By Nishesh Chalise, PhD LGSW

Dr. Chalise is an Assistant Professor in the department of social work at Augsburg University.


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with Campus Compact’s Newman Civic Fellows about systems thinking as a tool for solving complex public problems. The goal of the Newman Civic Fellowship is to provide emerging leaders with the tools they need to serve as effective agents of social change. Tackling difficult social issues requires an understanding that problems are complex and require a collective effort to solve. Systems thinking is one such approach that embraces the complexity of the problem. Rather than trying to understand parts of a system, it aims to identify and develop knowledge about the interconnectedness of various parts and the resulting system behavior.

Over the past year, I have been part of a community based research team in Minneapolis that includes two community center staff members, food shelf participants, and representatives from two local foundations. Developing a holistic view of the system requires bringing diverse groups of people together, since people experience different parts of the system and interact with it differently. It is important to provide space for people whose lives are embedded in the problem at the front and center because they navigate those systems as part of their daily lives. This community based systems thinking approach aims to provide insights about the system while giving voice to those who would otherwise be unheard.

A member of the food security community based research team shared that her family of four lives in a one-bedroom apartment. They want to move from the apartment building because of the rampant violence in the area. She worries about her family’s safety. However, moving to a safer neighborhood will mean allocating more money from her already stretched budget to housing. She is faced with a choice between living in a safer neighborhood and being able to feed her family. For her and many other families like hers, food programs are a life saver. Her story is not uncommon. Approximately 25% of Americans participated in 1 or more of the 15 food and nutrition assistance program funded by the federal government. A significant number of people depend on food shelves, and that number is increasing. During the first six months of 2016, there were 1.6 million visits to food shelves in the state of Minnesota, an increase of 15% from 2012. Similarly in Hennepin County (project area), food shelves have experienced a 22.43% increase in visits since 2012.

The increase in use over the past few years coincides with a commitment by food shelves to provide healthier food options. Combined with their commitment to provide culturally-inclusive food and serve participants with dignity, the food shelves are attracting more participants, including from adjacent counties. At the same time, the budget is tighter than ever due to funding cuts, which resulted in closure of two food shelves in the area. The fact that food shelves are just a band-aid, albeit an utterly necessary one, is not lost either. Families continue to come to the food shelf for several years because they don’t have an alternative. The task for the community based research team, therefore, is to figure out how to provide quality services to more people with fewer resources.

To do “systems thinking” simply means to explicate the organization of the system and how that produces system’s behaviors. More specifically, the goal is to develop a visual representation of the dynamic discussed above. For example, think about the food shelves’ effort to provide healthier food options. As the food shelves provide healthier food options, it increases their attractiveness and draws more people. That requires more resources to provide healthier food for more people, creating an opposing force to the food shelves’ well-intentioned effort. This narrative constitutes a balancing feedback loop (B) (see figure below), which works to control the behavior of the system. A thermostat works based on a balancing feedback loop where it controls the flow of warm and cold air to maintain temperature.

In a system, every action has multiple consequences. So while a solution to the problem could be securing more resources through grant making and fundraising, this can further exacerbate the problem as an increase in resources eventually leads to providing services for more people. Even the act of grant writing, fundraising, and consequently reporting on the grant will divert resources away. The role of systems thinking is to help stakeholders understand how the system is working so they can be better equipped to design effective interventions.four arrows in a circle provide illustration of cycle of moving from food options to food shelf choices

Food security is a complex issue and will require a collaborative effort from many stakeholders, including people who are food insecure, community centers, funders, policy makers, and scholars. Part of the reason collaborative efforts don’t work is because everyone perceives the system from their own perspective. They see their particular component of the system and have their own language to talk about it. A community based systems thinking approach integrates the various system components and creates a shared language to talk about the system. In the process, stakeholders learn from each other and understand how the system they see is interconnected with the daily lives and activities of people. With systems thinking, people from different walks of life co-create a shared understanding of the system that they could not comprehend alone; which is essential when tackling dynamic, complex problems.


