Center for Social Development Marks Over 25 Years at the Brown School

Faculty; Research; Social Work

After more than 25 years, the Brown School’s Center for Social Development (CSD) continues to play an influential role in the national conversation about building assets for all people, starting at birth.

The center was founded in 1994 by Michael Sherraden, spurred by policy attention to his book Assets and the Poor. “There was more work than one person could do,” explained Sherraden, “so we started an academic center and have been busy ever since.”  

While its asset-building work has continued, the center has expanded to include a diverse array of topics, including civic service, productive aging, environment and social development, financial capability, desegregation of housing, decarceration of prisons, and voting rights. Those efforts are chronicled in the center’s recent In the Community, a wide-ranging report on the center’s progress over the years, as well as its current work.

“Our goal is to try to make the world a little better place, and sometimes we have been a little successful, which makes it all worthwhile,” said Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished Professor, who remains the director of one of the longest-running research centers at the school. 

The CSD’s asset-building work today focuses on Child Development Accounts for all children starting at birth, with both public and private funding, in order to build assets for education and other life goals. With the leadership of Margaret Clancy, the center’s Policy Director, several U.S. states have created CDA programs for their children, as well as several other countries. Ongoing research by the Center has shown the accounts improve family well-being even before the funds are put to use. The center’s long-standing commitment to asset building has been supported over the years by a variety of funders, most prominently the Ford Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. This work has been influential in similar proposals, such as “Baby Bonds,” which have been introduced by policy makers and civic leaders.

The Center’s work has adapted to changes in social development issues, Sherraden said. The response to climate change is one example. “People are being displaced in low-lying areas, and they have to prepare and adapt. At the same time, they have to organize new ways of living, and use different technologies. Climate change, like most everything else, is very much a social challenge.” 

The Center’s role in training students for important work is a growing and lasting legacy. Among former PhD students are leaders such as: 

  • Deborah Adams, MSW program director, University of Kansas
  • Gina Chowa, director of Global Social Development Innovations at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • William Elliott, a center director and chair of the doctoral program at the University of Michigan
  • Michal Grinstein-Weiss, Shanti K. Khinduka Distinguished Professor at the Brown School and director of Washington University’s Social Policy Institute
  • Amy Locklear Hertel, chief of staff to the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 
  • Jin Huang, national leader in Financial Capability and Asset Building, at St. Louis University
  • Lisa Reyes Mason, a national leader in environment and social development, now on the faculty at Denver University
  • Amanda Moore McBride, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work at Denver University 
  • Trina Williams Shanks, chaired professor and director of a new center at the University of Michigan
  • Fred Ssewamala, William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor and director of the International Center for Child Health and Development and SMART Africa Center at the Brown School

“This is only a partial list. We have trained dozens of scholars and they are doing amazing things,” Sherraden said. “Many are scholars of color. Surely this next generation of applied scholars is our best contribution.”

What’s in store for the Center in the coming years?

“We will continue the long-running experiment on Child Development Accounts and taking that knowledge to policy development in the U.S. and abroad,” Sherraden said. 

“This is a foundation for lifelong asset-building policy that includes everyone. We will continue the large project of re-introducing financial capability into social work practice, which requires curriculum design, research, and adaptation to new contexts — now focusing on East Asia and Africa. We are likely to continue our work on electoral democracy. When possible, we’ll continue to work toward civic service, housing availability and desegregation, decarceration of jails and prisons, and social dimensions of environment change.  In all of these areas we work in partnership with many applied scholars in the U.S. and abroad.

“There is never a shortage of interesting work to do!”