SoHE Centers of Excellence: Grand Challenges

Picture of someone going into centers.

It is a privilege and honor to support the work of our UW School of Human Ecology Centers of Excellence. I often say to colleagues at SoHE: “do you know how lucky we are to be able to to work on the real issues we work on around here?!”

As SoHE’s strategic plan and our leadership have emphasized, our Centers of Excellence are supposed to explore and address “real world problems”.  We strive to creatively mobilize campus and community resources to make the world a better place for all – with a special emphasis on wellness for individuals, families, and communities, and on social justice.

The truth is, we live in a world where there is much work to do. I am grateful that my job is to help some of our brilliant faculty and students at UW-Madison advance community engaged projects and partnerships to do some of this work and push the knowledge and progress needle.

For this summer post, I want to share a preview of some of the relevant, powerful initiatives that we are working on at the Centers of Excellence. Each of these initiatives is intentionally broad and multidisciplinary, and community-engaged. Each of these initiatives furthers the tradition of the Wisconsin Idea.  Each embraces a “human ecology” lens, looking creatively and inclusively at a range of factors that bear on the health and well-being of humans and the ability of communities to support opportunity and wellness for all.

So. . . .without further adieu, check out these exciting themes we’re working on. We will provide more detailed updates on individual projects and initiatives to come in subsequent blog posts in the coming academic year!

  • Prenatal to Five — Equity and Best Practices. We know that the developmental stage most determinative in a human’s opportunity to thrive across the lifespan is during the “prenatal-to-five” period. When viewed through a human ecology lens, the factors that bear on this key period include such topics as housing, nutrition, physical health, education, parenting, and more. In 2016-17, SoHE will convene a statewide multidisciplinary consortium, including community practitioners, members, leaders, and campus scholars, to advance best practices and strategies that will promote equity and equal opportunity for our youngest community members to thrive.


  • Better Communities through Design, Inclusion, and the “Commons”. Our SoHE urban planners and community collaborators alike know that dYpsilanti Muralesigned environments matter. Who gets to participate in design of communities also matters. As humans, we are co-dependent in our shared access to common resources including but not limited to water, air, and green space – sometimes collectively referred to as “the Commons”. SoHE has an established tradition of exploring ways that community members can effectively engage and organize to promote better living environments for human thriving.This tradition continues with a current project working with youth in the Detroit area to address environmental realities and resources there. We are expanding our reach on these topics through collaboration with the campus-wide Livable Cities network of campus and community partners and our involvement with the national UniverCity Year Initiative. Additionally, we are strengthening our connections with local municipal and grass-roots processes to address physical space use and community engagement around key issues affecting citizens. We will also take this theme “international” this year through our work on urban neighborhood engagement around environmental factors for human thriving in Guadalajara, Mexico.


  • Economic Agency and Progress through Social Enterprise. Our Center for Financial Security (“CFS”) is a national leader in examining household finance and the way policy, products, services, social phenomena, and other factors bear on the ability for families and individuals to financially survive and thrive. This cutting-edge work continues to broaden and diversify as affiliates of CFS explore the way that race, health, and international contexts correlate to these themes. Our 4W Initiative and Civil Society and Community Studies faculty are exploring the way that creative social enterprise initiatives – mission-based businesses, microenterprise, nonprofit organization programs, human services programs, to name a few – can change lives and communities for the better. Ongoing projects explore: entrepreneurial enterprises to more consciously produce food, collaboration with women artisan business owners in Africa and Latin America, workers’ rights organizing and cataloging of employment conditions in local businesses, international organizing and agency best practices around the phenomenon of human trafficking, the impact of farmers’ markets on communities and more.


  • Food Systems and Health Equity. We live in a wealthy nation, but from neighborhood to neighborhood, access to healthy food differs wildly, as do the health outcomes of different groups withingarden

    our communities. SoHE Centers and scholars have been exploring food access in a variety of settings for years, including urban, rural, and tribal community settings. Centers scholars are now participating and providing leadership in a developing “Wisconsin Idea and Food Systems” network of community and UW System-wide partners. Our Centers also continue to contribute to critical explorations of the way that public policy, information access, poverty, parenting, education, and environmental and community-structuring factors bear on health outcomes for all. Our Covering Wisconsin Initiative provides essential resources to Wisconsinites to ensure that individuals and families obtain the health coverage they need.


  • Youth Engagement. For decades, SoHE scholars have promoted and examined youth leadership and engagement in civil society. Youth contribute needed perspective and expertise in civic and community processes. Youth who engage in these processes are more likely to remain civically engaged throughout their lives. Our work continues through our on-going collaboration with our partners at UW-Extension and through developing relationships with youth-led organizations across Wisconsin’s diverse communities including inner-city settings, rural areas, and Wisconsin tribal settings. We hope and anticipate that 2016-17 will be a year for youth leadership to accelerate and organize in new ways, to move our state forward in years to come.


  • Wellness and Mindfulness for All. UW-Madison is a leader in identifying the benefits of mindful practices and SoHE has a long history of investigating what makes individuals and families “well”. Our Centers conduct outreach and collaboration with community and campus partners to ensure that the benefits of mindful and “well” practices reach a broad range of community members and are applied in ways that work to promote human thriving for all.


  • Social Justice and Systems. We live in a world in which long-standing, historically evolved, widespread systems are known to have an extreme impact on the overall human ecology of communities. Mass incarceration, police practices, the criminal justice system, housing policy, and educational settings, to name a few, promulgate vastly different results for members of different racial and socioeconomic groups. Our Centers and Center partners investigate these impacts and disparities in collaboration with those most impacted.


Supporting Research & Innovation
Annual gifts provide immediately available discretionary funds that the Dean uses for facilitating faculty research and innovation at SoHE. Individual support makes a significant impact in keeping UW-Madison ranked as one of the nation’s leading research universities and to move the world forward.

Click “All Ways Forward” to start making a difference.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *