Sunday, December 25, 2011

 As a new feature of this blog, we will be featuring reflections on social justice issues/programs/experiences of art therapists around the world. Our hope is to create a network of art therapists interested in  talking, collaborating and supporting one another in social justice efforts. Our first offering is by Johanna Czamanski-Cohen. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jo recently in Beersheva, Israel and invited her to share her thoughts.

"In 2007 I moved back to Israel after living in the States for 11 years. One of my reasons for returning home is that I felt unable to affect change in Israel from afar. I want peace in our region more than anything else. I felt that since I wasn’t “suffering” along with everyone else, I didn’t have the right to oppose what is happening here, or voice my opinion whatsoever.
This is my fourth Hanukkah (The holiday of Light) in Israel since our return, and while I wish I could say that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I can say that I am involved in two projects that are working towards creating sparks.
One is “The Global Art Project for Peace” (, initiated by Katherine Josten in my previous hometown of Tucson, AZ. The second is the “Hagar Association: Jewish Arab education for equality” (, where my kids go to school. This year, Hagar kids will be making art for the Global Art project. Art is often used in our school as a bridge, as a form of expression and as a way of creating community.  In the picture above you can see a neighborhood created from found objects by my daughter’s kindergarten in 2007.
Recently my six year old asked me, “Mommy, who is the genius who invented bi-lingual education?” I proceeded to cite the names of the parents of his good friends who initiated the creation of our school. “No”, he said, “I mean the whole idea of bilingualism, the bringing together of two nations”.
The sign in Hebrew and Arabic in the above picture reads: “Welcome to the Hagar neighborhood”.  And what a welcoming neighborhood it is. My son is right, the idea is genius, and simple like most genius things are. You put a group of kids (or willing adults) together and they find out that we are all human and have more in common than we initially thought. Alas, we can even be friends. Putting art and peace-making together is yet another act of genius and simplicity. I will continue to go to anti-war rallies and protest injustice where I see it, but social change is much better in the form of doing: Creating sparks, bringing people closer, creating community and using art: that is social justice art therapy for me.
Happy holidays to people of all faiths everywhere."
Johanna Czamanski-Cohen is an art therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Arizona. She is a PhD student at the Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion, Social Work Department Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Jo can be contacted
If you have a story to share about work that is changing the world or a person we should highlight, or an issue you'd like to see us write about please send the info. along to:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy Everything: This is What Democracy Looks Like in a Post-Therapy Era

