Transcript for Episode 98: Environmental Justice as Social Work Practice

This episode is sponsored by Connect to End Covid-19.

Josh Klapperick:
Hi, and thanks to tuning in NASW's Social Work Talks. I'm your host for this episode, Josh Klapperick. And I'm here to talk about environmental justice as social work practice. My guest for this episode is Dr. Christina Erickson, the department chair of Augsburg University, and one of my professors when I was pursuing my MSW. How are you doing today, Dr. Erickson?

Christina Erickson:
I'm doing great. It's so fun to see you, Josh.

Josh Klapperick:
I'm really glad that we have a chance to talk about this, because we didn't get a lot of chances to discuss it within my program proper. Instead, it was just something we glanced over. So getting a chance to read your book and hear your thoughts is really cool. So starting it off, how would you define environmental justice?

Christina Erickson:
Thank you, thank you.

Well, humans and our experiences of nature are not equal across our social identities. And our experiences, especially of the benefits of nature and also burdens. And so I look at environmental justice, many people do in this realm of experiences of benefits and burdens. And those are often varied across our social identity categories, like our race and our gender. But also our geography, where we might live. For sure, our income as well.

And when we think about benefits of nature, we have to think about kind of a range of different things. It's not just clean air, which of course is important. But it's also access to things like really beautiful views of nature, having the ability to get to a green space in nature without significant effort. Even enough quiet to really hear the birds sing. Those are some of the benefits of nature that are so important to our health and wellbeing.

And part of the environmental justice though, is also the human-made experiences that we all have, or how we construct our societies around us. So an environmental benefit might also be things like be living in a place where you can walk to a grocery store and get access to healthy food. So these kind of structures we create in society, too.

And burdens, I think is where we often start when we think about environmental injustices, is the burdens people experience. And that can also be a range of things from having a lot of light pollution where you are, for example. It's really difficult to get darkness because you're in such a dense city area, you don't have ability to bring darkness at nighttime. Along with areas where it may be hard to grow food, or access to a variety of foods. And where you really don't see a lot of natural spaces, or green spaces, can also be an environmental burden. Along with the typical things of pollution, or landfills, or those kinds of burdens that humans experience.

I think one of the important things, Josh, is that the kind of benefits and burdens that were dolled out over the course of our life tend to really impact our outcomes over time. And these can be some serious things.

We're a lot happier when we have access to natural spaces. And our life is often more easy, it's more pleasant when we have access to options that feel good for us as human beings, and maybe match with our culture and who we are as a community.

And we know that sometimes these things even lead to things like early death, and real serious loss of quality of life. So environmental justice is this larger phenomenon and experience, but it has impacts really close to our lived lives.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah. Throughout that, like you said, it kind of touches everything. Every area of our lives, and every area of the social work practice is something that is, whether we recognize it or not, impacted by environmental justice.

Like, ease of access was something that I heard throughout that. Just walkable access to get green spaces, get things like that. What initially sparked your interest in this area of focus, or to dive into the level that you would write a textbook on it?

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, well, I'm teaching environmental justices right now, and one of the things I ask my students to do is write a personal environmental history paper. Really asking us to look at the course of our lives, and where were we introduced, what loving adults were in our lives who may be attempted to show us and expose us to the benefits of nature?

Or for some people, really how they were sheltered from natural space, or were never given that opportunity for natural space.

So my own love of nature started because I got to play outside as a kid. I had pets that were valued in my family. I grew to love snow because I got to roll around in it, and build structures out of it, and really make it part of my life. And I had a amazing camping experience when I was a teenager. These kinds of moments that help us really fall in love with nature.

And I use that word love really intentionally, to help people really recognize that that's what this is, love of our planet, our land, our waters, the animals and plants around us. How important that is to want to move in this direction.

But I remember back in some of my first social service careers, my job, I was, one of my early jobs was being a personal care attendant. And I lived in the city and I visited clients at their homes. And they all lived in the city, and I took the bus or I rode my bike to my client's homes. Because I could, everything was close enough.

And my colleagues who were doing this work were getting reimbursed for their mileage because they drove their cars. And I chose to ride my bike or take the bus, and I ate that expense myself. At that time in my life, I didn't realize that my environmentalism could be part of my social work practice. It didn't seem possible.

This is the late-eighties, early 1990s. And so I really see that loss, that I didn't advocate for support for riding my bike to see my clients or getting a bus pass paid for by my employer.

So that was sort of a recognition that, looking back that I had, that social work and environmental efforts can go hand-in-hand. When I got my first job after my master's degree, really my first really grown up job, I started working in a nonprofit in another very urban setting.

