Spotlight Story

08 November 2023

Rachel Forbes: Leading the Integration of Social Work in Climate Change Resiliency

Category: Spotlight Story

Guaranteeing environmental justice encompasses the integration of all sectors of public health to work through the many challenges people face as members of social groups. Rachel Forbes, a faculty member of the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver and the Director of the Western Colorado Master of Social Work Program, is doing just that. Through her professional trajectory, she has centered on the intersection of social work and environmental justice. She's deeply committed to making social workers an integral part of the environmental justice movement.

Rachel’s journey in social work began in New Jersey, where she grew up. She completed a Master of Social Work degree, focusing on international and community development, and she has been actively contributing to the field ever since.

“I see myself as a professional social worker, as someone who continues to look at the social impacts of the climate crisis and someone who can elevate how folks like social workers who historically work with vulnerable populations can be more involved in environmental justice work.”

Growing up in a coastal community in New Jersey, she encountered the devastating effects of environmental injustice firsthand during Hurricane Sandy. Witnessing the disparities in the aftermath of the disaster, she recognized the need for a more equitable approach.

“I think with any disaster, there are disparities along the lines of race, along the lines of gender, and ability. So, that was one of the first eye-opening experiences for me early on in my career to say, ‘As a social worker, I'm seeing how these issues are all intersecting from an environmental and social justice perspective, so what can I do as a social worker, and what can I do in my profession to continue to elevate these issues and provide a more equitable response?”

Her relocation to Colorado's mountains exposed her to different environmental challenges, including wildfires and flooding. She closely observed how these crises disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, underscoring the importance of ensuring equitable disaster response. Rachel’s approach to these challenges is marked by a deep understanding of the disproportionate effects of these environmental challenges on diverse populations, encompassing mental health and overall well-being.

As a professional social worker, Rachel aims to bridge the gap between social work and environmental justice, advocating for the integration of social workers in environmental initiatives. Her recent contribution as a co-editor to the book Ecosocial Work, Environmental Practice, and Advocacy showcases various ways in which social workers can actively engage in environmental justice work, from addressing air pollution's health impacts to examining environmental toxins in health and beauty products used by communities of color. It also delves into the repercussions of climate change on mental health, particularly concerning depression and anxiety.

Rachel's involvement with the Hispanic Access Foundation has been instrumental in her mission to address environmental justice. She was introduced to the foundation a few years ago and quickly became engaged in its initiatives, such as being an ambassador for Latino Conservation Week.

“That was something that I thought was exciting because I had never heard of that kind of initiative, and I thought, ‘there has to be other Latinos out there doing this kind of work. How can I build relationships, be part of the community, understand and celebrate the successes of Latinos doing conservation work?’”

Subsequently, Rachel became an active member of the Latino Climate Council, where she collaborates with other like-minded individuals to identify climate change solutions and strategies rooted in Latino communities. This engagement enables her to share resources, and ideas, and work collaboratively on projects aimed at tackling the climate crisis.

One of her standout contributions alongside the Hispanic Access Foundation is her involvement in the Latino Connections to Waterways report. This report centers on how Latinos interact with specific geographical regions, including the Colorado River and the Mississippi River watershed. It delves into the role of Latino communities in recreation and conservation activities in these areas and explores the issues concerning water quality and water justice. The report sheds light on the challenges faced by Latino communities in accessing safe and clean drinking water.

Rachel's philosophy of servant leadership guides her approach to addressing environmental justice issues.

“I've reflected a lot about leadership and what that means for me as I continue to be of service to my communities. This is something that I think is important when we think about the environment and when we think about all systems, all living beings as being these critical components of life that we need to sustain on this planet. What's most important to me is, again, just being of service to all life on this planet.”

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