Environmental Social Work: A Call to Action

Photo Credit: United Church of Christ

What is environmental justice? Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the father of the environmental justice movement, in an interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists described it as environmental justice centers on fairness, equity, and particularly racial justice. For decades, the movement has worked to make sure that all communities—especially communities of color and low-income communities—are given equal protection. We have environmental laws on the books in the United States, but they’re often not applied and enforced equally.

It isn’t difficult to believe that the poorest get the worst – that the most vulnerable populations are exploited. But it is not as easy to identify ways that social workers can advance environmental justice and I have been asked several times how specifically social work can play a role in the environmental movement. This article attempts to clarify social work roles in addressing environmental injustice.

In 2011, I published a piece on Environmentalism & Social Work and the importance of social work adopting environmental priorities has only become clearer since that time. Many students have expressed an interest infusing environmental concerns into their work. Instead of viewing a person in the environment, they find it equally important to view the environment in the person.  Environmental social work sometimes referred to as ecosocial work is different from ‘regular’ social work in that it takes an ‘ecocentric’ instead of a people-centric view. The ecosystem is at the core of practice rather than the person.

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare proposed 12 Grand Challenges for our profession. All of these challenges will become worse if we don’t give priority to this one:  “Create social responses to a changing environment”

The Academy goes on to illuminate this challenge: The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.

Historically, the profession of Social Work has been slow to embrace remediating environmental injustice as in the scope of our practice. Fortunately, there has been a burgeoning social work literature on the subject. A 2017 content analysis of the literature published in the British Journal of Social Work identified three themes for social workers to explore in ecosocial work:

Creatively apply existing skills to environmental concepts and openness to different values and ways of being or doing

Shift practice, theory and values to incorporate the natural environment: This shift implies a move to ecocentrism with the core value being that all beings have equal access to safe and clean environments. This aspect suggests using social work skills such as empowerment, team-building, community development, management, anti-oppressive practice, holistic interventions, and advocacy to address and mitigate environmental destruction. As first responders, social workers often respond to the community aftermath of natural disasters, but ecosocial work calls for us to be more proactive and preventative in our actions to prevent environmental deterioration and disaster.

Learn from spirituality and indigenous cultures: Appreciating cultural diversity is a given principle in social work practice and in ecocentric social work valuing and using the wisdom of native and tribal cultures is prioritized. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of all life is paramount. How can people live in harmony with the environment?  How can social workers ensure sustainable environments for the physical and emotional well-being of inhabitants? Concepts of transpersonal theory would be helpful in individual and group interventions.

Incorporate the natural environment in social work education: The increasing literature suggests that social workers have a base from which to study the subject. Some schools of social work have adopted concentrations in community sustainability and environmental justice.

Appreciate the instrumental and innate value of non-human life: The concept of biosphere and biofilia are emphasized in ecosocial work. Looking to the natural environment for restorative and transcendent experiences are emphasized.  The premise of adventure-based programs and animal-assisted therapy are certainly reflective of this concept.

Adopt a renewed stance to a change orientation

Change society: Social workers are charged with being “change agents” yet the change required to ensure environmental safety is too often neglected. Valuing environmental and ecological justice should be the driver for change. Advocacy and legislative initiatives that aim for ameliorating environmental injustice are necessary. For example, supporting fair districting and elimination of gerrymandering enables marginalized populations to have a vote that counts.

Critique hegemony: Challenging the social construction of dominance by a particular class calls for radical thinking and action. Anti-oppressive practice demands we examine the political architecture that maintains power and control over people and environment instead of protecting people and environment.  In the previous administration, the EPA asked for social work input on pending regulations. The current administration calls for less regulation and elimination of the agency that is charged with protecting the environment. Challenging the political structure to further progressive environmental causes is necessary.  The foundational core of the Green Party, popular in Europe, and increasingly so in the US, is environmental justice.

Work across boundaries and in multiples spaces

Expanding our usual scope of practice to educate, mobilize, and support community activism is at the core of this theme. Developing partnerships and coalitions demonstrates work across boundaries. Coalitions with public health organizations address toxic environments. Dual degrees such as the MSW/MPH exemplify such a coalition. The American Public Health Association has earmarked 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. Workshops have been hosted monthly to illustrate how public health professionals can help build resilience for the traumas and toxic stresses of climate change.

