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  • Writer's pictureJenna Rines

Highlights from the 3rd Annual Ecological Justice & Social Work Conference

We are thrilled to report that our third annual Ecological Justice and Social Work Conference hosted on April 4th was yet another inspiring event! From this year’s speakers, we heard a resounding call to action and responsibility to connect ecological justice principles to core social work mandates and practice. The importance of engaging with communities to achieve culturally centered solutions to interconnected environmental and social inequities echoed throughout each of the presentations. We hope that attendees will carry these messages with them and share with others.

We would like to thank our incredible speakers for contributing their expertise to our event. Thank you too to all of our attendees who were engaged and enthusiastic throughout the day.

We would also like to congratulate this year’s Environmental Justice Champion, Dr. Murali Nair. Dr. Nair was awarded for his support of others, his role as a mentor and connector to countless students and early professionals, and his active engagement across social work education and scholarship production. We are proud to share that Dr. Nair’s award will support the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.

Below you will find a brief summary of the information and resources shared throughout the day.

Welcome by Dr. Philip Rozario, Interim Dean of Adelphi University School of Social Work

Dr. Rozario’s warm welcome started the day off by emphasizing the importance of grounding social work’s focus on individual and societal wellbeing in the context of the environmental forces that create and address problems for those we serve. Dr. Rosario also emphasized paying attention to socioeconomic policies, structures, and systems that have long-lasting impacts on people and environment in service of intervening across the levels of intersecting exploitation of humans and the natural world.

Opening Meditation by Dr. Murali Nair

For the third year in a row, we were privileged to have Dr. Nair lead us through uplifting meditative activities to begin the day with smiles on our faces. His laughter yoga activity especially brought joy to the virtual space! We appreciate Dr. Nair for sharing his deep experience and for always bringing a positive and grounding energy to these events!

Welcome by Dr. Claire Green-Forde, Executive Direction of NASW’s NYC Chapter

An “unapologetic racial and social justice advocate”, Dr. Green-Forde gave a rallying call to action to firmly root into social work’s mandate to be anti-oppressive and anti-racist, and to remember that we cannot talk about ecological justice without these foundational principles. Dr. Green-Forde explored how the daily injustices experienced by marginalized people and communities in the places we live are interconnected with oppressive systems, which have direct health implications for people we serve. Dr. Green-Forde emphasized social workers’ responsibility to challenge our biases with respect to who we value and prioritize in our work and beyond, and to engage in advocacy and demand justice from our leaders and governments.

Environmental Justice and Community Engagement: Examples from the Island of Puerto Rico by Dr. Yolanda Machado-Escudero

Dr. Machado-Escudero provided attendees an overview of her important work and experience in Puerto Rico, which she identified as a vulnerable ecosystem due to increasing threats from climate change, coastal erosion, and disaster capitalism. Dr. Machado-Escudero described how these forces continue to displace local people living in coastal areas who are more socioeconomically vulnerable and have always relied on the benefits of these areas. Acceleration of coastal erosion has caused the destruction of homes; those with more wealth take over the land for ecotourism purposes, and land prices become more prohibitive for locals. Dr. Machado-Escudero also provided an overview of the threats to wildlife, pollution, and resident health (especially those living outside of traditionally touristic areas) which is spurred by exploitation and overdevelopment.

Dr. Machado-Escudero celebrated the local activists working against these forces despite the ongoing struggles and intergenerational trauma, mental health impacts, and more caused by the devastation of hurricanes, earthquakes, and COVID-19. She shared a beautiful song that centers these issues and community-led activism happening in Puerto Rico called ‘Las Playas Son Del Pueblo’ (The Beaches Belong to the People).

