Teaching Environmental Justice Across the Social Work Curriculum

November 22, 2017 / By: Ande Nesmith
environmental justice, world in hands

Environmental Justice was added as a competency to the 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS), but what does that mean and how might this look within a social work curriculum? These are questions on many educators’ minds as we consider the following social work competencies:

Competency 3: Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice

Social workers understand strategies designed to eliminate oppressive structural barriers to ensure that social goods, rights, and responsibilities are distributed equitably and that civil, political, environmental, economic, social, and cultural human rights are protected.

Competency 5: Engage in Policy Practice

Social workers recognize and understand the historical, social, cultural, economic, organizational, environmental, and global influences that affect social policy.

Consider environmental events that have occurred in the last couple years and as recently as this fall: the Flint Michigan lead water crisis, the Dakota Access oil pipeline running through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal lands, and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Here in the Twin Cities, the poorest communities live near the highways inhaling pollution, and have little access to grocery stores and healthy foods (“food deserts”). Environmental issues are critical to social work education and practice due to the profession’s unique focus on the person-in-environment perspective. We have a role to play in these and other environmental crises by both serving as first-responders for these communities, and at the macro level, to advocate for fair policies and for their right to have a voice in policy decisions affecting their environment and their lives.

At the heart of the concerns are the impact of climate change and environmental degradation that dramatically affect quality of life on earth as well as the social, political, cultural, and economic systems upon which human communities depend. Vulnerable populations, including those living in poverty, populations of color, and women, bear a disproportionate share of the consequences, leading to what is now understood as environmental injustice.

This begins with teaching and training our future social workers to remember that our social environments reside entirely within the natural environment and to recognize relevant issues locally. There are countless ways we can draw on real-life situations to engage students in environmental justice, not just far away but in our own communities.


Dr. Ande Nesmith was one of several educators who presented at the Grand Challenges Teaching Institute at the October CSWE-APM meeting in Dallas, “Teaching Environmental Justice Across the Curriculum: 2015 EPAS and Beyond.”