Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Mental Health: Social Work Essentials

In recent posts, I’ve shared a lot of explorations regarding futures topics that I think will be most meaningful for future-facing social workers including artificial intelligence ideas as they intersect with social work, algorithmic bias, transparency and justice, and mental health technology and ethics.

But of course no real exploration of futures topics most impacting the practice of social work in the years to come would be complete without a thorough look into current literature related to climate change.

Climate change as it relates to mental health and environmental justice are essential aspects of futures- and foresight-oriented social work practice. Social workers and social work education has long been committed to including this topic in our “canon” of focal areas, and issues of climate well-being are increasingly topics faced, discussed and included in social work practice and research. This effort has recently culminated in inclusion of climate change-anchored research and practice in the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative. And yet, though we’d all agree this is an urgent and relevant issue…have we gone far enough to assure that climate change competencies become part of how we think, research, collaborate and practice? What might be involved in going even further to assure that social work maximizes our impact in this space?

One of my most central reference points in this area, has been the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.” I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few times. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend a deep dive. You can start here. This link will take you to a long-form lecture that Dr. Bullard did recently.

These are sobering areas of study – yet in each area there is reason to hope. Against the odds, there are scholars, activists and communities who actively seek to redirect the climate change trajectory from one of destruction, to one of revitalization and healing using a wide variety of strategies and tactics. As is said frequently within the futures practice world – the future is open, not fixed – and what we do now still very much matters. No where is this more true than related to the issue of climate change.

Whether it’s helping to de-code and assist people in naming and surviving in the face of climate change, or putting new levels of energy to bear in reversing and/or stopping climate change, this is another particularly urgent area of deep learning and relevance for social workers who have an eye towards the future!

As is my practice, I organized recent literature on this topic. For those that might wish to join me on a quick tour of “what’s new” in these combined area of practice (climate change as it relates to mental health – and – environmental justice) – you can link to the annotated bibliography and sector scan here. It is always in development. My goal is to boost the degree to which social workers can benefit from the best emerging information available. Let’s put it to good use and protect each other and our planet!

Why social work belongs in the future – and some ideas about how to get there!

Over the last year, I’ve had a LOT of conversations with social workers and social work educators around the country (and beyond) about “the future,” and futures frameworks to guide/expand our thinking about what our future roles might be. In an effort to stimulate a discourse, I’ve put together a lot of posts on this web as a precursor to a book I’m writing on this topic (bounce around to follow the journey), as well as put an annotated bibliography together for social workers to learn about/consider how futures frameworks might enhance our practice. I built a game for social work educators , and have done a number of presentations to social workers nationally on features of futures thinking/practice and introduced how these models might increase our impact. On my sabbatical next year, I’m also excited about the chance to put a “social work futures” course together. I’m grateful that CSWE saw fit to explore this issue in the last few years as well with a special task force on the topic.

As much fun as it can be to learn about essential futures frameworks as a starting point, it is also important to focus in on WHERE social work is most urgently needed in spaces where in many respects, the future is being “decided,” “developed” and “deployed.” What does it mean that these evolutions are in play without us (and the values/skills we bring) and we are not participating nor contributing in a major way?

Here are some starting places where the future is being developed that may/may not (sadly often do not) include social work voices/presence. These are places where SOCIAL WORKERS BELONG!! We are learning that we may not always be invited…so sometimes we just have to invite ourselves and begin contributing. Given how “interdisciplinary” these sectors are, so far, folks I know who have been engaged have found these spaces to be welcoming of our ideas, methods, values and presence. So jump in – here’s some ideas!!

  • Tech for social good hackathons
  • Social enterprise and the role of the private sector in social good
  • Algorithmic transparency, justice and bias work as the evolution of social justice/anti-racism work*
  • Universal guaranteed income and the future of the economy/alternative economic models
  • Smart cities and democracy*
  • The future of work and how to transition vulnerable workers to it
  • Technology access as a human right*
  • Use of big data for social good* (including in policy-making and/or helping communities have access to interpreting/using big data for their own purposes)
  • Development, testing and/or evaluation of apps for mental health and/or other social determinants of health, family well-being, etc.*
  • Technology and health – including access to more equitable distribution of access to health resources, tech-related supports for disabilities, state of the art treatments, etc.*
  • Immigration/relocation issues – relevant to both international immigration/relocation as well as climate change related relocation
  • Disaster/emergency preparedness work
  • Use of technology for community organizing and the future of democracy*
  • Each and every practice area we work in is also on a path to its own “future” – for example, the future of child welfare practice, the future of mental health practice, the future of addictions practice, the future of interpersonal violence, the future of aging practice, the future of homelessness, the future of anti-racism practice and on and on and on. At the VERY least, each of us has an ethical responsibility to learn to track and engage in guiding how our issues are conceptualized, reinforced with best practice, aided by tech where possible, and improved.
  • Futures/foresight learning spaces – like the “foresight practitioner” training offered through the Institute for the Future where I’ve just become a research fellow. (There are other organizations offering similar training – but I’m most familiar with and respectful of this one…!)