The Disaster Resilience Learning Network: Creating Culturally Grounded Spaces by Leaders of Color for Leaders of Color by Christy da Rosa

The Disaster Resilience Learning Network (DRLN) began as a 7-week affinity space and collaborative gathering for culturally specific and responsive community-based organizations (CBOs) to help those disproportionately impacted by disasters. Christy noted that the wildfires that swept through Oregon in 2020 created a 100-fold increase in residences damaged or destroyed, many of which were in low income, rural, communities of color. This impacted the health and wellbeing of communities, all of which had lasting effects years later. Christy noted profound gaps in communication, evacuation, shelter, and other protection systems in communities of color, and CBOs took on frontline responder roles often without appropriate training or resources. Following the DRLN pilot, Christy noted they were then able to fund ideas generated from the collaborative to directly help affected communities.

Being intentional about earning and fostering trust was central to the work that they did, with their work moving “at the speed of trust”. Christy challenged the use of the term “resilience” (including “bounce back” and “build back better” narratives) given its emphasis on individual responsibility to adapt and its historical context in oppressive systems that have harmed marginalized communities. The DRLN focused on transformational resilience narratives, placing trauma-informed care, community and relationship building, and cultural ways of healing at the forefront to build new systems and reimagine how disaster response systems can better serve communities.

Feedback and collaborative engagement deeply changed the program as it evolved, and emerging themes lifted up by participants included the importance of mental health and wellness, challenging resilience narratives, and climate political will. Core components to disaster resilience work that they found included:

  1. Center relationships

  2. Foundational knowledge

  3. Embrace diverse strengths that members bring to table

  4. Ongoing, robust evaluation

  5. Rest and healing

Christy acknowledged how social workers encounter effects of disaster in all aspects of our practice, making collaborating on disaster recovery strategies and advocating for those impacted by disasters an important skill set and role. Christy emphasized how communities of color must be better engaged in disaster recovery and be an integral part of redesigning resilience strategies.

Climate Change and Environmental Justice: It’s time for Social Workers to Have a Seat at the Table by Dr. Ashley Cureton

Dr. Cureton admitted that when she began her career many years ago working with refugees and displaced people around the world she didn’t start out thinking about climate change; however, it is central to her work now given its impact on these populations. Dr. Cureton clarified that being displaced by climate change is not currently part of the legally recognized definition of refugees set out by the UNHCR (last updated in 1967) which is used around the world. As a result, many people displaced by climate change do not have access to support, despite the fact that since 2008 over 318 million people have been displaced by weather disasters. Although individual countries can offer support in lieu of these gaps, Dr. Cureton indicated that many people are still left undocumented, without protections and resources, and do not have pathways to citizenship, leaving them in a precarious state.

She called on social workers to put pressure on political actors to fight for environmental justice, protect those at increased risk, and redistribute decision-making power back to communities systematically impacted. In addition to direct action, protest, and community organizing, Dr. Cureton emphasized the importance of naming oppressive institutional structures that are driving these inequities. She noted how well the social work role and mandate fits into Dr. Robert Bullard’s conceptualization of environmental racism and environmental justice:

The crux of the problem is that the mainstream environmental movement has not sufficiently addressed the fact that social inequality and imbalances of social power are at the heart of environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution, and the environmental crisis can simply not be solved effectively without social justice” - Dr. Robert Bullard, from Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement

Dr. Cureton encouraged self-education and provided fantastic tips, calls to action, and resources shared which includes the EPA and the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (check out her slides for more). Dr. Cureton ended with an overview of climate grief and how to continue to forge ahead with this work despite the many challenges:

  • Feel your grief

  • Know you’re not alone

  • Recognize that saving the climate isn’t your job

  • Find your way of taking climate action

Eco-anxiety: Exploring prevalence and treatment by Karen Magruder

Providing a look into emerging definitions, diagnostic criteria, prevalence, and treatment, Karen highlighted the fact that eco-anxiety is a documented worldwide phenomenon. Although the fact that it has not yet been included in the DSM could be beneficial to limit some pathologizing, gaps exist in access to appropriate assessment and care. Karen noted that differential diagnoses to eco-anxiety can include: climate anxiety, eco-grief, specific phobia, and seasonal affective disorder. She indicated that more clinical settings should take eco-anxiety into account in order to obtain reliable statistics on its prevalence; however a recent global survey of over 10,000 young people that found 84% of people 16-25 years old were at least moderately worried about climate change.