I spent Saturday evening joining Occupy Chicago in a march to Grant Park where the stated intent was to occupy a space under the iconic sculpture of a Native American warrior astride a muscled horse.  This same location was the site of the clash between police and protesters  during the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was accompanied by my husband John who had also been present in 1968. There were drums, chanting and police on horseback at both demonstrations but this one was calm and diverse and while arrests were made, they were done with agreed upon protocol almost as ritual performance. A tent nearby was staffed with volunteers from the registered nurses labor union participating in the protest and prepared to provide first aid if needed.
There is an emphasis on solidarity among the protesters, middle aged men wearing jackets from the carpenters union, disabled adults in electric wheelchairs, rainbow flag hoisting representatives of the LGTBQ communities, students, pensioners and young parents carrying babies. I marched next to three young women in headscarves each wrapped in the flag of a different Middle East country. We gazed at cops on the curb, many likely the children of immigrants, judging from the shades of color in the faces represented.  One mounted cop took video of us on his iPhone while many in the crowd returned the gesture. We've come a long way since Abbie Hoffman's protest.
 I asked John what was the major difference between the gathering in Grant Park 2011 vs. 1968. The obvious difference is that 1968 had an easily stated galvanizing issue: stop the war in Vietnam. John's generation was at imminent risk of being killed in a far away war that many felt was patently unjust. We still have wars and generations of young men and women serving, dying and being maimed in them. The biggest change there is that far fewer of them are the college educated middle and upper middle class children of white mainstream Americans. While perhaps not entirely it's intention, ending the draft at the conclusion of the Vietnam War was the single biggest act that served to derail a robust protest movement in America. Words like solidarity have been used before to designate shared circumstances but this may be the first moment in history when the divisions between segments of society along class, income, race, gender and education are genuinely blurred.  Students who were able to attend elite colleges find themselves unable to find jobs while saddled with enormous school debt. Union workers who have always participated in collective bargaining and won a living wage, safe conditions and pensions find those gains being rolled back to where they feel having a job, however diminished, is all they can hope for. Teachers, firefighters, even the symbolic cops on horseback, none are immune from loss of pensions and health care.
One of the speakers at the rally was an Hispanic woman from Unite Here, the group representing workers in the labor dispute with the Hyatt Hotels, which are owned by the prominent Pritzker family here in Chicago. Apparently the Pritzkers are continuing to cut wages and jobs of housekeeping personnel while acquiring new hotels and posting record profits for their shareholders. This is the same labor dispute that was occurring at the Hyatt Hotel in Sacramento in 2009 where art therapists stayed while the AATA conference was taking place in the nearby Convention Center. The discovery of AATA's unknowing complicity in this labor dispute led to the formation of the Social Justice Caucus of AATA which this blog represents. Here's how the dots connect for me: the bonuses being granted on Wall Street, in mega banks and in businesses and industries across our nation are a form of faked productivity by the folks in charge. Like the Hyatt Hotel, what passes for gains on paper are simply the stolen wages of the housekeeping and maintenance staff who are laid off while those left do double or triple the work under threat of being fired. David Carr in the Business Day section of today's NY Times tipped the dominoes for me: he describes the identical strategy happening in the news organizations around the country. Staff are cut, coverage is curtailed, entertainment is substituted for news and CEO's reap bonuses made of the money stolen from workers while negotiating the terms of bankruptcy restructuring of the organization. Carr's column is entitled Why Not Occupy Newsrooms? Why not occupy mental health clinics and psychiatric hospitals, schools and farms, anywhere there is a vacancy of morals, justice and ethics? As the neighborhoods with foreclosed houses quickly learn, a structure that isn't occupied sends out a siren call to vandals who are happy to occupy as well as gut the copper pipes and leave the raped structures to die. The Occupy movement is making a space for the growing ranks of the disenfranchised to gather and recognize one another. It is time to occupy every space we are in with awareness and a voice for what is fair and just, without that, isn't therapy a little bit beside the point?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Empathy: Does it Lead to Right Action?

Much has been made in art therapy of the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain as confirmation that empathy is real and that creative work with others engages those neurons and hence creates empathy. Implicit for many of us is that empathy leads to care, compassion and perhaps even right action. Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks discusses the limits of empathy. Brooks makes the case that  feeling the pain of others does not lead automatically to appropriate action on their behalf or even to any action. He cites Nazi guards who wept while shooting Jewish mothers and children and the participants in the Milgram experiments who experienced anguish but continued to administer  what they believed to be painful electric shocks because they were told to do so. What is it that disconnects an empathic feeling response which, in Brooks' words "..orients you toward moral action"from actually acting? Self concern. It seems that if we sense ourselves to be at risk or if we are unaccustomed to taking action and the thought of it arouses fear, we move along. It's one thing to get an email about a cause, be moved and make one more mouse click to sign a petition. It's another thing to wrestle with a code of conduct that we consciously live by. In fact, Brooks contends, feeling empathy has become a shortcut that allows us to feel virtuous while doing nothing to make change.
This discussion is relevant to art therapy because being with suffering people and seeing their art certainly arouses empathy, most of us would agree. When, if ever, does the art therapist go beyond being a witness and compassionate fellow traveler? At what point does he engage the causes not only the results of suffering? Or is that someone else's job? If the art therapist is doing good work in the context of an unjust system, a hospital that exploits its workers, a clinic where shady business practices keep things running, a non-profit where an unreasonable amount of donations go to support overhead rather than programming, does she have any obligation to act? And if so, what is right action? A colleague was recently hired for a consulting job with an agency that sends contract therapists into different programs and schools in the community. It seemed like ideal part time work to augment her private practice and give her a chance to have contact with other therapists. After coming on staff and running her first group, she learned that one of her boss' expectations was that she would sign insurance forms for work done by trained but unlicensed staff whom she would be supervising. The argument made by the agency was that they could only afford one licensed person but this way could serve far more children. They saw their actions as virtuous in an imperfect system. My colleague saw insurance fraud.
A researcher cited by David Brooks says that not only does empathy not  usually impel right action, it actually can lead to wrong  action. The staff of that agency are no doubt brimming with empathy. My colleague certainly agreed that it would be great to offer as much service to kids in need as possible, just not by breaking the law. She has an internal code of conduct that prevents her feeling of  empathy to override her capacity to make moral judgments. It is the latter than allowed her to name the behavior she saw and refuse to participate.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Beauty, Justice and What We Do

