12 Things I Learned from Teaching a New Class: Disaster Social Work – An Anti-Racist Lens


Is all social work – “disaster social work” now? I have kind of had this question banging around in my head the last couple of years. I don’t have a good answer…I’ve seen things that make me debate this with myself on the regular. Slow disasters – like our variety of forms of structural violence in underfunded social care resources – and – fast disasters like pandemics, large scale climate events, and other cataclysmic events like oil spills and the like…all real. Generally social workers work on “slow disasters” but in recent years…it just feels like the boundaries between all these things is blurring. The space, definitions, actions, and causes of many fast disasters are deeply tied to the slow ones…they are merging and mutating as I see it.

Additionally…there are just more “fast disasters.” More spaces where peoples’ lives are being upended in significant and collective ways IMMEDIATELY and always in ways in which the already vulnerable experience the worst of it. The likelihood is high that just from a climate perspective we will likely have more in the years to come. Is social work ready? Are we participating in the way this discourse is happening and decisions are being made? Are the ways that we are preparing to practice in the near future ready for the kinds of jolts, disruptions and discontinuities that disasters may usher in? In all these areas…I say no, we really aren’t. As a foresight practitioner and a social worker, I’ve become very interested in the intersection of social work and disaster practice.

During the last couple of years, I realized that my own social work program at Portland State University didn’t have a disaster social work class. I felt intensely motivated to address this, fueled by the idea that increasingly and regrettably, opportunities to practice effectively in disaster spaces are likely to increase. Aided my colleague, Eddie May, we set out to put one together. Each of us brought our own work histories (Eddie had worked directly in disaster response, and I had worked in a major trauma center) earlier in our careers. We called it Disaster Social Work: An Antiracist Approach because we wanted to center an intersectional and power-analytic approach to the way we developed and taught the class.

I just finished teaching it for the first time this winter term…and found it to be a really moving, amazing experience. Thought I’d make a couple of observations out loud, in addition to sharing the syllabus below.

Here’s the course description:

“This course presents a model of anti-racist social work practice focused on disaster and recovery.   It seeks to explore different kinds of hazards and disasters (natural and technical/ man made), offer both critique, research, and practical examples of the “disaster cycle,” with careful attention to disaster capitalism.   Content centers a strength-based lens, including emerging voices focused on “decolonizing disaster” practice and the roles of both professional systems/structures as well as mutual aid in unexpected events.

Creative ways of anticipating future needs and engaging local communities in planning are featured, and tensions present in this kind of work as it co-exists with other vital, urgent and important social, political and economic needs.   Also covered are important aspects as:  conducting skills of assessing, planning, interening and evaluating practice in disaster situations,  developing a supportive infrastructure (with particular attention to developing plans for the most vulnerable in a disaster), operating in an anti-racist and trauma-informed way, identifying and meeting real community needs, navigating often conflictual provider/responder networks,  identifying and activating community resilience, supporting workers throughout the disaster process and developing long-term supports for all involved.   Psychological, family-centered as well as political dimensions are considered throughout, as well as the phenomena of collective trauma (especially as it intersects with historical trauma and other types of distress).  Recent and contemporary contexts will provide important spaces to consider the importance of a more rapidly evolving, humane and human-rights centered approach to disaster social work.”

Here’s some things I learned – hopefully useful to other social workers who may wish to grow in this space, and/or to other faculty members who want to teach this kind of content.