Given that evidence-based approaches for eco-anxiety are still in the early stages of development, Karen noted that anxiety and phobia treatments are being applied in clinical settings. Karen provided the following suggestions for supporting people with eco-anxiety:

  1. Empathy and validation

  2. Social support

  3. Cognitive interventions

  4. Behavioral activation

  5. Taking action (“I can do something, but I don’t have to do everything”)

  6. Ecotherapy (support connection with nature in a positive way)

Karen called for more research and knowledge to be generated about eco-anxiety and to amplify work that has already been done. She left us with a self-care reminder to encourage our own internal sustainability and energy, which she explored more in her speed session later on in the day. Check out her slides for additional information and references.

Student Posters

Thank you to the following students who submitted posters, which you can read at this link:

  • Nora Toro on Puerto Rico and the American Dream?

  • C. Taylor Brown on Social Work and the U.S. Eco-Social Safety Net: Opportunities to Advance Environmental Justice

  • Amy Shackelford on Innovative Ecosocial Approaches to Social Work in the Development of Local Environmental Practices

Wellness Model for Sustainability: Social Workers as Change Agents by Monica McDaniel

Monica began by centering social workers as change agents and encouraged thinking about environmental sustainability in our work and interactions with students, neighbors, and beyond. She described the importance of getting outside systems of oppression and thinking about things in new ways, which she gains inspiration from speculative fiction and the works of authors like Octavia Butler and adrienne maree brown. In her work as a sustainability officer, Monica noted her department’s focus on civic engagement, leadership development, political action, and participating in the community. She framed the university’s role as a neighbor in a community, and thinks about educating and serving students in ways that are connected to the neighborhood.

Monica provided an overview of traditional models of sustainability which include the “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental systems which she has noted does not always reflect lived realities. Instead, she proposed the Wellness Model for Sustainability to use in institutions whereby the environment is the nest for social, economic, and wellness systems. She noted that this model can be used to examine decision-making and change across practice levels, and that it is important to consider more than just human beings. Monica illustrated ways her work with students and neighbors is mobilizing change on all three levels, including:

  • Micro: mutual aid, food sovereignty, share shop and circular economy initiatives

  • Mezzo: committees where students, staff, and faculty members engage in environmental stewardship and action (opportunities for shared governance and decision-making)

  • Macro: partnering with other institutions on system-level change initiatives like accessible transportation funded through green fees and sales taxes

Monica helped attendees view the commonalities between social work and sustainability, and how important it is for environmental systems to be incorporated into social work. She hoped that her non-traditional social work role will inspire the expansion of boundaries of where social workers can work and influence institutions to do better for people and planet. If you work in an organization with a sustainability officer, Monica encouraged seeking them out and engaging with them to advance a wellness model for sustainability.

Panel Discussion (Part 1) moderated by Rachel Forbes

Divided into Part 1 and Part 2 (which is included further below), these expert panels were made up of chapter authors from the forthcoming edited volume ‘Ecosocial Work Practice’ which will be released in June 2023 by NASW Press. Keep reading to get a sneak peek of what will come in the book!

Social Work Perspectives on Environmental Racism chapter: Christine Morales, Mariann Bischoff, Dr. Natalie Bembry

Grounding the presentation in work by Dr. Robert Bullard, authors from this chapter noted how environmental racism is perpetuated by historic policies, laws, and regulations that have long favored white residents over residents of color. They provided an overview of three levels of environmental racism and discussed interventions for social workers to intervene at each level:

Institutionalized racism

  • Identify issues in your community or in communities near you (support local grassroots organizations)

  • Contact your federal and local legislature (what bills/laws/issues are they supporting?)

