CADD Corner: Environmental Justice: What Is Social Work’s Role?

OTHER NEWS CADD logo                                          post July 1

By Melinda Hohman, PhD, San Diego State UniversityOTHER NEWS  Melinda Hohman headshot               post July 1

Welcome to our new monthly column that will be written by the various deans and directors of the schools of social work in California! We will discuss trends and innovations in social work education, either within our own individual programs or in the social work field in general.

We hope that you find this column interesting and useful to inspire further conversation with us regarding the needs of current and future social work practitioners.

As social work educators, we are aware of the need to anticipate and prepare students for new roles that they may take on as social workers in our local communities. One newer area of practice is that of environmental social work. Social workers often do not think of environmental work as within their scope of practice (Jones, 2013) and yet environmental problems are most often found in low income communities with high minority populations (Besthorn, 2013; Schmitz, et al., 2011), places where social workers work.

These problems include air and water pollution, lead paint, asbestos, and mixed zoning laws that allow toxic waste to be stored near schools and residences (Minkler, et al., 2010).

Rural communities in California also experience the siting of landfills and exposure to pesticides (Pena, 2005). Low income communities on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border experience water pollution from smelting operations for spent lead-acid batteries and air pollution from thermoelectric power plants (Carruthers, 2007; 2008).

Some environmental agencies focus on one specific environmental problem and do not necessarily focus its inequitable impact on minority communities. Environmental justice has been defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work” (EPA, 2015).

Social work brings community organizing, advocacy, and outreach skills, among others, that are valuable in promoting environmental justice; environmental agencies have specific expertise regarding environmental problems and their impacts. Thus, environmental social work involves the bringing together of two very different fields of practice (Dylan, 2013).

The Council on Social Work Education now includes standards for advancing environmental justice (CSWE, 2015). One way to do this is to infuse content on environmental social work into human behavior courses. The School of Social Work at San Diego State University has chosen to include expertise regarding environmental practice in order to best prepare the next generation of social workers. The need for interdisciplinary collaboration became apparent (Coates & Gray, 2012) and we have partnered with the Sustainability major on campus to offer a specialization for BSW students in environmental social work.

Under this model, BSW students take two of their three required electives in the Sustainability major. The course choices include Sustainability and Culture, Politics and the Environment, History of Current Environmental Problems, and Environmental Ethics. For their third elective, students take a BSW/MSW elective, Community Organizing and Problem Solving. This course partners with local non-profits to tackle real-world problems. For instance, recently in this class, students organized for a weekly food truck to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables to a community with few stores. (It should be noted that the BSW curriculum is strong on macro social work and students take two other practice courses in this area.)

Finally, students are placed at an environmental agency for their internship where there is an MSW as the executive director. In this agency, students focus on outreach to families, leadership development, and organizing regarding a specific environmental issue affecting residents, such as lead paint removal.

We still have a few challenges, including finding other appropriate agencies for field placements. Most environmental programs do not employ social workers, as needed for field supervision, but we are still looking for some innovative non-profits as field sites for our students. Secondly, the job market for social workers who specialize in environmental social work is still somewhat slim. We hope that as environmental non-profit agencies appreciate the skills that social workers bring, there will be a willingness to hire our students post-graduation. These students in turn could become future field instructors.

As more traditional social service agencies turn to environmental work (such as the interest in community gardens), perhaps they will be interested in hiring graduates with this environmental specialization.

Social workers need to be prepared to address the person-in-environment. We believe that the physical environment should to be considered as well. Social work has much to bring to environmental work, especially in ameliorating environmental injustices.


Besthorn, F. H. (2013). Radical equalitarian ecological justice: A social work call to action. In Gray, J. Coates, & T. Hetherington (Eds.). Environmental social work. (pp. 31-45). New York, NY: Routledge.

Carruthers, D. (2008). The globalization of environmental justice: Lessons from the US-Mexico border. Society and Natural Resources 21, 556-568

Carruthers, D. (2007). Environmental justice and the politics of energy on the US-Mexico border. Environmental Politics 16, (3), 394-413.

Coates, J., & Gray, M. (2012). The environment and social work: An overview and introduction. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 230-238.

CSWE (2015). 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). Retrieved from on 06/24/15.

Dylan, A. (2013). Environmental sustainability, sustainable development, and social work. In Gray, J. Coates, & T. Hetherington (Eds.). Environmental social work. (pp. 46-61). New York, NY: Routledge.

EPA (2015). Environmental justice. Retrieved from on 06/24/15.

Minkler, M., Garcia, A. P., Williams, J., LoPresti, T., & Lilly, J. (2010). Sí se puede: using participatory research to promote environmental justice in a Latino community in San Diego, California. J Urban Health, 87(5), 796-812.

Pena, D. G. (2005). Mexican Americans and the environment: Tierra y vida. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Schmitz, C. L., Matyok, T., James, C., & Sloan, L. M. (2011). The relationship between social work and environmental sustainability: Implications for interdisciplinary practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 278-286.