In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, Karen Magruder, the director of undergraduate programs at UT-Arlington’s School of Social Work, explains how social workers like herself are responding to the impact of extreme weather, natural disasters and climate change on vulnerable communities.
Magruder is a licensed clinical social worker with experience in refugee resettlement, prison settings, hospice care and private practice. She describes how extreme heat waves in North Texas are taking a disproportionate toll on people living in urban areas and how professionals might address challenges through the growing field of “green” or “eco” social work.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Haley Samsel: Can you define “green social work” as a concept?
Karen Magruder: It goes by a few different names and, actually, “eco social work” is becoming a more popular term because ecological encapsulates better how systems are related to each other, and that it’s not just humans in the environment or just animals in the environment, but it’s a matter of how we all work together and relate within our environment.
Whether you say “environmental social work” or “green social work” or “ecological social work,” the idea is that we are applying social work values and skills to social justice issues that intersect with environmental problems. It’s not just environmentalism in terms of looking at sustainable clean energy or reducing pollution or that kind of thing. It’s specifically looking at intersectionality, and how issues related to say, the dumping of toxic waste, or the impacts of the climate crisis, disproportionately impact communities of color, lower-income individuals, people that have higher vulnerability to start with.
Samsel: How did you get interested in eco social work?
Magruder: I have always considered myself an environmental person. I was trying to be conscious of making sustainable choices and my own habits and cared about the environment. I very much enjoyed the mental health benefits of being out in nature. But I never really connected environmental issues to the social justice issues that I was working with as a social worker until really, Hurricane Harvey was the turning point for me.
At the time, I was working at a nonprofit, The Senior Source in Dallas, that serves older adults in a number of different programs. I was working as a long-term care ombudsman, where I was an advocate for residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and I volunteered using some of my mental health and crisis intervention skills as a social worker to serve at the mega shelter in the Dallas convention center that was housing a lot of evacuees that were coming up to the DFW area from Harvey. Since my focus at the time was aging, we helped to provide a lot of resources that the shelter was not equipped to handle.
A lot of the older evacuees in the shelter had basic things: food and sleeping quarters and whatnot. But they needed help with getting eyeglasses donated or walkers or adult (diapers) or other supplies or services, getting people connected to home health or assisted living care. When I was serving in that role, I just really saw how, again, those impacts of the storm were really disproportionate and that the older adults that I was working with had limited mobility and so it was harder for them to evacuate some of the medical equipment or services. It was really the first time that I saw that, hey, these issues that I work with, with older adults and seniors in general, some of those vulnerabilities or inequities were exacerbated when environmental disaster struck.
While I was in the same role, The Senior Source every summer has a Beat the Heat campaign, which is basically getting air conditioning units donated and installed for older adults who might not be able to afford to or have the ability to do that themselves. And we just saw the demand increasing. As I learned more about the climate crisis, (I saw) that this need is only going to increase and put increased strain on nonprofit organizations that are helping people cope with the intense heat and increasing heat that we’re seeing every summer in the DFW area.
From there, I wanted to learn more about the issue. I actually had the opportunity to participate in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, which is a training program. You actually get trained by Al Gore and some other leaders in climate issues to be able to then educate the public about climate change and the impacts and solutions. I also earned a certificate in climate change and health from Yale’s School of Public Health. I incorporated that new learning and experience into community service, and I was very involved with the Climate Reality Project’s DFW chapter, doing a lot of different service related work from tree planting to policy advocacy, engaging with communities on these issues and providing education about that.
Samsel: How have you brought that experience into your work as a faculty member?
Magruder: My course covers how social workers respond to extreme weather events or natural disasters and how we can do that crisis intervention. It talks about climate-forced migration, and how that impacts your refugee and immigration work. We talk about the health impacts and how that impacts social workers, even in hospital settings, and the mental health aspects.
We’re increasingly seeing that eco anxiety is becoming a more and more prominent concern, particularly among younger people who are experiencing some distress about how the environment is being impacted and what the projections are as the climate is changing. From a mental health perspective, how do we help people cope with that stress and grief and uncertainty of the loss of our habitat and changes in our climate? We cover a lot of different ground, but really looking at that idea of vulnerability.
Samsel: What do you mean by vulnerability to climate issues?
Magruder: When we think about the intersection between social justice and environmental issues, one of the key things that we often talk about is vulnerability, and there’s three key components that impact vulnerability when it comes to the environmental lens.
