Human activity is driving global environmental degradation and threatening human health, well-being and survival. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree with a specialization in Ecological Justice will prepare you to cultivate a compassionate human presence on Earth guided by social work values of equity and justice. This specialty will challenge you to envision and create a world—inclusive of natural and built environments—that is thriving, healthy and regenerative for all. You will gain the knowledge and skills to address environmental crises and to protect and restore well-being for people, other species and the planet. 

Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, natural resource depletion, and other urgent environmental problems are rooted in structural inequalities, oppression and lack of understanding of social–ecological systems and interdependencies. Specializing in Ecological Justice will help you develop a deep understanding of these systemic issues and how to address them. Core topics include social–ecological systems, critical anti-oppressive practice, systems thinking, traditional ecological knowledge, regenerative futures, social and environmental impact assessment, global and domestic policies for ecological justice, program development and administration, and strategies for building the resilience of individuals, groups or communities. You’ll graduate ready for a career as a social worker who applies social justice and ecological justice knowledge, values and skills to improve the health and well-being of all life. 

The Ecological Justice Pathway includes focus areas such as:

  • System Change Focus: Prepare to work in roles such as a climate justice director, community organizer, grants administrator or sustainability specialist, for example.
  • Clinical Focus: Prepare to apply your ecological justice knowledge as a therapist, advocate, case manager or disaster relief worker, for example.
  • Wellness Focus: Prepare for a career as a recreation specialist or wellness program coordinator, for example.
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Your Career Options

With an MSW specialty in Ecological Justice, your social work career could include: 

  • Developing and advocating for policies that promote the health of people and the planet 
  • Working on projects to support circular and regenerative economies locally, nationally or internationally 
  • Working with non-governmental organizations and local, regional and national governments on issues such as environmental racism, air pollution, food security, biodiversity preservation and energy justice 
  • Applying social–ecological systems science and understandings in all work settings to improve relationships humans have with other species and the natural environment

Featured Courses

  • Social–Ecological Resilience: Connecting Human & Environmental Well-Being | SOWK 4360

    This course builds a social ecology perspective that emphasizes integrated social–ecological systems as a necessary theoretical framework for understanding the interconnectedness of human health, well-being and resilience with that of other species and the natural environment. You will review and analyze theoretical concepts and models for contextualizing the important social and ecological issues impacting our global environment as well as the societal implications of global environmental change. Using an integrated social science approach that highlights regenerative development, you will be prepared to implement effective, strengths-based solutions to support sustainable development and capacity-building efforts at various scales in the United States and abroad.

  • Social and Environmental Impact Assessments | SOWK 4565

    Social and environmental impact assessments are important tools for analyzing and managing both the intended and unintended consequences of development projects on human and ecological systems in order to bring about a more equitable and sustainable social ecological system. This class incorporates an understanding of the history and concepts of the three levels of impact assessments (micro, mezzo and macro) into the research process that is the core of social impact assessments. You will be able to prepare and evaluate social ecological impact assessments by learning to identify and define problems, select theoretical frameworks appropriate to the problem, identify research questions, design a study appropriate for the identified questions, gather and analyze data and write a final assessment.

  • Environmental Change Impacts and Resilience Strategies for Mental Health | SOWK 4990

    The impacts of the climate crisis and global environmental degradation are becoming increasingly apparent upon mental health. Social workers are well positioned to address the mental health implications of the climate crisis, ecological injustice and environmental degradation. Understanding how these phenomena bear upon the mental well-being of clients and communities will be explored in this required choice methods/skills class. Emphasis will be placed on building resilience to climate grief, solastalgia, eco-anxiety and climate trauma utilizing a strengths-based perspective. Students will develop knowledge and awareness of how climate change impacts our thoughts, emotions and behavior to be of support to clients and foster self-care as social work practitioners.

