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Professors expand social work practice to examine impacts of environmental changes on vulnerable populations

Research focus includes effects on Indigenous peoples

Hurricane, house, damage, debris, Unsplash,

A home and truck suffer hurricane damage. Photo by John Middelkoop/Unsplash

December 06, 2021

Climate change is linked to melting glaciers, hotter deserts, food shortages and threatened water supplies. But social workers are learning it has another effect: how environmental changes create challenges for vulnerable populations.

Concerns about these effects have ushered in a new area of the profession, environmental social work, which has begun to be called “eco-social work” and “green social work.”

School of Social Work (SSW) faculty members Shanondora Billiot and Felicia Mitchell at Arizona State University have taken leadership roles in seeking solutions, in hopes that social workers might better serve people who are negatively affected by their environment.

The two assistant professors say they came to ASU to learn more about what lies at the intersection of environmental and social work. They say they are particularly interested in how many aspects of climate change affect Indigenous peoples.

Part of their research is targeted toward “Creating Social Responses to a Changing Environment,” one of several major tasks for the profession known as the Grand Challenges for Social Work, originally created from discussions sponsored by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare. Billiot and Mitchell are members of the challenge’s advisory council and are co-authors of a paper about it.

The two met in graduate school. They later came to ASU as academics to conduct this research at the same university, Mitchell in 2016 and Billiot in 2020.

, assistant professor. ASU, School of Social Work

Shanondora Billiot

Billiot, a member of the United Houma Nation, said she is working on two projects in the community where she grew up in southern Louisiana. Recent hurricanes have devastated many parts of that state.

Among other areas, Billiot is probing how changes to the environment influence mental health, as well as how climate change and natural disasters have affected residents’ relocation to safer geographical locations. Working with her tribe, Billiot also is examining how changes in environment figure into the level and quality of social services residents receive.

Mitchell is researching water-related degradation to the environment and to community well-being. She is also studying how water insecurity impacts Indigenous people.

Mitchell said she and Billiot have been encouraged by colleagues who have told them that they are happy to see them at the same institution. She said she hopes her and Billiot’s involvement will plant a seed within the profession that the two are expanding environmental social work study at ASU.

“We have our first doctoral student who will be working on environmental justice in social work,” Mitchell said. “We think it will be the first of hopefully many.”

, assistant professor. ASU, School of Social Work

Felicia Mitchell

Billiot and Mitchell also have contributed to the Council on Social Work Education’s 2020 Curricular Guide for Environmental Justice, which recently became part of the council’s educational practice standards for the social work profession.

Read on to learn more about Billiot’s and Mitchell’s research:

Question: Why the intersection of environment and social work? Why should environmental justice matter in social work?

Mitchell: There is growing recognition that environmental justice is social justice. Environmental issues often intersect with racial and socioeconomic justice issues that social work is committed to. In my work, when communities experience water insecurity or scarcity, this can impact their physical, emotional and social well-being — all of which are important to us as social workers. Without safe, sustainable and healthy physical environments, our communities cannot fully live their best life.

In February 2015, I was glad to know that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) officially launched the Committee on Environmental Justice. Environmental justice was added to the council’s 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. The committee also developed a definition of environmental justice for social work: "Environmental justice occurs when all people equally experience high levels of environmental protection and no group or community is excluded from the environmental policy decision-making process, nor is affected by a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards. Environmental justice affirms the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, respect for cultural and biological diversity and the right to be free from ecological destruction. This includes responsible use of ecological resources, including the land, water, air and food."

Billiot: In addition to environmental issues being a social justice issue, international entities and nation-state governments have recognized the environment as a determinant of health, and that healthy environments are human rights.

Q: How did you two come to these topics and each other in researching them? Why did you choose to come to ASU?

Mitchell: Early in my social work career, I was employed at a tribal hospital where I supported tribal members in managing their health while living with diabetes. During this time, I realized that there were more significant influences than individual behaviors and lifestyle choices affecting the health of Indigenous people. In particular, this community had experienced devastating water insecurities since the damming of their river in the early 1900s. I often heard community members reflect on the loss of water and how it had impacted community well-being. Since then, I have been passionate about supporting Indigenous accounts of how our interactions with water, whether positive or negative, influence the health and well-being of Indigenous people.

Dr. Billiot and I met as doctoral students when we were selected as fellows through the CSWE Minority Fellowship Program. It was terrific to meet another Indigenous social worker dedicated to environmental justice among tribal communities. We have been good friends and colleagues ever since.

When I interviewed with the ASU SSW, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for my community-based, qualitative and environmental justice-focused work. Based on my first visit to ASU, I knew that I would have the support I needed to do the work I love.