And this is, again, early 1990s into the mid-1990s. I was trying to encourage the organization to respond to the land that was around us. It was very small pieces of land, but how could we put in some native grasses there? How could we help keep trash from accumulating on our land? How could we bring in art to the agency that reflected the community around us?

But to be honest, I felt a little bit corny at times, and I wasn't always welcomed. But as I'm looking back, I see that those were the beginnings of my own understanding and recognition that these efforts can join forces.

I don't have to be a social worker during the day, from eight to five, and then become an environmentalist only when I got home. That these things could really marry, and join each other.

So I started with recycling efforts. And I still kind of struggled to find a place where that was accepted inside the agency. And then when I got my PhD, I was reminded in my PhD program that, oh my gosh, Jane Adams worked for parks, she established parks in Chicago. She worked on trash collection because she knew these things had an impact on people's lives. She also set up art centers and things like that.

And I really, really kind of went back to those old roots of social work, this profession that I love and feel so deeply about. And really recognize that, yeah, we do have a place in this. We do have a place in this environmental movement.

And when I started at Augsburg, I gathered with a group of faculty from history, and political science, and chemistry and biology. And we started environmental studies, and now we have a social work course on environmental justice that is required in environmental studies, it's also part of the social work major. And that really helped me begin to see how these ideas, and theories, and concepts, and practices really can be knitted together.

Josh Klapperick:
Well, I have to say first I didn't know about Jane Adams' environmentalism work. That's oddly enough with everything else that we talk about with her, in every class she gets brought up. But that part just doesn't get focused.

And I think that's a really interesting thing. Because I think of hygiene, and how much everything has changed since that time. I can't imagine what her experience was working with trash collection at that time. Because like you said, it could feel corny even nowadays to be like, have we thought about adding some green space to this very industrial-looking mental health facility?

Christina Erickson:
Oh, yes.

Josh Klapperick:
But it's such a boon, like you said, with so many studies coming out about the access to green space being such a benefit. So something to bring into all walks of life.

Because, yeah. I think in your book you did an amazing job of applying the different theories, and going through the different stages of practice, and then also kind of finding those limitations. Because social work isn't in all of the seats that it needs to be to make these bigger-stage environmentalism changes.

But was there one theory, one mindset that you found to be most helpful for galvanization with organizations?

Christina Erickson:
You're going to make me pick one, Josh?

Josh Klapperick:
Hey, I've got to get back to you for all of those papers that I had to write that were like, just pick one.

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, yeah, that is a tough one.

When I think of theories, I keep going back to the one I love most, which is structural theory, and really the idea that structures are the source of human problems, not the individual themselves. Or at least a good portion of them. I don't mean to discount biology or our lived experiences at all.

But really lifting up how structures shape our understanding of our own human struggles. And that was developed by Maurice Maro in the 1980s, and he really focused on issues of class, and gender, and race. But it melds so well, I think, with environmental justice issues too.

And structural theory really knits, I think, the all of the human oppressions together, and really encourages us to collaborate across the marginalization and the oppressions that humans experience. So he, Maurice Maro, wanted us to see all of them as interconnected, in that beginning to solve one of those areas will tug at the threads of solving another one of those areas.

And now we know how deeply connected environmental justice issues are to things like racism and our gendered experience. For sure, class. So as we begin to pull away at social justice and racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, we're going to start to address all of those issues together.

And that's really where, in so many ways, the environmental movement is headed to. They recognized that they really need these justice issues if they're going to make headway on environmental issues.

And I think it helps us, also, begin to see things like how exploitation of humans and exploitations of earth have these similar kind of systems and outcomes. So that theory, I think, is helpful to us in all kinds of social work practice. Including our environmental justice as well.

And it helps us see the, I don't know, a twisted knot of colonialism, and an environmental justice, and other kinds of white supremacy, for example. And how those things connect to each other.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah, it immediately makes me think of, because one of my first jobs as well as yours was a personal care assistant. So I was driving all across the Twin Cities and never thought to ride my bike, because my brain didn't want to leave that mileage reimbursement on the table.

But I definitely agree with the things that you were commenting on, how it's all interconnected. Because you go to one area that's more impoverished of the Minneapolis, St. Paul area and there is less green space, there's less services, there's less access to things like public transportation to get to those green spaces.

Whereas in comparison, you get to a place some of the wealthier suburbs, there's no factories, there's no pollutants, it's all green space. Every space is coordinated like that. And it's, when you start looking for it, you kind of see those connections everywhere.

Is there an intersection of environmentalism and social justice that, their overlap that I might not be thinking of, or the viewers might not be thinking of?

