Transcript: Adapting social work for a changing planet

Heather Lynch interviews social work practitioners about the climate change agenda

Podcast Episode: Adapting social work for a changing planet

Category: Social work (general) 


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

INT: COP26, the Global United National Climate Change Conference is underway in Glasgow. Each country will bring their plans for reducing emissions and combating climate change. As a people, community and society focused profession, is there a role for social work in the Environment and Climate Change agenda, and if so, what is it? Heather Lynch, MSC Social Work Programme Lead at Glasgow Caledonian University believes there is. In this episode she interviews Sian McKinnon, a social workers and climate activist, TzeYeng Ng, a recently qualified social workers, and Professor Susan Kemp who provides insight from an international perspective.

Heather: Welcome to this podcast, ‘Adapting Social Work for a Changing Planet’. My name is Heather Lynch and I’m a Lecturer in Social Work at Glasgow Caledonian University. For the next 30 minutes we will consider how environmental issues are understood from the perspective of practitioners working in Scotland, and also get an international view from Professor Susan Kemp.

As we undertake this recording, world leaders, dignitaries and activists from all over the world are descending upon Glasgow for COP26. We have arrived at yet another pivotal moment in the struggle to address human induced climate change and environmental degradation. The latest Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, unequivocally describes the unprecedented changes that are occurring as a result of human induced climate change. The scientist are in complete agreement that these changes are due to human lifestyles. The use of carbon fuels is most often discussed, and indeed the focus of COP26 is to obtain commitments from countries to reduce use of fossil fuels. All of these changes have implications for human, animal and plant life.

While at present it is the most disadvantaged who are bearing the brunt, there is no doubt that all life is increasingly being detrimentally impacted. In Scotland, coastal areas have been fighting coastal erosion and the threat to livelihoods. Many areas are experiencing increased flooding, which is predicted to increase, while at the other end of the scale, higher temperatures also pose risks to the elderly, and furthermore heat exacerbates the air pollution that is already damaging the lungs, particularly of the young. There have been multiple calls to action.

The Scottish Government has made a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. In their advice to public sector leaders, they call for a decarbonisation of the public sector. This involves a raft of changes that include procurement, transport, a shift to green jobs and “the adaptation of public services to the impacts of the changing climate and the implementation of nature based solutions”. This impacts on public sector workers and organisations funded through the Scottish Government and the wider public sector. It therefore includes Social Work.

In this podcast we hear from three voices in social work – Professor Susan Kemp, a Professor of Social Work who was central to the Grand Challenges Group who ensured that the Climate agenda is noted in the International Federation of Social Work Codes, Sian McKinnon, a social workers of 29 years and climate activist, TzeYeng Ng, a newly qualified social worker whose Masters research unearthed some uncomfortable truths on social work and environmental degradation. So welcome to the podcast, Sian. To get started, what’s happening on the ground in your social work department around the climate emergency?

Sian: Well quite frankly, I would say nothing, in terms of work with clients really. My sense of it is, it’s down to each practitioner’s personal level of awareness of the future everybody is facing and their own understanding of the impact for client groups, I guess. We have had things via our employers, which is talking about, you know, not filling kettles up and switching lights off, which is sort of practical housekeeping things in relation to our workplaces, but other than that, I haven’t experienced really any discussion in the workplace about the impending climate crisis.

Heather: So climate emergency is clearly all over the media and has been for the last couple of years, so is it something that you discuss generally with colleagues in relation to practice?

Sian: I tend to do less of it … when I joined Extinction Rebellion, I suppose I was fired up and I hadn’t spoken about my concerns before that. But I’m also very wary of telling people what I think or discussing it, because I think it’s still something that most people around me are at a much different level of denial, ignoring, not knowing about what’s happening. So, no, I tend not to, because I sort of think I’m probably the person in the room that people will be rolling their eyes about if I were to talk about it very much.

Heather: Gosh, that’s not a comfortable place to be, I don’t imagine?

Sian: It’s partly why I was so relieved when Extinction Rebellion appeared, that I was able to join with a variety of like-minded people who were similarly concerned.

Heather: So from what you’re saying, the urgency that you feel around climate change is not shared by colleagues. So do you think that there is a place for environmental awareness in social work?

