Libby, Mont., is a rural working-class town situated in the northwest corner of the state. For several decades, workers and residents were unaware they were being exposed to highly toxic asbestos associated with nearby vermiculite mining and milling operations.
The exposure was so intense that in 2002, Libby was declared a Superfund site, the federal government’s program that works to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
Since 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency has cleaned up the major asbestos source areas around the community. Many private properties in the Libby area are still in the midst of the community-wide cleanup process.
While exposure continues to challenge residents with a complex array of health problems, Libby also is a place where social work and environmental justice are making a difference. For social worker Tanis Hernandez, helping people on the front line of recovery is one way to right the wrongs done to generations of people living with the consequences of asbestos exposure.
Hernandez is the administrative director for the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, or CARD, based in Libby. It is a nonprofit clinic governed by a volunteer community board. Its staff provides health care, outreach and research to benefit all people impacted by the area’s asbestos exposure.
“Doing what is right for individuals, families and the community is the most rewarding thing about this job,” Hernandez said. “When I go home at night I know I gave it everything I had to make things right. The other most valuable element of CARD is the sense of team and knowing that when the going gets tough or the challenges feel overwhelming, you have your friends and teammates to pick you up to continue the forward momentum.”
Hernandez joined CARD in 2002 as an outreach coordinator and provided direct services to individuals and families dealing with the multifaceted psychological and social needs of coping with the exposure.
“I always wanted to be a social worker in a health care setting, and thus focused my social work education on health and mental health issues,” Hernandez said.
She said more than 400 people have died of asbestos-related diseases in the area, and more than 2,000 people have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness.
“Thousands more exposed are currently participating in screening and many will become ill in the future,” she said.
For Hernandez, environmental justice is what CARD and the Libby community have been working on for nearly 13 years. More specifically, she said environmental justice means providing a healthy environment for all people to live, work and play without fear of negative environmental factors that may interrupt their daily lives.
Hernandez said her social work skills have served her well through the years with CARD, such as juggling program development, grant writing, financial oversight, staff management and community organizing.
Working for a nonprofit means rising to the occasion and tackling what needs to be done, she said.
“Today, I wear many hats,” Hernandez said. “I also have the title behavioral research coordinator, as CARD participates in many types of research with academic partners. The effort is being done to gain insight into the psychosocial impacts of a ‘slow-motion technological disaster’ on individuals, families and community.”
Effective communication and dedication to vulnerable populations are two social work building blocks that are critical skill sets in confronting environmental justice issues, Hernandez noted.
“Community organizing, building consensus, problem solving, goal setting, grant writing, and program development are important skills social workers can bring to the table,” she added. “Also, being able to deal with people who have intense emotions like grief, sadness, anger, etc., is critically important while still respecting (an) individual’s right to self-determination. Social workers can play an important role on a community and individual/family level.”
While there are social workers who help promote environmental justice with direct-care services, there are also dedicated social work educators who are training a new generation of social workers about the importance of including the environment and environmental justice in the curriculum.
One of them is Fred Besthorn, an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Wichita State University in Kansas.
The social work perspective of Person-in-Environment, or PIE, recognizes that an individual cannot be understood apart from the multifaceted context of her or his environment. This approach intrigued Besthorn and led him to further highlight the value of natural settings for clients as well. From this, he developed the Global Alliance for a Deep Ecological Social Work. His website, ecosocialwork.org, serves as an educational resource and support forum for social workers attentive to the well-being of the planet and for those concerned about environmental degradation.
The website offers essays on the topic, environmental links and scholarly contributions.
Few can argue that the increase of natural disasters around the world in recent years supports the need for greater attention to climate changes and how it affects certain populations, Besthorn said.
The environment cannot be isolated as just a scientific or political concern, he noted.
“Social workers need some education on this topic just as they do with their counseling skills,” he said. “It’s important because we will work with people that are affected by these changes.”
“In the last few years, I have been very encouraged by the ongoing discourse around this,” Besthorn added. “It’s become much more mainstream. That encourages me. There are more opportunities for young social workers to get involved.”