Christina Erickson:
Oh yeah. Well, one of the things I think is really fun about them is kind of when you lay out the history, kind of that time when I was recognizing Jane Adams efforts at environmentalism.

You can see this shared pattern of moving forward in social change from the late 1800s when we had a strong movements towards saving land. And John Muir, the person who founded the Sierra Club, was working to save natural, beautiful spaces. And we had early social workers working in the child-saving movement, also imagining that we could save children from some of the plights of the difficulties of life.

And if you move forward, you'll see in 1964, Carolyn Finney points this out in Black Faces, White Spaces, her book about how, and she's not a social worker, she's an environmental studies person. But how the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act are passed at the same time in the same year. It's almost like a beginning to thinking about dignity of natural spaces and humans in new ways. That's what it looks like to me, my own interpretation of this sense of worthiness and dignity.

And that movement really sets the stage for environmental justice to emerge. And those early words around that were environmental racism, when the recognition of landfills, I think this is about 1987 maybe, where landfills are placed in communities of color. And really, the data that proved that.

That cities were making decisions about where landfills would be placed, and it was racial discrimination, it was environmental racism as it was coined. Robert Bullard is really considered the father of the environmental justice movement in some ways. He talked about that.

That's also about the same time eco-feminism began to emerge, where women begin to talk about domination of women's labor and women's activities as being similar to the domination over land, and water, and earth.

And so the critical theories that are emerging in this milieu of the environment, and really beginning to connect them, those are really the fore bearers of environmental justice today. So the connections go back longer, I think, than we realize in social justice and social work as well.

Josh Klapperick:
Because I think of how that connects to the modern day. And the placement of landfills has moved from a discussion from where in the city, to outsourcing our trash to impoverished countries. To essentially move it out of sight, out of mind of people in the Twin Cities, or any kind of urban area in America to a whole other country.

And it shows how this issue has just grown and expanded. And once again, we're back to all of those intersections. But I love the critical theories. Because after a certain point, it is all interconnected. And we do have to take a step back and go, okay, could anybody have had any bias, any even unintentional malice with environmental decisions?

Because those things like the Wilderness Act, the national parks, all of that, they're well and good. But who has access to them? Who has the ease of access to them? There's not a lot of public transport going out to the national parks throughout Minnesota, whereas those are supposed to be public land.

Christina Erickson:
Yeah. I mean these public lands, it's important for us to pause and recognize this amazing resource we have. Those lands, those public lands, those are ours. We all own them. We share them. Those are for all of us. And they happen at all the different systemic levels in the US.

We have our national park system, which is beautiful. We probably need to change the names of some of the national parks. And like you said, access, there's a few other issues there. But nonetheless, what a beautiful gift we have given ourselves by having these amazing national parks.

And then we have our state parks. And in Minnesota we have fabulous state parks, I'm sure other states do too. And then we also have our county parks and our city parks. And then sometimes our faith communities have a little park that they offer the neighborhood they're in. Because they get it, how important it is. And our schools often have a park that's part of where they are.

So we have this beautiful, amazing system of parks, and what a gift that is. And it's as important to me as social security, or Medicare, or a public school system. These are ours to own. These are benefits that we have for ourselves as citizens. And they're a beautiful gift for us to nurture and care for.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah. Those shared lands, and just that need to protect what is ours. Rather than viewing it as something else because it's not close to us. I guess, gets me thinking of some of the recent environmental disasters that have been occurring, such as the trend derailment East Palestine, and the health outcomes that come with that.

I guess from your research, how does climate change impact health outcomes, or I guess environmentalism in general? How would you tie that back to health outcomes?

Christina Erickson:
Yeah. Climate change really does impact our health. And there's another social worker by the name of Dr. Leah Prussia who really talks about, solastalgia, she calls it. And how climate change and environmental degradation impacts our spirit, and our emotional health, and our mental health. Even if we can't really quite identify it, that the changes in the rituals or patterns of our family life. When we used to plant our garden.

Or for me, I remember ice skating on Thanksgiving weekend in Minnesota because the lakes were frozen enough. That doesn't happen anymore. These kind of changes in our rituals, and how we feel in the world around us, how the heat feels different, those kinds of things.

And how that impacts our mental health, and the power of that. I think also too, there's kind of some blatant trauma that occurs when we're seeing environmental degradation. Like the train derailment that you just talked about, that plume of black smoke that emerges out of that accident is frightening on the psyche.

Imagine being in that town. I'm traumatized by it, it's not in my state. It's hundreds of miles away from me. Imagine the fear for families in that community, and parents who have kids with asthma, or maybe have a lung disease themselves. Or just the fear of how that impacts everything around them. These are traumatic experiences, I think so too.

