What About Social Justice? Engaging in Environmental Justice Work


by Dr. Veronica Hardy, MSW, LCSW

     What do the headlines say? According to The Dallas Morning News (2021), Sandbranch is a community in Texas that has never had running water and currently relies on water bottle donations. The Montgomery Advisor (2022) notes that several counties in Alabama, including Lowndes County, do not have properly functioning sewage systems, resulting in sewage waste overflowing onto their properties. In New Mexico, the Mountain View neighborhood has been inundated with years of pollution and toxic waste-causing industries (Albuquerque Journal, 2021). These are just a few headlines that bring to the forefront the public health crisis of environmental injustices, leading to the question: What about social justice in relation to the environment?

     What is environmental justice? The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the governmental entity that advocates for equality in protection from health hazards as well as having equity of voice in environmental decision-making processes that will promote healthy geographic locations for living. According to the EPA, environmental justice is defined as “the 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” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2023, para. 1). However, what is the role of social work in relation to environmental justice?

Social Work and Environmental Justice

     In 2021, Rutgers School of Social Work facilitated a webinar titled What Is Environmental Justice? In this webinar, key points were made about industrial legacies in which multiple communities seem to be “warehouses” for industries that are less than a mile from residences. These toxic and hazardous legacies have significant impact on the residents, including major health concerns such as asthma, as well as effects on child development and learning. Kemp and Palinkas (2015) highlight several impacts of environmental change, including population displacement that is due to environmental changes that create hazardous living conditions, increased environmental risk and degradation through urbanization, negative impact of climate change on rural and farming communities, and the multiple effects on mental health, including trauma-related diagnoses. As noted in the Grand Challenges for Social Work (American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, 2018, p. 1), the changing environment affects the following:

Escalating environmental threats are a social justice issue: social, economic, and environmental inequities are deeply intertwined. People in poverty, children, older adults, members of racial or ethnic minority groups, and people with a history of mental health problems are especially vulnerable to the harmful impacts of environmental change.

     The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) included environmental justice as one of the 2018-2019 Social Justice Priorities, which also highlight geographic disparities across diverse groups. The Grand Challenges of Social Work and the NASW Social Justice Priorities both identify key areas of focus where social workers can engage in environmental justice work across all levels of practice. Equipped with the knowledge that environmental and climate injustices are affecting large populations across nations, what is our responsibility as social workers?

Engaging in Environmental Justice Work

     Social workers may build upon works in progress implemented by multiple organizations, including NASW and The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), which work across diverse communities with historic and ongoing experiences of racial and environmental oppression. In addition to partnering with organizations, the following recommendations provide further areas where social workers may engage in environmental justice work.

  • Target the root causes of financial and economic disparities across diverse groups.
  • Integrate resilience-building skills within services provided to include disaster preparation, financial literacy, and advocacy for policy change.
  • Implement solution-oriented findings from research that identify the impact of pollution and toxic chemicals upon communities.
  • Develop culturally-informed responses to grief and loss resulting from environmental injustices experienced by affected populations.
  • Apply for grant funding and other forms of financial assistance to create efforts to combat environmental injustices and promote equitable development.

     Social work educators can incorporate learning content from the Council on Social Work Education Curricular Guide for Environmental Justice (2015) into social work curricula to equip students with knowledge and skills to advance human rights and engage in policy practice.

Global and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

     These are only a few ways social workers can become involved. However, while engaging in environmental justice work, it is critical to pursue efforts from both an interdisciplinary and a global perspective. The International Federation of Social Workers facilitates several commissions, including the Human Rights Commission. This entity focuses on addressing issues of marginalization and inequities, including those experienced by persons coping with forced displacement because of national disasters or war. It is critical to gain knowledge about environmental and climate injustices across the globe and to explore what interdisciplinary efforts can be used to intervene.

     The NASW Code of Ethics (2021) Standard 4.01 says that social workers are to function within their levels of competence and engage in methods to increase competence. Environmental justice work requires interdisciplinary efforts with multiple forms of knowledge and skills yielding from professions including public health, environmental, urban development, technology industry, and legal experts (Kemp & Palinkas, 2015) when developing strategies to create change. Even more so, it is critical to collaborate with and include the voices and knowledge of survivors through survivor-led leadership and initiative development.

     It is important for us, as social workers, to enhance our knowledge about the impact of the environment on the health, welfare, and life span of diverse groups. Industrial legacies are impacting multiple communities, resulting in displacement, harmful health effects, and disturbance of agricultural lands, as well as affecting the developmental and learning abilities of children.

    Pertaining to environmental inequities, what will you do to promote social justice?


American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. (2018). Grand challenges for social work: Create social responses to a changing environment. https://grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/180604-GC-Environment.pdf

Council on Social Work Education. (2015). Curricular guide for environmental justice. https://www.cswe.org/getmedia/0f013dd2-c99f-4a56-8193-a646e1169b43/2015-Environmental-Justice-Guide-Web-Version_Watermark.pdf

Garcia, N. (2021, June 28). Mountain View is city’s industrial sacrifice zone. Albuquerque Journal. https://www.abqjournal.com/2404174/is-citys-industrial-sacrifice-zone.html

Hitson, H. (2022, March 29). Rural Alabama wastewater infrastructure ‘public health issue’ gets much-needed attention. Montgomery Advertiserhttps://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2022/03/30/columbia-university-black-belt-alabama-sewerage-wastewater-infrastructure-upgrades-are-coming/7189780001/

International Federation of Social Workers. (2023). Human Rights Commission. https://www.ifsw.org/ifsw-commissions/human-rights-commission/

Kemp, S. P., & Palinkas, L. A. (2015). Strengthening the social response to the human impacts of environmental change: Working paper. American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. https://grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/WP5-with-cover.pdf

National Association of Social Workers. (2018). Social justice priorities 2018-2019. https://www.socialworkers.org/Portals/0/PDF/Advocacy/Public/Social-Justice/Social-Justice-Priorities-2018-2019.pdf

National Association of Social Workers. (2021). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workershttps://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

Rivas, M., & Keomoungkhoun, N. (2021, June 4). Curious Texas: Why doesn’t Sandbranch have running water? Dallas Morning News. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/curious-texas/2021/06/04/curious-texas-why-doesnt-sandbranch-have-running-water/

Rutgers School of Social Work. (2021, July 14). What is environmental justice? [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/COplas_jshE

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023). Environmental justice. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice

Dr. Veronica L. Hardy, MSW, LCSW, has a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision, a Master of Social Work, Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare, and clinical social work licensure in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Previously a professor of social work (tenured) at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, she decided to “pivot” and create space to build upon her professional identity through social justice efforts. She continues as a part-time social work and counselor educator in undergraduate and graduate programs at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke (Department of Social Work) and Saint Joseph’s University (Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program) in Philadelphia, PA.

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