Making connections to help children
Initiative involves several Dal research groups across disciplines
Billy Comeau - April 11, 2012
While it may feel as though some of the most extreme challenges faced by youth are always “a world away,” the sad truth is those challenges are a shared reality for far too many young people in every corner of the globe.
Dalhousie’s Michael Ungar would like to see that come to an end.
The professor of social work, co-director or the Resilience Research Centre and former clinician is the scientific director of a new Government of Canada Network Centre of Excellence – Knowledge Mobilization (NCE-KM) Initiative, called the Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts (CYCC) Network.
The $1.6 million network has global reach, and will help bring together knowledge from organizations around the world to better understand how to help CYCCs.
At Dalhousie alone, Dr. Ungar is working with Shelly Whitman, director of the Child Soldiers Initiative; David Black, director Centre for Foreign Policy Studies; and Patrick McGrath, lead investigator of the Centre for Research on Family Health, which operates the Strongest Families program at the IWK Health Centre.
“Our groups had complementary interests in CYCCs, but the way we approach those groups is different,” says Dr. Ungar. “We noticed we all had access to innovative practices that helped kids, but that knowledge wasn’t necessarily shared.”
Together they secured an NCE-KM grant and have started building the network to include upwards of 50 similar organizations around the world to share and communicate knowledge and best practices.
Getting groups to talk and share
“A child’s psychological and social problems are not caused simply by something inside them – they’re shaped by the social context they live in and their social determinants of health,” explains Dr. Ungar. “It’s just so senseless more isn’t being done for these children and youth. The more we can address the needs of CYCCs, the more we can understand how to intervene and see a social benefit as they grow up.”
There are many similarities between children’s experiences around the world, and many different groups that work to support them: from large organizations like UNICEF and UNESCO to Dalhousie projects like the Resilience Research Centre and the Child Soldiers Initiative to even smaller local groups. The problem is these groups rarely talk to each other.
“There is incredible potential to share information, innovation and best practices across the network,” says Dr. Ungar. “Our job is to facilitate the connections, not just the gathering, but to pull knowledge up from communities and push it out. That’s where we need to get creative in employing our ideas.”
Getting knowledge shared globally is not an easy task for the NCE-KM.
“How do you convey knowledge and practices to remote communities where they don’t have the resources, capacity or support in these less formal settings?” asks Dr. Ungar. “There are groups working in various local communities who know how to take what they know naturally and embellish it in ways we haven’t thought of, so we need to harness the natural and practical knowledge of these groups. For example, similar art-based interventions are happening around the world and are working, but haven’t been verified scientifically. The network can help facilitate these conversations.”
Thinking long term
He hopes the network will help create some methodological innovation for the knowledge mobilization field and get communities and groups to adopt innovative approaches to helping CYCCs, making universities, NGOs and their outreach more relevant to communities where there’s not a lot of capacity to implement programming.
“We need to think long-term,” explains Dr. Ungar. “So much social policy right now isn’t being informed by good research and good thought, which is funny, considering how it’s funded.”
He points to his and two other recent NCE-KM grants going to projects focused on children and youth issues as a good step forward and good investment.
Dr. Ungar says he still feels like a clinician and community worker. “It’s nice to feel like you’re making the world a bit better. It might be naïve, but to me, it makes the world seem a little more whole. Besides, we don’t have a television show to make social work sexy. Our work will at least bring us some attention.”