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Kansas Wesleyan University

Social Work and the CRH
Kelly Hopkins, LMSW
Social Work Program Director
Kansas Wesleyan University
September 20, 2023

Since arriving at Kansas Wesleyan in 2019, I have been an active participant on the team that launched the Community Resilience Hub. I have always had a heart for taking care of our earth and am often troubled by the amount of waste created. For as long as I can remember growing up and as an adult, I have always had something growing in my small backyard garden, but recently my husband and I have started to increase our food system in our backyard with raised garden beds, canning, and eventually a handful of chickens. We are embracing opportunities to be more self-reliant in a state that relies heavily on a globalized food system.

As director of the social work program, my contributions to the CRH team are primarily academic. I have been working with an interdisciplinary faculty team to develop a minor in environmental justice that will be housed in the social work department. That statement often draws questionable looks, and inevitably I find myself explaining how social work and environmental justice intertwine.

The simple answer is that social workers are social change agents. Their work contributes to the overall health of a community. They work closely with individuals, families, and public and private agencies to ensure that people have the resources they need to be safe, healthy, and treated justly – integral elements in developing community resilience and environmental sustainability. Professionals and researchers in the social work field are recognizing and addressing new environmental challenges that are exacerbated by levels of poverty, inequitable access to resources, and uneven power relations. Social workers are essential to the conversations and strategies that lead to healthy, resilient, and thriving communities.

The deeper answer to the question of how social work intersects with community resilience is a bit more academic, so bear with me.

The main goal of social work is to promote social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Social workers are equipped with values, knowledge, and skills for making social change, guided by the emancipatory values and principles of social justice and human rights at the individual, group, societal, and global levels (Rambaree, 2020). Social work is often referred to as a vital agent of social change in society. It is argued that social workers have a professional obligation and moral duty to create conditions and mechanisms for a better living environment for all.

Social work originated with a focus on the “Person-in-Environment” perspective. This perspective is a practice-guiding principle that highlights the importance of social work practitioners as having a sound understanding of human beings, considering the environmental contexts in which they live, act, and react with others.

Within the context of sustainable development, there is a global call for social work education and practice to shift to an eco-centric paradigm through environmental social work. Working towards environmental and community sustainability has been posited as one of the four priority areas in the global agenda for social work and social development (Gray et al., 2013; Rambaree et al., 2019).

Environmental change/climate emergency and their associated societal impacts, such as poverty, migration/displacement, and famine, make it an obligation for social work to consider environmental sustainability within its education and practice.

Environmental social work and its corollary – disaster social work – are increasingly practiced as social workers are challenged to work with people in damaged environments. These emerging areas of practice highlight an increasing need for social workers to challenge practices that enhance environmental degradation, to incorporate sustainability and environmental consciousness as critical areas of practice, and to undertake disaster preparation, planning, response, and adaptation strategies to assist communities in building capacity and responsiveness in the face of environmental threats (Alston, 2023).

Social workers’ community development skills can enable collaboration with grassroots organizers who seek to address food security concerns in a neighborhood or community setting, while the program management and administrative skills developed by social workers can help create effective programs that strive to address such needs in a holistic way.

As social movements to address food security involve individuals, families, and communities, social workers’ consideration of the bio-social-psycho-cultural realities of individuals and communities can contribute to addressing food-related concerns in an effective and culturally competent way.

The likelihood of success in implementing a socially just, sustainable, urban agriculture initiative would be greatly enhanced with the participation of social workers. Social work has never been singularly involved in the assessment, intervention, and treatment of individual psychological conditions. It also has a historical legacy of advocacy for policy change and macro intervention within the context of community practice. The early forbearers were often macrolevel reformers who sought change not only at the level of person but in the context of neighborhood, community, state, and even national levels (Besthorn, 2013).

Given the richness and texture of its historical legacy with respect to both theory and practice, social work is in a unique position to consider multiple intersecting perspectives that serve the best interest of persons and communities in the context of their unique sociocultural environments (Carrillo, 2007). For example, social workers can function as skillful members of interdisciplinary teams addressing issues of food access and sustainable production in low-income urban neighborhoods.

Social workers with a strong commitment to cultural competency are strategically placed to facilitate a relationship with community members and ethnically diverse groups. As that relationship is developed, people are given a greater voice in the solution of their problems.

Another way in which social workers can contribute to urban sustainable agricultural initiatives would be through their ability to provide a comprehensive assessment of community needs, resources, and strengths. Social work’s emphasis on strengths-based approaches to practice could be applied to urban environments and used to determine what strengths and resources the residents already have that could be utilized. Social workers would also be able to use their community-based assessment skills to effectively discover what communities might want and need. For example, catering to the ethnic food tastes of particular communities.

The link between the production of and access to healthy and sustainable food sources is present throughout society, and social workers can become part of the solution. I am thrilled to be leading the efforts at KWU to train the next generation of social workers to take up the task.