*These topics are increasingly coalescing around a new area of practice called “public interest technology” which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog.

That said, I want to give a shout out to a burgeoning group of social workers and social work educators/researchers who are active in these circles (for example I’m putting together a separate blog post about social workers who develop apps for social change/social good). The folks who are currently doing social work in these spaces are our guides – but as a whole, I believe we need to do a lot to elevate, celebrate and study their work to grow both their impact and those that will learn from and follow them. IF YOU ARE A SOCIAL WORKER OR SOCIAL WORK ACADEMIC WORKING OR DOING RESEARCH IN THIS SPACE – please get in touch. I’d love to highlight your work in what I’m gathering, add you to my growing data base and “boost your signal” to others in our field!!

But I also want to suggest (supportively as well as with a critique) that these topics are seldom covered in a meaningful way in our social work curricula. We need to move more quickly to meet and create the future that we want to see. Our “gaze” needs to lift up to observe, imagine, challenge and move into new spaces, new opportunities with new allies and partners if we hope to have impact in the ways we envision. The world is changing quickly – are we ready?

Algorithmic Transparency, Bias and Justice

Algorithms are a huge part of modern life. So much so that we sometimes forget they have arrived. Indeed they are primarily “invisible” to everyday people, working behind the scenes to sort data and make decisions that reflect the opinions of a few algorithm designers behind the scenes. Sometimes these algorithms can be life changing/life saving, for example when cancer diagnosis can be made through a combination of machine learning and algorithms that can scan hundreds of thousands of xrays to detect the tiniest irregularity that a human might miss. But other times, like racially biased facial recognition software that might inaccurately identify someone as a criminal suspect – are much more concerning. Increasingly, the ideas of “algorithmic transparency,” “algorithmic racism/bias,” and “algorithmic justice” have come into more prevalent conversation among social justice circles.

There is much learning and development going on with regard to this topic. Of all the “future facing” topics one might consider in terms of urgent need for attention in social work – in my estimation – this is one of the most important. As the rate of adoption of new technologies (most often emerging from the private sector) continues to accelerate, algorithms that don’t incorporate ethical and bias-free dimensions are a frequent point of discussion among social justice advocates. What is the pathway forward and how do we continue to increase social work practice and research attention in this area?

I would suggest that this is the most under-discussed ethical challenge of the future for the profession of social work. We need to dramatically increase the depth, range and focus of our ethical evolution to participate in and shape the future of these technologies that work for people and that prevent harm and injustice. We should concern ourselves with identifying how and where algorithms are starting to emerge and be active in our social work practice spaces (clinical and macro). Collectively – we are starting to develop a shared and critical literacy regarding these important and ubiquitous forces, and challenge a need for clear and explicit ethical guidelines/rules.

For those who are completely new to this topic, here’s a great primer.

While there are pockets of enthusiasm for dialogue about these developments in social work, we have a long way to go to assert where and how we can operate most ethically – and what that looks like given the changing dynamics at play.

Here’s a reading/resource list of resources to get started – with great respect for the groundbreaking work of all who have been leaders in this space.

  • Dr. Desmond Patton is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University in New York City. I’ve previously listed his work on my blog but want to underscore the significant leadership he’s contributed within social work to this topic. Here’s a recent article he put together for Medium. He’s also the Principal Investigator of the Safe Lab project at Columbia which is a research initiative focused on examining the ways in which youth of color navigate violence on and offline.
  • Data for Black Lives is a national network of over 4,000 activists, organizers, and scientists using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people. For far too long, data has been weaponized against Black communities – from redlining to predictive policing, credit scoring and facial recognition. But we are charting out a new era, where data is a tool for profound social change. (From their website here!)
  • The Institute for the Future has developed an “Ethical OS” toolkit to provide a structure for tech experts to use to deepen their adherence to ethical principles while developing tech tools. Check it out here.

These are the books currently on my shelf on this topic:

Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating inequality: How high tech tools profile, punish and police the poor. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Review here.

Lane, J. (2019). The digital street. New York: Oxford Press. Review here.

Noble, S.U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press. Review here.

O’Neill, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Broadway Books. Review here – scroll down where her TED talk is included.

