Dr. Meredith Powers’ Environmental Justice course is the definition of interdisciplinary.

This semester’s cohort of undergraduate and graduate students is a mixed bag of academic disciplines – social work, biology, public health, anthropology, peace and conflict studies and others.

The curriculum is an extension of Powers’ scholarship on the intersection of social work and environmental studies – two disciplines that, at first, may seem unrelated. But according to Powers, this intersection dates back to the inception of the field.

“Pioneers in social work did a lot of work involving waste management, environmental hazards and parks and recreation. However, our history got a little lost,” Powers said. “Now, there’s a growing number of social workers exploring these issues across the globe, but we’re not doing enough in the classroom. This should be part of our professional identity as social workers – we have to help students see how their clients are impacted by the environment, and vice versa.”

This class does just that, and more. Over the course of the semester, Powers and her students have explored injustices related to the unequal burden of environmental hazards or unequal share of environmental benefits ­– for example, food and water access and issues related to housing.

It’s a broad curriculum that has relevance in countless fields. For social work students in particular, the course serves as practical career preparation.

“We want our social work students to think critically about how they can make changes in the community and in a client’s environment,” Powers said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as bringing plants into the home of an older adult and making sure the caregiver is taking them outside often to reconnect with nature.”

Outside of the classroom, Powers is working on connecting scholars from across disciplines who do similar work related to community and environmental sustainability.

“People have been doing this work for years, but we don’t all know each other,” she said. “I want to help change that.”

 

Photo of students in a line, participating in hands-on activity outside.

Powers’ students participate in an interactive activity designed to demonstrate how Earth’s resources are used and shared.

 

Photo of seedling in plastic bottle.

Students plant tree seedlings in plastic bottles reclaimed from trash cans around campus. Once the seedlings are mature, they will be transplanted around Greensboro.

 

Group photo of class outside. Students are holding seedlings in bottles.


“This class is my passion,” Powers said. “We have a really interesting group of students this year. They come in with their own expertise, so I try to tap into that.”

 

Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications