Using Arts as a Feminist Empowerment Tool for Social Workers in Israel
Although social workers are thoroughly trained in social change and systemic theories, they find it hard to initiate social change activity around their own professional status. As social work is a predominantly female profession, this ambivalence over direct social confrontation can be understood as an expression of gendered roles, showing women’s cultural conditioning toward less direct resistance, higher cooperation, and not wishing to draw attention to themselves in the public sphere (Mohanty, 2003). The question is how to address this reality in social work education.
This article will present a single qualitative case study whose aim is to illustrate and discuss a methodology for working with art to empower social workers to fight for their own rights. The study used arts-based experiential group model that includes an ‘internal’ reflective stage and an external stage – creating a joint art installation. These two stages will be described in terms of the use of art as a feminist methodology enabling an indirect and thus less threatening form of social resistance for female social workers.
Changes in the social work profession in Israel but also in Europe, USA and other countries have meant fewer jobs, reduced pay, and worsening work conditions for social workers, within privatized settings. However, it is difficult to mobilize social workers to fight for their rights. It is not easy to mobilize social workers to act for social change, in general, and more specifically, for social change involving their own work conditions. Rothman & Mizrahi (2014) claim that there is a general preference for micro rather than macro skills in social work. It could be because social workers feel that they should fight for their clients’ rights rather than for themselves.
Another way to understand this difficulty in active social change for social workers is through a gendered lens. Because the profession is largely dominated by women, this lack of motivation to engage in direct social change can also be understood as a gendered position in that women tend to have an ethics of care for others, be more compliant and cooperative, blaming themselves for problems, rather than changing society (Snyder, 2008). Assuming that part of the problem of social workers is to define their marginalized social position as related to gender, the classic methods of empowerment such as group work would seem an effective way to encourage more active social change initiation for themselves, rather than for their service users. This article will describe a method for using art tools with social workers and social work students as a form of female empowerment during the struggle of social workers to improve their employment conditions, which took place in Israel in 2011. The case study is a group of Israeli female social workers. The group used art to create a social change installation calling for better employment conditions for social workers. The goal was to create a group art product that would contribute to the struggle.
Using art as a ‘soft way’ to join the struggle
During 2011, the social workers’ struggle in Israel began to expand and permeate the consciousness of the workers themselves. It was clear that there was a need to raise awareness first on the level of the profession and the workers themselves, and later on in the public. In spite of the difficulty in recruiting women to fight for themselves, social workers have to fight for the conditions of their employment. I decided to invite the social workers to create an artistic installation that would be part of the struggle and would help to raise the awareness of both the workers and the public.
Jones, a feminist art therapist (2003, p.75), states that “For women, in contrast to the linguistic tradition, art offers a means of expression which is less readily male in its vocabulary, and is therefore more readily open to and able to reference the true experience of the women... The image may speak for itself, reducing the possibility of the artist client being spoken over”. Ten female social workers volunteer for the open call poster “to take part in the struggle with arts tools.” The call was published online and among graduates of the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University. The female social workers between the ages of 28-34 came to take part in the project. The project was set as a short-term, goal-oriented group of women who came together to create an arts-based installation to raise the prevalence of social change activities among social workers. In the first stage, the group met four times for an hour and a half each time, to process their experiences and feelings through art and create the idea of the final installation. The second stage was to produce the artistic installation based on the first stage. The facilitators of the group were two social workers (including the author of this paper). The platform for creating this unique project was a course at Ben-Gurion University, in the Department of Social Work.
Using art as a feminist empowerment tool
The use of a group is considered feminist methodology because it can help create a shared reality that counteracts the focus on self. The group has more power and resources than the individual to influence the larger circles of social life (Gilligan et al., 2003).