Also, I’ve collected numerous recent articles about bias, “isms” and ethics concerns regarding algorithmic transparency/bias as follows:

Behind every robot is a human (2019)

The new digital divide is between people who opt out of algorithms and those who don’t (2019)

Collection of new articles from the Brookings Institute regarding AI and the future (2019)

Artificial intelligence is ripe for abuse, tech researcher warns: A fascist’s dream (2019)

Algorithmic Accountability Act (2019)

Amazon Alexa launches its first HIPAA compliant medical unit (2019)

Facial recognition is big tech’s latest toxic gateway app (2019)

That mental health app might share your data without telling you (2019)

Europe is making AI rules now to avoid a new tech crisis (2019)

AI’s white guy problem isn’t going away (2019)

Europe’s silver bullet in global AI battle: Ethics (2019)

A case for critical public interest technologists (2019)

Ethics alone can’t fix big tech (2019)

Government needs an “ethical framework” to tackle emerging technology (2019)

Tech with a social conscience and why you should care (2019)

Trading privacy for security is another tax on the poor (2019)

Congress wants to protect you from biased algorithms, deep fakes and other bad AI (2019)

AI must confront its missed opportunities to achieve social good (2019)

AI systems should be accountable, explainable and unbiased says EU (2019)

One month, 500 thousand face scans: How China is using AI to profile a minority (2019)

How recommendation algorithms run the world (2019)

Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI (2019)

Facial recognition is accurate if you’re a white guy (2018)

Facial recognition software is biased towards white men, researcher finds (2018)

A Social Work Futures Game – LET’S PLAY!!!

Recently, I was asked to develop a futures game for Deans and Directors of Social Work (NADD) around the United States. This is a group I’ve been proud to be part of for the past six years, but will soon be exiting as I end my deanship at Portland State University (for a sabbatical to explore/work on several futures projects and then returning to my faculty position!!)

Gaming is increasingly being used as a method for engaging, educating, focusing and energizing people to work on common goals – it is moving way beyond ideas of “winning and losing” from a futures perspective. While now a few years old, well-known gaming futurist Jane McGonigal has a classic TED talk on this topic – which you can see (and read this accompanying summary) here.

Here’s another more academic article about gaming theory and practice for various populations, settings and purposes in a futures context.

My own futures game is intended:

  • To stretch social work students, faculty and practitioners’ minds to consider possible future trajectories and what it means to be “ready” (as much as possible) for alternative futures.  
  • To develop specific “next steps” in futures readiness planning.
  • To serve as a tool in “foresight” capacity development individually and collectively for social workers and social work educators.
  • To develop our collective agility, creativity and intelligence as a profession regarding the challenges we will face in our shared future.

This is a “beta” version which is to say that I’m planning on making adjustments and will probably add additional scenarios in the future. For now, I invite you (especially if you’re a social worker, student or social work educator) to explore the game and use it in a setting that it might be useful! If you do, please keep me in the loop and share your feedback and ideas about how I can make the game even more relevant and helpful!

You can download the game here!

Here’s to using gaming to build a better world in social work! Have fun!!

Special thanks to Dean Goutham Menon at Loyala University for the invitation to develop and pilot this game, to Dean Nancy Smyth at University of Buffalo for development consultation, and to the participants of the Spring 2019 NADD meeting for participating in the game for the first time and providing invaluable ideas and encouragement.

Activism and the Future: Beyond the Term “Burnout” and Deepening our Ability to Care for Ourselves and Each Other for the Long Haul

Activism, resistance and the right to engage in our democratic process of holding our government (and other elements of our community) accountable is among the most important of our ideals as social workers. These ideas and practices show up in our core mission statements, our codes of ethics and beyond. And if the present moment suggests anything…it suggests a future that will involve deepening need and hopefully commitment by able activists to keep causes moving forward.

Clearly, the work we do is taxing. Movement work can engage and challenge us beyond our limits, requires us to risk, stretch and practice our ideals in often less-than-ideal circumstances.

Sometimes people leave the effort – and sometimes people explain why that happens as “burnout.” If our movements are going to endure, succeed, and advance – and if we have a future that involves true progress…we need to imagine and consider all of the elements we can control that contribute to the loss of key people so important to social justice efforts.

Is social justice work burnout a real thing? Will it impact the future in negative ways if good people don’t stay engaged with social movement efforts? I searched for the ideas of smart folks in this work – to best anchor some of this thinking in my own pursuit of futures frameworks for social work practice.

It is likely that our challenges will increase, that our movement work will get more complex, and that easy solutions to injustice will not be readily apparent. If we are in it for the long haul…what does that mean? How do we best care for each other in our work? And why does that matter for a social work future?

