What is Green Social Work?

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!

US Health and Human Service Awards $500,000 in funding to Flint Health Centers


FLINT, Mich. – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell today announced $500,000 in funding to help two area health centers increase and expand activities in response to the lead contamination of Flint’s water.

Following a tour of the Hamilton Community Health Network, Inc. (HCHN), Burwell and HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dr. Nicole Lurie, who is leading the federal response and recovery effort in Flint, announced that HCHN and Genesee Health System (GHS) will each receive $250,000 in emergency supplemental funding to hire additional personnel and provide more lead testing, treatment, outreach, and education to meet the increased need for health services in the Flint community.

“We are focused on supporting the people of Flint by helping to ensure they have access to clean water and the health services they need to mitigate the effects of lead exposure,” said Burwell. “This additional funding will allow health centers in Flint to enhance their lead testing efforts and quickly hire more staff for community outreach and to better meet the needs of the people they serve.”

In addition to touring HCHN, Burwell met with community members and elected officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, about the federal government’s response and recovery effort. The focus of the federal response is to work at every level of government to support state and local officials in ensuring Flint has access to safe water, and there is a clear understanding of the impact of lead exposure on residents’ health in order to mitigate the damage.

“Primary care, which includes ongoing lead screening, follow up, and continued attention to a child’s development, is important for children in Flint,” Lurie added. “The funding we’re announcing today is one of many ways we are supporting health recovery for the community, and we will continue to look across federal programs, including in health, nutrition and education, to assist the people of Flint.”

Last week, during a meeting with members of House Democratic leadership and the Michigan delegation, Burwell and Lurie confirmed that HHS anticipates being able to quickly approve a number of requests, including a major Medicaid coverage expansion for children and pregnant women in Flint that would include blood-lead level monitoring, behavioral health services nutritional support, and comprehensive targeted case management, among other services.

More than 1,300 health centers, supported by Health Resources and Services Administration, operate approximately 9,000 service delivery sites in every U.S. state, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Pacific Basin. These health centers employ more than 170,000 staff who provide care for nearly 23 million patients. For millions of Americans, including some of the most vulnerable individuals and families, health centers are the essential medical home where they find services that promote health, diagnose and treat disease and disability, and help them cope with environmental challenges that put them at risk.

View more information on the Health Center Program: www.bphc.hrsa.gov

Find a Health Center in your area: www.findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov

Learn more on HHS’s response to the Flint Crisis:

God Help Us Save Flint Michigan


If you take a drive up Hamilton between Saginaw Street and the Flint River, you could never tell that there once stood the largest employer in all of Genesee County Michigan, “Buick City”. If you move further up this corridor, it will lead you into an urban wasteland known since the early ’80s as “Bedrock” North Flint.

Flint, Michigan has been no stranger to negative attention, whether it be making the FBI’s “Most Dangerous City” list or the infamous documentary “Roger & Me” by Michael Moore. Nothing positive seems ever to be said. Truthfully, there are not many positive things to be said. Flintstones, as we like to call ourselves, have always felt a sense of pride. We have always had a sports background to be proud of with such greats as Glen Rice, Andre Rison, Carl Banks, and Mark Ingram, but it seems as if the athletic legacy left the city after Charlie Bell, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson left Michigan State and entered the NBA.

The pride that once filled the hearts of those who live in Flint is now overshadowed by vacant houses, vacant schools, and crime statistics that have surpassed the dark days of the mid-’80s during Reaganomics, and the era of a ruthless drug lord known only by the name of “Juice.”

Flint has also recently been given another title as one of “America’s Fastest Dying Cities.” According to U.S. Census statistics, Flint’s population has been declining since the late ‘80s. In 1990, Flint’s population was 140,761; by 2000 Flint’s population had dropped by 11.2 percent to 124,943. During the 10-year period between 1990 and 2000, several things happened in Flint, but the most devastating was the closing of Buick City in 1999. This mammoth factory, which occupied 235 acres of Flint’s real estate, was erected in 1904 and at the height of its operations employed some 28,000 people. Flint is and has always been an automotive town.

With the founding of General Motors in 1908, Flint became the birthplace of an automotive giant and in later years it became this same giant’s stepchild. At the height of operations in Flint, General Motors employed some 50,000 Flint residents. That number dwindled drastically along with the population that at the last census count in 2010 fell to 111,475 and today the population hovers just above 102,000. Flint’s murder rate reached an all time of high of 66 murders in 2012.  The violence seems to have only intensified with the recent murders of a 9-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl.

This city that was once so full of pride must rise above the drudgery of today’s economic downturn and reinvent itself in the domestic and global marketplace. There are several open land spaces that were previously General Motors manufacturing facilities that can be converted into 21st century technological manufacturing, such as solar panels, fuel cells, or even biotechnology. More importantly, Flint is home to generations of hard-working, skilled laborers with a wealth of manufacturing knowledge, who are willing and able to enhance their skill set to perform any and all job functions. This wealth of employable workers would suit any manufacturer because they already possess a work ethnic that helped build the economic foundation of this country.

None of this can take place unless a light is shined on the predicament that currently surrounds Flint.  Like many other issues that take place in our nation, most people will never know unless media attention brings these issues to light.  We need to call on those who have the political and societal power to shine this light such as Michael Moore, Terry Crews, John Runyan, and Morris Peterson. These individuals could easily use their celebrity and Flint connection to garner some attention in their ailing hometown.

These are just a few suggestions from a Flint native and a true “Flintstone” at heart.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of  mafiatoday.com

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