What is Green Social Work?

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The Urban Renaissance Center of Civic Park Neighborhood in Flint is a new field placement area for social work students this Fall.

Whenever something is called ‘green’ many of us tend toward skepticism. Let’s be real, when something touts itself as environmentally friendly, so often it’s just trying to hide a toxic underbelly.

So, green social work … is it just hype?

Hardly. It’s the real deal. It’s a reframing of how we talk about social issues, the planet, and the intersection between the two. It’s as green as they come.

In 2010 the Council on Social Work Education declared sustainability the number one social justice issue of the new century. Since then, the area of green social work has evolved and come into its own.

Green social work is a branch of social work that deals with the impact of the faltering environmental stability upon human populations. It is essentially a broadening of the definition of environment, sociologically speaking, from referring exclusively to someone’s immediate surroundings to referring to the planet that we all share.

After the CSWEs 2010 announcement, it became quite clear that social workers globally were eager to enter a realistic conversation about how climate change affects people, impoverished groups in particular, and that they were ready to take action.

There was no more denying that the extreme flooding, hurricane damage, or broken levees of the age impacted people beyond reason.

Annie Muldoon, MSW, of Carleton University has very poignant reasoning behind her belief in the need for green social work: “Attempts to improve social conditions may be lost,” she said, “if society itself lacks clear air, drinkable water, and adequate food.”

This newfound awareness in the social work field was met with an air of embarrassment. Experts began acknowledging that social work had always had an ambivalent understanding of its relationship to the natural world. And that while their work had always been based upon a “person-in-environment” principle, it had long neglected the “environment-in-person” aspect. There was a certain level of rose-tinted metaphor to the whole thing: the flaws of the field of social work were represented within the flaws of the human condition. In short, we all waited too long to see the inevitable truth about global warming and it was our collective responsibility to do something about it, fast. 

Soon the conversation shifted from revelation to action.

In the Aftermath

Arguably the most profound impact of the new green edge to the field of social work comes in the form of professionals on the ground in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They flood to the South after devastating hurricanes; they establish shelters for people who are forced to evacuate their homes; they provide aid plain and simple. Social workers fill the need for emergency management that focuses on people instead of their insurance policies.

According to Case Western Reserve University, another benefit of having social workers on the ground during the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster is that they are able to address poverty and other structural inequalities at the same time as they’re working to enhance the quality of life of the residents. A social worker stationed in a region prone to hurricanes, for example, will build relationships with local families and be better equipped to cater to their particular needs – like helping the parents of a child with disabilities prepare for the hurricane before it hits. The simple fact of the social workers’ proximity to affected peoples and issues makes them better advocates.

The best part is that all of this is just a matter of course. If social workers place themselves at the scene to help, their training just kicks in.

Environmental Justice

Another beneficial outcome of the advent of green social work is Environmental Justice.

It is defined by the EPA asthe fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Once social workers started examining the real-world participation and understanding of environmental programs in their communities, it became clear that many barriers still exist.

Dawn Philip and Michael Reisch outline some of these barriers in “Rethinking Social Work‘s Interpretation of ‘Environmental Justice’: From Local to Global.” The issues range from not having the resources to access vital health and environmental data to not being able to afford the technical supplies that help social leaders communicate environmental concerns to the community.

Before the introduction and focus of green social work, these issues would just get lumped into the broad category of general organizational dysfunction. It’s quite clear though that health concerns of this magnitude are something entirely different. Think Flint, Michigan.

Environmental Refugees

In this era of environmental catastrophes that knock out entire regions, entirely new social issues have become a reality. For example, the 1951 Geneva Convention defined “refugees” as people who are outside their home-state due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. But, as noted by Melahat Demirbiek in his paper “Environment, Environmental Refugees and Green Social Work,” high-level environmental degradation – aka sea level rise, flood, drought, desertification, and deforestation – has created another kind of refugee. The environmental refugee.

There is no proper technical classification to aid this sort of person.

While political refugees are entitled to food and shelter, environmental refugees are not yet recognized by international law. It is the job of green social work to shed light on this problem and support the people caught in its crosshairs.

All in all, green social work is a movement that has been a long time coming. And I hate to say it, but we were a little late to the game. It’s time to be of help however we can. Someone needs to empower the communities most affected by climate change – because these environmental disasters are happening whether we’re ready for them or not – and social workers are some of the best equipped to do so.