Here is an ongoing list of ideas that I found in the literature related to this topic. These go well beyond the idea of simple “burnout” which is a term recently called into question for being an oversimplification of a much deeper structural set of barriers to well-being. I found these pieces really inspiring – hope you do too! Join in the conversation – and let’s do all we can to build a vibrancy, equity and health in our very demanding work!

Social Work Futures: A Call to Action

I’ve been working on a brief statement about my work – and why I think it is so vital (and exciting) for social work to consider at least a review of, if not integration of, futures frameworks in our practice. This blog has been a place to gather the thinking and perspectives of a lot of folks who are doing work in this space. Gradually, I’m going to begin shifting to sharing some of my own original writing as I start to find and use my own “social work futures voice.”

I’m seeking out comments about what I’ve put together – check it out here. Please share your thoughts. Is a futures lens needed in social work? I think so…what about you?

Futures Questions for Social Workers – An Ongoing Exploration

The futures literature (and its related companion areas) are fascinating, shocking, inspirational, scary, stimulating, creative and far-reaching – sometimes all at once! As I read, consider, evaluate, examine and imagine – I return to the idea of how my own profession of social work “relates” to concepts like artificial intelligence, the future of work, block chain and beyond. I think about our social work education “competency-based” turn (requiring evidence of not just knowledge gained, but competencies demonstrated…) – and consider what does it mean to be a competent (let along talented) social worker who is future facing and effective? To stretch in this area – I’ve been working on a thought experiment which has involved simply accumulating questions that I think social work education should wrestle with if our intention is to be ready to meet the future as prepared as we might be. Feel free to offer any additional suggestions – this list is only a start.

Wouldn’t this be a fun list of questions to use in a class just to get conversation going with a group of social work students to help them think “bigger” about our current and future roles, as well as the dynamics most likely to impact the communities we serve? Please try them out – and let me know how the questions work in practice? I’d love to hear back from you!!!

  • How will climate change impact vulnerable populations in my geographic area? What role might I play in preventing/mitigating this and/or engaging vulnerable populations to play a role? How does this issue of climate change consideration “fare” when up against such concerns as poverty, homelessness, health care access, etc.?
  • How will “the future of work” impact vulnerable people in my geographic area? What jobs are disappearing? What does displacement related to this look like? What opportunities exist/should exist for displaced workers?
  • Is access to technology and/or technological resources a social justice issue? What should be done to center it as such?
  • How is increasing monitoring and information/data collection likely to impact vulnerable populations? What levers exist to examine, build ethical guidelines, and get them utilized?
  • What technology is emerging that will likely a) put vulnerable populations at greater risk, or b) empower and engage vulnerable populations? How do issues of “trust” and “privacy” play in spaces where social workers work and vulnerable people have limited resources/power given increasing use of these technologies?
  • What is the future of “my issue” – e.g. child welfare, addictions, mental health, homelessness, social justice, and others? What emergent strategies are considered cutting edge (e.g. guaranteed income/asset building) and where are they being tested and to what end?
  • How will social organizing, political engagement, social change work be impacted by emergence of new tools and are we learning/taking advantage of these new options?
  • What is the future of equity work and how can new technologies and artificial intelligence contribute to or exacerbate equity in our communities? How has expression of racism (and other isms) shifted in a more technologically connected world and who is tracking/addressing this? How? What are the future of these strategies?
  • What is our role in interrupting the work of powerful stakeholders who ignore future impacts on vulnerable people/communities? How can we use state of the art advocacy tools and/or join with others to do so?
  • How can governmental agencies/nation-states who are using futures models influence possible policy targets for us in our practice communities?
  • What role are my national associations and accrediting boards imagining, strategizing and incorporating well-conceptualized and rigorously debated alternate futures to ensure not only success of our profession, but effectiveness in our roles?
  • How will “the future of work” impact social work of the future? How will we partner with artificial intelligence? How will we play a role in designing/testing/challenging/scaling possible technologically-anchored interventions of the future? What technologies do we need to learn/develop fluency in to be ready to achieve our goals while we simultaneously guard our values?
  • Is development of our code of ethics evolving to meet the inevitably complex practice landscape that we will find ourselves in, in the future? What are the most important emerging “cutting edges” of ethics work and how might I consider how they impact me as a social worker?
  • How will technology change the way that health care, legal services, and other key professional services are deployed and how does that have the potential to assist/harm vulnerable people?

This is only a partial list – but you can glean the complexity, risk and opportunity. Here’s to learning, exploring and building answers to as many of these questions as we can!