And even smaller acts. If I'm walking to work and I see trash, which I see plenty of times because I live and work in an urban environment, how that impacts how I feel about it, and what it does to my face and my stomach. And oh, I hate seeing all that trash. Compared to when I see an area of native grasses, and ground covers, and how that invites me in. And I can feel it in my bones, and in my body and in my brain. About how it impacts me to look at those two different sites differently.

So I think the impacts on our mental health are really real. Not to mention, we crave solitude and natural spaces often. To bring us back, to restore us, to bring us back to a sense of our understanding of ourselves and our ability to cope with the world around us.

That's one of the images of nature that has been pervasive for all of us, that it's a place of health and restoration, our natural spaces.

But also, we can't get away from the fact that it impacts our physical health too. And identifying exactly how toxins in the environment impact physical health is really very tricky. Because we're each a unique human being, and we can't measure exposures to toxins necessarily, or pollution. Or, can't measure the frequency in which someone experiences those things. So those are harder to pinpoint, but we really do know a few things about it.

For example, heat waves are really dangerous, especially for people in the very young ages or the very old ages of the human lifespan. Heat can be really dangerous for those groups. And partly because they might need the care of other people, and they might not recognize their own difficulties in managing those temperature changes.

We also know that during heat waves, we tend to be more violent as a community. I know I'm more crabby when I'm hot, overly hot and I can't cool off. So it makes sense that maybe community violence, or family violence, family conflict could really increase during those kinds of times.

Certainly it's a stressor on our family systems. It's a stressor on our community systems, if we can't cool ourselves. And this whole climate change is so connected to wildfires, and ozone depletion, and all these things that really impact all of us. Everybody's going to feel that in some way, or shape, or form. At some point, income is not going to shelter you from environmental degradation. So they are real.

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Josh Klapperick:
I hadn't even considered the mental health aspect of the impact of climate change, but you're definitely right. When I think of all of the discussions of forever-chemicals, and then the lead that is still everywhere from, in use in paints and then the things that depleted the ozone. You hear about thing, after thing, after thing that is slowly eating away at the world.

And it does create this kind of pseudo despondency of like, well, this happened before I was born, or before I was able to make decisions. And now I am stuck with it in ways that, like you said, can't be measured. And then there's just straight up the physical health aspect.

And income can only get so helpful. Because yes, you might have access to water to stay cool. But when that water is suddenly in your home because of rising sea levels, it doesn't really matter.

Christina Erickson:

Josh Klapperick:
So what ways can you think of for social workers to help mitigate some of these challenges? Even if it's just like when Minnesota or somewhere else hits that, nearing that, wet bulb is the phrase I've heard, that dangerous level of heat. What can we do to help the people we serve or even ourselves and our communities?

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, yeah. Specifically with heat, I think you're reminding me of a journal article I wrote several years ago about heat waves, and what can social workers do? Absolutely.

Well, some of things that we have to recognize is that these are, the heat is more serious in the urban core. Because heat rises more quickly inside those, where buildings are close together and there's a lot more concrete, and not a lot of natural greens to absorb some of that heat. So there are places where it is more dangerous during heat waves, and those are generally inside the urban cores, sometimes inside very tall buildings.

And these might be older buildings, where they don't have reliable cooling systems as well. So that's part of it, is knowing your geography, that some social workers have to take care of this more than others. The other thing is, I would say for sure you need kind of knowledge and awareness, especially about those two ends of the lifespan, beginning and end of the lifespan. That new parents need to understand that infants have a hard time adjusting to heat, and they need to move to a cooler space for their child's safety.

And then communities need to have centers in place, whether it's a public library, or maybe a school, or some other kind of community center. Someplace that has, if not air conditioning, at least structures that are cooler inside of them. Possibly, maybe a gymnasium or something. But to get into places where people can safely ride out that heat wave. I mean, that's number one because the danger is so clear.

The other thing is kind of a checking on each other kind of system, especially for elderly people who might be living alone. Who might not know that they're not drinking enough, or that they could do some things to move air in where they're living. So a system of really checking on people.

And I think we kind of need that knowledge and public awareness, much like we have about the dangers of smoking. So that it feels closer to each individual, to recognize the dangers of experiencing too much heat and where that can happen. So really building those communities.

Then the other thing is, we got to look forward. Plant a tree now. It may not help your city this moment with this summer's heat waves, but it will help in the future. So we have to be doing those mitigation efforts that have longer-term payoff as well.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah, the saying I think of is, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is right now.

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, absolutely.