Sian: Well I think absolutely, because what social work is about, is about challenging poverty and inequality, and it’s … you know, fundamentally, that’s what social work was set up to do. And I think in years gone by, when there was more funding and there were more resources, that actually there was an awareness that social work had two very different roles – one was working with individuals to address individual discrimination and problems, and the other level was probably what was community work back, you know, in the 70’s and the 80’s, which was about establishing local networks and trying to empower communities and address the fundamental equalities. But I feel these days that things are so squeezed, that we’re focused on the individuals, and I think we’ve turned into a society that blames individuals more. And the systemic inequalities which are still there, and in fact I think have been compounded, and particularly since austerity, are still there. But I don’t think that there’s any motivation or acknowledgement that social work has a role in addressing systemic inequality anymore.

Heather: Based on Sian’s experience, it seems that environmental concerns are not considered in everyday social work practice. To understand if others share this, we spoke to TzeYeng Ng, a recently qualified social worker who undertook her Masters research project in this area. Welcome to the podcast TzeYeng Ng. Before you tell us about your research, can you give us a sense of how you became interested in environmental issues?

TzeYeng Ng: Oh, I think it’s way back as a child, I remember reading about like how global warming will affect coastal towns around the world, and I was living in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and looking at the map, and thinking “oh, we will be under water”. And that was when I was 9 or 10, and as far as I can remember, I was running round town looking for cans to recycle and trying to do the best as I can. And sort of also due to being able to enjoy the environment a lot as a child – going into the jungles, tracking and camping for a long time. So it’s always been part of me – and I think I kind of brought it with me when I migrated to Scotland from Malaysia in July 2018.

Heather: So those are very different places that you have experience of living in. And what types of environmental issues confronted you when you moved to Scotland that sustained this interest?

TzeYeng Ng: Well it was actually quite interesting, because it was not so much local anymore, there was kind of a global kind of issues. Because when I moved, I started my two years Masters programme in Glasgow Caledonian, and it was coincidentally the October … I think September/October of that year, 2018, when China closed its doors to receiving recyclable items, so to speak, and I say it with inverted commas, from developed countries.

And it started emerging from my friends back home in Malaysia that they were getting shipments of recyclables, but they were actually trash from western countries, and it was just clogging up parts of the outskirts of Malaysia. And that was quite an eyeopener, but it also made me very, very angry, because here I was thinking that I was being a good global citizen, making sure that I’m separating my trash, washing my trash, and it would be disposed of responsibly … only to realise that it was being dumped. It was kind of deceitful I felt of what, you know, this whole greenwashing this course was doing, and it was hypocritical, and I think coming from a country like Malaysia that was … it reeked of neo-colonialism again, because you know, people are in the, so to speak, less developed world, are suffering the burden of, you know, a lifestyle of richer countries. It’s a cycle again. So that was quite enraging, so to speak.

Heather: And you were a social work student at the time. So how did this rage, these interests and these questions that you have, relate to your social work studies?

TzeYeng Ng: Well I was asking questions, like ‘what does social work mean?’, and ‘what does it mean to become a social worker if we are still part of this very oppressive system globally and not addressing it'. Because it is oppression, in a way, you know, it’s power, it’s the powerless having to absorb the consequences of the powerful. We were doing a course of theory, and a lot of the theories we were talking about was quite human centred, you know, and so I wondered where and when do we start talking about the environment, and how do we, as social workers, see environment and injustice and people? How does it all link? How do we incorporate it in our analysis policy practice?

And also as a social worker, I believe a lot of our role is to advocate for change, and where does the advocacy come – and when does it come, how does it come? So it was … I was quite lucky, because my Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor was interested in the same issue as well, and you know, some classmates were also interested in the issue. I had the opportunity to talk about it in class, and we formed a little band of classmates who kind of thought of what we would do on campus to look at our own consumption and how it’s affecting people. And we had a couple of meetings with the catering service – one of which was to get rid of the plastic cutlery as a starting point, and also that … kind of find out what practices are there in place in Scotland as a whole. So my research questions for my dissertations, my Masters dissertation, was about – where are these social workers who have this same interests, and how are they doing, what are you doing?

Heather: So, can you tell us what you found? What you learned from this research project?

TzeYeng Ng: Well I found that there are social workers out there that thought the same – that, you know, environmental issues have to be incorporated in our day to day work. And I found that certainly that they do in … not in their daily practice – they do it outwith their work on their own accord. And depending on where they worked, whether it’s a statutory environment, whether it’s a practice teacher or in a non-profit organisation, they have different ways of incorporating into their work. Some of them, they are able to navigate the systems, some cast it outright as outsiders, you’re weird, you’re strange – and some have even more positions to kind of influence policies within their workplace. But what was clear, that there was no consistent policies and practice across the board for social workers in Scotland. You know, such as how, as a student, we had to go through Child Protection, and even in my training as a newly qualified social worker, you have to go through Child Protection training. There was no such kind of systems in place to look at the environment – which is kind of telling of the whole situation and how social work view, or do not view, the environment as an important component of our analysis and work. And how we view the environment as a whole, as a profession.