  • Track legislation (e.g. Environmental Justice for All bill was introduced in 2021, still sitting)

Personally-mediated racism

  • Examine own racism and colonialist beliefs and make changes

  • Contribute to community organizing efforts to improve environment

  • Strengthen and deeply honor a decolonized and interconnected mindset

Internalized racism

  • Educate clients and client systems on the power of social structures and their own individual power

  • Encourage clients to create or join groups that promote environmental justice agendas and efforts

Teaching Place for Social Work Practice chapter: Dr. Bree Akesson, Dr. Cindy Sousa

Authors from this chapter discussed the importance of place in connecting to issues of environmental injustice and to the people that we work with as social workers. They noted that place is important and relevant across fields, populations, and levels of practice and is vital to clients outcomes, particularly those most impacted by injustices. Authors indicated place has generally not been given enough attention as a key setting for social work practice and outlined the multidimensionality of place, including: emotional meaning, intellectual experience, place attachment, place identity, issues of access, safety, and availability of resources. Place-based mapping exercises have been useful with students to illustrate these dimensions and to foster connection with community. They noted places are catalysts for belonging, power, and collective wellbeing, referring to Solastalgia (feeling of home sickness while still being at home due to destruction/changing of surroundings) and Root Shock (emotional trauma from being displaced from environment) as relevant place-based concepts clients may experience in the context of environmental change and injustice.

Socially Engaged Art and Environmental Justice chapter: Dr. Meri Stiles

Introducing the word “artivist”, Dr. Stiles described this role for social workers as rooted in creative and arts-based activism. Dr. Stiles outlined some ways that social workers can participate in artivism through engaging the public as participants in socially-engaged art. These include: painted murals, theatre, storytelling (writing, poetry), political art, social sculpture (trying to shape society or the environment in some way), environmental/ecological art (made out of collected trash or ecology), and art that informs the public about social injustice (exhibits in art museums). Two examples Dr. Stiles provided include Operation Sunshine and Palas por Pistolas (Shovels for Guns).

Given that art has always been a strong channel for social justice, Dr. Stiles noted that in these cases, art is designed to engage people emotionally and cognitively to consider what is possible and inspire individual and social change. Dr. Stiles argued that the combination of isolation resulting from COVID-19 and collective climate grief require approaches that help people feel connected to others. Socially-engaged art approaches can provide transformative experiences to:

  • Stimulate creative solutions

  • Instill compassion and regard for others

  • Empower socially excluded groups

  • Inspire action and engagement

  • Promote community-based decision-making

Integrated Social Work Practice chapter: Dr. Bronwyn Cross-Denny

Dr. Cross-Denny presented on the importance of examining and intervening on all practice levels and systems in social work, adding the environment to our mandate of supporting individuals and communities. Dr. Cross-Denny indicated that when assessing and addressing needed services for individual clients, it is vital to also consider wider impacts to community and policies that we can use to influence change. By intentionally integrating across system levels, we can more effectively advocate for policy change (such as advocating for the expansion of the definition of a refugee to include those displaced by climate change).

Specific skills and knowledge are required to do this effectively, including cultural understanding, policy, trauma informed care, and advocacy. Intervening in a multisystem, interdisciplinary way considers what organizations, services, and communities should be engaged, and acknowledges that we need to address urgent issues first and have a scaffolding response. Dr. Cross-Denny highlighted that environmental injustices demand social workers to use all of the skills and knowledge we have acquired, and join as key participants in the response to climate change as it affects society and beyond.