Josh Klapperick:
Which, it's interesting, the fact that we're talking about environmentalism and thinking about those green spaces. But when it comes to heat waves, I'm thinking of indoor public spaces. Places where we all have access to stay safe. And with the kind of decline of malls, which for a while we're kind of a safe public space to be in air conditioning, I can't count the number of times that I just went to the Mall of America to walk around because it's air conditioned.

But especially during the pandemic, that gave rise to just this awareness that there aren't a lot of public spaces that you can sit in without paying. So it feels like a good place for social workers to get out there and advocate for the reinvigoration of those community spaces. Those community centers.

Christina Erickson:
And they need to be in close proximity to where people are, and there need to be multiples of them. We need them sprinkled throughout our cities.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah. It can't just be a well, you've got the one. Because once again, we get back to access. We get back to ease of access. Because it doesn't matter if there's air conditioning at the end if you have to walk for three miles through 110 degree heat.

Christina Erickson:
Absolutely. Or maybe it's a space you're not really sure you feel culturally comfortable going to, for other reasons. So we want a variety of spaces where people can feel welcomed as well as safe.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah. We've talked a lot about the environmental impacts on humans, but you've kind of mentioned our impact on the earth. What kinds of things can social workers do to mitigate the impact on the earth and animals? To try to maintain our kind of some more equilibrium, our relationship with the planet that we all find ourselves on?

Christina Erickson:
I think one of the things we need to do, social workers and everybody, is really think about de-centering ourselves from the story of the world around us. And think about ourselves in relation to land, and air, and water, and animals and plants around us. Really begin with de-centering ourselves so that we can really have genuine and sincere relationships.

And I think about the ways we've begun to peel back white supremacy, and how important that has been in developing ways of being anti-oppressive social workers. How we need to move into that space. I think of this as somewhat akin to that. That part of it is dismantling our privileges and supremacies about nature, and animals, and earth around us. And really view things differently. That we have to begin with all of us who have not really been able to see the ways we're enacting injustices on our earth around us.

Can you say your question one more time? Sorry, Josh.

Josh Klapperick:
Oh no, it's totally fine. I did want to jump in and say, I think of, in class you showed us that video of unpredictable animal pairs. Where it's just a friendship between two animals you wouldn't think of. And that's kind of one of the things that jumps to my mind with de-centering us.

It's like, animals have relationships that aren't human-instigated. It's not like it's like, oh, I made them friends. It's just no, animals and the earth find ways to have relationships without humans.

The question was how can we mitigate, or begin to impact the climate change, how climate change affects animals and the earth?

Christina Erickson:
Right, I want to touch on that biophilia idea. Which is really that living things want to be in relation to each other. And it is not through us, as human beings. But we looked at that few minutes of unique animal pairings, where the fox and the deer are friends. Those kinds of things where we have these unexpected like, oh my gosh, they have relationships that have nothing to do with us, right?

And so that idea though, that we, biophilia. That living things want to lean into loving relationships with other living things is really a kind of an astounding recognition on the beauty and care that living things have for each other. That is beyond our thinking.

Of course, we also, animals and humans also eat meat, we participate in resource extraction. But we have this profound idea and need, all of us as living things, to really love into each other and across relationships that we don't expect.

And you mentioned things like, what can social workers do to really think about how they're ... I think one of the things that is superbly important is for social workers to think about their organizations, and where that organization is.

What land is it on? What water bodies is it near? How do humans experience entering that building? Are there plants inside the building? Is the garbage picked up on the outside? Is there dignity in the art? Does it reflect the community? Does it show this kind of connection to the economies close to the social service agency? The social work area, the social work center, the community center, wherever the social worker is, to begin to really think about how that space reflects that.

And also to not be afraid, I was describing how I felt kind of corny. Let's start the recycling back in 1992. And really just sort of accept that and move into, let's have a green committee here. What do you think about stewarding our space and our land? Can we have an environmental group, a committee? Can we have some decision-making power for the agency?

And maybe just beginning to get together, and really to make a menu of options that fits where you are in your community. What state you're in, what city you're in, who are the people who come there? What fits for all of them to really think about bringing forth this spirit of environmental justice in a lived way in the organization you're at.

I mean, I love the idea too, of organizations getting very specific and thinking about having things like a green fee. Every grant that comes in has a 1% sustainability fee, or a source of income that the agency, the nonprofit can pull aside. And even tell their funding bodies, hey, this is a commitment we're making.

Because you put it in your mission statement, or your goals for your organization for the next few years. Really, where can you begin to integrate these kind of ideas into the life of the agency? So that the people who work there feel it, the people who come in for services begin to feel it. And it becomes kind of a natural part of how the organization begins to operate.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah. Well, if there's one thing that social workers are good at, it's having those tough conversations about introducing something new to change things for the better.

