Laura Burney Nissen is a social work professor, leader, researcher and activist focused on innovation in public sector human service, equity work, human rights and social justice issues. She is particularly interested in how accelerations in climate change, artificial intelligence, technology, and economic disparities is already impacting and will continue to impact vulnerable populations, and how urgently contemporary human services systems need to evolve to meet the challenges of a complex and uncertain future.
Nissen is a founder and former national program lead of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative called “Reclaiming Futures,” which sought to build systems of care and opportunity for young people with substance use disorders in the juvenile justice system across the United States, beginning in 2000 (urging a public health rather than a justice response). It is in this capacity that she first encountered foresight-related work, and she credits its impact with the success of the initiative, which extended fully 15 years beyond its original demonstration phase. The initiative resulted in significant system change successes in interdisciplinary and cross-agency governmental reforms. As an addictions professional (her social work specialization) she has also stayed close to developments concerning the evolution of addictions science and explores the future of this phenomenon in her practice. She’s also has a scholarly interest in the topic of arts and social change and is part of an international learning collaborative of social work researchers active in this emerging space.
Nissen has brought futures thinking and frameworks to the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work, where she has been a member for the last 6 years. Most recently, she has created a futures game to encourage creative foresight development in an effort to build collective imagination, agility and intelligence about possible futures that may impact the populations, communities and issues that social work is most deeply connected to. She’s currently working on a book on this topic and is building a national learning collaborative for social work faculty to study futures frameworks and integrate them into social work education. She curates a website, www.socialworkfutures.com, to advance international dialogue among social workers and human rights workers on futures-related topics.
Nissen leads a newly formed university-wide futures initiative at her own Portland State University in Oregon, to grow interdisciplinary “campus-wide foresightfulness” to advance and protect future-ready public higher education for an increasingly diverse student body. She has served as a faculty member for 20 years, the last 6 of which she has served as Dean and Professor of the School of Social Work. She will return to faculty during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Nissen has an undergraduate degree from Metropolitan State University in Denver, and both a MSW, and Ph.D. from University of Denver. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Don.