Social Dialogue Magazine
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Farrukh Akhtar, Senior lecturer in social work and social care at Kingston University, London

Stories into social work: Celebrating a little understood art form

As a student social worker, (way back in 1990) I thought it was cool that my tutor, Hugh England, had written a book entitled ‘Social Work as Art’. I still covet a copy of it, but ironically, could never read it, finding it too wordy for my student brain (sorry Hugh!) But there was something irrefutable about the concept of social work being an art form: the process of connecting with someone, of crafting a relationship with them and intuitively, perhaps insightfully, creating change. I didn’t know it then, but twenty years later, I would be a social work educator in my own right and would use art, in the form of posters, as a way of exemplifying the best in social work. Here, I introduce some of my posters and the stories behind them.

In 2013, having been qualified for over twenty years, I felt I had never experienced such a negative public perception of social work. Morale in the profession seemed at an all-time low. National media had used the death of a child to scape-goat a range of professionals, but particularly social work as a profession. So, when I was invited to participate in a local storytelling festival, I decided to use the opportunity to highlight how amazing social workers were.

I was lucky enough to have worked with a range of skilled veterans – practitioners who had not only survived, but thrived in the world where 40% of social workers left the profession within eight years of qualifying (Cooper, 2015). I captured their stories and represented them visually, in the form of a poster exhibition. I called the exhibition ‘Stories into social work’. Each poster showed a practitioner who had been in the profession for at least fifteen years. They shared their unique story into social work, but also some tips about thriving in the most often talked about, but little understood profession. The exhibition was shown in the Rose Theatre, in Kingston-upon-Thames, in 2013, and then the following year at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, Department of Social Work’s annual conference, and also at the UK Joint Social Work Education and Research Conference. A colleague joked that it was the most travelled set of posters.

Since then I have created further exhibitions – for example, ‘Unsung Heroes’ – acknowledging colleagues who make a substantial, but often unrecognized contribution, without which, our working lives would be much poorer. My current exhibition is about ‘simple pleasures’ - small things, that often do not cost very much, but which, if mindfully used can ‘pep’ you up, counteracting stress, and enabling you to keep your resilience.

Art, especially in its visual form, transcends the boundaries of culture and expresses in a way that writing alone cannot. It’s important for me to make the posters as life affirming as possible. It’s my pleasure to show them to you in this edition. And if you’re reading this, Hugh – thanks for introducing me to ‘Social Work as Art’

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Example poster from 'Stories in Social Work' Exhibition

References

Cooper, J (2015) Exhausted social workers on the edge of burnout but still achieving positive change. Community Care Magazine, July 2015. Available at: communitycare.co.uk Accessed on 20.12.17 England, H (1986) Social Work as Art: making sense for good practice.London. Allen and Unwin.