And I think you're right about just, it doesn't have to be an overhaul. Just simply having recycling bins. I'm a lot more likely to recycle if it's easier. I mean, just straight up. As a consumer, it's a lot easier to recycle if I don't end up walking through three levels of a building trying to find the one recycling bin that some committee 10 years ago decided to put out.

Christina Erickson:

Josh Klapperick:
And yeah, I think that's a good segue. Because it's, for me, environmentalism and environmental justice, the way I perceive it is a very macro-focused issue. It's these big polluters, these big bad actors, or these big changes that feel so much bigger than me or any practice I have, or my impact on the community. So in hearing that, how might somebody like me start to make those changes, or bring those changes to my organization? Or failing that, to my own life?

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, yeah. So we can bring them small. And I think it's important to recognize, this is for everybody. This is, nature is a blessing for all of us. And we have a right to access it and experience it. To have that kind of the health benefits, mental health and physical benefits of being able to be in nature.

So if we start with that notion, we can begin to say, hey, we should integrate that. We wouldn't pull away education for children, because they have a right to an education. Well, we have a right to have access to beautiful, natural spaces. That's the world as it stands, naturally.

So when we think of it as endemic, it becomes like, hey, we've got to do that. That's part of, I remember the first social work textbook I could find that included in its, how to do an assessment as a social Worker.

It was written in 1998, and it was by Locke Garrison and Winshop. And they asked questions, they suggested questions in the assessment phase like, how does weather and climate, or even the terrain and land you live in, how is that affecting you, and how you feel, and how you get access to the sources you need?

It had a little bit of a rural spin to it, but I could definitely see it applied to urban areas too. That that really mattered. So really beginning with our understanding, and engaging with our clients on their stories, and what is important to their lives. That their pets may be extremely important in their life, and a source of resiliency, a source of emotional support.

I had a client I visited with, and she lived in an apartment that almost felt like an arboretum when I went in there. It was so full of plants, and it was beautiful. And it actually was, in some way it enhanced her social life too. Because she propagated plants, and shared them with her friends. And she was kind of an isolated person, but this had so many more benefits just than she had plants in her house.

And if I paid attention, and talked about how the plants were a segue for her own self-care, for her social relationships, I could see how that was far more expansive than just being a person with a lot of beautiful plants in her house. It was really an expression of her, too. It was almost like her art form. It was a beautiful thing.

So as we integrate this into our, what are the forms, the questions that a social worker in an organization or in a government system uses to get to know a family? How do you let them to tell the full story of what maybe their land means to them, or their loss of their land? Or the space around them, their neighborhood, their community, how do these things filter into their life in ways that can be supportive or sometimes may be stressful? Because there is a landfill too close to home.

And as much as we talk about the benefits of recycling, recycling centers can be pretty toxic too. So even being near a recycling plant, how that impacts the way a community feels about itself, and its space, and how they use the land around them.

I think too, when we move into the intervention phase of social work practice, really helping people think about the problems they're facing, we can push outward a little bit. And really, I mean, some of the most easiest ones, examples to grab onto here, are children who are not having enough big motor activity outside. Where they're not able to run, and jump, and play and roll. And hide, and tuck, and crouch and reach. All these things that are so good for kids' development, and often come from having enough space to move around in outside. How might that be part of an intervention plan for a family? Is just really big, outdoor, just playing, moving bodies.

Or even just for kids, how might recognition that getting healthy food in a wide variety has been challenging, and how that might impact a family's life. How that can be a part of an intervention plan, is to figure out what's the source of that barrier? And how can that be changed for a family so that they can feel better physically, and like their food is closer to their own culture, closer to their own health, matches what they need as a family.

And then maybe, I think group work, social work and group work, we're pretty good at this getting out in nature thing. We've kind of figured out that being in nature with other people is hugely bonding. And there's been challenge courses for groups to use, big camping events. Therapeutic interventions that are literally outdoors and beautiful wilderness spaces to address variety of challenges people face. Overuse of substances, or struggles with eating, any of those kind of things.

So group work has really figured this out, and they have a pretty long history of paying attention to that. But we could do this in family work, too. How can we help families enjoy and access the space around them? See their own space that they have, their own land, and how they can make that more environmentally nurturing to them or their family.

So we all really want moments of fresh air. Just thinking about a breeze, just the right kind of breeze. And digging in the soil because I'm going to plant something. This is all therapeutic for all of us, and our clients too. And we want to make sure they have access to that kind of natural, therapeutic intervention that is so good.

