If you’d told us in January 2017 that the National Association of Social Workers would feature our Macro Empowerment Project in their July newsletter, Kate and I would’ve been surprised. Because this all started with a question — Why aren’t social workers paying more attention, any attention to climate change? After all, environmental justice is part of our ethical obligations as social workers.
Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t attempting to downplay the significance of other social justice and human rights issues, but we felt strongly that we should give precedence to the issue of climate change (after all, how can we fight any issue if our planet is dying) and honor the intersectionality between environmental and social justice.
When one of our professors asked a class to complete macro empowerment projects and told us we could work alone or pair up, Kate and I each saw in the other an opportunity to enhance our own greatest passions: my passion for the environment and Kate’s passion for spirituality. What are human beings if not nature (something we think is frequently forgotten, much to our own detriment)? Thus our quest was born — how do we engage human beings with nature in a way that increases their pro-environmental behavior?
We decided to partner with The Nahant Marsh, a 265-acre preserve and former Superfund site in our hometown of Davenport, whose mission is “to protect, enhance, and restore the Marsh through education, research, and conservation…to foster wonder, appreciation, and stewardship of the natural world” (Nahant Marsh, 2017). A mission we could totally get behind.
We explained our goals: 1) address the issue of climate apathy through programming that would provide community members an opportunity to reconnect with nature, which research has shown increases pro-environmental behaviors (specifically, the Mindfulness Marsh Tours); 2) expose community members to Nahant Marsh and the work they do, possibly increasing membership and support; 3) provide an opportunity for said pro-environmental behaviors by way of political advocacy, thus creating an impact beyond the individuals who participated in programming; and 4) lay the groundwork for future programming and provide enough resources to continue at least three more Mindfulness Marsh Tours. Something Nahant could totally get behind.
We went to work for the next 14 weeks. To increase connection to, and ultimately investment in the natural environment, we took participants on a guided mindfulness tour of the Marsh, using a specific mindfulness walking technique. We promoted the Mindfulness Marsh Tour at every opportunity (even speaking to a local rotary club), sought grant funding and sponsorships, and put together educational materials related to environmental ethics, mindfulness, and benefits of connection to nature. For the political advocacy piece, we created postcards with key environmental issues to each State Senator in the counties in which our participants resided (making it clear that this was entirely optional). We sent a total of 56 postcards to our representatives. At the conclusion of our program we had met each of our goals.
Kate and I believe that if anything substantial and sustaining is going to be done about climate change, more people need to be aware of its implications and, in short, care. We wanted to create a space where we might nurture individuals’ interest in and engagement with the environment, which we believed (and research suggests) could be achieved through the guided tour. Of all the programs in our community that incorporated the environment, we found none that made the connection between mindfulness and environmental engagement. We also hoped that a successful program would inspire social workers to involve themselves in the issues of the natural environment, especially on a macro level. Micro social work, the most common form, is necessary and important, but if we are to be change agents (something our social work training equips us to do), shouldn’t we concern ourselves more with macro practice?
-Chelsea Haley graduated from St. Ambrose University in May, 2017 with her MSW. She’s currently working as a school social worker and runs a monthly environmental and political advocacy group in her community.