An Exploratory Study of Students’ Perceptions of Environmental Issues as Social Work Practice and Their Understanding of Environmental Justice

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As environmental crises continue to rise, the profession of social work in the US is being called to incorporate environmental justice content in the training and education of social workers to prepare them for addressing the effects of environmental injustices; however, students’ awareness of the profession’s environmental justice mission is uncertain. The current mixed-method study sought to explore this issue amongst a sample of social work students (N = 724) in the US. Overall, students mildly to moderately believe that environmental issues are part of practice, and regression results revealed that greater support was associated with the belief in climate change and completing a university course that included environmental injustice. Content analysis of an open-ended question that asked students to define ‘environmental justice’ revealed that students primarily defined this term within the context of general environmental harm (28%) and 15% linked this term to a disproportionate exposure to hazards among people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized. Together these results suggested that further educational efforts may be needed to expand students’ knowledge of environmental (in)justice and how it is part of practice across the micro-macro continuum.