Social Worker’s : MSW & BSW – How I became an Advocate for Environmental Justice as an MSW Graduate Student. Field placements, course work, and developing your professional identity.

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!

Broken Windows Theory & Social Work Practice

The “broken windows” theory gives social workers insight into the way the physical environment both directly and indirectly affect (Abdullah et. al, 2015) the populations we work with. 

Physical environments that display; broken windows, trash, litter, a lack of maintenance to green space or architecture are thought to produce actions that resemble the environment; higher rates of crime, vandalism, & “delinquent” behaviors to name a few. 

It’s interesting to dig into the theory of human-behavior as a direct result of the infrastructures a person navigates.

I guess my question to social workers is how do we engage in our practice knowing this information: 

  1. Do we take on roles in micro practice and support a client towards understanding that their action may be a result of the environment (supporting self actualization)?  
  • Do we find ways to advocate for this seriousness of the “broken windows” hypothesis through policy?  
  • Who do we hold accountable? The child that gets a ticket for spray painting an already abandoned building OR the structures that led to the “abandoned” landscape?  

How do we come together as social work professionals to integrate the physical environment into our practice? The best approach I see is investigating new theory that can be applied to our Person-In-Environment framework. 

When we fail to understand the human-behavior theory in terms of intersecting layers that come as a result of the mistreatment of the physical environment – we fail the services provided. We are then limited. 

For the micro social workers reading… I’m sure you can see the layers of self-empowerment that would come when; reflecting to a mother that her child in not acting delinquent because she is a “bad” mother but suggesting that the child is simply acting in a way that is symbolic of their environment. 

Environmental Justice Framed Through the 5 Senses

Structural developments have the ability to influence community engagement and overall lower stress, which in return can have positive effects on reducing mental and physical ailments. Even short exposures to natural settings can support individuals in overall health. Stress can be viewed as one of the most influential causes of health problems: anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease among the most common (Grinde, 2009). The study of nature and health has historically been examined through nature as a stress reduction tool and intervention. Broken windows theory is used to explore how neighborhood disorder (the evidence of structures and natural elements which are not kept up with) impacts health and behavior (O’Brien, Farrell, & Welsh, 2018). Behavior, in this review, is a term which describes the interventions that can be made to environments to achieve better health outcomes.

I.          Hearing:  

One of the most common issues within urban areas (that often goes unnoticed) is noise pollution (Nemes, 2018). Noise pollution is something that gets layered, as construction, traffic and highway, airplanes, and typical urban hustle and bustle create a constant hum that the body eventually tunes out in order to stay alert to obscurities or potential danger. New research has influenced the way in which sound is used to combat crime. For example, one city in California saw a drop in crime rates when they began playing recordings of songbirds in the streets.  

II.         Sight: 

Built space has shown to affect actual rates of healing in human subjects.  Data taken from 23 patients who were recovering after cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) concluded that patients who were in hospital rooms with windows allowing for natural light had shorter hospital stays, fewer negative evaluations from nurses, and ingested less pain medication than patients whose hospital room window faced a brick wall (Ulright, 1984). When windows are left broken and abandoned there is a rise in crime and the overall perception of safety is diminished (O’Brien, Farrell, & Welsh, 2018). Morning light has shown to improve symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (Lewey, 1998). Artificial light exposure has negative health implications—artificial light exposure at night can lead to breast cancer, circadian phase disruption, and sleep disorders (Cho et al, 2015). 

III.        Taste: 

            Due to the characteristics of the world’s water cycle, nonpoint pollution effects all water supplies. However, the main problem (for the human species) arises from drinking water contamination. Nonpoint pollution is one of the main sources of pollution urban areas; the more urban the area (increase in infrastructure) results in high-risk contamination (State of Connecticut Department of Public Health Drinking Water Division, 2016). Contamination in water has been reported to have a disproportionate effect on children. For infants under 6 months, even “short-term exposure to drinking water with a nitrate level at or just above the health standard of 10 mg/l nitrate-N is a potential health problem” which can cause digestive tract issues leading to a disease called methemoglobinemia, which can result in death (McCasland, 2012). 

Infrastructure can also produce positive outcomes for health when they limit access to things like fast food restaurants resulting in lower obesity rates. However, urban areas also experience poor access to supermarkets, which can be correlated to poor nutritional intake (Larson, 2009). Likewise, reduced access to fast food restaurants is positively correlated with a lower risk in cardiovascular disease (Chum, 2015). An overall negative association to health in regard to food intake is seen through the fact that low-income and minority grounds around the US have more fast food restaurants within their geographic, and are also influenced by lack of access to healthy options that one would find in a supermarket (Larson, 2009). 

IV.        Smell or Breath: 

Similarly, to water pollution, air pollution is largely associated with car traffic, high industrial landscapes. Living in close proximity to these things can put a person at a greater risk for toxins. Andersson (2018) found that traffic-related air pollution is correlated to dementia. Smell also has the potential to benefit health, Natural plan odors have shown to influence calmness, alertness, and promote stress reduction (Weber, 2008). 

V.         Touch: 

Gardening is a common practice that can be engaged within in both private and community settings. Due to the fact that gardening is an activity that all age groups can participate in public gardens can improve public health (Soga, 2016) especially within urban landscapes when designed properly into the environment. Studies on gardening-related activates have shown to change brain wave activity, reduction in pain and sensitivity to pain, and benefits to immune system functioning. Additionally, this type of direct exposure to nature improves both mental and physical health, gardening can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and promote physical activity (Soga, 2016).


Language can be used as a tool for social influence. In reference to my own beliefs about the world, Nature is often viewed as feminine “Mother Nature” and the content of the language often used when speaking about Nature is more often than not negative; we mainly hear of historical and present references to the trauma and destruction which Mother Nature inflicts upon “Mankind”. Therefore, in regards to my personal practice I can use language to strengthen my ability to understand the meaning behind labels and dig deeper to gain sociocultural context of the words we use in day to day life. 

From Artist to Social Worker

The only thing which have changed are the tools held in my hand and the means by which my artistic “thesis-theme-message” (whatever we may call it in the both the high-class art scene and the street art scene) each artist has a message… how we convey that message varies. 

Policy practice is a realistic role for all social workers and all people; I advocate for connections between the creator and the analyzer- the academic and the artist. However, we will only be able to bridge the gaps and be prepared for such activities and challenges to come if “professionally” specific skills are utilized in both fields. Artists voices cannot stay in the walls of the gallery. What if artists learned to take action? I want to support this action in the same way I want to cultivate it in micro social workers and their clients- getting up and testifying on the policy at the state capitol is scary for anyone… but deep down, as artists we know what makes people have a shift in consciousness… It’s emotions, what evokes emotion? You already know, vibrant language, truth, color, a statement conveyed in a brief poetic justice… We must find our voices, our collaborative voices, the tools which comfort and sooth the creator in each of us, that persistent internal dialogue is something we must listen to. I ask what will it take to makes each of us take action?