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Environmental Justice, Community Organizing Focus of 34th Social Work Day at the United Nations

Nicole Brown's picture

 “On behalf of 3 million social workers in 124 countries represented by the International Federation of Social Workers, I welcome you to Social Work Day at the United Nations,” said Suzanne Dworak-Peck. “Social workers are experts in leading communities…to achieve common goals.”

She joined organizing co-chairs Shirley Gatenio-Gabel Professor at Fordham University and International Association of Schools of Social Work Representative to the UN, and Dr. Robin Mama Sakina, Dean of Monmouth University and IFSW Representative to the UN, in opening the April 17, 2017 event to a sold-out crowd of practitioners, professors, students, NGO representatives, associations and other supporters of the social work profession. Attendees from throughout the United States, Canada, Italy, Australia, China and remote participants viewing the live webcast took part in the annual event that shines a light on the significant impact social workers have on the local and global community and provides a platform for social workers to engage on shared goals of the United Nations.

“Our local issues need to be linked to global trends. We must commit to aligning our practices…to achieve the sustainable development goals,” said Gatenio-Gabel in her opening remarks. She referenced the dynamic, innovative, people-centric work of social workers toward ‘Promoting Community and Environmental Sustainability.This was the 2017 theme, which relates to the third pillar of the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development. Throughout the event, panelists shared examples of local and global activism toward achieving these goals under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda for 2030.

His Excellency the Honorable Ambassador Masud Bin Moment, Permanent Representative of the Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations, shared Bangladesh’s environmental goals and steps the country is currently undertaking. He called upon the international community to recognize the need and take action toward environmental sustainability. “Social workers can motivate local people to carry out the SDGs,” he stated, encouraging those in attendance to be an active, local voice.

John Ennis, Chief of Information and Outreach, Office of Disarmament Affairs, United Nations, also challenged social workers to think about how they can be involved in the SDGs. He shared his experiences as a social work practitioner and prior roles in international development. “In my experiences, governments tend to act when civil society is leading the way…Social work plays an enormous role in a country’s socioeconomic development…Today, social issues are more interwoven into other issues.”

Stressing the combined impact of social issues and environmental issues on indigenous peoples, Roberto Borrero with the NGO Committee on the Rights of Indigenous People, spoke about the need to raise these issues at the international level. He highlighted that the SDGs specifically reference indigenous peoples and progress is being made toward inclusion but there are still great challenges and opportunities to do more.

“Today’s history is not written,” said Terri Klemm, Associate Professor and BSW Program Director at Centenary University. She stressed the importance of local community organizing and that taking a stand for the local community’s interest requires skills learned through social work. “Activism is self-care.” She shared her own personal environmental social justice interests and the ways in which she has mobilized individuals in the community to rally around preventing the detrimental impacts of fracking.

Similarly, MSW Student Elizabeth Gustafson shared the ways in which she used her community organizing skills she has learned through her MSW course work and field placements. As a macro-focused student, she emphasized valuing both macro- and micro- level practice.  When she joined activists at Standing Rock, North Dakota, for several days in November 2016 she noted that she learned that “Change at the global level is as important as at the policy level.”.

Anna Maria Campanini, President of the International Association of Schools of Social Work, echoed this comment. She agreed that there needs to be greater collaboration and integration between micro and macro-level social work to support provision of services to individuals and also incorporate a policy perspective to create positive change for clients at the systems level. She concluded by saying that “social work can promote peace and culture in communities. The UN and social work can both benefit and have a greater influence upon development.”

Following the event, social work students then participated in a student-led event to continue discussions on how they and the profession can support the SDGs and promote community and environmental sustainability. The events served as a call to action for the profession to continue to take a stand for the best interests of their fellow community members in order to have a combined global impact.