Social Work needs to have a presence at such workshops and establish similar priorities. An example occurred when members of the International Federation of Social Workers organized a workshop at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations. This workshop aimed to highlight social work’s role for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals on the local, subnational, national and international level.

Work with communities: This type of work is our profession’s biggest opportunity in the ecosocial work movement. Think Flint, Michigan where social workers were involved in going door to door, helping to mobilize groups to demand safe water. Social workers can identify food deserts and participate in, or organize food co-operatives, community supported agriculture and community gardens. The plight of migrant workers remains dire, particularly if undocumented. Studies have shown a significantly shorter lifespan among migrant workers due to pesticide exposure.

Family intervention, support groups, managing an environmental non-profit, providing education at the agency and community level are all ways in which social workers can use their skills. Rural communities affected by fracking or mountain-topping and the resultant loss of jobs, land, and health consequences beg for social work intervention. With the recent hurricanes and evacuation orders came reports of immigrants identified with DACA who resisted going to shelters for fear of being deported. Social work advocacy was needed to provide safety for such vulnerable populations.

Work with individuals: Most social workers provide service at this level. Borrowing from the afore-mentioned suggestions, micro interventions need to assess the environment in the person. How does the environment influence the presenting problem? Are there developmental residuals, is access to healthy nutrition an issue? What environmental barriers exist?  Is there a healthcare inequity?  Does the natural environment provide an opportunity for restorative or spiritual or transcendent experiences? Does it hinder or enhance our quality of life?

Identify the contextual environmental influences that your client may be experiencing. We are all aware of barriers to access, like lack of transportation that clients experience. But do we assess the pollution-laden community in which the client lives?

Of the three levels of social work intervention, micro, mezzo, and macro, several ways in which social workers can make an impact on environmental injustice have been identified.  It is imperative that social workers meet the grand challenge to create a social response to a changing environment. As global citizens, we have no choice.

For more information and resources please refer to my website:  https://sites.temple.edu/dewane/.

Social Work Day at the United Nations

Social Work Day at the UN 2007 Photo Credit: Monmouth University

In September 2015, 193 world leaders agreed to 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. If these Goals are completed, it would mean an end to extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change by 2030. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Agenda is a plan of action for people, the planet, and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom.

The Agenda recognizes that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan.

It resolves to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. The agenda is determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal Agenda. They seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they did not achieve.

They seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social, and environmental. The Goals and targets will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet, and social workers plan to be an important part of this transformation.

The International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of School of Social Work are pleased to announce the 34th Annual Social Work Day at the United Nations is scheduled for Monday, April 17, 2017, from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. Monmouth University School of Social Work will begin registration on March 20, 2017.

Social Work Day at the UN is a gathering place for people around the world who are working to make a difference. For 34 years students, practitioners, and educators have been convening at the UN to learn more about the United Nations, global goals, innovative projects, and issues related to increasing outcomes for women, children, and families around the world.

The Top Twelve Grand Challenges Facing Society Today

Last year, the Society for Social Work and Research Conference in Washington, DC, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) unveiled its 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work with a bold call to action to help solve the toughest problems facing our society today.

When we reflect and take inventory of our ever changing society, a path of progress towards justice and equality can be seen on the horizon. However, we must be diligent in identifying those challenges and barriers that may retard our progress and growth while increasing inequality for our most vulnerable citizens.

In September 2015, the United Nations unveiled 17 Global Goals for Sustained Development in an effort to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix global climate change by 2030. The idea behind the global goals was to identify areas with the ability to affect the most change. Then, microtarget those areas through individual, organizational, and governmental action in order to maximize impact and improve outcomes.

However, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare have narrowed down their target areas even further by identifying 12 Grand Challenges in which they believe social workers both domestic and international can directly impact to improve outcomes for those we serve.

“This critical effort identifies and seeks to address the full range of major challenges facing society, from ending homelessness and stopping family violence to promoting smart decarceration and reversing extreme income inequality.”

