Human welfare and a healthy planet:
Social workers explore the complex connections
With its emerging focus on a concept called global practice and one health, the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) is encouraging social workers to draw upon the natural and environmental sciences when attempting to better understand the human condition.
“We are trying to equip social workers with the knowledge and skills to be effective in all areas of the human condition and to understand the environmental forces that create and contribute to problems in the everyday lives of people,” said Clinical Professor Phil Tedeschi. “We are advocating for vulnerable people and communities, where the pressing issues often focus on land use, access to food, water, wildlife conservation, and humane treatment and care of animals.”
For many social workers, accustomed to working within societal systems, this is new ground. Typically, Tedeschi explained, social workers know a lot about the human health impact of, say, a new liquor store in a neighborhood, but they’re less likely to grasp the long-term effect of diminished biodiversity.
To introduce these concepts to students, GSSW offers opportunities for study in China, Africa and domestically.
At China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Sarah Bexell, scholar in residence at GSSW’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, serves as director of conservation education. For two years, she has guided GSSW interns in humane education with Chinese children. The program draws on the human-animal bond to cultivate respect for animals, for the endangered bears and for the concept of biodiversity.
Tedeschi teaches a class with colleague David Gies called Kenya: Context, Empowerment and Sustainability. The course takes students to remote east African communities where they observe nature and the delicate relationship between human health and the health of the natural environment. Students work to empower community determination and to support sustainable practices with displaced people who, in many cases, were relocated when national parks were created. In collaboration with the African Network for Animal Welfare, DU students help to de-snare poachers’ traps and improve community social services and infrastructure. They also volunteer at an elephant orphanage, where they see the similarities between animals that have lost mothers to poaching and youngsters who have lost parents to disease or violence.
Tedeschi and Bexell have collaborated on a book, Ignoring Nature, slated for publication by University of Chicago Press in 2012. They also are exploring a relationship with Sichuan University’s College of Architecture and Environment to foster understanding of ecosystem services—the mechanisms by which nature allows for human life to be sustained.Tedeschi and Bexell hope efforts like these will give social workers tools for building human resiliency in the face of global environmental changes. “It’s important to look at these issues from a social work perspective, not just because we’re concerned about turtles or our water systems and forests,” Tedeschi said, “but because it has direct implications on our own survival.”