Solving Society’s Most Pressing Problems

When Nancy Guerra interviewed at UCI for the position of dean of the School of Social Ecology, she didn’t mince words about her devotion to the subject. “I am social ecology,” she recalls saying. “Using an interdisciplinary approach to understand important social problems – and then working toward solving those problems – has been a central part of my whole career.”

Most recently a professor of psychological and brain sciences and associate provost for international programs at the University of Delaware, Guerra stepped into the role of dean on June 1. She’s new to UCI but not to the University of California, where she has been both a student and a professor. She earned a B.A. in psychology at UCLA and an M.A. in educational psychology at UC Santa Barbara before receiving a doctorate in human development and psychology at Harvard University.

Guerra was a faculty member at UC Riverside and also held a number of administrative posts, such as associate director of the Robert Presley Center for Crime & Justice Studies.

She’s an internationally known expert on youth development and violence prevention, including anti-bullying programs, and has been principal investigator for a National Academic Center of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention, funded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. In addition, she has worked with the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, USAID and other international agencies on community-based program development and evaluation in several countries, among them Jamaica, Barbados, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.

Q: How did you become involved in the field of social ecology?

Guerra: I’ve always been interested in real-world problems and feasible solutions. I never really planned on becoming an academic. I was drawn to adolescent development, and I wanted to be out running a children’s program. It’s something I’ve always been passionate about.

Q: Did you pursue that goal?

Guerra: I started my career running a youth service system in Santa Barbara County and wound up doing a lot of work with youth who were in trouble with the law. And I saw firsthand that a lack of parental guidance and lack of role models are often evident. You hear youth tell stories: “My brother’s in prison. My other brother’s dead. Whose footsteps can I follow?” And then I wondered, “How is it that some young people do well even in bad situations?” There are children who grow up in circumstances that are just terrible, but still they thrive. That led me to become interested in not just running a program but using research to develop and test solutions designed to improve lives.

Q: At this point, did your career begin to change course?

Guerra: My thought was, “What does the research say?” I was intrigued by what used to be called applied programs and now are called translational: science driven by the “end use” for policy and practice.

Q: What brought you to UCI’s School of Social Ecology?

Guerra: For me, social ecology has been front and center in everything I do, so when the opportunity came up to lead the school, it just seemed like the perfect fit. In some sense, it’s what I prepared for my whole career: to lead a school whose mission is to really make a difference and to solve pressing social and environmental problems.

Q: What is your goal for the school?

Guerra: We have an amazing faculty, very accomplished and dedicated. My chief goal is that we refocus a bit on specific problems that we can solve and try to orient our work toward science-driven solutions. We want to use research and science to tackle important social and environmental problems – areas such as social justice, human rights, crime and violence, healthy development, well-being, poverty alleviation and sustainable cities. Then we want to take these broad areas and identify smaller pieces that we can actually address.

Q: Can you give an example?

Guerra: We want to identify issues that have local, regional, state, national and global significance and build scientific teams to tackle these issues. For example, as urbanization increases around the world, we must look for the best ways to create sustainable cities. Here in Orange County, the Metropolitan Futures Initiative, housed in the UCI School of Social Ecology, brings together an interdisciplinary research team to leverage big data in order to build communities that are economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable and socially just.

Q: Will other schools or outsiders be part of this?

Guerra: My goal is to make sure that we have the capacity and collaboration to be able to address the problems our faculty have identified. Not everybody will come from the School of Social Ecology. We need to bring in faculty from other schools and campuses. One of the great things about being in the UC system is that we have 10 campuses, so we can collaborate. We need to identify issues that we know we can work together on and come up with strategies and solutions that can actually be implemented and will impact policy and practice.

Q: On another subject, you have experience with Southern California’s juvenile justice systems. What’s your greatest concern?

Guerra: My overriding concern is that we take kids who have been traumatized, who grew up in harsh conditions, who often have mental health problems, and put them in an even harsher environment and expect them to go back to their homes and communities and be productive citizens. We greatly need affordable and accessible mental healthcare, trauma recovery programs, life skills training and educational opportunities that can help youth get jobs. And we also need to treat youth with respect and dignity, even if they have broken the law. Of course, if someone does something wrong and commits a crime, that person needs to be sanctioned for it. But there are ways to sanction juveniles that would still honor them as human beings and increase, rather than decrease, their chance of success in adulthood.