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Elevating the social justice impact of climate change

Many people think of sustainability as only being about the environment and natural resource preservation. In fact, most probably do not think social work and climate change belong in the same sentence. But the increase in climate-related disasters and pollution disproportionately impacts marginalized communities around the world. This makes climate change a core social justice issue. 

The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is elevating awareness of environmental justice for its students, across the USC community and beyond in line with the university’s moonshot initiative focused on sustainability. A new sustainability-centered course has been added to the school’s curriculum. An ongoing faculty workgroup is tackling the issue through interdisciplinary collaboration. And researchers are leading an international colloquium this summer exploring AI-driven solutions to human problems resulting from climate change and environmental disruption. All of this reflects an overall commitment by USC Social Work to ensure that education, research and practice around climate change and sustainability includes the ways in which it continues to generate increasing inequality and injustice. 

“Climate change impacts the populations that the social work and nursing disciplines seek to help,” said Devon Brooks, associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor. “If you are poor or marginalized, you are particularly likely to be exposed to the effects of climate change. Our hope is that by adopting this lens in a deliberate, thoughtful way, we will better see, address and prevent the human impact, while also transforming how we think about both health and sustainability.” 

Integrating sustainability into the curriculum year-round

Brooks emphasizes that sustainability efforts need to go beyond annual recognition during Earth Month and become an integrated part of the curriculum and the way students think about social justice. The school is introducing a new course in the fall 2024 semester to help prepare students to engage in sustainable social work, adopt holistic and integrative approaches that emphasizes environmentalism and sustainability, and address the root causes of climate-related problems. The goal of SOWK 649 — Promoting Sustainability Through Social Work — is for students to gain a deeper understanding of the interconnections and interdependencies inherent between sustainability and social work, preparing them to integrate sustainability into their professional practices. 

The school also offers a graduate certificate in Social Inquiry for Community, Social and Environmental Justice which provides an opportunity to produce original research in a sustainability-focused area of interest. The certificate is available to all graduate-level students, from any discipline, who are interested in incorporating social justice and interculturally competent concepts and practice methods into their work and careers. 

“For someone who wants to be impactful by using social inquiry to bring about community, social and environmental change, this certificate offers the opportunity to gain original, real-world evaluation and research experience on a pressing sustainability problem that is personally meaningful to them,” said Brooks. 

USC Social Work faculty members working in the environmental justice space all agree that social work has a unique role to play in addressing sustainability, climate change and the human impact. 

“As new problems emerge, even before there is a good articulation of what they are, social workers are already working with the people impacted,” said Eric Rice, professor and co-director of the USC Center for AI in Society, a joint venture between the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and USC Viterbi School of Engineering dedicated to solving the most difficult social problems facing the world. ”We’re already working with climate refugees in the United States, even though we may not be thinking of it that way, and it’s time to think more deliberately about how to best serve them.” 

Climate change is the ultimate social determinant of health

In recent years, there has been increased attention to social determinants of health (SDOH), the nonbiological factors  found to be responsible for up to 80% of health outcomes. Michelle Zappas, director of the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, argues that climate change is the ultimate social determinant of health because it is caused by society and has the potential for a widespread and devastating impact to the health of all humans.

“The devastation that the Earth is currently going through is really impacting all of our mental and physical health,” Zappas said. “And unfortunately, the people that are most impacted by it are the people who do not achieve as much gain from all of the industry and fossil fuel consumption driving it, yet they bear the greatest health and financial burdens.”

SDOH increase the likelihood of climate change impact for marginalized populations, those who work outdoors or are unhoused, have increased vulnerabilities based on extremes of age, or have comorbidities related to physical or mental health conditions. Environmental hazards such as landfills and poor air quality are also more prevalent in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Zappas asserts that climate change needs to be an important part of the health care conversation, both within health care professions and directly with patients. 

“As the most trusted profession, nurses and nurse practitioners have an opportunity to advocate for and empower marginalized populations,” Zappas said. “We can foster social accountability in health systems, and this can push us forward to reduce or counterbalance some of these risks.” 

The MSN is the first nursing program within a school of social work, providing an advanced degree nursing education that includes a focus on understanding social and environmental factors to enhance patient care. Emphasis is also placed on collaboration with other professions and effecting positive social change.