I mean, sometimes I really need to weed the yard. Because I'm not using anything to kill my weeds, I go out there and I pull them myself, and it does something good for my heart and soul, and it takes a little time.

And then also a few years ago I started to shift and I realized that well, the clover isn't a weed. I'm going to remove that idea from my head and accept the clover as a beautiful part of my yard now. And that helps me shift and think through my own life in so many ways. That kind of natural, therapeutic intervention.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah, just something you said of plants being an art form. As somebody that's killed enough plants, it's definitely an art form. It is not something that you just take care of them and it's very clear. But you're definitely, it's something that I think we all have a natural desire to be a part of. It's just something that we, I guess western society as a whole, has kind of decentralized a equal relationship with the environment.

Instead, it's the environment as a means to an end for us. And speaking of which, most of the polluters, most of the big issues that are occurring due to climate change, are because of some big corporations.

And I hear so much pushback, and I mean feel it myself. Why do I have a paper straw when there's a giant oil spill caused by an oil company and they go, we're sorry. And that's the end of it? So how can we reframe to bring some hope and motivation back to people like me that want to make the change, but just feel so outweighed by a couple of people in suits making decisions?

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, I can really relate to you so much, Josh. In my own years of thinking and working about these things. The war on Ukraine is really a good example of that too. And when we see the destruction and lives lost on the news, I see deep environmental degradation as well.

And it can be disheartening to think how these little things I'm trying to do, is this really it? But I have to keep reframing it. And I have conversations with my fellow social workers. I mean, that's one of the great things about NASW is you get to connect with your other social workers and have, how are you coping with this? Kind of conversations.

So those are really important. And when I feel the most disheartened, I think my job is to just drive a wedge in. I just need to make a wedge, which is going to make a little bit of a crack and a problem, and it's going to grow from there. Because I have this community of other social workers around me, and around the nation, and around the world. And we're each driving in these little tiny wedges, and it's going to take down the worst of these ugly giants, kind of as you described them. These forces that feel so hard to penetrate at times, these problems.

And then I think, I am so appreciative of being a social worker. Because I can go to work every day, and come home, and feel like I'm trying. I'm trying to make the world a better place. And I'm not going to bed feeling guilty about how I trashed the earth, or how I'm not caring about racism, or I'm not dealing with economic disparities. We're all trying these different ways to drive these wedges in, and make these cracks.

And if we think of ourselves in community, then it's helpful. But I would also say too, that having, we do have to find our joy in the work, along with feeling really proud of being a social worker, really happy that I chose this profession that is so meaningful to me. I think that when we find some joy in our work, and recognize that it does fulfill us. Choosing that paper straw makes you feel a little bit better.

Josh Klapperick:
Even if it does make the coffee a little bit challenging towards the end.

Christina Erickson:
Maybe. Yeah, could be. But we can find joy in those efforts, because it matches our values so much. And that's a good way to live. It's just a really good way to live, for sure.

Josh Klapperick:
Definitely. I guess on a more positive note, what are some of your favorite organizations or groups working towards addressing environmental justice?

Christina Erickson:
Oh yeah, thank you. Well, we already talked about the park system. I think that's a really important one. But I really like Trust For Public Lands. Partly because they're really, they're making an effort to get a park near everybody. They really collect data on how close people are to parks, and green spaces, and recognizing that we need those spaces everywhere.

I love the idea of saving the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. These are fantastic places. But something a about it also smacks of some kind of hierarchy of natural beauty. And I love the plains of the Midwest. And I think we've, lots of people have grown to respect the plains too, but there's really nature everywhere. So I love this idea of making sure we nurture the small, natural spaces in all kinds of places in our social structures and in our communities. And I think Trust For Public Lands has that kind of idea in their head.

I don't think we can ignore the big greens as they're called, the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society, and the World Wildlife Federation. These are huge, international organizations that all started out looking at animals, birds, land, nature as their, who they were protecting and who they were caring for.

But you'll see that in the last few years, they have wisened up as they need to do. And they have recognized that those spaces aren't going to be cared for without racial and social justice as part of that storyline, that humans have a huge impact on these natural spaces.

So they've actually, in so many ways, recognized what social work has known. That we need this critical lens of social, economic, environmental, racial justice to really make movement for environmental spaces, too. So I think that's good news for us. We should feel really proud that they need us now. That we have a language, and methods and ways of creating social change from the micro to the macro level that other organizations need. So we can feel really good about that. And note that we have a place in this movement.

I can't go without saying. I found a new one called Intersectional Environmentalists, which I think is really fun. I follow them on Instagram. And they're really about lifting up diverse voices, BIPOC voices in the environmental movement. And they feel very youthful, and they use radical language, which is pretty exciting. So I really like them too.

