DSW student speaks at Social Work Day at the United Nations

April 19, 2017
Terri Klemm DSW '18, speaks at Social Work Day at the UN on environmental justice

Terri Klemm DSW '18, associate professor of social work and BSW Program Director at Centenary University, presented at the 34th annual Social Work Day at the United Nations in support of the day's theme, Promoting Community & Environmental Sustainability.

Terri has become increasingly engaged as a community activist in support of environmental justice and has been active (and even arrested) in planned, non-violent direct action related to the planned CPV [fracking] power plant in the Hudson Valley of New York.  Her UN comments included health concerns of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and some alarming statistics related to climate change and budget cuts to environmental protection programs, but primarily focused on social workers' role in promoting environmental justice.

Environmental degradation poses the greatest risk to disadvantaged groups. Environmental justice contends that everyone has the right to clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment. In her talk, Terri asserts that being a social worker means showing up and standing up for what matters.  Social workers bring skills such as comunication, coaliton building, and cultural humility, which are much-needed in this work. She shares ideas for action and underlines that activism can be a form of both continuing education and self-care.  Environmental issues demand a collective response and "democracy is not a spectator sport." 

View the entire program on UN Live TV»
(Terri is introduced at ~ 38 minutes and her comments are just over 20 minutes)


Centenary professor speaks at the United Nations

Centenary University Press Release: UN speech and civil disobedience trial

Terri Klemm, Associate Professor of Social Work and Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Program Director at Centenary University, describes the invitation to speak at the 34th annual Social Work Day at the United Nations as one of the greatest honors of her career. The event, co-sponsored by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), was organized by Monmouth University. The other panelists included: The Honorable Masud Bin Momen, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations; Roberto Borrerro, NGO Committee on the Rights of Indigenous People; and, John Ennis, United Nations’ Office of Disarmament Affairs. In keeping with this year’s theme, Promoting Community & Environmental Sustainability, Klemm was asked to speak about environmental justice activism.

Klemm joked that after decades of experience both as a practicing social worker and a social work educator, it was her 2015 arrest for civil disobedience that ultimately led her to be included on such a distinguished panel: “It does make me wonder if I wasted all those years being well-behaved”. Her arrest, along with 5 others (including Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell), resulted from a planned non-violent direct action to disrupt construction of a fracked-gas power plant in Wawayanda, NY. In her speech at the UN, Klemm provided a brief overview of the significant health and safety risks of fracking, including that the use of fracked gas is now understood to be a major contributor to climate change.

Klemm, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the importance of civic engagement in social work education, also used her time at the United Nations as an opportunity to encourage her fellow social workers to “show up and stand up for what matters”. Paraphrasing the author Rebecca Solnit, whose message Klemm described as simple but profound, she told the audience: “Optimism assumes that everything will be fine, without any effort on our part. Pessimism is the despair that all is lost, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Hope is more demanding. It assumes that what you do matters! And this realization – that today’s history is not yet written – is incredibly empowering.”

Approximately 30 social work students from Centenary University traveled to the UN for the April 17th event. Samantha Brewer, a junior in the BSW Program, noted, “Being able to see Professor Klemm speak on such a large stage was a really special moment for us as her students. She is an amazing example of a person who doesn't just talk the talk but walks the walk.” In total, 750 people were in attendance, including social work students, faculty and practitioners from across the United States (Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, DC), as well as from Australia, Canada, China and Italy. The event was also webcast live on UN Web TV, where it can be seen on demand, free of charge, at: http://webtv.un.org/search/34th-annual-social-work-day-at-the-united-nations/5400996547001 Although she has a great deal of teaching experience, Klemm acknowledged that an audience of this size was “way out of my comfort zone”. She was, therefore, especially pleased that her presentation was not only well received, but even concluded with a standing ovation.

Coincidentally, the long-awaited civil disobedience trial for the group now known as the Wawayanda Six finally took place on April 20th and 21st, just a few days after her speech at the United Nations. Civil rights attorney Michael Sussman, who represents the six defendants, argued for the “necessity defense”; essentially, that the moral imperative of raising public awareness about the imminent harm to be caused by climate change justified the lesser evil of obstructing traffic to the CPV power plant’s construction site. Several prominent scientific experts, including Cornell University climatologists Dr. Anthony Ingraffea and Dr. Robert Howarth, testified in support of the group’s actions. At the time of this writing, the judge has not yet rendered a verdict. If the necessity defense is accepted, the case will provide important legal precedent for climate activism.