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For the Latest UMMA Exhibition: An Experiment in Social Work Methodology

In Social Work 560, Dr. Larry Gant teaches prospective social workers about methods for macro-level practice. And bringing art into the picture, as a tool of historical analysis and also community development and activism, can only help students. “The role of art in community organizing is limited only by conventional thinking,” Gant said.

For the Latest UMMA Exhibition: An Experiment in Social Work Methodology

Written by Olivia Ordoñez

The social work community, particularly at the University of Michigan where a majority of social work graduate students major in interpersonal practice, sometimes narrow its work to the individual level, at the expense of broad-based, population-level problems. With Dr. Gant’s help, prospective social workers are taught about community organization, management, and policy advocacy—skills every social worker needs to know and that must be considered hand-in-hand with interpersonal methods to create lasting change. 

Gant teaches the methods by which social workers can identify community- and organization-level interventions to address social needs and problems. Gant, who was himself an interpersonal practice concentrator when he got his MSW at the University of Michigan, is now a professor and community organizer in Detroit, focused on neighborhood-level change.

According to Gant, bringing art into the picture, as a tool of historical analysis and also community development and activism, can only help students. 

“Right now, I’m happy to have the students understand the value and possibilities of art genres starting with the arts engaging and surrounding the history and context of Detroit. I hope the presentations of art complexify the students’ understanding of Detroit.”

In Gant’s experience, students are drawn in by more abstract artistic styles.

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“I find abstract and performance art more easily engages a new generation of young social workers in appreciating wonderfully complex issues about working with people and communities."

Professor Larry Gant

“I find abstract and performance art more easily engages a new generation of young social workers in appreciating wonderfully complex issues about working with people and communities that have complex, overlapping, multiple, visible and invisible identities that are both simultaneously interactive as well as situationally activated depending upon personal comfort and goals,” Gant said. 

Involvement in Curriculum/Collection “helps students to think more deeply about the use of art genres in community practice—organizing, community change, and community management,” he said. 

Gant is particularly interested in helping students to see the different roles art has played to date in historical instances of community and social change. 

“Traditionally, art is used in community practice to locate, validate, and legitimate the concepts of context, history, meaning, power, and possibility,” Gant said.

Art has also been used as part of more traditional methods of social activism, such as protests and marches. Art, Gant believes, can be a form of advocacy, “but it has to be more than performative,” he warns. “If people can use art to visualize challenges, solutions, and transformations—they make the invisible (and unknowable) future possible, tangible, and worth discussing.”

Although Gant sees a lot of potential for using art to create positive social change, he also wants to warn students that art can be used as a tool for control as well. 

“Alas, art can be used—sometimes accidentally, and sometimes intentionally—to maintain, sanction, stabilize, and control residents within community spaces to their detriment, devastation, and deterioration,” Gant said. 

By engaging critically with art, students learn to think through both how art enables change, inspires creativity, and engages community participation, and, in addition, the ways that art can be used to oppress and control. 

As Gant said, “I want to help students move beyond the traditional performative aspects of art to consider a more thoughtful and complex exploration of the ways people use art tropes—visual and material—to effect change or stability.” 

Ultimately, the opportunity to participate in Curriculum/Collection is one that enables students to learn one of Gant’s most significant teaching goals: the sociology of community change. Looking at art helps social workers with “understanding the way that visual and material products can promote, subvert, or neutralize community change at far less than obvious levels,” Gant said.

Together with the tools of social work, Curriculum/Collection provides an opportunity to engage new methods for community organizing.

“There is room for trained, experienced artists; talented amateurs; creative facilitators, and fans and devotees of art genres. The role of art in community organizing is limited only by conventional thinking,” Gant said.

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