"The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony – the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful"
In a recent article in Wired, Jonah Lehrer gives a clue that helped me make a connection between art and social justice. It is beauty, he says, that keeps us engaged, via bodily sensation, an internal thrill, the experience of the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. I can almost summon that response via memory of a particular piece of music on one of my favorite world music CDs. I can't tell you the name of the track or the artist but from the first chord, my eyes tear up, my body becomes hot and I sit, riveted until the song finishes and fades away. As I write this, the word 'longing' comes to mind. Riffing on Lehrer's quote, it is that incompleteness that is the key, a gap is left in the song that for those brief moments of listening, I enter and complete. My emotional response is part of the whole gestalt. Stay with me here. What if through our art, whether painting, song or dance, we  offer up the beauty we discern where it isn't usually seen and offer others the hint that they can complete the work by stepping into it? We draw attention to something others see as a social problem and our art says: but also this, but also beauty... Instead of turning away in frustration or leaping to quick fix answers might we offer a third path, a path into the appreciation of a phenomenon?
As an example, I offer the work of art therapist Jordan Potash in the recent issue of the Art Therapy: Journal of the AATA where he presents "guided relational viewing" of art work as a means of social change. Art created by  individuals with mental illness was presented to their family members and to mental health workers through an art exhibit in a psychiatric facility.  The artists themselves were not present. Viewers were invited to choose a piece that attracted them and to make art in response.  This two-step process had the effect of "sustaining the encounter and making it more genuine for the participants" p. 78. A participant said this: "When I really used my hand to think, the genuineness of the response is more: I really did have something to say to him, it felt better, more genuine" ibid.
The absence of the actual artists is significant in providing for the viewer a space for inner reflection, identification and diffusion of boundaries. Mental health workers for example, became aware that the  hierarchy of therapist/patient and their own performance of a prescribed role could be suspended in the moment of viewing the art allowing a more egalitarian human response.
Many of the mental health workers and family members who participated had suggestions for actions to improve the lot of those with mental illness such as public awareness campaigns.  Ultimately, what Potash has done is to extend the relational nature of art therapy a step further by seeding future possibilities. This kind of work is a form of activism that literally 'activates' the latent empathy in individuals as they find a point of true connection with another who perhaps seemed 'other'. Creating the conditions for all of us to discern the beauty in ourselves and others and in the often difficult conditions we find in the world may be the surest road to justice as well. To quote Lehrer once more: "It is the beauty that keeps us from looking away."

To read  the entire article by art therapist Jordan Potash (2011), Drawing involves caring: Fostering relationship building through art therapy for social change
ART THERAPY: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 28(2),74-81.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is Social Justice Everything? Not Quite Yet...

The Social Justice Caucus had an inaugural meeting at the recent AATA conference in Washington, D.C.. I was not in attendance and send my thanks and appreciation to both Janis Timm-Bottos and Barbara Fish who chaired the SJC focus group as well as to all the conference attendees who showed up. In reading the summary of minutes taken by student Rachel Chainey from that gathering I could see there was a wide range of issues, passions and concerns raised that grow out of the work art therapists do that can be considered to have a social justice component. Reading a list like that makes me queasy. How do we focus? Especially when from the show of hands only about four people knew of the blog, our main organ of communication. We simply start where we are and keep moving along where there is energy and possibility, hoping to gain momentum along the way. The first order of business will be refining our relationship to the AATA Board of Directors and staff who have been eager to have our input. We have a liaison from the Board, Craig Siegel and to my mind that is a two way street. It was suggested that we have an SJC liaison to the BOD and I see that at the moment as my job as co-chair of the SJC. As we develop and grow that may be a separate job from the co-chair. We have a task at hand in relation to AATA that is critical: to set short and long term goals for the SJC so that the means to achieve those goals can be incorporated into the AATA strategic plan. I invite you to please send along your ideas for short and long term goals and I will incorporate them in the next post. In the meantime, please share the blog with other art therapists, students and colleagues. Post to your Facebook page. Read the comments on the existing posts, Nancy Hall wrote a wonderful summary of her efforts to work within the systems and how she has survived as well as how she has suffered in doing so. My goal will be to post weekly and see if we can build some momentum before next year's conference to add an articulate, inclusive and nuanced voice to the art therapy discourse that helps us bring a social justice lens to, yes, everything, with a bit of grace, joy and fun as well.
Pat B. Allen, Ph.D., ATR, HLM

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Inside the System or Outside?

