Professor Susan Kemp: Focus on community-based family support services and interdisciplinary conversations


The Faculty of Education and Social Work is poised to strategically position itself for a larger international presence with the recent appointment of a new Professor of Social Work, Susan Kemp.

Dr Kemp is Charles O. Cressey Endowed Professor at the University of Washington (UW) School of Social Work, where she was most recently the Director of the PhD Program in Social Welfare. She joined the faculty’s School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work (CHSSWK) in May this year and holds a professorial appointment concurrently at both universities.

Professor Kemp is a multi-awarded social work lecturer and researcher and a Fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, and the Society of Social Work and Social Research. She holds a doctorate in social work from Columbia University.

Professor Kemp says she is excited to join the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work and is optimistic the number of social work professors in New Zealand like her will continue to grow. Last year Dr Christa Fouche from CHSSWK became the University’s and Auckland’s first Professor of Social Work.

New Zealand roots

Professor Kemp’s research interests focus on place, environment and community in social work practice; low-income children, youth and families; public child welfare; and social work history and theory.

Her scholarship is deeply grounded in her extensive community-based practice experience, initially as a child welfare social worker in New Zealand and later as a consultant to community agencies in urban neighbourhoods in the United States.

“I’ve always had deep roots here. My husband and I are both New Zealanders,” she says.

Susan grew up in Levin but has lived in Auckland during her university days and as a social worker for the then Department of Social Welfare. She studied for her undergraduate degree at Massey University and went on to complete a Master of Arts in Sociology at the University of Auckland, while earning her professional social work qualification. Susan has close connections with the Faculty of Education and Social Work, having co-taught programmes at Epsom Campus in the 1980s when it was still the Auckland Teachers’ College.

“The world of social work looks to New Zealand for ideas in innovation, particularly its indigenous and bicultural practice models. The opportunities for real innovations and contributions from New Zealand, outwards to the rest of the world are  exciting to be part of.”

Changes in the social work sector

Professor Kemp says one of the obvious changes in New Zealand since she last worked here has been the massive growth of the NGO sector relative to the Government sector when it comes to the provision of social services.

While there was a much bigger proportion of services from Government agencies compared to NGOs back then, today more social services are being contracted out, including those for prevention and early intervention, Susan observes.

“The challenge is to find the balance,” Susan says. “For example, how services can be more strengths-based, relationally oriented and responsive to families and communities, while at the same time keeping kids safe.”

Susan says that stressed families have many different needs, so the Government should focus not only on child protection, but on the families more generally, especially those who are struggling with poverty, indigeneity and multiple risk factors.

“Another huge change is the incredible diversity here now. It’s great and I love it! . It seems like there are lots of things working in different buckets. There are also more ethnic group services being provided now.”

Current and future research

“My heart is in family supportive services that are community based.”

“I had the good fortune as a social worker working in NZ and trained in NZ to do community based family social work. That left me with a commitment to social interventions that make connections between what’s going on for people at their personal and interpersonal levels and what’s going on in their broader environments – their homes, neighbourhood, community support available and other environmental factors.”

“I’d like to continue in family support programmes and interventions, which can take a number of forms, for example, services for families ‘at the crossroads of life’ who don’t have to be a client of an agency necessarily to ge the help that they need.”

“There are others in this faculty who share this interest. I’m very interested to learn more about what’s going on and to think with colleagues and community partners about ways to collaboratively research and provide data on the value of those sevices and social work interventions to families in New Zealand.”  Susan is particularly excited about partnering with CHSSWK’s new Centre for Community Research and Evaluation (CCRE).

“A second strand of what I am doing and would like to continue to do research in is environmental change and disaster social work, which some of my colleagues at CHSSWK are already involved in.”

Professor Kemp is part of a groundbreaking initiative in the US called the Grand Challenges for Social Work. This initiative represents a social agenda for addressing the most pressing issues facing America today, from stopping family violence to closing the health gap and ending homelessness. She co-leads the agenda for “Creating social responses to a changing environment”, which aims to explore innovative and collaborative approaches to addressing the social dimensions of environmental challenges such as climate change and environmental injustice.

“Urbanisation, environmental stress, inadequate housing,  food insecurity, extreme weather events – are social work concerns because we understand the human face of these things. We just have not typically seen  ourselves as key players in these arenas although there’s a growing interest, especially among younger social workers and scholars.”

“I’ve been spending more time with urban planners, geographers, landscape architects, other people in the spatial disciplines, sociologists and climate scientists who are increasingly welcoming social work (researchers) to the table to be part of interdisciplinary conversations.”

The goal of the Grand Challenge is to link the social and the ecological and to figure out effective responses to environmental changes and threats in partnership with diverse communities. There’s a great opportunity for social work to think out of the box about what it does, what it has to offer and what its research agenda might be. There are great opportunities for partnerships across social work and education in this work, too.”

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