The first skills you develop as any student but especially a social work academic are ones that involve learning to think critically.
At the start of my social work engagement is artistic engagement. In 2012 was accepted into a Fine Art’s School in Boston. My artistic thesis was always rooted in nature; through my clay work and I always found inspiration in themes of my own relationship with nature. As I continued my education, I transferred schools into a Human Services program and I fell into coursework which sparked my interest in ecopsychology. As a result, I developed critical thinking and skills towards understanding empirical research, which allowed me to recognize that there were scientific findings towards Human-Environment relationships. I have come to understand that natural spaces are actually, immensely beneficial for mental and psychological wellbeing.
In my eyes, individual experience is what guides the social worker to seek out our practice professionally. The community I grew up in is rural and facilitated a way for me to engage with friends in natural environments, for example, in the deep woods, by lakes, hiking trails, and various nature preserves. Through these experiences, I came to value nature because it allowed me to find solitude and creative inspiration. Hoefer (2005) describes how a social worker values and education lead to a sense of responsibility.
Environmental Justice serves to lessen negative outcomes that are a direct result of the environment. As modernization and urbanization have occurred over human evolution; vulnerable populations who are mainly low income and minority groups typically experience disproportionately negative health outcomes as a result of their environment.
I understand that social problems occur for vulnerable populations when the presence of nature is limited and resources are abused, each one of us, social workers, and clients play a part in contributing to this social problem. Jewett & Garavan (2019) eloquently describe that “for us to seek healing we need to recognize who we are and the system of which we are a part” (p. 45).
As I began to work and live in urban settings I felt that my experience with nature was actually a privilege and my interest in advocacy for Environmental Justice soon followed suit.
At first I felt frustrated when I recognized that none of my MSW coursework (the readings, theory’s, and frameworks) focused Social Welfare in terms of the way the environment affects human health. I stayed positive and found ways to think critically about how I could utilize what I was learning to organize my advocacy, for example, I one author I read) explained how higher education produces more political involvement and “feelings of unfairness are precipitating factors for involvement” (Hoefer, 2005). I agreed with this because I never saw myself working from a policy standpoint until I arrived at my “higher education”. One thing I know to be true that feelings discouraged can be transformed into a powerful tool; as my professional self, my “social worker self” seemingly moved further away from being an actively creating artist; figuratively it never did.
I began crafting my own path for seeking a way to integrate Environmental Justice within my MSW coursework even through it wasn’t my major. Below outline creative ways I utilize to cultivate this new use of the social work practice:
- I began assorting all the Environmental Justice related research onto one document. I thought critically about how vulnerable population don’t have access to the information I was accumulating.
- I constantly though critically which brought about questions… I wrote these questions down both inside and outside of class. (for example, if I read an article that outlines a positive health outcome as a result of an intervention to the environment I would wonder if this was actually being used in day to day life. If not, why?)
- Any assignment I get I try my best to tie back to my personal lens and critical thinking of environmental justice.
- I truly embodied what the practice of social work stands for and this led me to “practice what I preach” the best tool that I have as a millennial to spread awareness for my concerns was social media.
- Driven by the research I accumulated I created an Instagram account that is themed around Environmental Justice and social work.
- Finding a field placement that aligned with my mission was difficult as there were no direct connections which led me to create an excel sheet of agencies that promoted Environmental Justice.
- My list was limited and many did not have MSW staff to provide supervision.
- I reached out to my local NASW section and sought out resources or connections.
- I worked with my educational institution and scheduled meetings with various departments to present my passions (I believe this made a context for being taken seriously and not wanting to settle)
- When I found organizations that were doing Environmental Justice or Ecopsychology work I reached out through email- this led to some individual research projects that establish professional connections to the topic I am so passionate about.
I had to utilize my critical thinking skills and creative skills which I attribute to my experience in nature. I continue to think critically about the privilege that came from my access to nature; things like the intersection of my own socioeconomic status in relation to my ability to access all that I can. I become an advocate for Environmental Justice by using that steps I outlined above and continue to seek and/or create new innovations that bring together Environmental Psychology and the practice of social work while staying true to personal goals and philosophies.
At the end of the day as social workers we know that our own story is often the best way to reach people and get them to listen, there is a power in personal experience. I propose that at this moment the best thing any social worker can do to benefit their practice is to to pull from what you know best and work with it- if there’s not a direct path “social work” yourself and think of creative solutions!