The Small E of Environmental Justice by Dr. Elisa Martin

Dr. Martin began by noting that the importance of access to nature is increasingly being acknowledged, including by the UN, CSWE, and the Social Work Grand Challenges. At the same time, Dr. Martin highlighted that this knowledge needs to be brought more centrally into social work. She provided an overview of nature-based methodologies and interventions demonstrated to have physical and emotional health benefits, including:

  • Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing), even when going outside in winter months

  • Ten minute work breaks outside

  • Bringing nature inside through recorded birdsong, nature posters on the wall, and watching nature documentaries (such as in care homes)

Dr. Martin discussed that access to greenspace has a positive influence on children’s developmental milestones. In urban areas, increasing greenspace has been associated with reduced crime, gun violence and vandalism, as well as stabilized housing values in poorer neighborhoods (helping with generational wealth). Many other benefits were also explored (see her presentation slides here), and Dr. Martin brought attention to the fact that exposure to nature makes people care more about it. Issues of limited access to nature were noted to be predominantly in low-income communities and communities of color due to environmental injustice and oppression, highlighting advocacy roles for social workers.

Speed Sessions

This portion of the program challenged speakers to present their chosen topic in only five minutes, and we want to thank the following speakers for sharing their learning and experience with us:

  • Dr. Meredith Powers - Climate Justice Program of IFSW: Be the Change You Wish to See in the World (see new JAM Sessions podcast and her slide deck for additional resources)

  • Meredith Schriver – Food Instability and Incarceration: A Link Between Ecological Injustice and the Criminal Justice System

  • Emerson Grey – Vegan Social Work

  • Karen Magruder – Keep your cool in a warming world: Self-care for environmental activists

  • Christine Morales & Mariann Bischoff – Social Work Application Model for Environmental Justice (see their proposed Levels of Social Work Application tool, also pictured below)

Panel Discussion (Part 2) moderated by Rachel Forbes

Another five chapters from the upcoming ‘Ecosocial Work Practice’ book were presented by authors in Part 2 of this panel. We can't wait for this book to come out! Here were some more of the ideas shared:

Grassroots Blueprint - How Housing is Constructed in Ecosocial Work Practice chapter: Tiffany Adamson, Carrie Jankowski, Rachel McBride

Authors in this panel discuss the central importance of accessing safe, affordable, and sustainable housing to environmental justice, health, and wellbeing, and provided an overview of their chapter examining injustices happening on Tribal lands in Oklahoma. Authors emphasized the existence of increased stressors and illness for minoritized populations in the context of these injustices, highlighting that practices and policies can both support and suppress environmental justice. Authors noted that looking through the lens of social determinants of health can help to highlight health inequities given that factors such as food insecurity, poverty, educational quality, access to transportation, and safety, are all related to housing stability. Structural Social Work Theory and Person-in-Environment Theory were other theoretical frameworks considered and promoted in this chapter.

They also joined other speakers in placing importance on trust as a vital component of work with communities to support both short-term and long-term change, as well as connection and belonging. Authors echoed sentiments about understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of issues, as well as influencing on all levels of practice (from micro to macro) to promote more comprehensive insights and solutions. They noted that social workers need to know not just the individuals and families impacted, but community groups, stakeholders, policies, and politics woven in. They suggested asking questions such as:

  • Who needs to be involved in identifying solutions?

  • What are the shared goals related to housing needs?

  • How can social workers use each level of practice to facilitate these needs?

Critical Ecofeminism Praxis - The Effects of Water Carrying and Climate Change Adaptation on Nepali Women’s Reproductive Health chapter: Bonita Sharma, Dorlisa Minnick

Authors from this chapter drew on Critical Feminism, Queer Ecofeminism, and Postcolonial Feminism theoretical frameworks to examine the effects of climate change and precarious water access to Nepali women’s sexual and reproductive health. Authors provided geological and geopolitical context, noting that Nepal is high on the list of nations to be most affected by climate change towards the end of the decade. They explained that Nepal is a significant source of fresh water from glaciers, lakes, and permafrost. Although this makes it an abundant source of water, built environment to prevent flooding and support access to clean drinking water directly to homes is severely lacking. Authors shared that direct and adjacent colonialism and related forces influenced the introduction of caste and patriarchal systems in the structure and function of the country, and human capital has been reduced as many Nepali men joined the British military. These factors influence women’s health as women are left with the responsibility to carry water long distances in mountainous terrain to their households, in addition to other responsibilities.