Heather: And now that you have qualified and are practicing as a social worker, how much can you incorporate environment into the work that you do?

TzeYeng Ng: Well as a social worker I don’t find that there is a lot of leeway at the moment, especially as a newly qualified – I’m still coming to grips of what I need to learn to be in the field … the conversation on the environment is non-existent, sad to say. It is only through the linkages that I’m maintaining with the university, that I’m able to kind of pursue this interest forward, which is sad.

Heather: So what would make a difference? What needs to change?

TzeYeng Ng: Yeah, because I think through my research as well, there are social workers out there who are interested in the issue and the conversation, but there’s no support … I don’t hear that they get support institutionally. If there was more kind of interest in the managerial level, that would certainly support those who are really fighting the battle on ground – either on your own and feeling quite dejected. I don’t know … or they think that there’s not even a space where they can bring the conversation to in their social work practice.

Heather: It seems that the environment emergency is remote from social work practice in Scotland – but is this the case in other parts of the world? In order to find out, we’re going to speak to Professor Susan Kemp. Susan is Professor of Social Work at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Charles O. Cressey Endowed Professor Emerita at the University of Washington School of Social Work in Seattle. She’s the recipient of the George Lodge Prize and a Fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, and the Society for Social Work and Research. She was the National Co-Lead of the US Grand Challenge for Social Work in the area of Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment. So welcome to the podcast, Susan. To start, can you tell us a bit about the Grand Challenges work that you’ve been involved with?

Susan: I can. The Grand Challenges grew out of a series of meetings that the Dean at the University of Washington and the then Dean at the University of Southern California, Deans of major schools in Social Work in the United States convened a series of meetings, in the Pacific Northwest over a series of summers, of people who they thought would potentially have the capacity, if brought together, to think about really what you are thinking about – social work futures. And out of the (… unclear) meetings, Eddie O’Hara, in particular, seated this notion that has taken off in other places of course, identifying a set of Grand Challenges for Social Work, and marshalling a more coordinated set of intellectual (… unclear) feel towards that set of issues.

The American Academy picked up, and supported moving it forward, key leaders in that area were at these meetings – I mean there is a lot of crossover in who was at these meetings. And Larry Palinkus and I … he’s at the University of Southern California, said we absolutely must work – changing the environments, climate change, urbanisation, environment justice, forward as one of the potential grand challenges. We had a little bit of difficulty persuading people that that was as salient, at that point, as some of the others. But we had absolutely no difficulty with that issue now. They were launched in 2016, so there was a couple of years of lead up to that.

Heather: Your work around Grand Challenges in relation to the environment is agenda setting, and has led to the inclusion of environment concerns in the International Federation of Social Work Codes. In Scotland we heard from Sian and TzeYeng Ng earlier, that climate emergency is peripheral to mainstream social work. So it would be useful to understand how your interest was shaped?

Susan: So I’ll preface by sort of saying where my engagement with this history came from. I arrived in New York City, I had done a PhD at Columbia University in New Zealand, who had been involved in community based social work practice in New Zealand – and I was surprised by the extent of preoccupation, I would say, in the United States, or specifically in New York City at that time, with the much more clinical frame, the difference in social work than I was accustomed to here in New Zealand. And I got curious about this person environment commitment that the field has always held at the heart of its work, but that it seems to me it’s really struggled to bring to life in its practice … more often than not, over the period from 1880 onwards.

So for my PhD dissertation I explored within the social casework or clinical social work or direct practice elements on social work’s intellectual history. But that took me back to really a much deeper understanding of just how deep the (… unclear) are really in social work, in a very diverse, very applied and, in contemporary language, very environmental justice oriented forming environmental practice. And specifically, the settlement houses, which of course has had their roots in the UK with Toynbee Hall, et al in other forms in Europe and then in the United States, in Chicago and New York, and through that north-eastern area in particular, but they’re spread all over the country.

And I was looking to see what the history was in Scotland, and someone called Lyn Bruce in 2012 did a very interesting thesis on Scottish settlement houses, and I see that of the range of them was Dundee and actually Queen Margaret settlement in Glasgow did activities, as best I can tell, that looked very like urban environmentalism of those early settlement houses that I was more familiar with from the United States. You often tend to think of social work’s history of urban environmental activism as resurging in the 1970’s – and we sort of give a nod to the settlement houses. But the depth of what they were doing is really quite remarkable, and it closely parallels, absent the climate change elements, what I think social work could be focusing on now, in deep partnership with a range of other discipline (… unclear), and actually in close partnership with local authorities and some global entities at a government level.