Besthorn teaches a course on environmental sustainability and social work practice. It offers students insight into the concerns of environmentally displaced populations and an overview of how social workers have made a difference, including the pioneers of the profession.
“We take it up to date, where, for the last 15 years, there has been a concern of social work to re-craft the importance of interacting in environmentally conscious ways,” he said.
Another social work educator has been active in not only encouraging social work with environmental justice in the curriculum but also in direct services.
Mary E. Rogge is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work in Knoxville. She has special interests in environmental, social and economic justice from local to global levels, and she also works on teams that stress the importance of identifying children’s risk from industrial, commercial and agricultural chemicals.
Rogge served on the environmental policy statement panel for “Social Work Speaks.” She said social work has a definitive role in environmental justice. She knows from experience as she was asked to lead an interdisciplinary team of environmental experts who helped low-income residents in an environmentally challenged section of Chattanooga, Tenn.
“Social work was the principle investigator on that team,” she said. “It was an acknowledgement of our profession and how well we work with the community as well as the different specialties working together.”
Rogge stresses to her students that environmental justice means taking the time to examine what climate change means to those whose voices are often unheard. Those with the least resources tend to suffer more harmful effects than others, she said.
She agrees that attention to social work and environmental justice is growing.
“I get more calls from colleagues and students who see the connection,” she said. “I am very encouraged by this.”
Global social work
Can social work make a difference in the global scale of environmental sustainability as the human population expands?
Yes it can, according to Gautam N. Yadama, an associate professor and director of international programs at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
Yadama’s work focuses on understanding the social and environmental challenges of rural poor in the regions of South Asia and China. His research examines the nature of households and communities with a focus on solutions to improve the social, economic, environmental and health outcomes. Serving as a faculty scholar in Washington University’s Institute for Public Health, he’s been able to conduct extensive community-based research specifically in India, Nepal and China.
“We must look how the (person’s) problem and their environment interlink,” he said. “We will not be able to solve health outcomes unless we add the environmental impact.”
Yadama said his research is conducted along with an interdisciplinary team, including engineers and those in the medical field, to find ways to implement clean-energy methods easily adoptable by the very poor. The poorest populations of the world have the least amount of access to clean energy to meet their basic needs, he explained.
“The poor often are burning whatever is available and that is typically solid fuels on a daily basis,” he said. Because of the pollution caused by this method, millions suffer health-related ailments and even die prematurely, he added.
“We are looking at what will it take for us to implement these changes and what kind of reductions of household pollution and outcomes we can gain.”
Conveying this goal to social work students is also important.
“At Brown, for our social work students, we want to make the environment and social development a key aspect of their studies,” he said.
“We need an army of professionals that know how communities cope with environmental and climate risks,” Yadama said. “We need people well trained in community development strategies to mitigate and adapt to these emerging risks.”
Fortunately, he said he sees many students interested in taking on the challenge ahead.
“Social workers can add analytic tools to their skills that can help them document how environmental impacts affect different populations and base it on evidence,” he explained. “It is this type of thinking that will allow people to react with systemic response.”
NASW CEO speaks at seminar on social work’s role in environmental justice
NASW CEO Elizabeth J. Clark spoke at the University of North Dakota homecoming seminar in October and discussed social work’s important role in helping communities facing rapid change and environmental justice.
In recent years, North Dakota and other nearby states have been experiencing a boom in oil and natural gas production. While the trend has rewarded North Dakota with low unemployment, it has brought challenges to the state’s natural resources as well as a lack of housing and social services for the influx of workers and their families.
“Social workers have consistently provided outreach to address the challenges of a rapidly changing society. Community and social services need to be provided to a booming population, which can cause repercussions in many different areas,” Clark said.
She said social work pioneer Jane Addams and settlement workers in Chicago provided disaster relief and services to victims of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Charity organization societies helped those affected by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The mission of the social work profession includes creating links between vulnerable populations and service systems, and among service systems to make resources more accessible to people, Clark said.