As a result, authors explained that uterine prolapse is among prominent health concerns for women in Nepal, especially during earlier age groups. Despite this being known, the main root causes of health issues are not addressed, and instead country-led health policies focus on band aid solutions. Authors proposed the following to bring together these interconnected issues:

  • Promote transdisciplinary solutions that address at a structural level

  • Empower women through gender equality to address issues such as patriarchy

  • Build community support and networks of women to support each other

  • More knowledge and education about uterine health post-childbirth

Feminist Participatory Action Research - A Methodology for Ecosocial Justice chapter: Trimita Chakma

Through the lens of her own work, Trimita introduced the Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR) methodological paradigm of research and activism. She noted that FPAR advances structural change and can be a critical methodology for ecosocial work given the importance of analyzing and transforming sociopolitical systems of power that contribute to ecosocial catastrophes. Trimita explained that FPAR challenges traditional research and academic hierarchies by positioning participants as co-researchers, and engages in democratic and collaborative cycles of reflection, research, and action. FPAR also incorporates feminist principles of intersectionality and reflexivity, and community experiences are documented through creative arts-based techniques and participatory methods such as photovoice, storytelling, and social mapping in addition to mainstream research methods. Action and activism informed by the findings is then reported in accessible formats and reflected on to revise for impact.

Trimita discussed case uses for FPAR based on her work, noting that it can be useful to document experiences of environmental change and analyze ecosocial issues related to power structures with the aim of empowering marginalized communities. Vitally, this includes a critique of colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, and neoliberal roots of environmental change, and focusing on centering voices of those impacted when developing solutions. Trimita also noted that FPAR is an effective methodology in strengthening feminist grassroots movements for climate justice, helping to build knowledge related to their rights, build skills and confidence in climate justice leadership, advocacy, and campaigning. She described that this work with women in grassroots movements is actively shifting policies and programs across Asia. However, this climate activism exists within the context of gendered domestic labor, and can also lead to safety and security risks including harassment, government intervention, arrests, and even honor killings. Trimita is the co-director of the FPAR Academy.

Ecosocial Work Policy and Advocacy Practice chapter: Dr. Patricia Saleeby and Georgianna Dolan-Reilly

Authors in this chapter provided an overview of programs and frameworks for collective advocacy and action in the context of ecosocial work practice. They began with social work’s longstanding engagement and history with policy in the US and globally, noting the importance of using policy to support and inform ecological justice. Authors described approaching social action in their chapter in two ways: 1) Advocacy in social action, and 2) Best practices for community engagement and mobilization. They promoted the importance of engaging in multidimensional solutions and frameworks, some of which included:

  • Social justice score card

  • Fishbone method

  • CDC’s BRACE Framework

  • Strategic Prevention Framework

Forced to Flee Home - An Innovative, Community-Based, and Salutogenic Model to Address the Consequences of Displacement for Refugees chapter: Dr. Amy Stein

Dr. Stein presented on her work with Burmese refugees and applying the concept of place attachment to how home is recreated through a south Philadelphia community garden program. Dr. Stein outlined place attachment which is when an individual develops a deep psychological bond with a geographic region that holds significant meaning. She used the Place Attachment Model in her work, which has four main dimensions to the model:

  1. Place Identity

  2. Place Dependence

  3. Social Bonding

  4. Nature Bonding

Dr. Stein noted that the Place Attachment Model does not account for emotional components in relation to nature and so she added in questions to explore how gardening impacted wellbeing of refugees. She also developed her own model to illustrate the attachment evolution and recreation of place which she conceptualizes as the “Uprooted, Re-rooted, Planted” model.


Once again, THANK YOU to all of our presenters, attendees, and conference organizers at Adelphi University and the ISWEJ. See you next year!

Please help us keep the conversation going by using the following us on Twitter (@theISWEJ), using the hashtag #EJSW2023. Feel free to reach out to us with your questions using this form.

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