Skip to main content

MSW & DRL Dual Degree: Preparing Social Workers for Disaster Resilience Leadership

October 6, 2020

Our abilities to prevent and mitigate the dangers of disasters such as hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and terrorist attacks may have limits, but improving disaster preparation, response, and recovery planning can lessen their devastating impact and save lives. This is the work of disaster resilience leaders.

The loss of life and widespread suffering caused by disastrous events such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the COVID-19 pandemic underscore the critical need for disaster leadership and social assistance before, during, and after a crisis.

Tulane University’s Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership (MSW/MS-DRL) dual degree provides a unique opportunity for professionals to build the skills necessary to take on leadership roles in the field of disaster management and resilience. A closer examination of disaster resilience and the role of disaster resilience leaders illustrates the value of this interdisciplinary graduate program.

What Is Disaster Resilience?

Disaster resilience refers to the capacity of different groups and systems — individuals, households, communities, and markets — to absorb the effects of a disaster and recover from it. Common examples of natural and human-made disasters include:

  • Armed conflicts
  • Winter storms (e.g., avalanches and freezes)
  • Pandemics
  • Droughts
  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Industrial accidents
  • Mudslides
  • Utility outages
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Transportation accidents
  • Tsunamis
  • Wildfires
  • Water shortages (e.g., South African water crisis and Flint water crisis)

Such events threaten our health, food and water supplies, personal security, economic growth, and mental wellbeing. Underlying factors, including climate change, political instability, poverty, and social inequities, can increase the risk that any one of these events poses to a particular community.

Disaster resilience is not synonymous with disaster response, which generally refers to relief work that occurs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, as well as in the following days, weeks, and months. The field of disaster resilience includes response actions but also encompasses preparedness, mitigation, and long-term recovery.

Natural Disasters: A Growing Threat

The “Fourth National Climate Assessment,” a study published by the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in 2018, notes that extreme weather and climate-related events are becoming more frequent. The USGCRP, which includes participation from 13 federal departments and agencies, warns that such events will damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems, and the effects of the damage will not be experienced equally:

“People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts. Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities.”

The United Nations has also recognized the growing threat of disasters related to climate change, as evidenced by its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 objectives for creating a more sustainable future. The wide-ranging SDGs, which target issues ranging from poverty to clean energy, are heavily informed by the Sendai Framework, a document developed and adopted by the U.N. member states during the 2015 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan.

Several of the 17 SDGs are related to disaster risk reduction and align directly with the Sendai Framework’s measures for preventing disasters and reducing disaster risk. For example, the Sendai Framework emphasizes disaster risk reduction as an integral part of climate change adaptation and sustainable development, and it promotes investments in technology development in disaster risk management research. These priorities are reflected in SDG 9, which calls for building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation; and SDG 13, which urges action to combat climate change.

Each of the interlinked SDGs has specific targets and indicators for measuring progress. All are intended to be achieved by 2030.

Disaster Resilience and Social Work

Social workers play an important role in responding to disaster to assist with recovery. Their values and practices align with the needs of assisting the most vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster. For example, social workers provide emotional and mental health support, including traumatic stress counseling, and they work to connect families to food, housing, and health resources. They are also inherently focused on reducing negative impacts on vulnerable communities. These competencies give them a unique perspective that disaster resilience professionals in other fields might not have.

Social workers with relevant training and experience in community organizing and policy development can play an even larger role in disaster resilience. Combining the core training of social work with disaster resilience leadership competencies creates a broad skill set that professionals can use to address the unique leadership challenges associated with disaster management. Social workers with these skills can coordinate public and private sector services and take proactive steps to reduce risk and increase resilience, such as:

  • Making sure communities and individuals have access to essential risk and hazard information
  • Ensuring government organizations, businesses, and community organizations have inclusive disaster recovery and resilience plans in place
  • Forming community groups that can provide not only services after a disaster but also a vision for sustainable communities

Disaster resilience leaders also advocate for policies and investments that reduce the loss of life and economic damage associated with disasters. Examples include structural investments in levees and dams, disaster-resistant construction, ocean wave barriers, and evacuation structures. They also plan and advocate for non-structural measures such as the creation and enforcement of building codes, land-use planning laws, business continuity, research and assessment resources, and public awareness programs.

Benefits of a Dual Degree

Tulane’s Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership dual degree program uniquely brings together a graduate-level education focused on disaster and risk management with interdisciplinary leadership training. The MSW/MS-DRL curriculum includes a comprehensive range of disciplines and areas of study, including:

  • Clinical social work practice
  • Disaster operations
  • Diversity and social justice
  • Sustainability
  • Environmental justice and advocacy
  • Economics of disasters
  • Environment and infrastructure
  • Human and social factors of disasters
  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Measurement and evaluation
  • Organization and community practice
  • Policy advocacy

Combining a core social work curriculum with disaster and risk management training prepares future leaders to identify threats facing a community, assess the likelihood of a given disaster and its potential damage, and develop risk strategies and policies. This skill set prepares graduates to take on leadership roles in diverse areas of practice, including:

  • Emergency preparedness
  • Disaster management
  • Disaster monitoring and evaluation
  • Nonprofit organization leadership
  • Social services coordination
  • Resilience and community development
  • Disaster risk and recovery assessments
  • Policy development

Preparing for Leadership

Tulane’s Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership dual degree prepares students to launch careers that directly address disaster resilience. The program’s unique curriculum and field internship program give students the knowledge to plan for the future and a changing environment. Contained within the Tulane University School of Social Work, the interdisciplinary program also embodies Tulane’s dedication to teaching students about diversity and the importance of social and environmental justice.

Visit the MSW/MS-DRL program page to learn more about the unique opportunity to prepare for a career as a disaster resilience leader in social work.