Green Social Work catches on | Sunday Observer

Green Social Work catches on

Urging humankind to develop a different relationship with the earth than what it had in the past
Urging humankind to develop a different relationship with the earth than what it had in the past

On March 18 the National Institute of Social Development (NISD) that conducts the degree course in social work marked International Social Work Day starting with a walk from Vihara Mahadevi Park to the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute where the activities of the day took place.

Among the activities were presentations of success stories of students and graduates. I presented one on the expanding field of Green Social Work, where recognizing that environmental issues are the most critical in this 21st Century, social workers are using their skills and engaging in projects regarding these.

Green Social Work advocates a radical transformation of consciousness wherein humankind develops a different relationship with the earth than what it had in the past, and promotes the fact that every religion asks us to protect nature and considers it a sin to destroy nature, yet this is not taken up in religious teachings these days. Pope Francis has written a book Laudato Si, urging all people to recognize it as something that needs to be considered from a religious perspective and has asked all churches to take it up.

Many speakers referred to how the ordinary Sri Lankans responded so quickly to crises such as the Tsunami and cyclones helping everyone affected, yet when it comes to responding to the needs of the earth, Sri Lanka is way behind many other countries. It is however, heartening to note there is an increasing number of projects dealing with environmental issues, and social workers are leaders in these.

Waste Management and plastic damage are huge issues globally and in Sri Lanka. Two US Aid funded Waste Management Projects, Sevanatha in the Dehiwala Mount Lavinia and Janashakthan in the Negombo area are working on these issues, and employ several social workers who are involved in awareness training and facilitate solutions for issues. When it comes to plastic all programs agree that the greatest impact is by showing graphic pictures of the animals being harmed dreadfully by plastic as it touches humanity and the hearts of the people.

A particularly successful project on plastic was undertaken through Janashakthan by a student, in the village of Seththappduwa - near the Negombo lagoon. He worked with the YMCA youth, conducting full day training on waste through activities, to help them engage with the issues fully, as well as a leadership and drama training. This enabled the youth to be confident to speak to people and respond to any questions, using art form to promote their cause. Also, the whole program was done without using any plastic, demonstrating to the YMCA that conducts many programs how this could be done. The youth then went door to door in the village asking the community to separate waste, to use less plastic, recycle, and bring back the plastic caught in nets when fishing - rather than putting it back into the lagoon or sea - most of them were children of fishermen. There have been significant changes achieved in the village. On February 4, they cleaned the lagoon and stuffed the really dirty plastic bottles with dirty plastic bags and made eco bricks which they hope to use to build a wall. The YMCA has committed not to use plastic in their future programs. The youth plan to develop skits and perform in public places, to promote the relevant messages in the future. The YMCA is interested to promote Seththappaduwa as a model village on waste management.

Disaster is another area that Green Social Work is involved in. One student worked in an area that has become increasingly flood prone due to climate change and worked with the villagers to develop a Disaster Plan. The villagers had raised funds and tried for 13 years, unsuccessfully, to get a piece of state land to build a community centre for people to gather during floods. With the capacity building that the student provided them they were able to successfully obtain a piece of land for this.

Climate change is also affecting agriculture. Sasika Konaka, a social worker is the Project Manager for a project in the Anuradhapura area conducted by South Asia Partnership - SAPSRI. The project works closely with Agricultural Officers in the dry zone and farmers with small holdings, mostly women, who are vulnerable to the increasing droughts in the area. By reforesting the area, and using drought resistant seeds, and methods that use less water and labour, these farmers have been able to weather the droughts and successfully grow home gardens to meet their own needs.

Sevanatha employs 11 social workers and one student in their Waste Management and Water Management Programs, Janashakthan employs one social worker, one student and two volunteer social work students, and SAPSRI employs four social workers.

When asked SAPSRI why so many social workers were employed, their response was that social workers are passionate about their work, have good skills to build close relationships with the community and develop their capacity to work with Government and other agencies. They also have skills to network with organizations, build relationships with the officials and bring the communities and officers together to discuss and solve issues. The outcome has made the communities more empowered to work with agencies, while the agencies respected the communities. Both organizations attributed the success of their programs to the skills of the social workers in their teams.

A group of First Year students have enthusiastically embraced Green Social Work and are initiating their own projects, one is on people throwing rubbish in and out of trains and littering the Stations.

They organized a successful program named Rail and Green at the Colombo Fort Railway Station on March 23 where they did skits – flash mobs-and used posters to promote the message not to litter the Station and the trains. The staff at the Station wanted them to repeat it.

Coming from Australia with a commitment to the environment and having introduced Green Social Work to NISD, I look forward to seeing it grow in Sri Lanka.