The first is exposure, which is how much are you exposed to these issues? If we take heat waves as an example, we know that because of the urban heat island effect, a lot of these areas in urban settings that tend to be higher concentrations of communities of color and lower income individuals are also the hottest places that can be five, seven, even 10 or 15 at the most, degrees warmer than it is in suburban outlying areas where there’s more tree cover and open spaces. If you maybe can’t afford to live in a nice, green, lush suburb, you’re also going to be exposed to those higher heat issues that can cause, obviously, heat exhaustion and health problems. Individuals who are experiencing homelessness also tend to live in the hottest parts of the city.
The second element is sensitivity. Some people are more sensitive to these issues. So if we take heat again, as an example, children are more physiologically susceptible to heat issues. They’re not just miniature adults – their bodies have a different composition and their skin is thinner, they hold less fluid internally. Children’s body temperature actually rises three to five times faster than in adults, and so a child is more sensitive to heat. Same thing with older adults who are physiologically less able to manage heat in the body. Interestingly, in both Dallas and Fort Worth, we have some of the highest ratios of children living in urban areas in our counties. Those are also some of the hottest areas so that impacts their ability to play outside and just has a big ripple effect.
Another example of sensitivity would be someone who has a chronic health condition and is taking certain medications. There’s certain medications like diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, even certain blood pressure medications that make someone more sensitive to extreme heat because they don’t sweat as much, or other things that are more likely to have serious health impacts when there’s a heat wave.
The final element of that vulnerability is adaptive capacity, or essentially your ability to be resilient or bounce back from those environmental issues when they come. When there is extreme heat, someone with a lower income might not be able to afford the increased energy bill that comes with cranking up their AC, or someone who’s a migrant farm worker might feel like they have more limited power to advocate for water breaks or things like that.
We see that there’s this combination, that vulnerable communities have higher exposure, higher sensitivity, and lower adaptive capacity, which is why this is not just an environmental issue that impacts everybody, but a social justice issue that’s disproportionately impacting the people that already may have disadvantages of different sorts.
Samsel: Can you give some examples of these eco social work practices? What does that look like?
Magruder: Social workers ascribe to the “person and environment” approach, which means that we don’t see people solely as what’s going on psychologically with them, but that they’re a product of their environment that’s biological, psychological, social, spiritual, cultural, etc. But a lot of times when people think about the environment, they consider the economic environment or the social and political environment, and sometimes forget about the literal, whether that’s the built environment – are things accessible to individuals with disabilities? – or the natural environment.
There’s a lot of direct practice that social workers can do. I will say in terms of a mental health or clinical perspective, there’s really two different avenues of dealing with climate issues. So one would be helping people cope and have resources and resilience and strategies to be able to handle eco anxiety or eco grief. That might be taking other existing modalities that we might use to treat anxiety or depression, like cognitive behavioral therapy, or mindfulness, or a solution-focused approach to specifically address eco anxiety. I’m actually in a doctoral program right now, and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on: using best evidence-based practices in therapy to specifically be able to acknowledge and normalize these feelings of eco anxiety. (We will) also be able to come up with tools specifically to address that and manage those feelings, both in terms of coping mentally, but then taking that anxiety or frustration or fear and moving that into taking action and overcoming that helplessness and being part of the solution.
Another field, I guess you could say that’s more traditionally known as eco therapy, is incorporating the natural environment as a tool in the therapeutic approach. A lot of this happens outside of the therapy office, and so there are clinicians that will take their clients out on a mindful nature walk or hike or conduct a therapy session in an outdoor area lakeside, or in a meadow or something like that, where the healing elements and the grounding elements of being out in a natural environment can help calm them and center them. That’s actually a part of the intervention instead of just talking through and using other therapeutic tools.
Samsel: What do you think agencies or the public can do to help alleviate some of these disparities when it comes to the urban heat island effect?
Magruder: The facts of the climate crisis can be daunting and overwhelming. I really hope that as people learn more about how our climate is changing, and all of the negative impacts, that instead of being paralyzed by fear, they feel empowered and inspired to take action, because every little bit of pitching in to work on the solution does matter.
Individual actions do matter. Of course, every individual can do a number of different things to reduce their own carbon footprint … but collective actions matter even more. The more that we can talk about it, and educate ourselves on these issues, and discuss that with the people that matter most to us, that’s going to bring that conversation forward.
Social workers, of course, have a lot of skills in working with individuals and communities that are well suited to dealing with environmental issues. But by no means do you need to be a climate scientist or a social worker to make a difference in this area. Whether you have skills in graphic design that you can donate to an agency, or whatever that looks like– maybe it’s music or poetry or art – to be able to make a difference and raise awareness about these issues.
You might think that it’s this distant threat or other people, but it’s Earth, and we all live here. We are all stakeholders in this issue, because I think we all want a better future for ourselves and our future generations.
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