Where Social Work Meets Art and Social Practice

Conversational Interview with Dr. Laura Burney Nissen, Dean of the School of Social Work at Portland State University and Professor

Definition of Social Work (from Google): Social work is an academic discipline and profession that concerns itself with individuals, families, groups and communities in an effort to enhance social functioning and overall well-being.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how this plays into your current perception?

I studied art as an undergrad and was raised by artist parents, and then later, “switched” to social work out of a deep desire to make the world a better place.   I never stopped having my own art practice though…it has been a cornerstone of my life. Somewhere along the line, we bought into this false choice that we had to choose “you have to be an artist” or “you’re a social worker” and that’s an unacceptable choice. I reject that choice. But, now I’m 56. I wish I would’ve rejected it sooner. The last couple years, I’ve been exploring the intersection of the arts and social change, and community wellbeing and individual well being.   

Last year, the Social Practice Program started to attract me for lots of reasons. The future of social work and the future of most professions is interdisciplinary work. No one group has the answer and the answer to many of the challenges we are facing are the spaces in between our profession lenses, the ways of thinking, and our community partners.

I’ve heard that the School of Social Work has collaborated a few times with the Social Practice Program.

So, last year, I invited the Art & Social Practice students over to the School of Social Work just to have dinner with some Social Work students who were also very intrigued by this. And we just talked and nothing really came of it per say beyond a deep desire to “do more” and get to know each other better.   But we are going to do another one this year. One thing the students said last year was, “let’s do it again, and next year, let’s talk about how would we both tackle a social problem, like, let’s say… homelessness.” So how would Social Workers approach that? But how would artists approach that? And is there more that we can learn from each other about how to be more creative and effective through learning from each other.    

To get two different disciplines to think about the same idea or project…

Right. And I have loved being a social worker. I’ve had incredible experiences and it has been deeply professionally rewarding. I don’t have any regrets. And all of the things I am grateful for, I am grateful for my art background as I’ve been a social worker. I actually think my art background did more to prepare me for the kind of problem solving I do in social work.

That’s inspiring to hear as creativity is something often undervalued. But, to me, the most intelligent people are often the most creative.

Yes, I totally agree. And I valued the Social Work education, but I’m glad it came after my training as an artist. Because I approach everything with an unlimited amount of problem solving energy. Too many people look at a problem and think “there’s 3 ways to solve this.” No there’s really not. There’s really an unlimited number ways to solve an issue, but we’re just not always using them.

So with your experience in the School of Social Work… what is yours and the school’s perception of the Art & Social Practice program?

Last year I was able to get an article published about art and Social Work together. I was waiting to write that academic article for 20 years and I finally did it. When we started our 2018-2019 academic year,  we had a big event to welcome the MSW students. I mentioned that this is a big passion of mine (art and social change) and I’m doing a lot of thinking work about bridge-building between these two areas. I really am a bridge between two areas because I understand both languages. I developed a shortlist of several students that were also interested in this, who were also artists… musicians or visual artists or actors. There’s always intensely creative souls that become social workers. So I didn’t have to do much convincing with these people.

The bigger challenge is, and what I have to figure out now is this something that every Social Worker can benefit from? And yeah, I think there is. I think people who don’t see the connection is my next big challenge. Because I think a lot of people look at it and think, aw, that’s cute. They don’t take it very seriously.

I can tell you that I don’t know a joint degree program anywhere in the country that you can get an MFA and an MSW together. But, you can get an MSW and a law degree. You can get an MSW and a Public Health degree… and several others. (Art and Social Work) is not a combination that is well understood or well recognized. But, maybe someday we’ll find a way to do that here at PSU.

I’d be very interested to see what a someone would do with both a Social Work degree and an Art degree. To me, those are two very powerful people and a powerful combo.

What do you think are the parallels between the two?

Social work definitely is a profession, but it’s also a passion. Nobody is in Social Work because they go into it for purely intellectual reasons. Social Work is a passion. People are passionate about wellbeing. They’re passionate about injustice. They’re passionate about healing and advocacy and problem solving. Artists are similar. Art is a profession; you have professional artists. Art is not just a profession, it is also a passion. People who are artists are also interested in a different lens. I don’t want to say all artists are interested in social justice and wellbeing, but I think all artists are interested in problem solving and communication, and many artists are interested in a lot of the same things as Social Workers: they’re interested in the meaning of life, what creativity contributes to the human experience. Both disciplines seek for their work to mean something and both professions are very creative.

Because so much of Social Work is done within bureaucracies and within rigid cannons of theory about theory, sometimes Social Work can be uncreative. It can suffer from a lot of bureaucracy and I have some deep disappointments about that – that is how social workers burn out. I don’t know much about how artists can get burned out – but I know they do too.    Through my own process making art, I know that you can have ups and downs. You’re not highly successful all the time. But I don’t think both groups get burned out in the same way – maybe there is something we can learn from each other about burnout and renewal as well.

I don’t have all the answers. Right? Where exactly is the bridge? One thing in my heart that I feel deeply about is that creativity is really good for people and really healthy. Where art is thriving in communities–those are little pockets of wellbeing. And Social Workers really care about how to help individuals, families, and communities to be well. As I’m looking over a person’s life, a community’s life, as much as I’m checking on poverty, illness, and mental health, I should also be checking on the presence of art or creativity in these spaces and asking if it is possible that those things can help. I deeply believe they could and there’s increasingly sound research supporting that these are really powerful sources of healing energy.

We need more bridges.

More bridges and less walls.

Any last thoughts on the Art & Social practice program?

I have a deep respect for the arts and a deep respect for artists. I think the people that are doing the Art & Social Practice program are amazing and committed.   I think this is one of the cutting edge areas. This is very much about the future. This program is visionary and exciting and has so much to offer the world. I’m really excited about it and I celebrate it, but most of all I respect it. I don’t think it’s fluffy. I don’t think it’s easy. I think it’s hard work. Hard intellectual work. Hard community work. I just have a deep respect for it. I’m glad it’s there.

My speciality is addiction, so I know how mental health and addictive health works. I am committed to finding new kinds of solutions and building more opportunities for systems to reflect what works.   I’d love to see art become more a part of that. In many of the spaces I occupy, I don’t think the arts get adequate respect for the kind of problem solving that we engage in on that front. All of this work I want to do I do because I respect it, and I respect the people who are doing it.

I have a friend who is working through the questions “Is all social work art? And are all Social Workers artists?” Well, I don’t think they are. I don’t actually. I think artists are artists and social workers are social workers. Like, I happen to be both. And you are both. But, if you are both, you have to really dedicate yourself to both. Art is not easy.  It takes courage and dedication.

Laura is going to be spending her upcoming sabbatical exploring and studying the intersection of art and social change in New York, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and Portland.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207
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