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Spring 2024 Issue

Advanced Degree Programs: Ecological Justice: Where Social Work Collides With Concern for the Environment
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 2 P. 28

A new pathway at the University of Denver provides educational experience for social work students interested in a healthier world.

Interest in how social work can play a role in environmental change has significantly grown in the last 10 years. With one of the Grand Challenges for Social Work being to “create social responses to a changing environment,” there’s been more of a need for formal programming for future social workers interested in global environmental change and other pertinent issues. The introduction of the Ecological Justice Pathway at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work has been designed for this very purpose.

The program is said to be the first of its kind in the nation. It was developed by Sarah Bexell, PhD, a clinical associate professor and faculty director of the Center for Sustainability, alongside Lisa Reyes Mason, PhD, an associate professor and interim dean of the Graduate School of Social Work. Reyes Mason and Bexell say the Ecological Justice Pathway evolved from a former concentration called Sustainable Development and Global Practice. That programming combined trends in sustainable development with the ethical work social workers perform in regard to global issues.

“Our development of ecological justice grew out of a critique of the concept and framing that there is arguably an inherent growth assumption within sustainable development,” Reyes Mason explains, “that it’s still rooted in a capitalistic approach to the world and economics. However, with ecological justice, we take a broader approach to encompass the inner connections among all of us—humans, ecosystems, and other species. The framing of ecological justice is meant to be all-encompassing because, ultimately, we are all interconnected.”

Another evolution has been the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work’s move toward “pathways” instead of “concentrations.”

Beginning at the start of the 2023-2024 school year, the campus introduced “MSW pathways,” an approach that does not require students to commit to a single concentration specialty but rather lets them select courses from a wider variety of options to create a specialization suited to their career path. Ecological justice is one of these pathways.

“This allows students who may not want to devote an entire concentration to ecological justice to still come and take some of these courses and prepare for their future careers,” Reyes Mason says. “For instance, we have students going into direct practice who want to learn about climate grief so that they can address that issue in clinical practice.”

The program’s core course, Bexell says, is Social-Ecological Resilience: Connecting Human & Environmental Well-Being, which emphasizes integrated social-ecological systems as a necessary theoretical framework for understanding the interconnectedness of human health, wellbeing, and resilience with that of other species and the natural environment.

Other courses that are part of the Ecological Justice Pathway include Social and Environmental Impact Assessments, Environmental Change Impacts and Resilience Strategies for Mental Health, Wellness Promotion and Intervention Across the Lifespan, Creating a Regenerative Future, and Global Social Change.

“I think students are attracted to study with us because of these unique pathway choices and areas of specialty,” Bexell says. “We do have some very interesting course choices that can lend themselves to a lot of different career paths.”

Bexell says students who have chosen the Ecological Justice Pathway have landed in a variety of interesting fields.

“We have a student working in energy policy at the Colorado State Capitol, another who is working in Haiti as they heal from hurricanes, and several students who have taken up wildlife conservation careers—just to name some examples,” she says. “We also have a student who has taken a job with the city of Denver doing air pollution outreach and yet another who has worked on some of the issues related to mining.”

What Makes Ecological Justice a Social Work Issue?
While a program focused on ecology might seem as though it should fall under the sciences, Bexell says that at the heart of things, it’s a social work issue.

“My previous career was squarely in the natural sciences, but the truth is, environmental decline is not a natural and physical science problem—it’s a human psychology problem,” she says. “Humans have been waiting for the environmental sciences—biology, chemistry, and natural—to fix problems for us when they are emanating from our brains. What’s beautiful about social work is that it understands whole human systems.”

According to Bexell, ecological justice is working within the space of how do we understand the systems within which people get their basic needs met.

“At this point, we’ve created systems that are utterly damaging our support system,” she continues. “So, how do we get nations to work to create systems that get needs met without destroying human life systems in the process? Social work is poised to be the field that moves the needle in the right direction.”

Reyes Mason adds that every area in which social work is already involved—such as aging, homelessness, integrative health care—is an issue that intersects with ecological justice in one way or another.

“The students who come to pursue a pathway in this understand that all of these social work issues are already quite interconnected,” she explains.

Growing Interest Stemming From a Growing Need
While the University of Denver was an early adopter of this ecological coursework, it’s a direction that many other institutions are also pursuing.

“I think more and more schools are going to be adding courses and infusing content,” Bexell says. “A lot of young people care deeply about these issues. They are worried about how their health and well-being are impacted by ecological concerns. I think more students are recognizing that climate change makes them anxious and uncomfortable and they want to do something about it.”

Reyes Mason adds that even students who might not be pursuing an environmental career have interests in this area.

“Topics like climate grief and disaster-related PTSD training can be of use in other areas of social work,” she explains. “Even the everyday stress that people feel as a result of climate change disrupting our lives is a worthy topic and students want to know how they can address that in everyday clinical practice. This is where the pathway approach is valuable. Students can weave these courses into their MSW plan, even if they don’t specialize in it. But being a clinician who is also steeped in ecological justice is valuable to their future.”

These issues, Reyes Mason says, are not going away. “We’re noticing more and more not only in social work but in our communities in general that people are recognizing the need for a greater understanding of these issues,” she says. “Whether a school has these types of courses integrated into their curriculum or even forming a concentration or pathway as we have, the need for them is undeniable. We must have more advocates and allies if we’re actually going to move forward in creating a healthier world.”

— Lindsey Getz is an award-winning freelance writer in Royersford, Pennsylvania.