Abstract: Environmental Justice and Professional Practice: A Survey of Social Workers in Three U.S. States (Society for Social Work and Research 28th Annual Conference - Recentering & Democratizing Knowledge: The Next 30 Years of Social Work Science)

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610P Environmental Justice and Professional Practice: A Survey of Social Workers in Three U.S. States

Sunday, January 14, 2024
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Reyes Mason, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Amy Krings, MSW, PhD, Associate Professor, Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, Chicago, IL
Smitha Rao, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, OH
Colleen Cummings Melton, MSW, PhD Student, University of Denver, CO
Sierra Wetmore, MSW, PhD Student, University of Denver, CO
Julia Santucci, BA, MSW Student, Loyola University, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose. Environmental crises inflict ongoing and escalating challenges in the U.S., especially for marginalized or minoritized communities. Environmental injustice is thus a rapidly growing social justice challenge that social work is called to address. Social work education, and related educational research, in this area has recently increased. However, little is known about the nexus of environmental issues and injustice in social work practice. This comparative study across three U.S. states aims to understand whether and how environmental issues are showing up in social work practice, social work readiness to respond, and what social workers need to increase their effectiveness.

Methods. Data are from an online survey of social workers (N=336) in Colorado (n=124), Ohio (n=140), and Tennessee (n=72). States were chosen for variation in their natural environment, climate, and demographic and political characteristics. For sampling and recruitment, study authors compiled a list of social work associations and accredited social work programs in each state. Associations and programs were then asked by email to send a pre-written survey recruitment email to their members, alumni and/or field education liaisons. The survey consisted of 35 items and took approximately 15-20 minutes to complete. Participants were asked about their social work background, current job, how environmental issues may be showing up at work, other environmental and practice items, and demographics. Data were analyzed with descriptive and bivariate statistics.

Results. The typical participant was a cisgender woman (77.4%) in her mid-40s, post-MSW (91.4%), and with 14.7 years of social work experience. While 32.1% of participants were “not at all” or “a little” familiar with environmental justice, 96.7% thought it was “somewhat” or “very important” for social work to address. The most frequent environmental issues showing up “sometimes” or “often” in practice were poor access to local foods (74.6%); extreme cold, snow, or ice (59.3%); and extreme heat (44.7%). For these issues, respectively, 40.5%, 60.5%, and 71.4% of participants reported feeling “not at all” or “a little” prepared to respond. When asked what would help improve their ability to respond, participants indicated the most interest (“very interested”) in continuing education units (CEUs) on specific environmental justice issues (60.1%), templates for client or community education about specific environmental justice issues (51.2%), and guidance on how to help their organizations be more responsive to environmental justice (50.6%). No statistically significant differences (p < .05) were found by state.

Conclusions and Implications. Many environmental justice issues are presenting across micro, mezzo, and macro social work practice and are not limited to the practice of “environmental” or “eco-” social workers. While social workers in this study feel strongly about the profession addressing environmental injustice, many feel little prepared to respond when issues arise. National and state social work associations—in partnership with the growing number of social work scholars focused on environmental justice—can create and provide CEUs, templates, and other guidance for social workers to improve their practice. This guidance should be tailored to specific environmental justice issues or impacts, beyond providing general education about environmental justice.