So I was just making a little list before we started to talk of the things that they were engaged in – thinking about urbanisation, intersections and urbanisation, poverty, immigration and migration particularly in that period. But it was deeply racialised, deeply classed set of issues. Housing, clean air, clean water, food and sanitation, garbage, industrial toxins, lack of green space, the need for parks and playgrounds, industrial dangers and all kinds … and there are all kinds of health equity issues that was transacted there – infant mortality being the leverage point for many of the campaigns that they impact upon. But then also labour, and thinking about women’s labour and switch ups and a whole lot of … so intersecting issues that, when we think about the closely coupled issues that come with climate change and the particular vulnerabilities that come with it for the most monetarised people that are at the heart of social work’s mission, I think we see a whole lot of issues that we might want to care about.

So for me, it’s very important that we capture this longer form history and acknowledge it, including the remarkable work done by women, for example, in the African American community, through their own network of settlement houses and women’s clubs that had much more of an absolutely critical racial justice lens. So we have to put the whole mosaic of our history together and honour it, in my view, and honour it in the sense of also the through lines that were problematic – it was certainly a white, upper-class set of through lines, but it had many other features that I think we can return to. And things that give me a sense of possibility around social work’s contemporary challenges – if we are to be as brave as many of those women were.

Heather: So, you’ve given a very clear picture of the environmentalism that was at the heart of earlier social work. Do you have a sense of what happened and how things have changed?

Susan: I think we were very environmentalists in the period up to and immediately after … and I am speaking out of the United States at that point – but also, I think, where you’re sitting in Glasgow and Edinburgh … I looked into it a wee bit before I went to the Edinburgh conference. But certainly in the UK as well. The post-World War One period saw a major shift back to a much more psychological frame of reference – Freudian Theory was in the mix – we finally had a language for thinking about. And it’s sort of theoretical frames we’re thinking about people – people’s insides, people’s internal lives, some very powerful tools for working with it, and the pendulum of the proficience swung at that point. And into what, it seemed to me, was this continued really to be with different kinds of iterations, in different historical periods (… unclear) more obviously socially effective. A much more direct practice mainstream than the more ramified pre-World War One period. It’s where our sort of organisational centre tends to lie, as well as our practice centre, I think – and it’s just been harder for us to regain … except for some shorter periods of time, the more actively person and environment person … the dualism, the whole-ism, if you like, of the earlier period. The imperatives right now are clear, that we have to regain it and bring it back to the centre of our work, I think.

Heather: So from what you’re saying, there’s something more fundamental that has to shift than just social workers becoming environmentally aware … you know, there’s something foundational that’s gone on there, and what the social work task and role is. Is that right, or am I …

Susan: Yeah, I actually … yes, I do, and I think people are struggling to … in very interesting and useful ways … including the two of you, to build us those frames of reference that we perhaps need to help us find this century’s way of holding these things together in a more fully developed way. I think we run the risk, rather than seeing these things as at the heart of our practice, is seeing them as environmental social work that’s not … it’s over to the side of what the rest of social workers do. And so the fundamental shift that perhaps I am most interested in seeing is a move for us to understand that this is the through line across a lot of our work. That actually, whether we are describing ourselves as child and family social workers, or as primarily in health or located in community – that these social … I mean I don’t even know how to describe … just the cataclysm that we’re in the middle of really, it’s something that we have to say ‘this is part of all of our work’.

Heather: As we have heard from both Sian and from TzeYeng Ng, the environment does not appear to be taken into consideration in social work policy or social work practice in Scotland. In spite of clear evidence that climate change is, and will continue to impact the most disadvantaged people, all three of our guests identified the social work focus on the individual as an impediment to more holistic and contextual approaches to supporting wellbeing. Environmental degradation might better be understood as a systems problem that shows up in individual lives.

Both Sian and Susan spoke of traditions of social work, and Susan, the early urban environmentalism of settlement houses as resources for again expanding social work identity in Scotland. Susan introduced us to the States based Grand Challenges work to identify and proactively address in policy, education and practice, the major challenges of this century. Climate change and the environment are now recognised as Grand Challenges in social work across the world. Thanks so much for listening. I’d like to thank all three guests – Sian McKinnon, TzeYeng Ng, Professor Susan Kemp. I’d also like to thank Dr Tina Wilson for her help producing this and all of the staff at Iriss.

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