We of course have our eco-social work Facebook groups that you can find. There are some listservs that share information. These go by green social work, eco social work, sometimes enviro-social work. So you might have to play with different terms like that to really capture all of them.

And then we really can't ignore the fact that we have some fabulous things around us like our public libraries. That's a place to share books, and videos, and resources. In a sense, that is an organization that wants access to information and provides it for free, and doesn't make everybody buy their own version. Their own copy.

And we have our food co-ops, and our bike co-ops, and our housing co-ops. So if you get drilled down to closer to our human lives, there's all these other organizations that are good for us. For most people in their own communities.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah. Oh, we just got a question from Gregory Wright. I'll pick that up. If you are a social work student, how do you get into this field? What is the job outlook of environmental social work?

Christina Erickson:
Yeah, I love it. Well, I'd say the job outlooks are growing steadily. How do you get into this field? I think a couple things. All social work students do field placements, or a practicum before they graduate. And so beginning to really carve out, if a student can't find an environmental justice practicum, they should, which they might be able to do. I wouldn't put past looking at some of these big organizations or community centers about how you could possibly, these big greens, for example, about being a social worker inside their organizations.

But if you're not in an environmentally specific organization, begin to carve out how it can look where you're at. What does promoting environmental justice look like in a community mental health center in a school? How can you be begin to play with some of those ideas, and begin to build a career that has environmental justice as a focus of it?

I also really encourage social workers not to limit themselves to traditional social work spaces for work. The way we think, and the way we approach problems, and our efforts to understand and assess a situation and create interventions, our commitment to ameliorating injustices is attractive to a lot of different kinds of employers. So don't pass up energy agencies in wherever you live, Gregory.

City and state and county jobs that are related to this. On my campus, our sustainability officer is a social worker, for example. So there are places I think that are surprising about where we're finding ourselves inside the environmental movement. So I would definitely look at those nonprofits. You will be well-poised to work inside those agencies, too.

Josh Klapperick:
And then when you need to talk to other social workers, you can always come to NASW to find that reconnection of trying to fight that battle in those organizations that aren't surrounded by other social workers.

Christina Erickson:
I think that's true. In some settings, you may be the only social worker inside that agency. Not just in environmental agencies, but for example, even in a school. You might be all the only social worker in that school surrounded by lots of teachers. So that's where NASW and these communities can really help us find each other, and speak to our shared interests.

Josh Klapperick:
Yeah, and remind us that we're not alone. A comment that I didn't get a chance to comment on from, I believe, Gender Is Wack. Which, great name, was, the reason that they make those choices for things like paper straws is the community. It's remembering that we're all making that wedge as you described it, and knowing that you're not the only person trying to make that wedge, to make those changes.

And so I guess we're nearing the end of our time. Is there anything else that you would like to add, Dr. Erickson, before we open it up to any other questions?

Christina Erickson:
I think, if I were to say a couple parting words, I would say that the environmental justice movement needs us. And when I first started out and I couldn't see how environmental work and social work could be paired, I couldn't see how they could work together, I felt like I didn't know enough. I now know that that's exactly the opposite.

The environmental movements need us. That is a space for us to be participating. You may not know numbers about carbon sequestration or changing to solar kilowatt hours, those kinds of things. That's not necessary. It is about the human connections of people, and the skills that we bring to social work. So go for it.

I'd also say, I really came to this work because of my love of nature. And so I think we should just say it. We love nature, and animals, and the things around us. And that's got to be the driver of the work that we do. And I think in social work, we've kind of shied away from love because we have to be careful that we're not crossing boundaries. But this real commitment to loving nature around us is an important driver, and it sustains us.

And don't forget that being a social worker is a really great job. I mean, there is really, I can't think of a better, I've been a social worker for 30 years. There's no better time to join this world of social work. It's such a blessing.

Josh Klapperick:
It truly is. And there's so much opportunity, and so much optimism to be found just in everywhere. Like you said, if you drill down far enough, you will find environmental action and social justice action everywhere you look.

So it doesn't look like we've gotten any more questions. So Dr. Erickson, I will let you go face the snowpocalypse that I also have to face.

Christina Erickson:
Yes, beautiful.

Josh Klapperick:
And I thank you so much for your time. It's been so great.

Christina Erickson:
Josh, this is such a treat, right? We were once student and professor, now we're colleagues out in the world. I love this.

Josh Klapperick:
I feel like I could have asked you so many more questions. So it feels like a part two is necessary.

Christina Erickson:
Future chances. Great, thank you so much. Thank you, NASW, too.

Josh Klapperick:
Awesome, thank you. Thank you all.