Billiot: Growing up in Louisiana, I have been acutely aware of how our environment impacts our well-being. Not only has Louisiana been a landing spot for many hurricanes, but the state’s coastal boundaries also lose about 35 square miles of land every year. Since 1920, Louisiana has lost an amount about the size of Delaware. Over 60% of that land comes from the communities where citizens of my tribal nation live.

I initially thought I wanted to do research around mental health and disasters with Indigenous peoples. With guidance from tribal leaders, my focus became centered on these acute and chronic environmental changes. As a macro social worker and Indigenous woman who has experienced repeated disasters and loss of “home” through environmental changes, I am committed to ensuring community members have a voice in policies enacted and research conducted in their communities. My long-term goal is to contribute to a deeper ecological movement within social work practice that incorporates Indigenous and other knowledges to restore balance between human and environmental health.

I was very impressed with ASU’s SSW faculty and knew they would support my research and career development. I was also excited to work with Dr. Mitchell and work on our shared goal of training social workers in environmental justice.

Q: Tell me about what you’re working on right now. How is the information you seek likely to be used?

Mitchell: There is well‐established research on material aspects of water. However, there are fewer studies that focus on water's relational (i.e., non-material) characteristics, including the social, socio-political, cultural and mental well-being dimensions of water that might disrupt, or result from, water insecurities. Through Indigenous teachings and knowledge, we know that Indigenous peoples have complex and diverse relationships with water. My work aims to support other Indigenous people in sharing their perspectives on the importance of water for them and their communities.

I am currently developing a study exploring how American Indians living in Arizona experience and think about water and water insecurities. For the study, we will be using a modified version of photo-elicitation that includes recent images from the media depicting water-related challenges in Arizona that are specific to American Indian communities. I am also a PLuS Alliance Fellow and recently received a seed grant from the PLuS Alliance with my colleagues at King's College in London and the University of New South Wales. Together, we are investigating the global effects of climate change and water-related environmental degradation on Indigenous peoples' mental health and community well-being. I am responsible for overseeing the U.S.-based part of the project.

Lastly, I am leading a scoping review with four graduate student co-authors. The review examines the extent, range and nature of published research on how community water circumstances and interactions impact global Indigenous mental well-being. Our review includes studies published since 2010 when the United Nations recognized safe drinking water as a human right bound by international law.

My work has led me to serve as a co-chair for the Sustainable Development, Urbanization and Environmental Justice Research Cluster for the Society for Social Work and Research and as a member of the “Creating Social Responses to a Changing Environment” Grand Challenge Advisory Council. I hope that my work will be helpful for Indigenous-led and allied initiatives to advocate for Indigenous well-being and justice in an increasingly water-insecure world.

Billiot: Building on my experiences as a practitioner working at the community level in disaster response and preparedness as well as at the national and multilateral levels in health policy, my dissertation research explored gaps in our knowledge of how chronic health issues, diseases and mental illness disproportionately burden Indigenous peoples. Previous research shows that experiences of historical trauma, discrimination, poverty and violence exacerbate the onset and severity of health conditions among them. To date, there is limited research on health impacts resulting from environmental changes, especially among Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups.

Results from my first study showed that those who experienced and observed environmental changes are more likely to have adverse mental, emotional, physical and behavioral health outcomes. I am currently on an interdisciplinary, multi-university research project that is funded through the National Academy of Sciences’ Engineering and Medicine Gulf Research Program. The goal is to work with the tribal nation to co-develop community-led adaptation activities to the chronic exposure to coastal erosion and repeated devastating hurricanes. However, we have halted all research activities since August 2021 with the arrival of Hurricane Ida, as a majority of citizens have been affected. Also discontinued with the tribe is a longitudinal survey with citizens about COVID-19 impacts. When this later project resumes, we will be collecting the third wave of data.

Additionally, I have been fortunate to join the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research Network at ASU that will lead to research that explores impacts of environmental changes among Arizona and tribal nation citizens. Finally, I am working with the ASU Office of Community Health, Engagement and Resiliency on grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) regarding community health worker programs’ COVID response efforts.

I am an Early Career Fellow of the Gulf Research Program through the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. I serve on boards that advance the mission of the “Creating Social Responses to a Changing Environment” Grand Challenge.

Q: Where do you think this particular field is going? Five years from now, what might we be talking about in terms of how the environment affects social work practice?

Mitchell: From my perspective, more students are interested in environmental social work as they have witnessed widespread environmental injustices such as those seen in Flint, Michigan, and with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Additionally, as we see more adverse climate change events and disasters in communities, I think the number of social workers engaged in environmental social work practice will continue to grow. In five years, I hope that we will have grown a robust environmental social work research, practice and policy base at the ASU School of Social Work. Between Dr. Billiot and I, I think we are well on our way to building this capacity within our school.

Billiot: I could not have said that better.

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