The first stage of empowerment involves finding the voice, space, and legitimacy for silenced groups (Jones, 2003). Once the individual’s art products are discussed in a group context, the individual’s experience becomes validated by similar experiences of others in the group from the same specific cultural, social, and gendered context. Thus, while each drawing is a phenomenological expression of an inner reality, discussing them within a group context becomes a critical or socially contextualized understanding of that personal experience (Foster, 2007;Huss, 2012)
Here are two examples of comments made by participants at the first stage, following the creation of the artwork: “While doing this art, this is the first time I’ve allowed myself to really feel how angry I am.” “I’m looking at my drawing, and I’m thinking we are sensitive and also strong. We can be proud that we look after others, and we must learn also to look after ourselves.” In the first stage, the group shifted from verbal discussion to an excavation of feeling and subjective experience through art, which was then shared in the group. These art works, through a social analysis of figure versus background within the shared reality of the group space, helped the participants shift from self-blame for their difficulties to a socially constructed understanding of their problems as lack of resources (Huss, 2012, 2015).
Shifting from the personal level to the final community artistic installation
The second stage of the group was to shift from art as exploration to art as creating an installation that to be shared in the public sphere. The group decided upon a framework for their art installation. This included asking colleagues to be photographed while holding a personal poster on which they wrote a slogan concerning their work conditions. All of these photographs turned into a common collage and were the final product of the installation. In order to allow the installation to grow interactively over time, each time the installation was presented in public, there was a stand with pages and a camera so that people could join and take part in the installation. The final image also contained men’s writing and photographs. The idea was that this method could be interactive and gather more written slogans of social workers in order to make larger collages over time.
The first time the final installation was used was at the annual conference of the Social Workers’ Union in Israel in July 2011. The installation received many positive engaged responses, and many social workers who saw the collage wanted to take part and add their pictures with their own slogans. Later, during the same year of social workers’ struggle, the installation was presented several times at social work workshops, supervision sessions, and conferences.
The following themes are a few examples from the pictures in which social workers posed with their slogans (Fig.1): Being undervalued, although we are good:
“Social worker job: 100% volunteer job.” (A) “With good intentions, you can’t go to the grocery store!”. “Maximum commitment, minimum wage!” (B) “I always fight for the rights of others; it’s time to start fighting for my own rights.” (C)
Lack of job status because of social work being a ‘female profession’:
“I am in a female profession and so my salary is very low!” (D) “Enough sexism – there is no such thing as a second (wife’s) salary!!” (E)
Calls for Direct Resistance:
“We won’t be broken by the privatization process – we will break this process!” (F) “The privatization has failed! Let’s call for our rights back.” (G) “We will fight for social justice!” (H)
Some of the slogans are angry, some call for justice and some even apologize, but most of them held up with a pleasant smile. (Pig.1)
The group’s joint decision to create a collage providing space for everyone can be understood as an expression of the gendered, relationship-focused values of women that focuses on the personal and on the ethics of sharing and giving space for all. In other words, the direct gaze can also be interpreted as an effort to create a relationship with the viewer that explains the gap between the ‘angry’ slogans and the smiling participants from the installation. The above elements of capturing individual voices in a non-hierarchical frame, and creating a relationship with the viewer, seems to be an integration of female strategies of connection and ethics of care with social change. This can be defined as female aesthetics for social change. The collage technique enables the inclusion of many individual elements while still creating a collective space, even if this has less impact than one strong slogan, as used in arts for social change (Jones, 2003). This resistance, however, was not a copy of male forms of social change, but rather, brought a more specifically female style of social change, which struggled to include many voices rather than choosing one over the others, and included non-confrontational communication.
This article suggests finding different ways for female social workers to take part in social action. This case study teaches us that using art allows us a greater range of expression possibilities. The advantage of this case study is that it creates a gentle transition from personal experience - to macro- expression in social context for social workers. This insight adds practical tools to the daily skills for social workers. It also suggests a methodology to encourage social workers in a predominantly female profession to engage in social change but in accordance with their more relational and interactive values.
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