This blog was originally posted on campus compact:

The Social REFORM of the REFORMation, by Mary Simonson Clark

In honor of the Reformation

SWK 301B, History and Analysis of Social Policy, developed this 72 Social Policy REFORMation.

Hanging in Hoversten Chapel. The Social REFORM of the REFORMation

The students’ instructions 

In recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 95 theses (questions and propositions) that were presented for debate, we will create our own list of theses.  These should include:

  • Things that are wrong, helpful, or need REFORM in the various social policies we have discussed (social policy review)
  • Presentation of what you learned in your social policy analysis, including things to REFORM, maintain, or increase
  • Reflections on the i go home video, including things that should never be done again, REFORMs done or still needed, etc.
  • Social issues, including systemic issues of injustice, that must be REFORMed, perhaps through activism, for our neighbors’ good
Most of the handwriting on this list of paper is not readable but the words, "rights for women" and "abolish the death penalty" is readable.
Handwritten list of reforms.                                                      
Another close-up view.


500 years ago, the Reformation brought great social reforms:

— “Relief scheme including a common chest to aid the weak, old, and poor householders” (Platt and Cooreman, 2001, p. 92)

— Schools for children & education guides for parents to use at home

— Information that was important to common people should be presented in their own language

— Opposition to collecting money that could further impoverish, exclude, and/or marginalize (including stated purpose vs. actual purpose)

— Importance of caring for and helping all of one’s neighbors

— Call to active citizenship, yet permission to oppose the government when it was deemed to be taking wrong actions

— Value of all types of work, including child care, and the importance of doing work well, including for others’ benefit


MSW students travel from Minneapolis to Slovenia, a report by Michael Schock, Ph.D.

Constructive Social Work as the agent of co-creative dialogue:  An international perspective. Faculty of Social Work, University of Ljubljana, and Augsburg University, June 26 through July 8, 2017

Our first day in Slovenia

On June 26 of this year, ten MSW students from Augsburg, Emily Glynn and I (Mike Schock) paraded through four airports, three take offs, four landings, and travelling 30 hours arrived tired in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.  To our relief we were warmly welcomed by Profs, Šugman Bohinc, PhD, and Ana Jagrič, Fakulteta za socialno delo, Univerze v Ljublijana, and their students.  After a brief trip to our hotels, we were guided (on foot) to the School’s center and welcomed by Prof. Gabi Čačinovič Vogrinčič, and eight Slovenian social work students.  Our warm welcome included a brief introduction to the two-week course, Constructive Social Work as the agent of co-creative dialogue, with student led presentations on Slovenia, a brief history, current demographics, social forces, and geography.  At the end of our first very long day, the U.S. students and faculty shared an evening meal at a local café and then headed off to our hotels.  On day two we began early with more student presentations on current social policy in Slovenia and then a visit to Kings of the Street – a drop in day center for people who are homeless and a tour of the city.

14 people stand outside closely gathered together smiling up at the camera. Half of the men and women are wearing sun glasses. Behind the group of people is a fence and some graffiti drawings on a cement wall.
And the study of social work and social welfare in Slovenia began…

International study in the era of Trump

Every three years Augsburg social work students visit the University of Ljubljana and each visit our students carry a very different political aura.  Travelling to Europe in the time of G.W. Bush was difficult in part because his foreign policy was being roundly criticized in European political circles.  On the other hand, travelling to Europe in 2011 or 2014, U.S. students could be proud of the progressive agenda set by the 44th U.S. President, Barack Obama. However, a visit to Europe in the era of Trump held for us foreboding and worry.  How do we explain the election or for that matter, the sudden rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism in the U.S.A?  What will the sudden impulse towards U.S. nationalism and isolationist rhetoric mean to our hosts?  We did not know how we would be received by our Slovene hosts with their tradition of liberal political and social ideology, community and national cohesion and progressive social policies?