  • Wellness Promotion and Intervention Across the Lifespan | SOWK 4501

    This course builds students’ skills and strategies to enhance wellness for individuals, organizations and communities. Students will explore differences and beliefs related to health and wellness in both their internal/personal experience and in social work practice. Course topics include soul- and nature-based human development models, Eastern and Indigenous medicine models, and traditional or evidenced-based wellness frameworks. The Western medical industrial complex of ableism and “moral and physical fitness” is focused on illness prevention. In contrast, holistic health models focus on wellness promotion. Students create wellness promotion plans for an organization or community to address gaps found in data for private, public, tribal health systems, community health and in organizational and public policies. The course emphasizes interdisciplinary knowledge and skills, professional ethics and values and the role of social workers as change agents in creating solutions for public health issues at micro, mezzo and macro levels.

  • Creating a Regenerative Future | SOWK 4990

    This course explores how we can create a regenerative future that is life-renewing for people and planet—a future in which all people, species and ecosystems thrive. The concept of a “regenerative future” will be examined for how it goes beyond the limitations of a sustainability paradigm and analyzed from the lenses of ecological justice and power, privilege and oppression. This course will use frameworks of permaculture, regenerative design and futures thinking to move beyond “fixing” climate change or other planetary emergencies to a more robust, holistic framework for planning socio-ecological change. Students will gain skills of regenerative design, regenerative mapping and emergent theories of change. These skills will be discussed in a vast array of applications (with both social and ecological systems) to focus on integration and regeneration of humans and the more-than-human world.

  • Global Social Change | SOWK 4765

    Social development is a process of planned change intended to bring about a better correspondence between human needs and social policies and programs. This class has a fully global focus with particular emphasis on transitioning economies to align with human well-being. Through this practice-oriented class, you will gain knowledge of policymaking for global human security within a dramatically changing environment and build the skills required for local social development.


Learn more about the Ecological Justice Pathway.

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Featured Faculty

Sarah Bexell

Sarah Bexell

Clinical Associate Professor; Faculty Director, Center of Sustainability

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Lisa Reyes Mason

Lisa Reyes Mason

Associate Professor; Interim Dean of the Graduate School or Social Work

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Rachel Forbes

Rachel Forbes

Associate Professor of the Practice of Social Work, Western Colorado MSW Program Director

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Daniel Brisson

Daniel S. Brisson


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Explore some of our field education locations with a focus on ecological justice

  • Earthlinks

    EarthLinks cultivates transformation and self-worth with people experiencing homelessness and poverty by creating opportunities through Earth-centered programs. Individuals step out of isolation and into a community, restoring each other and the planet. Interns learn how to set professional boundaries and communicate with diverse populations while experiencing conservation social work and One Health—uniting the health of the planet with the health of humans. 

  • Re:Vision

    Re:Vision is a community-based nonprofit working in Southwest Denver neighborhoods to cultivate thriving, resilient communities by establishing community food systems, building collective efficacy and igniting community wealth building. Interns help families improve their access to fresh food by growing fresh fruits and vegetables in their backyard.

  • 350 Colorado

    350 Colorado is building a movement of everyday people to transition away from fossil fuels and toward 100% renewable energy. Interns support and mobilize grassroots community organizing efforts to address the climate crisis and create a better Colorado.

  • Urban Land Conservancy

    The Urban Land Conservancy preserves and stewards affordable land and housing. Interns support outreach, data and research efforts alongside the strategy and communications team, contributing to the vision of vibrant, diverse neighborhoods in Denver with thriving quality of life.

Application Information

Upcoming Final Application Deadline: Summer 2024 Denver Campus Advanced-Standing MSW Program

Craig Hall building

Denver Campus Info Sessions

We offer 1-hour, virtual and 3-hour, in-person information sessions for our Denver Campus MSW programs. During these sessions, we will discuss the MSW program, admissions process and financial aid options. There will also be a Q&A where you can chat with current students about their experience at GSSW.

The in-person information sessions include a tour of GSSW and the surrounding University of Denver campus. After the tour, prospective students and guests will receive tickets for a complimentary lunch at DU's Community Commons.