Want more? Read Lena Dominelli’s book Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice.

Have you seen green social work in action firsthand? Please, share it in the comments!

Getting Social Workers Involved in Social Justice: Who Will Take the Lead

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If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re on the menu. This pithy bit of wisdom was offered as a reminder by University of Illinois Springfield social work professor David Stoesz in a discussion thread on a social work policy listserv about the profession’s paltry participation in policy and politics. Social workers on that listserv are concerned about our level of effort on social justice issues in order to bring about societal change as our code of ethics mandates. Helping people cope with policies that have disproportionately favored the wealthy over the past several decades is not enough.

However, we must do more to change those policies and create a more egalitarian society. Two interesting articles caught my attention last week. One that was posted on Social Work Helper’s Facebook page had appeared in the Guardian. The article featured young social workers in the United Kingdom who expressed concern about their futures and the future of the profession of social work. One young man, Justin, who became a social worker after serving in the British military in Afghanistan, worried about the absence of a strong voice to represent the interests of social workers.

The other article was published in Al Jazeera by Sean McElwee, a young Demos research associate, titled: “Inequality is a disease, voting turnout is the cure.” This is an idea I have been preaching recently. He provides research to support this hypothesis. The questions are: Can social work can be the x-factor that helps propel a movement leading to full voter participation? And who will be the leader(s) of that effort?

What McElwee is stating is quite simple. The 2016 election will not turn so much on who votes but on who stays home. Non-voters are more likely to be low income and lean significantly towards Democrats. Registering these potential voters and getting them to the polls could have significant effects on the outcomes of elections at all levels of government.

Unions traditionally mobilize voters and got them to the polls. However we have seen the number of members and the power of union decline in recent decades.

Will social workers help fill that gap? I believe we can. Social workers can help would-be voters break through barriers such as voter identification. Republican strategist Chris Ladd says it’s time Democrats stop whining about voter ID laws and begin to help people get the documentation they need. Sounds like good advice.

Mildred “Mit” Joyner proposed this idea several years ago when she was president of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). She believes this is something social workers at every level can participate in. Direct service workers can assist clients in understanding the particulars of voting regulations and ensure they have proper documentation when they go to vote. Administrators of agencies can make it a matter of policy to inform clients about exercising their right to vote.

However, according to WRAL News in North Carolina,

Local social service agencies are not giving poor residents adequate opportunities to file and update voter registrations as required by federal law, a letter sent by a group of voting rights advocates warned the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Department of Health and Human Services. Read more 

On the macro level, social workers can work with churches, tenant organizations, and other community-based groups to organize and implement voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Joyner suggests social workers engage the League of Women Voters for information and support. Agencies can learn more from organizations like Nonprofit Vote. Social work students can work with Rock the Vote to encourage young people to vote.

At the same time social workers can continue efforts to overturn misguided laws that restrict voting. We can continue to press Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act. Social workers have a responsibility to work for a more just society that permits and promotes the self-actualization of everyone.

Policies, laws and systems that restrict one’s ability to be all that one can be should be the object of intervention on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. While social workers must pay attention to licensing, research, and building reputation as a fully scientific profession, we also have a mandate to pursue social justice.

Richard Nixon galvanized a large swath of voters who he saw as being neglected and appealed to them as the silent majority. There is a new silent majority today—voters who have been demoralized by the vast sums of money that are gaming the political system. They see the rich getting richer and not much being done to expand opportunity and prosperity for the vast majority of Americans. They are turned off by the negative campaigning and believe voting is an exercise in futility.

Social workers should be participants in the effort to restore hope to these voters—to help them understand that staying away from the polls is exactly what those protecting the status quo wants you to do. Social workers need to be involved politically and be at the policy table. If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re on the menu.

Suffering in Silence: Identifying the Oppressed

When I first created Social Work Helper, I was surprise at the number of emails that I started receiving. Maybe, the name gives the impression that I have the power to help the oppressed and the distressed from a social work perspective. However, what troubles me most are the emails/messages I receive from students and practitioners who feel distressed and oppressed in their own social work environments.

speak-upWhen I first started receiving them, I was fresh out of graduate school as a non-traditional, single parent student. At the time, I was experiencing my own bitterness towards graduate school and the profession. I reached out to another well established social work print publication asking for advice on what to do with these letters and messages I was receiving from students and new practitioners. Unfortunately, I received the response that I have experienced many times while working in the profession which was “none”.