Zappas will be presenting her perspective and relevant research as part of an interdisciplinary faculty showcase hosted by USC Social Work on April 25 in honor of Earth Week. “Intersectional Approaches to Environmental Justice and Health Equity: Perspectives from Social Work and Nursing” The online event is open to all faculty, students, alumni and community members.

The showcase is the first community event born out of a new environmental justice and sustainability faculty workgroup at the school that aims to elevate environmental justice education and awareness through collaboration with partners across the university and externally. Multiple social work faculty will be joining Zappas in presenting work they are doing in the environmental space, including Jennifer Lewis, director of the Master of Social Work (MSW) and Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs; Rick Newmyer, senior lecturer; Dawn Joosten-Hagye, teaching professor; Steve Gratwick, lecturer; and Carlos Moran, lecturer. The panel of experts will focus on, drawing a clear line between the macro-level issue of climate change and the micro-level impact on communities affected by it, demonstrating that social work and sustainability not only belong in the same sentence, they are inextricably linked. 

Jill Sohm, department chair for environmental studies at USC Dornsife, joins the showcase to lead a discussion about environmental justice and sustainability opportunities within and across the university.

“Social work is all about understanding person in environment,” said Laura Gale, assistant teaching professor and a member of the faculty workgroup. “The social work profession has always responded to issues in society and environment in real time as they develop. Today, that means applying the same lens and the same values to find new ways to meet the emerging needs resulting from this global crisis.” 

Seeking AI-Driven Solutions to Human Problems

Michàlle Mor Barak, Dean Endowed Professor of Social Work and Business, was recently awarded her third grant from the Borchard Foundation to hold international colloquiums exploring global cutting-edge diversity issues. For the 2024 colloquium, “Promoting Environmental Justice: Climate Migration, Diversity and Artificial Intelligence Solutions in the US and France” to be held at the Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany this June. Mor Barak, in collaboration with Lawrence Palinkas, clinical professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity at UC San Diego, Miriam Aczel, postdoctoral scholar in the California Institute for Energy and Environment at UC Berkeley, and Rice has assembled a group of international experts in the divergent fields of climate change. 

Mor Barak, who holds a joint appointment with the USC Marshall School of Business, says her focus on environmental justice is a natural evolution of her decades-long work as a management expert for global workforce diversity. The original model for creating an inclusive workplace was first outlined in her award-winning book, “Managing Diversity: Toward a Globally Inclusive Workplace.” Now in its fifth edition, she introduces a new dimension to her concentric circles model of inclusion: environmental justice. 

“My model is more expansive than what people typically think of as inclusion,” Mor Barak said. “I come from an ecosystem perspective that looks at the connections not only within the organization but externally as well.” She views sustainability and environmental justice as critical issues for business and human service organization leaders to address. “In order to truly be inclusive, organizations need to move beyond internal focus and collaborate with the community,” she said. “They also need to look at their international collaborations and be conscientious about the environment.” 

Mor Barak will be joined at the international colloquium by five American and five French and European social and data scientists, including Rice and his colleague, Bistra Dilkina, associate professor of computer science at USC Viterbi and co-director of CAIS. 

“The goal of this workshop is to get people together from social work, policy and engineering and think expansively about the nature of the looming global threat,” said Rice. “To discuss what is likely to happen, what needs to be done to meet this challenge and how social work and engineering can come together to meet a challenge that neither group really could meet on its own.”

One important tool the colloquium plans to explore is the use of AI to predict likely climate migration hotspots, the emigration pathways and destinations they are most likely to use, and how to work with local governments and businesses to incorporate best practices for integration.

Dilkina has performed similar analyses to predict climate refugee pathways within the U.S. if sea levels rise significantly due to climate change, drawing on data and experiences of people fleeing New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. 

"This is an amazing opportunity to discuss the real-world impact of climate change on vulnerable populations,” Dilkina said. “By bringing together diverse, global perspectives we can advocate for how to integrate both environmental and social justice in strategies to mitigate climate-change-driven events such as increased severity or frequency of wildfires, floods and heat waves."

Mor Barak hopes that AI may even help them to go beyond predictive modeling to identify ways of preventing the worst human impacts of climate change. 

“The advantage of these small colloquia is that you can explore things in a completely original, blue-sky way,” Mor Barak said. “You can come in with questions, not with answers, and explore them with people from different disciplines that don't typically talk to one another.”

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)