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 Innovation for America’s Renewal: Ideas, Evidence, Action

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George Warren Brown School of Social Work

National experts, advocates, and leading academics will gather at Washington University in St. Louis as part of a timely policy conference designed to hammer out constructive solutions to pressing social issues facing the country and the next administration.

The conference, “Social Innovation for America’s Renewal,” will outline proposals for the presidential and other campaigns this fall and, notably, the second presidential debate, which the university will host on October 9.

it-takes-all-of-us-gcsw-social-graphicThe gathering will focus on evidence-based policy ideas for 12 Grand Challenges—from mass incarceration to economic inequality to family violence—identified by the American Academy of Society Work & Social Welfare.

Together, these challenges represent a bold and strategic agenda for social change. They focus on improving individual and family well-being, strengthening the social fabric, and helping to create a more just society.

The conference, organized by the Center for Social Development, is at the Brown School of Social Work. Prominent conference speakers include:

  • Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and senior fellow the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities;
  • Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families; and
  • Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social

This week’s Social Innovation for America’s Renewal: Ideas, Evidence, Action policy conference extends the Grand Challenges’ commitment to sharing our best ideas for tackling our country’s toughest problems. Even if you are not at Washington University, you can still see presentations from the conference (via Live Stream) and connect with thought leaders who are working on the 12 Grand Challenges.

Find complete information about the conference and policy briefs here:

Grand Challenge: Promote smart decarceration

Proposed: Remove Civic and Legal Exclusions

Should felons be allowed to vote in this fall’s election? That issue is being weighed in the courts in Virginia, an important battleground state, while nationwide, more than 40,000 laws revoke or restrict legal rights and privileges because of a criminal conviction, including voting and parental rights, housing assistance, student

loans, employment, and professional licensure. We can align public policies and rehabilitative practices to ensure that people with criminal convictions have the greatest possible chance of success. When these exclusions do not directly advance public safety and well-being, they should be revoked or curtailed.

Grand Challenge: Reduce extreme economic inequality

Proposed: Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit

Economic inequality has been called a threat to national security. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has become the largest income-support policy for low-income households but does not cover all individuals and families in need. Reforms should include extending the program to individuals who do not claim dependent children, including noncustodial parents and low-income workers without children.

Grand Challenge: Achieve equal opportunity and justice

Proposed: Eliminate zero-tolerance policies in schools to address racial disciplinary disproportionality

African-American children and youth account for 18 percent of the U.S. public school population and there is no evidence that they engage in higher rates of misbehavior, yet they represent 48 percent of school suspensions, outpacing all other ethnic groups. “Zero-tolerance policies” and the resulting suspensions and expulsions lead to negative academic and social outcomes, increasing the probability of falling behind academically. We must develop policies and practice approaches that provide creative alternatives to zero- tolerance policies.

Grand Challenge: End homelessness

Expand access to housing subsidies, including Housing Choice Vouchers

Nearly 1.5 million Americans are homeless each year. The United States spends $50 billion annually on housing assistance for low-income households, but only one-quarter of eligible households receive this support.

Government-funded rental vouchers such as Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) have proven to be a vital safety net for low-income Americans, but funding for low-income housing programs has declined by more than two- thirds since the 1970s. Providing HCVs to everyone who qualifies financially would cost $41 billion per year; this cost could be offset by reductions in tax breaks for affluent homeowners.

Innovating Social Work Practice for the Future

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Dr. Richard Barth

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Richard Barth at the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR) conference in Washington DC. Dr. Barth is President of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) in addition to being the School of Social Work Dean at the University of Maryland. Dr. Barth has previously served as a chaired professor at the University of North Carolina and the University of California at Berkeley.  He is also a past recipient of the SSWR Lifetime Achievement Award.

We got together to discuss the Grand Challenge initiative launched by the Academy during the conference, and its potential impact on the future of social work practice. The Grand Challenges for Social Work is a groundbreaking initiative to champion social progress powered by science, but it is also a call to action for all of us to work together to tackle our nation’s toughest social problems.

SWH: Why was it important to launch the Grand Challenge initiative, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

Richard: The goal is for the profession to improve its capacity to assist society to be safer, more supportive, and healthier. Our aspiration is to identify areas where we already have a history of accomplishment and those which we can be expected to have significant future accomplishment if we strengthen our focus and our scientific work.

In some cases, this may require readiness to take the interventions we are already engaged in to scale and testing them in different ways. This also means expanding partnerships with professionals, organizations and businesses who are interested in the same outcomes as we are. For other Grand Challenges we will need a longer period of development although we have identified measurable improvements that can be achieved in the next decade for all the Grand Challenges.

An additional benefit is to help the entire nation understand what social work does, what w are good at, what we care about, and why social work is such a vital partner in addressing each of these issues.

SWH: How do you envision turning the Grand Challenges into actionable policy changes?