  1. Expect that a proportion of students will have real world, lived experiences of disaster survival that they bring into the class. These students and these experiences may be above board (students may be open about and ready/willing/interested in sharing about them) or below board (students may not be open and not at all interested in sharing about their experiences beyond speaking with you as the instructor). Some of us (in our region) JUST went through a major forest fire scare/event in the months before the class…it was a real and fresh dynamic for those that live in the PacNW and California. And of course, all of us, carry a range of circumstances and memories related to our recent (and current) covid-19 era that can be interpreted through a disaster lens. The experiences, energies and traumas that folks carry from these experiences are real and should be anticipated gently and purposefully by an instructor. They are just as real as, and interact with, other kinds of identity-related or family-related experiences, strengths and/or traumas that students bring to the classroom. The work of being a good social work professor involves active engagement with not only attending to issues of power and privilege in the topics and content of class…but in the real work execution of the class itself. Power, privilege and -isms can play out in the experiences students have before and during the class. Take these all seriously and treat them respectfully – make space to be trauma informed about it and teach the students to do the same. For me, the learning in this space never ever ends.
  2. Designing a “build your own adventure” final project was a wonderful tactic for this class – students pursued things that appealed to their preferences, curiosities and passions. Numerous students did a agency analysis of disaster preparedness. It was shocking (though maybe should’t have been) that almost no agency had a solid, rigorous “ready” plan for disaster response. The most common reasons for this were simply related to being understaffed and underfunded. It shone a light on the extreme light on the intense vulnerability of agencies and spaces that serve the most vulnerable among us. A terrific variety of other types of final projects resulted as well. You can see a general list of the students’ ideas here.
  3. Aside from but related to this is the fact that the built structures where many social services are provided are also largely “behind” on all kinds of ongoing maintenance and upkeep…they too comprise additional risks as a result.
  4. The class was a vehicle for having students walk through the realities of the ways that systems can collapse (sometimes in cascades) the importance of them mentally preparing for/considering their ethical responsibilities when/if that happens. This topic felt “beyond” anything that is typically covered in social work education…but perhaps should be more so. “What should I do if ‘everything’ falls apart?” is an appropriate and important question for social work students to have explored in safe ways at some point.
  5. Balancing an anti-racist lens in terms of disaster prevention, preparation, intervention and recovery is not “hard.” There are amazing people, resources and literature available to inform this type of approach – many are gathered in the syllabus and study guide. What is most challenging is that a lot of this information is not really used in the mainstream discourse about disaster work – and in this way – most of the students were deeply inspired to “see their future work” in precisely this space. This, all acknowledged, is connected to the hard personal and systemic work to do anti-racism (and other anti-ism) oriented work in all social work spaces – but it is more than possible. Most acknowledged real fears of “doing harm” and the traps of (white) saviors in their work ahead (for those whom that applied) – as well as the importance of learning skills and perspectives to avoid that.
  6. Students reflected on “seeing the impacts” of many years of neoliberal shaping of the overall social welfare and health infrastructures in new ways as a result of the class. Their responses ranged from anger to despair.
  7. Students observed how privilege indeed shapes assumptions about disaster work in general.
  8. Labor issues for “disaster work” were considered…especially their rights.
  9. The class afforded new ways to think about grief – primarily “collective” grief (including related issues like anxiety, depression and other affective issues) at scale and how that has and potentially will be a space for social workers to be a positive force, but how it also requires the workers themselves to be immersed in grief in immense and challenging ways.
  10. Concepts of abolition, decolonization, reparation and liberation were considered in the class with regard to disaster work – students were “envisioning different worlds” of experiencing difficulties together in community that were very different than our current hierarchical methods – including but not limited to the power of mutual aid and the robust emerging knowledge about this topic.
  11. The realities ahead for all were discussed in terms of a new era of “living with disasters” in ways we are probably not collectively ready for was a backdrop of the class – and the existential truths of needing to do so as communities. This particular issue wasn’t viewed as a far distant consideration – but current and in some cases urgent. Helping themselves and communities they care for “get more ready” including obtaining needed resources was viewed as a central discovery and concern.
  12. Almost all the students “see this kind of work in their future” in a very real way – and reported a sense that the class helped them think about social work in more transformational ways. Looking for additional ways to seek training, make this topic part of their practice, engaging with communities in a variety of forms working on this issue, and doing more to personally be more “disaster ready” were all stated as “next steps” students would be taking.

I extend my utmost thanks and appreciation for the students in this first round of offering the class – it can always be “unknowable” how content will roll out, flow and need to be adjusted in the initial process of class development and implementation. All the students were incredibly gracious in their participation, support of each other, and contributions. Because of them and their suggestions – the class will continue to evolve and be better and better in the future.

I’d also like to thank additional advisors/guest speakers including: Mandy Davis, Ph.D., Susan Hedlund, LCSW, Ernie Jones, LCSW and Andrew Laue, LCSW – all of whom contributed to the richness of the experience. As mentioned – I’d like to extend my deepest gratitude to Eddie May (my co-developer of the class) for his feedback and contributions along the way.

Here’s the final syllabus and here’s the study guide.

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