Margaret Lombe, PhD, arrived on the campus of the Boston College School of Social Work ten years ago this fall. Since then, she has developed a reputation as a leading researcher on poverty, food security, and social inclusion/exclusion. She has conducted evaluations for non-governmental organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, OXFAM America, and Global Ignatian Advocacy Networks, and she serves as an ongoing consultant to the United Nations. But despite all of her success in the fields of research and international social development, it is her role as an educator and a mentor to a future generation of social workers that she says is her most cherished work.
Here, Lombe discusses what the past ten years have meant to her, the imperative of training “globally-minded” social workers, and her latest research project on food security.
Good morning Professor Lombe. Congratulations on ten years at BC Social Work. Give us a sense of what your time at BC has meant to you.
It has been a wonderful experience. I came here from Washington University in St. Louis, drawn to Chestnut Hill by Boston College’s emphasis on social justice. I have found BC Social Work to be a uniquely rich environment that has allowed me to grow.
When I came here, the global practice concentration was just an idea that we had, but the program has grown significantly. Now, every year, we have about 20 students who follow this specialized course of study, and our global practice alumni are leaders in the field in organizations across the world. Some have gone on to pursue PhDs in social work with a global focus. This has been rewarding to see.
Talk more about the need for “globally-minded” social workers in today’s world.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to not have a global perspective in today’s world. For us as social workers, even those of us who might be working in a localized setting, we must realize that there are problems that we face that might appear to be isolated, but that in fact impact others living in communities across the world. We should always be open to finding solutions that can help as many people as possible. We can’t afford to not be global.
You have your own, unique global perspective: You’re originally from Zambia, you studied in Kenya and the United States, and you’ve published research on communities spanning the globe, from Boston to Palestine to India to across Sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout all of these experiences, how has your own definition of social work defined itself?
For me, as a researcher, social work represents a search for answers to broad questions. In particular, I am seeking to find out why certain people live in poverty, when so many others do not. And I always try to remember to have the courage to envision ‘the why not’ while I work. As in, we can find solutions to positively impact people living in poverty, even when it seems so hard, so complex. ‘Why can’t we? Why not?’ If we don’t think positively about what we can accomplish, we are already lost.
Social work began for me when I was an undergraduate communications student in Nairobi, Kenya. I was working on a project with street children in the city’s slums, a project that stays with me to this day. I remember one question we asked each of the children: ‘Where do you hope to be in five years?’ and so many of them said simply ‘staying alive.’ Young children, of course, are meant to do so much more than merely stay alive. So I asked myself, how could I do more to help them? How could we expand the possibilities of these children? And I’ve been asking this question, and many others, in my research ever since.
An important point that I remind my students is that a poor person is so much more than what he or she doesn’t have. To me, this search for ‘who people truly are’ represents a major portion of how I practice social work, and I encourage my students to think this way too.
Tell us about some of your recent research.
In one project, I’m currently looking at food security in low-income households in the U.S. in order to learn more about the food choices people make, and how these choices are related to health outcomes. In particular, we’ve looked at the effects of programs like food stamps and traditional food networks like Meals on Wheels on food security. We’ve found that, for the most part, food stamps are not adequate, and that people are forced to turn to other support systems. The silver lining is, people tend to be creative and are able to find food through other means.
Still, we need to do more to serve the needs of the hungry. Education is key: Programs need to be able to do more to properly teach the impoverished how to eat healthy. There is a real opportunity to develop interventions against disease brought on by unhealthy food choices, and to help to lessen the toll on individuals, their communities, and the healthcare system on the whole. Policy implications come alive – how do we ensure adequate food for families with children?
In addition to your research, you’ve mentored many future social workers in the classroom. Talk about this role.
Teaching is my most rewarding, and important, role. I push my students to stay curious, for I believe that when we stop asking questions, we die.
As social workers, we are only as valuable as the ways in which we impact people’s lives positively. I try to share this perspective with my students, so that they continue to work hard, always looking forward, searching to find new models of intervention and engagement. Finding such models is what I dream about, and I hope they do too.
Of course, this isn’t easy. Even after years of experience, when I look at social problems I find myself feeling incredibly overwhelmed. Often, there seems to be no answer to a problem. At times, solutions become incredibly complex.
For this reason, I teach my students to start small, to ‘make haste slowly,’ to impact one life, and begin to forge a chain of impact. By building on personal relationships, I believe that we can do a lot to create global change.