Situating ‘community as expert’ for social justice: Outstanding MSW grad Sarah Grace Hafen

sarah grace hafen

Using social work research to advance equity in social work practice is a passion for Colorado State University Master of Social Work graduate Sarah Grace Hafen (she/her).

In March, Hafen received CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences Research Day award in Equity and Social Justice Category-Distinction in Graduate Research for “Accomplice-building for the Immigrant Rights Movement,” co-authored by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Kiehne.

In addition, Hafen is the recipient of the College’s Graduate Student Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award for 2021.

“I aim to use research to amplify marginalized voices in the policy sphere, building a platform for community self-determination,” Hafen said.

Read more in our interview with Hafen about her experiences in CSU’s Master of Social Work program:

What sparked your interest in social work?

“I first became interested in social work while I was the Active Living Program Manager with Bike Fort Collins. The Active Living Program was a 3 year grant from Kaiser Permanente to increase active living practices in North Fort Collins mobile home parks. I facilitated the Poudre Valley Mobile Home Park resident coalition in the implementation of their active living plans. The project culminated with installation of a new playground, improved sidewalks, and bilingual wayfinding signage. This taste of social work made me decide to continue working with community groups to bring about policy change for increased equity.”

What are your academic and research interests?

“I am interested in working collaboratively with the community to develop and carry out research that supports policy change for immigrant rights. This year, I have been engaged in research to support the establishment of immigrant legal defense funds, which would provide legal representation to immigrant community members facing detention and deportation. Dr. Kiehne and I are collaborating with Alianza NORCO to conduct a quantitative survey of undocumented persons in Larimer County. Alianza will use the survey findings to support their proposal to the Fort Collins City Council for an immigrant legal defense fund.”

“Similarly, I am working on a qualitative research project to document the abuse, inhumane treatment, and injustices that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement inflicts on families and communities in Colorado. This qualitative project will conduct focus groups with persons directly and indirectly affected by ICE arrest and detention. Moving forward, I would like to continue to participate in advocacy efforts for immigrant rights and evaluate the efficacy of these political action strategies.”

How do you see your research impacting social work practice?

“I believe that advancing social work practice means pushing the institute of academia away from the status quo and toward justice and equity. Social workers must actively respond to enduring white supremacy and growing inequality by supporting our communities in achieving structural change. I aim to use research to amplify marginalized voices in the policy sphere, building a platform for community self-determination. I recognize that academia all too often puts forward the voice of the scholar as the expert. I believe it is crucial to situate the community as the expert.”

Colorado State MSW student Sarah Grace HafenHow do you stay motivated in your degree program?

“The rock star folks in my cohort are a huge source of inspiration. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or apathetic, talking it out with the other MSW folks always seems to get me re-engaged.”

What advice do you have for prospective students?

“Don’t hesitate to go macro! Whether it’s through an internship or through class projects, spending some time focusing on macro social work practice is a great way to get experience and figure out your passion areas.”

What are your plans for the future?

“In the fall I will be beginning a Ph.D. in social work here at CSU.  I’m excited to continue building coalitional efforts for social change within the Northern Colorado community. I hope that pursuing a doctoral degree in social work will give me the resources and opportunity to continue critical research on collective action and policy change while also providing the possibility for me to positively influence the direction of the field of social work through teaching.”

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.