Abstract: Socially Engaged Art and Environmental Justice: Social Worker As Artivist (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Socially Engaged Art and Environmental Justice: Social Worker As Artivist

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Camelback B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Meri Stiles, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Work, Daemen College, Amherst, NY
Background and Purpose: Art and activism have intersected within social movements against inequality, oppression, and injustice. Social Work has a history of working with communities and individuals through creative and innovative approaches. Yet, as a profession Social Work has not often employed socially engaged art as a mezzo/macro-level change method. This paper presents socially engaged art and environmental justice art practices (ARTivism) that reclaim environments, mobilize, and educate communities in social activism and advocacy. The central question addressed in this research is - how might the profession of Social Work use art for environmental justice?

Methods: Three ARTivism case studies are presented as models for how Social Work might engage in community organization and advocacy focused on environmental justice. ARTivism practices can involve community participation as in the case studies of Palas por Pistolas and Light/Station or observer engagement as in Operation Sunshine. The case studies of Palas por Pistolas and Light/Station present an ARTivism approach that transformed a hazardous environmental condition, while Operation Sunshine is an accessible “Toxic Archive” of drawings on the environmental harms of Love Canal. In the “Toxic Archive” hidden artifacts of Love Canal have been “unearthed” so that we can reexamine them as a society.

Results: Social Work environmental justice community-level efforts can benefit from art-based approaches. Art can facilitate creative engagement with social issues and stimulate new insights and knowledge of participatory processes. This is meaningful for environmental issues because it gives people a sense of being supported in their efforts to make changes. When participation in ARTivism processes are empowering and strengths based, they promote a sense of community and belonging that increase and sustain participation.

Conclusion and Implications: The roles a social worker can take as an environmental justice ARTivist may include: (a) as an artist engaged in contemporary art practices that inform or inspire action; (b) a community organizer in remediation of land or creative space-making; (c) a broker bringing artists and others together for participatory art activities; (d) an educator exposing social work students to ARTivism practices; (e) a researcher developing logic models and evaluation methods for ARTivism projects.

An important consideration of art-based methods is the complexity of evaluating intervention impact. Given that social workers are trained community organizers - well equipped with person-in-the-environment and ecological systems frameworks – they are uniquely qualified to apply methods for evaluating both the immediate and the long-term impact of these interventions. Indeed, understanding, evaluating, and engaging with complex social issues and solutions aligns with Social Work professional skills. Considering the ARTivism cases while recognizing the macro practice skill sets of community focused Social Workers, it is a reasonable inference that the similarities of both offer the promise of a synergistic merger. That synergy offers a more energetic approach to promoting social movements in general, and environmental justice in particular.