Our students expressed other more mundane reservations, reservations about language and money and the worry of getting lost in an unfamiliar country.  At the same time, we arrived in Ljubljana believing that our hosts would introduce to us a new world of social work practices and welfare policies.  That we would be introduced to a country whose history and architecture was both centuries old and decades young.  But most of all, we arrived with the hope of engaging in conversations with our Slovene peers that would challenge us to approach our profession in new and creative ways.


From the moment of our arrival, our hosts Lea and Ana, and the summer school students welcomed us with great warmth, enthusiasm and in a language that we could fully understand… English.  From that first day, students from both Ljubljana and Augsburg began to build friendships over food, mutual curiosity, and a shared passion for social justice.  Drawing from my students’ journals, I discovered that most of our students were able to engage with the instructors, students and agency staff with curiosity and a healthy dose of cultural humility.  As is common in international education, our students began to doubt their own approaches to social change and social justice.  For instance, our visit to the national prison was so challenging that some of the students spoke despairingly about the criminal justice system in the United States.  Following the visit to Association LEGEBITRA, our students were amazed and a bit jealous of the agency staff’s personal relationships with political agents such as the mayor of Ljubljana and federal government policy makers.

Our students were also introduced to beneficiaries of Slovenia’s social welfare programs.  The most stirring experience was a walk around the city with guides who were formerly homeless and recovering from their drug addictions. While introducing our students to the more interesting neighborhoods, our guides talked about their personal histories, their failures and victories.  In their personal stories, we witnessed first-hand, the long and hopeful journey into and out of addiction and homelessness.

Nearer the end of our two weeks, students began to ask tougher questions, questions about Slovenian national identity and multiculturalism, about the legacy of Tito’s vision of a united, multi-ethnic and socialist country against the newly discovered freedom inherent in a capitalist economic system.  How does the feast and famine of the free market support or challenge the socialist values of the past century? How do you include new immigrants without colonizing their culture? Our students spoke of their worry that these questions might convey a sense of haughtiness and cultural arrogance.  Many of you know that in our program at Augsburg, students have learned to ask these tough questions of themselves and of others. We also learn that asking the difficult questions is a sign of genuine interest and respect, not of judgment and criticism.  So, our students continued to ask more probing questions.  What we soon learned is that for example, no one had ever questioned cultural colonizing with social policy. In other cases, Slovene students and faculty were already asking those very same questions.

Early in my stay, I was introduced to the politics of the German occupation and the Slovene Partisan liberation movement during World War II. One evening I wandered into Trg Zvezda during what was a celebration for veteran Slovene Partisans. Bystanders in the crowd were kind enough to offer a brief history lesson on the German and Italian occupations during World War II. Later in the week, on a visit to Žužemberk castle, I asked one of our hosts more about the role of Slovene Partisans during the German occupation.  This time I accidently stumbled into a sensitive conversation about both the Slovene Partisans and the Home Guard.  I learned that in some cases, Slovene Partisans intimidated rural communities who in response organized their own militia called the home guard.  On the other hand, members of the Home Guard accused their Slovene Partisan neighbors of espionage against their occupiers.  Accusations by both the Slovene Partisans and the Home Guard lead to prison terms and in some cases, their execution.  At the end of the war many Slovene Home Guard members were executed by the Yugoslovian government. The German military was defeated over two generations ago, yet the legacy of resentment and betrayal is still felt among neighbors and within communities.  The story of Žužemberk, Partisians and the Home Guard reminds us that historical trauma is a universal phenomenon, one that we deny at our peril.


I was moved on more than one occasion to remind my students how proud I was that they had chosen to study at Augsburg University.  That their thoughtfulness and respect, their unflagging curiosity was an expression of their commitment to social work, social and economic justice.  In reading their final journal entries I was again moved by their deep passion for our profession and our mission.  One of the more troubling lessons was how in Slovenia, professional social workers are criticized and misunderstood.  A lesson learned when hearing that some of the parents of the social work students were not happy with their decisions to become social workers. Misunderstanding of our profession is a universal phenomenon.  A more inspiring take away however was knowing that some of our clinical social work students became more impassioned to work at the community and policy level.  Likewise, our macro social work students expressed a renewed dedication to their work as policy makers and agents for social and political change.

