We Need a New Wave of Social Workers — and Artists Are The Start

Olivia Gaughran
4 min readApr 22, 2019


Source: Pixabay


Jungle Book, the animated musical comedy adventure film, played once a day on our chunky, gray television set while my mom plopped my equally chunky toddler legs on a baby-sized couch with my beloved stuffed ram in hand, bottle in the other. She and my father were both musicians and artists in their own ways — through their influences and the light, funky composition of Baloo’s “The Bare Necessities”, I began my own journey into the dreamy world of artistic creation.

Now a sophomore in college, I haphazardly stash a few canvases and an opaque white pencil case full of cracking paintbrushes in the corner by the fridge — my plastic Tupperware holds paint instead of leftovers and my bright yellow rug is speckled with color, remnants of an impulsive adventure into a new creation. I am a double-degree social work student, not an art major. Between two jobs and a full-time course load, these canvases are only tugged out around midnight for a half-hour before bed. Making art is for the space in between everything else that spins around my undergraduate career — but what if art was a core part of how we approach social work practice? The entire profession could be transformed if art was more frequently used as the vessel of radical learning and community-based methodology.

Social workers are trained to value professionalism and technical excellence in case-management. According to Hee Chul Kim, MSW and doctoral candidate at the University at Albany, professionalism in social work “emphasizes technical excellence, impartiality, emotional neutrality, and an apolitical stance”. I signed onto this career because of the emotional complexity of the work I want to do, not to abandon it in the name of “professionalism”. Both social work and art are inherently political — the two would be great partners-in-crime as we seek to create a more just and humane world.

Social work degrees provide specialized training and scientifically supported theory that allow social service employees to be more appropriately supported and distributed throughout areas of need. The entire profession is rooted and centered around social justice — but what does that even mean? And is it possible to find the consilience between socially engaged art and the science of social work? Can socially engaged art and radical art complement each other? I believe they can.

Artists and the work they create have the power to organize the community in the same way that social workers strive to; socially engaged art practices merge the boundary between art and life. Therefore, art becomes less about the aesthetics and more about provoking civic engagement, rousing whole communities to consider controversy and new ways of campaigning for social change.

Art integrated into social action is often called a social practice — a means of transferring ideas and purpose to the many, calling us together to fight for change. Groundswell, a New York City collaborative art organization, is led by artists, educators, and community activists alike to work towards the artistic betterment of Brooklyn’s historically marginalized populations through murals and art installation projects. The artists lead smaller groups through the mural-making process and have collectively created several citywide art installments that foster youth empowerment and liberation. Through collaboration like this, murals become more than a pretty painting on a wall — they provide platforms for unheard voices.

Consider “Be the Change”, a huge new mural created by Groundswell youth artists for a New York City Housing Authority neighborhood development. The wall shows a young person on a journey to achieve their dreams, basketball in hand. Through personal testimonies given by the artists after the mural’s creation, it is clear that the artwork will be a lasting testament to youth power, creativity, and aspiration.

This kind of transformative change through artistic expression is exactly what social workers strive to do. Every social worker impacts children and youth in some way. Supporting families, working within child welfare systems, in the medical field, the military, community work, or in policy making — each of these focus areas impacts the same youth power, creativity, and aspiration that socially engaged art does.

I am not suggesting that artists replace social workers or that we should instrumentalize the value of art. Rather, I believe that the unique nature of art to create conversation and change perspectives should not be underestimated. It is worth a shot to collaborate between the two disciplines by taking the strengths and collective potential of both to restore our activist roots and abandon this idea that social work could ever be an apolitical or emotionally neutral line of work. There is so much incredible possibility that could be imagined by combining the two — the boundaries between art as a hobby and art as a tool to create real, lasting social change need to be dissolved.

Baloo had a point in “The Bare Necessities” — the simplest things in life bring the greatest reward. Art is the most basic foundation of authentic human discourse. It’s time that higher education recognizes this as we train to become the next group of people that will change the world.

The Hook Is Always In The Heart, Acrylic on Canvas, Olivia Gaughran 2019



Olivia Gaughran

Medical anthropologist, editor, and creator of The Olly Project @ theollyproject.com! Probably reading bell hooks or taking a long walk.