I tried to be empathetic and provide a sounding board as best as I could during this period of time, but at the same time I was also looking for an escape plan from my chosen profession. Having both my bachelors and masters degree in social work, it did not provide me with many options. My options after graduate school was equating to licensure and doing therapy. However, after my first internship in grad school, I needed therapy and wanted nothing to do with social work. Having to quit a full-time job as a social worker to work for free full-time as a social worker/student intern hurt me emotionally, physically, and financially. I went back to school because I wanted a promotion, and I didn’t think it was possible with a BSW.

Through Social Work Helper, I try to tell people stories and create awareness on issues because sometime we tend to evaluate and analyze policies/issues using only the lens of our own experience or people we know. The oppressed are suffering in silence and fearing retaliation for speaking out against their oppressors. Some might say why didn’t you complain, and my answer is complain to who? I worked over a 1000 free hours within a year while earning my advance standing macro degree. A failing grade for field practicum means you don’t graduate or may have to leave the program, so I suffered in silence until I earned my freedom. Essentially, I feel like I went in debt in order to pay someone to abuse me, and I was told by my field placement instructor that students couldn’t learn unless it was painful.

A couple of days ago in response to the petition I created requesting internship reform, a student sent me an email asking that I share their story, but asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. It’s important for me to note that I would have never shared this story without being asked to do so. Here it is as follows:

I saw your petition online and wanted to take the time to thank you most sincerely for your efforts. I wrote a comment to attach with my signature, but it was too long for the section to submit in full. I’m sending it now from my old high school email address as I do not wish to be singled out by my current university.

I will be the first person in my entire family to attend and graduate from a four year college. While my parents were scrimping and saving to afford tuition, I have worked tirelessly to attain and retain admission to my state’s most prestigious public liberal arts college. When I learned earlier this year that I would be paying several thousand dollars of my parent’s hard earned money to work an internship not of my choosing, comfort level, or skill set, I was devastated; I feel as though I’m being forced to pay to change fields. My internship is at a privately owned nursing home conglomerate where I have the barest minimum of face time with residents and have absolutely no role in contributing to the helping process; I’m an un-glorified pencil pusher. I feel stuck, and have regularly asked to complete my internship somewhere else, anywhere else; unfortunately, my requests have always been denied due to a scarcity of qualifying internship sites.

Thus, I’m left feeling out of touch and disenfranchised; my experiences are never relevant to my classes’ discussions, and I’m frustrated that I’m lining the pockets of a corporation instead of meeting the needs of clients through a non-profit agency setting. I feel angry with the School of Social Work, and have come to resent my decision to purse a life in the field of social work at all. I always knew that such a degree would entitle me to the potential for poor pay and emotional hardship, but I expected to be rewarded with a sense of self and purpose that I’ve yet to find in my senior year in the field. Instead, I feel taken advantage of, cheated, manipulated, ignored, and lied to. I’ve been told not to complain and that my feelings will only help me to better empathize with future marginalized clients. I disagree; any potential for empathy has turned to resentment and my passion to repulsion in the face of their subterfuge.

At the beginning of the year, 2/3 of my classmates (about 40 people) were preparing to take the GRE and begin scouting for graduate schools. Now, though? We have maybe 8 people still intending to pursue going straight through to get their MSWs. Most people too aren’t even looking at jobs in the helping professions for after graduation; almost everyone I’ve talked to about career plans has spoken of taking a year or two off and working minimum wage jobs at restaurants and retail stores just to get away from the stress that our internships have taught is all that we have to look forward to as professional social workers.

I hope my story can be helpful in substantiating the need for reforming social work internship requirements.

Join us tonight at 9PM EST for the #Macrosw chat which is a collaboration made up of community practice organizations and individual macro social workers. We will be discussing internship reform and the public commenting period for the Council for Social Work Education. The collaboration consists of ACOSA @acosaorg by(Rachel West @polisw), Network for Social Work Management, Deona Hooper (Founder of Social Work Helper @deonahooper), Karen Zgoda (PhD Candidate at Boston College), The University at Buffalo School of Social Work and the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Each member of the collaboration will take turns moderating the #MacroSW chats. The #MacroSW twitter chats occur on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month. The full archive of this chat can be viewed at https://storify.com/SWUnited/internship-reform-and-macro-practice.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mary Kay Victims

University Decision to End Partnership over Reproductive Rights May Have Bigger Implications

Dean Will Rainford
Dean Will Rainford

In a recent decision, School of Social Work Dean, William C. Rainford, at Catholic University of America (CUA) issued a statement ending a long-standing partnership with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) because of its support for women’s reproductive rights.