Richard: As we develop interventions or take existing interventions to scale there will be policy implications all the way along. Sometimes those policies are just to identify newly needed research.

As an example, we have a grand challenge on ending homelessness and we are looking at youth homelessness. This is a significant problem and so to start attacking that problem one of the things we would need to do is to get very good estimates about youth homelessness, and the array of causes, that would the help us to see what are the opportunities to devise additional interventions that have compelling results. This may include changes in policies for child welfare, mental health, education, and juvenile services that help support youth in a broader range of ways.  There will, undoubtedly be some homeless youth who we can’t help right away and who may require a different policy approach, which could include finding ways to help them stay out of jail or otherwise not become part of the incarceration of America during their period of homelessness.

This leads to another one of our grand challenges, which is “Smart Decarceration”. We expect that these grand challenges will integrate with each other and what we learn about ways of achieving decarceration–such as modified family courts–may be helpful for runaway homeless youth and people with behavioral health problems.

We’re interested in policy changes that affect as many people in a positive way as soon as possible. But that said, there are certainly policies that are primarily governed at the local level. Education policies for example are often determined at the school district level because most of the money to support education comes from local taxes. There are school and school district policies and procedures related to suspension and expulsion, which we talked about today in our discussion about success for African American children under the grand challenge of “Achieving Equal Opportunity and Justice”.

There are other areas where federal policy would need to be changed. For example, Medicaid supports groups for smoking prevention but they don’t support groups for parenting and yet if you’re really going to change family violence then you need to improve parenting.  This is also true if we are going to achieve the Grand Challenge of “Ensuring Healthy Development for All Youth”. We are looking at ways to work at the national level to address that issue. Policy implications that arise out of the Grand Challenges will in many ways depend on the question that is being asked and the way that it’s currently being supported.

SWH: The Grand Challenges are being launched at a macro level, how do you plan to reach frontline social workers?

Richard: We’re hoping that each of the grand challenges will end up with a cadre of interested members putting their ideas on the website at www.aaswsw.org and who go to the grand challenge section clicking over to the areas that they are interested in and signing up to get information. People will be able to post and retrieve information there. We are also encouraging all the grand challenges work groups, which are currently in their formative stages, to do what they can to reach out to practitioners to get their voice and to reach out to consumers to hear their voice.

In terms of frontline practitioners, one of the things we talked about today was trying to cohost some webinars with National Association of Social Workers. For example, we would like to open conversations with state social work organizations and non-governmental organizations about the goals of the grand challenges and ways we can collaborate for collective impact. For instance, when talking about our goals for education or goals related to decarceration, it’s important for us to connect with groups already specializing in those areas. We’re going utilize as social media as much as possible to expand our efforts and reach.

SWH: If the Grand Challenges has any hope of being successful, how will the Academy support Child Welfare social workers?

Richard: The Grand Challenges do not have a specific grand challenge about child welfare services. Yet, I expect that a grand challenge touches the lives of every child welfare involved client related to homelessness, decarceration, education, education pipeline, family violence, equal opportunity for all, and improved health for all.  By making progress on these Grand Challenges we will create greater opportunity for families to succeed and will greatly strengthen child welfare’s capacity to help families to live together safely.

There’s a group that’s forming that’s dedicated to ending gender based violence, which of course intersects with family violence. There’s a very interesting grand challenge about “Build Financial Capability For All”, which has to do with helping low income families to manage the challenges they have around their resources, debt collection and management, eviction, and the many financial challenges that plague families. Further many of the approaches that will be further developed and disseminated under this grand challenge will be preventive in nature. Child welfare workers have to often try to address these issues after they’ve already impacted families. The Grand Challenge will look at preventive tools and also research how to help families maintain benefits they have received from their interaction with a child welfare worker.

SWH: How is this research going to be translatable to frontline workers and people in the field?

Richard: It is our goal to put really good science together and create intervention models that are more powerful than what we have now. As an example, the work on ending or reducing severe and fatal maltreatment is one of the working papers we are working on under “End Family Violence”. There has been a discussion about using birth records and prior child welfare records and other data to predict what cases should be screened in and looked at rather than screened out even though they’re high risk. So we’re trying to look at the groups that are working on testable questions that actually have a benefit in reducing the rates of untoward outcomes.

We’ll have to talk to child welfare workers to figure out how they would use that information. Let’s imagine we could create some excellent predictive analytics. Even so, we will still find it  important for us to work with child welfare workers to see for example, how do you want to see that information? What don’t you want to see included in those predictions that might institutionalize bias? What do you think would actually lead to unfair uses of this information and how can you help us to take our science and use it to make a difference? We don’t want to overwhelm frontline workers with either too many ways or vague suggestions about what they would like to see.

SWH: If you could tweet one message about the Grand Challenges, what would it be?

Tweet: The Grand Challenges will be transformative if people buy in, join a challenge, & commit to partnering with others to make it happen. #Up4theChallenge

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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