this will be really exciting for my research because it is interdisciplinary and does not neatly fit into traditional research topics,” Todić said. “Sometimes it’s really hard to find a home for it.”

Todić's work in the Health Futures Lab will also advance the missions of the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy and the Department of Social Work. While the fellowship seems tailor-made for Todić and her research, she gives equal credit to the students in her Social Determinants of Health course.

“It was such a generative, vibrant environment, even in the midst of the pandemic,” she said. “Every time I think about the students, I tear up. It's been truly an incredible experience with them for the past 15 weeks.”

— Amanda Cerreto