We gathered two weeks after returning to the United States.  We gathered around pizza and pop to talk about what lessons have stayed with us since arriving back in the U.S.A.  What I heard was that students learned about a community of professionals working hard for social and economic justice, a profession that was poorly paid and likely misunderstood.  Basically, our students learned that there are others like themselves, in other countries, working for social justice and the welfare of all. Finally, our students acknowledged that we have much to learn from others and we too have much to share in our pursuit of justice and universal well-being.  Now, we turn to the summer 2018 and are looking forward to hosting our new Slovene colleagues and friends.

Thank you, Profs, Lea, Ana, and Gabi, Jana, Liljana, Mojca and students Tina, Viktorija, Ana, Anže, Žiga, Nastja, Alma and Matea.  And thank you Fakulteta za socialno delo.

A special note of gratitude

for the thoughtful editing from Lea Šugman Bohinc, especially for her counsel on the history of the German occupation during World War II.

Hurricane Harvey – An open letter to our students, staff, faculty, and alumni

Hurricane Harvey continues to pummel Southeast Texas and now Western Louisiana.  Images of families in boats, or wading through waist deep water move us to ask, “how can we help?”. We are told that the recovery from Hurricane Harvey will take months if not years.  During the early stages of a disaster relief effort the best way to support Texas’ relief effort is to offer financial support.  In the coming weeks, we will learn of other ways to support the communities and victims of this major disaster.  However, if you are able and are interested in providing financial support we have put together a list of valuable websites that will help guide your decision.

Charity Navigator is a non profit organization that provides information on a wide list of national and local charities. Charity Navigator has published a list of charities that are directly involved with the relief effort in South Texas.  This list is updated periodically.

Below is a short list of non-profit charities that are currently involved in the relief effort in South Texas.

Texas Diaper Bank

American Red Cross

NECHAMA:Jewish response to disaster is a Minneapolis based relief organization preparing to send a self sustaining relief team to South Texas.

Islamic Relief USA

Lutheran Disaster Response

Give by phone at 800-638-3522 or online

Or send check to ELCA at P.O. Box 1809, Merrifield, VA 22116-8009

Write “Hurricane Response – United States” on your check memo line.



Food, Justice, and Sustainability in Mexico

Environmental and community sustainability has been central to the mission of the Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) since the beginning, and students not only explore issues through coursework and but live out the commitment through daily life on campus and in the community.

This spring break, eleven Augsburg students experienced that reality in during the inaugural “Food, Justice, and Sustainability in Mexico” course, earning credit for SWK 210 or POL 160.

At the CGEE Cuernavaca campus, students talked with staff and community leaders about the complexities of local and global food systems, illustrated most poignantly for students during a trip to Amatlan, a Nahua indigenous village. Walking through a milpa (corn, bean, squash field) and hearing stories of how culture, religion, socio-political factors, and economics influence agriculture gave students a lot to reflect on before they joined other CGEE semester students from Augsburg and Oberlin College and headed to Vía Orgánica, an agroecological farm in San Miguel de Allende. At the farm, head farmer Antonio highlighted growing techniques that are based on ecological principles, utilizing both local knowledge and research to grow organic food, educate others, and provide jobs that pay a living wage. Despite some illnesses and unexpected events, the students were incredibly reflective and engaged, using the experience to connect what they were learning to what they had learned on campus before leaving, what they know from other classes and their own experiences, and what they are hearing from dominant narratives about food, sustainability, NAFTA, and even immigration. Each student was more motivated to practice sustainability in their own lives upon returning, though none of them will be able to keep using the dry composting toilets like at the CGEE Cuernavaca campus (when can we get these in Minneapolis?!). They are also eager to continue exploring how to work for change in complex systems of inequity. As one student reflected, “The impact about hearing different ways of farming in Mexico and different struggles that farmers face in Mexico has shaped into more motivation for me to do work in terms of food justice and food sovereignty.”


Students exploring nature in Mexico
Students studying social work and environmental sustainability in Mexico