Sunday, November 21, 2010

Social Work/Culture Work: Shannon Jackson's talk at the UW SSW

A few thoughts on Shannon Jackson’s talk at UW School of Social Work, yesterday:

Shannon Jackson argues in her seminal work, Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull House Domesticity that Culture Work and Social Work were intertwined to create a vehicle for social reform. She continues to argue that a variety of arts and crafts- performing, visual, as well as sports and play were employed to cultivate social cohesion and to “create a lived democracy” (Addams) and facilitate “…active learning” (Dewey). While potent in many respects (Hull House housed a pottery that generated a cottage industry for Mexican immigrants, generated musicians such as Benny Goodman, invented the play ground, educated 1000s of children in the delights of producing theatre)- she also argues that there was a great deal of complexity here at this juncture between social work and culture work. She argues that the need to struggle with issues of ethnic/racial identity and structural inequities are critical. She described the transformational processes that both the upper class, WASP Settlers of Hull House and its members experienced.

In her upcoming book, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, she continues to explore how culture work is continuing to be employed again both as vehicles of social cohesion as well as to “unsettle narratives” of oppression and power. Like social work, she argues, culture work engages with complex institutions and questions social justice and offers several examples of how various art projects work to interrogate and transform institutions and to engage communities in crisis(such as post-Katrina New Orleans) in deep conversations. She asks that we allow space at the juncture between social work and culture work to generate the complex questions that arise here organically, whatever they may be.

While I appreciated Dr. Jackson’s presentation, I was left with many questions as a social work practitioner and teacher seeking to integrate culture work back into social work practice and pedagogy. What does this mean in an era dominated by “evidence based practice?” As Jackson acknowledges, art isn’t taken seriously in social work because it is “fluffy”, uncontrollable, immeasurable perhaps in regards to its efficacy as an “intervention.” I often find myself shy or apologetic when I describe my commitments to participatory music and dance as a liberatory, embodied, community-based praxis worthy of consideration in social work. I often feel like my explanations for why it is so important to me are met with silence- a silence I am not sure how to interpret.

The examples she offered during her talk from her forthcoming book struck me as fitting with what we think of as “community practice”, social action in social work terms. Meanwhile art, music and theatre therapy are evolving, -though in my poorly informed opinion marginalized- practices in relationship to what we think of as interpersonal practice.

It should be acknowledged that these conversations are happening slowly and quietly in our own School of Social Work at UW, as the post below describes. A number of us, including students and faculty are deeply committed to integrating a variety of art forms into our social work practice, research, and pedagogy. Examples include the conference Jackson spoke at yesterday, which was organized by Emily Conbere, an MSW student and playwright as well as the Seattle Fandango Project, which I have been a part of and is in fact funded in part by the School of Social Work. As we move ahead, these practices will require greater theorization, research, evaluation in order to be taken seriously in social work academe and intervention. In the meantime, we, like Jane Addams and John Dewey, know from experience that we are healing ourselves and facilitating opportunities for healing for others via the curative power of the arts, “via the charm of human form in active learning” (Dewey via Jackson).