Twelve Grand Challenges for Social Work

1. Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth

“Each year, more than six million young people receive treatment for severe mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. Strong evidence shows us how to prevent many behavioral health problems before they emerge. By unleashing the power of prevention through widespread use of proven approaches, we can help all youth grow up to become healthy and productive adults.”

2. Close the Health Gap

“More than 60 million Americans experience devastating one-two punches to their health—they have inadequate access to basic health care while also enduring the effects of discrimination, poverty, and dangerous environments that accelerate higher rates of illness. Innovative and evidence-based social strategies can improve health care and lead to broad gains in the health of our entire society.”

3. Stop Family Violence

“Family violence is a common American tragedy. Assaults by parents, intimate partners, and adult children frequently result in serious injury and even death. Such violence costs billions of dollars annually in social and criminal justice spending. Proven interventions can prevent abuse, identify abuse sooner, and help families survive and thrive by breaking the cycle of violence or finding safe alternatives.”

4. Advance Long and Productive Lives

Increased automation and longevity demand new thinking by employers and employees regarding productivity. Young people are increasingly disconnected from education or work and the labor force faces significant retirements in the next decades. Throughout the lifespan, fuller engagement in education and paid and unpaid productive activities can generate a wealth of benefits, including better health and well-being, greater financial security, and a more vital society.”

5. Eradicate Social Isolation

Social isolation is a silent killer—as dangerous to health as smoking. National and global health organizations have underscored the hidden, deadly, and pervasive hazards stemming from feeling alone and abandoned. Our challenge is to educate the public on this health hazard, encourage health and human service professionals to address social isolation, and promote effective ways to deepen social connections and community for people of all ages.”

6. End Homeless

“During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night. Periods of homelessness often have serious and lasting effects on personal development, health, and well-being. Our challenge is to expand proven approaches that have worked in communities across the country, develop new service innovations and technologies, and adopt policies that promote affordable housing and basic income security.”

7. Create Social Response to a Changing Environment

“The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.”

8. Harness Technology for Social Good

“Innovative applications of new digital technology present opportunities for social and human services to reach more people with greater impact on our most vexing social problems. These new technologies can be deployed to more strategically target social spending, speed up the development of effective programs, and bring a wider array of help to more individuals and communities.”

9. Promote Smart Decarceration

“The United States has the world’s largest proportion of people behind bars. Mass incarceration and failed rehabilitation have resulted in staggering economic and human costs. Our challenge is to develop a proactive, comprehensive, evidence-based “smart decarceration” strategy that will dramatically reduce the number of people who are imprisoned and enable the nation to embrace a more effective and just approach to public safety.”

10. Reduce Extreme Economic inequality

“The top 1% owns nearly half of the total wealth in the U.S, while one in five children live in poverty. The consequences for health and well-being are immeasurable. We can correct the broad inequality of wealth and income through a variety of innovative means related to wages and tax benefits associated with capital gains, retirement accounts, and home ownership. Greater lifelong access to education will also provide broader economic opportunities.”

11. Build Financial Capability for All

“Nearly half of all American households are financially insecure, without adequate savings to meet basic living expenses for three months. We can significantly reduce economic hardship and the debilitating effects of poverty by adopting social policies that bolster lifelong income generation and safe retirement accounts; expand workforce training and re-training; and provide financial literacy and access to quality affordable financial services.”

12. Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice

“In the United States, some groups of people have long been consigned to society’s margins. Historic and current prejudice and injustice bars access to success in education and employment. Addressing racial and social injustices, deconstructing stereotypes, dismantling inequality, exposing unfair practices, and accepting the super diversity of the population will advance this challenge. All of this work is critical to fostering a successful society.

How will academics, practitioners, schools of social work, governmental and NGO social welfare agencies respond to the call? As a practitioner, we have all seen grand action plans created only to sit on the shelf and never see implementation. Will they provide information to impact change, then wait for someone else to spring into action to implement, or will the experts in our profession lead the charge by engaging in public debate on the issues social workers have the most direct impact?

Together, the 12 Grand Challenges define a far-reaching, science-based social agenda that promotes individual and family well-being, a stronger social fabric, and a just society.

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