According to the university’s website, Dean Rainford was appointed to lead the School of Social Work in June 2013, and his biographical information states that he is nationally recognized as a social justice advocate. This major change in University policy comes less than three months after Dean Rainford’s appointment.

Many social work students have taken to twitter to express their outrage for the decision. However, an on campus student social work group, NCSSS Action, reached out to the Chronicle of Social Change to go on record about their opposition to the new policy. According to the group’s organizer Andy Bowen,

“The other students and I are still coalescing around strategy and action, but we won’t go quietly into the night here,” said NCSSS Action organizer Andy Bowen, in an e-mail to The Chronicle of Social Change. Will Rainford, who in April of 2013 was named dean of the National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS), informed students in a recent letter that he will “no longer allow NCSSS to officially partner or collaborate with NASW.” The reason, he said, is “based solely on NASW’s overt public position that social workers should advocate for access to abortions.” Read More

The timing of this decision is surprising especially when NASW has been on record about its support for reproductive rights as early as 2004. According to the NASW website in its activities, projects, and research section, it states:

  • Healthy Families, Strong Communities is an NASW project funded by the United Nations Foundation to engage the U.S. and the broader international community in the strengthening of maternal health and reproductive health.
  • Human Rights Update on Social Workers Addressing the Rights of Women and Girls Worldwide through MDG5 (10/8/2010 pdf)
  • NASW Policy Statement on Family Planning and Reproductive Health – appears in Social Work Speaks, a compilation of over 60 NASW policy statements on social work-related issues.
  • Female Genital Cutting – an NASW research page focusing on the practice of female genital cutting, otherwise referred to as female genital mutilation or female circumcision.
  • March for Women’s Lives – a 2004 rally co-sponsored by NASW for women’s reproductive rights.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, women’s reproductive rights have been an area of contention for conservative and religious groups. In several Red States, such as Texas and North Carolina, Republican led legislatures have begun passing some of the most restrictive laws limiting women’s reproductive rights and women’s ability to gain access to preventative care.

In 2012, Catholic University of America joined a lawsuit with Wheaton College asserting the Affordable Care Act is a violation of the school’s religious liberty. During the conference call, Wheaton College President Dr. Phillip Graham Ryken and The Catholic University of America’s president John Garvey stressed their schools’ alignment on pro-life beliefs according to the Huffington Post.

This major policy shift by the university’s School of Social Work does not align with the mission and values of a social work education. The role of a social worker is to help a client who is in crisis or help them improve their outcomes through intervention. As a social worker, if you can not set aside your personal beliefs to provide a client all necessary information to make an informed decision, you are ethically obligated to refer them to someone who can.

If the logic of this university is accepted and applicable to make policy decisions based on religious beliefs, what prevents it from teaching future social workers the tenets modeled as it relates to members of the LGBT community or women seeking health care advice? What prevents any religion from making policy decisions based on ideology to be enforced on a minority group? In my opinion, CUA’s shift in policy is in direct conflict with the Council for Social Work Education’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). If institutions are modelling practices and instituting policies in violation of accreditation standards, should the institution retain its accreditation?

In EPAS section 2.1.4, Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice states:

Social workers appreciate that, as a consequence of difference, a person’s life experiences may include oppression, poverty, marginalization, and alienation as well as privilege, power, and acclaim. Social workers

  •  recognize the extent to which a culture’s structures and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power;
  • gain sufficient self-awareness to eliminate the influence of personal biases and values in working with diverse groups;
  • recognize and communicate their understanding of the importance of difference in shaping life experiences; and
  • view themselves as learners and engage those with whom they work as informants.

The website for the commission and board who oversees the accreditation for schools of social work can be found at http://www.cswe.org/About/governance/CommissionsCouncils/CommissiononAccreditation.aspx. Additionally, if any students at CUA would like to be interviewed, I can be reached at deona@socialworkhelper.com or at @swhelpercom.

You can view all of the Council for Social Work Education’s educational policies and accreditation standards as adopted here.

 

Cover Photo: Courtesy of Catholic News Agency

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