Social Dialogue Magazine
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Project from the Applied Arts and Social Justice Certificate, University of New England
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Shelly Cohen Konrad, PhD, Director, School of Social Work, The University of new England, Maine, USA

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Lori G. Power, EdD Lecturer, The University of New England, Maine, USA

Applied Arts and Social Justice: An Essential Partnership for Social Work Education

The University of New England’s School of Social Work, like others in the United States, is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which considers the humanities a tenet of holistic social work education (CSWE, 2016). Although there is growing interest in the arts, and certainly formal recognition of the growing influence of entertainment and the arts on social opinion and politics (Kidd, 2014), social workers and social work organizations in the U. S. have yet to embrace these ideas in any formalized manner. CSWE and American schools of social work have struggled to find a formal place in which to embed the arts into social work curriculum. The Applied Arts and Social Justice (AASJ) Certificate at the University of New England (UNE) in the United States is a notable exception.

Arts and social work

Increasingly in the digital age, art serves as a visible reminder of injustices that provoke critical thought and at times, social action. Art stirs the nation’s conscience and raising awareness of injustices, for example, cultural and institutional racism. In 2017 statues of leaders who led the struggle to maintain slavery during the American Civil War (confederates), are being dismantled by U.S. protesters intent upon eliminating the legacy of racism this “art” represents. Films, plays, and music are credited with changing the hearts and minds of the American public in ways that supplement more traditional social work advocacy.

Art is moreover a potent mechanism for self-reflection and discovery. Schon, whose philosophies promote reflective practice, cautioned against an educational model without recognition for the “artistic, intuitive processes” that allow workers to listen to hard stories and be present in “situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict” (cited in Damianakis 2007, p. 526). Through its many forms, the arts actively engage students in both reflection-in-action (self- knowledge and discovery) and reflection-on-action (awareness of dominant cultural, societal and political influence), concepts originated by Schon.

From a pedagogical perspective, the arts, including stories, music, painting, poetry, and theater, enhance student capacity to move outside themselves into the world of others. The capacity for empathy is also bolstered when art and social work come together in clinical practice preparation. Many students come into social work with idealized notions of helping those less fortunate or making the world a better place, only to be caught off guard when discovering the complexity and discomfort of what it means to help those who are frighteningly unfamiliar, immersed in suffering, or hostile to their kindnesses. It is in these uncomfortable places where empathy must be taught and where art, not data-driven lecture, is the most effective tool. Use of arts strengthens learners’ capacities to elicit and empathize with clients’ viewpoints through interpreting stories of life (Lown, 2016). Art as therapeutic action in social work practice connects people to one another generating “shared representations of directly experienced and observed feelings, sensations and actions” (Lown, 2016, p. 332).

In clinical practice, social workers may find the arts a viable alternative to traditional treatments, particularly for clients who have had unsuccessful previous therapies, experienced trauma, or have cognitive or physical disabilities. Here one might postulate that the goals of linking art with social work in education and practice are situated in both social inclusion and health because they aim to find optimal methods to help people adapt to and prosper within their lived communities (Konopka, 2014).

UNE School of Social Work: Applied Arts and Social Justice Certificate

Although the relationship between social work practice and the arts is being explored nationally and globally, its implementation is underrepresented in formal pedagogy and practice. However, the University of New England (UNE) has found a way to connect the arts to social work education, allowing selected students to earn an Applied Arts and Social Justice (AASJ) Certificate in their graduate (MSW) program. It is the first program of its kind in the United States. AASJ courses contain exploration of social, cultural, and practice issues through the lens of the arts, culminating in a major project that brings together learning gained through integration of the arts and social work practice. During their final semester, students conduct individual or group projects, and do a formal presentation to the university community and other elected real-world audiences. When all requirements are fulfilled, students are awarded an AASJ Certificate, in conjunction with their Masters in Social Work (MSW), that affirms that learning objectives and outcomes (see below) have been met. Graduates list their AASJ Certificate on their professional resumes to set themselves and their skillsets apart from other social work job seekers.

Objectives and Aims

Learning objectives and aims of the AASJ certificate align with both UNE’s School of Social Work’s vision and mission and with CSWE educational policy and accreditation (EPAS) standards. EPAS standards assure that graduates embrace the values of the social work profession (social inclusion; cultural competence), professional ethical standards, and micro and macro practice skills including competency in engagement, assessment, and intervention across populations and settings. Learning outcomes for AASJ guarantee that students graduate with knowledge, skills, and values to:

Advocate for the use of arts and expressive therapies to benefit health, healing, and social justice Strategies to achieve competency standards are clearly designated in AASJ certificate agreements. Arts methodologies are applied across settings and populations to effect change in domains of practice including:

AASJ learning objectives aim not only to adhere to accreditation competencies, but to expand the range of attitudes and skills necessary to reach an increasingly multicultural population in the U. S. where the arts may be for some, the only common language for connection. Use of the arts assists in building relationships across the life course and with people living with a range of ability, disability, and mental illness. Lastly, arts as activism becomes even more essential as the economic gap widens between rich and poor in the United States and across the world. Inequities in economic, social, and environmental justice call for visible voices of protest to instigate change.

The AASJ certificate program at UNE unites social work values with expressive arts, filling an important niche in social work education. Students often struggle with managing the complex content and hard stories that make up social work education. They search to find meaningful ways to make sense of suffering and inequality; problems that seem so immense and overwhelming as to propel them to pause and take stock of whether social work is indeed the profession for them. We have learned, however, that arts and social work serve to ameliorate doubt and counteract fear. They provide students with experiences that are tangible and produce observable outcomes that make change, no matter how incremental. The Applied Art and Social Justice Certificate allows students a powerful way to learn with, and from their community and the larger world. We look forward to observing the natural and symbiotic partnership between the arts and social work education become more formalized around the world.


Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). (2015). Educational policy and accreditation standards (EPAS). Retrieved from:
Damianakis, T. (2007). Social work’s dialogue with the arts: Epistemological and practice intersections. Families in Society, 88, 525-533.
Konopka, L. M. (2014). Where art meets neuroscience: A new horizon of art therapy. Croatian Medical Journal, 55, 73-74. doi: 10.3325/cmj.2014.55.73.
Lown, B. (2016). A social neuroscience-informed model for teaching and practising compassion in health care. Medical Education, 50, 332–342. doi: 10.1111/ medu.12926