How do we decide where to stand in our work for a more just and fair world? When do we walk away from systems that are flawed and when do we stay and work for change from within? The Social Justice Caucus (SJC) invites your stories.
I've had the pleasure and challenge of dialoguing on this topic recently with  a colleague who goes into hospitals that serve wards of the State of Illinois  as a member of an  oversight team of the Department of Psychiatry at University of Illinois The UIC is contracted by DCFS (Dept. of Child and Family Service) to monitor care.
This work is making headlines across the country as reports of rapes and other forms of violence in these settings are uncovered by the UIC team. The team is comprised of multidisciplinary professionals who have the best interests of both the patients and the staff at heart and know what a high functioning psychiatric unit should look like. Still, while the team can point to the flaws, they can't wave a magic wand and make it all better. Some of the institutions they audit are likely to experience even greater chaos in the process of meeting  mandates of safe and appropriate care. Where do the patients in their care go then? How does the staff cope with the added stress of fearing job loss on top of an already stressful workplace?
Do art therapy educators have a role to play in refusing to place students in questionable sites? Should art therapists refuse to work in such settings? Can we begin to publicly issue statements as a professional association advocating for fair and safe working conditions for our members and those we serve? While the direct service art therapists do is the heart of the profession, the advocacy function may be our soul. The Social Justice Caucus was formed as a means to direct, support and channel the energy of art therapists into building capacity for this advocacy function. Let us know what you are doing in your community to stand up for those who are suffering, and how we can help. Changing the world is a collaborative project and one in which we all have a stake. Share your struggles, ask for help, post your images here and let's invent some new ways to put our creativity to use. If you have walked away from a dysfunctional system, tell your story. If you continue to stay tell us how you manage. These stories are how we will create what's next. If you are planning to attend the AATA conference in July, plan to attend the Social Justice Caucus Open Forum and made your views known.
"This is how it looks, my child, the world you were born into...if you do not like this world, then you will have to change it". (Friedl-Dicker-Brandeis from an anti-capitalist poster, circa 1930-34, cited in Kaplan, Art Therapy and Social  Action, 2007, Gerity and Bear p. 235)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Art Therapy Education, Costs and Social Justice

The American Art Therapy Association recently sent out a survey designed to measure the interest in art therapy Ph.D. level education. At a time when the amount that Americans owe on student loans exceeds credit card debt, this gives me pause. I wonder about the intersection of debt payment and the job market.Will art therapists be able to work in the public sector and make a living wage? Will they have time and energy to advocate for clients, make art, foster relationships and families or will they have to hold multiple jobs to pay back their debt? Are graduates of art therapy programs saddled with debt less likely to question their employers about programs and services? How does economic pressure affect an art therapist's creativity?
It is well known that adding another degree often feels preferable to  facing a difficult economy. Often re-enrolling in school stops the payment clock. How do we ethically offer additional training to students who may be already carrying significant debt from a Master's program or even undergraduate loans? Student financial aid expert, Mark Kantrowitz offers a metric for students considering taking on education debt: the total figure of what you borrow should equal your expected entry level salary. So, if your cost for a M.A. in art therapy cost you $60,000, common at a private college or university, and you borrowed half of that, you should be seeking a job that pays you at least $30,000 to start. According to a website for health careers, art therapists can expect to earn between $35,000-40,000. If you've borrowed more, can't find a job and add on debt for a Ph.D. program, is it likely that you will make a greater salary once you are done? I hope art therapy educators make discussion of the impact of debt part of the interview process. From a privacy point of view, you might say its none of their business. A social justice lens provides a different view.
An article last year in the New York Times described a young couple contemplating marriage. The prospective groom broke off the relationship once he learned that the bride would be carrying more than $100,000 in education debt into the marriage, for which they would be  jointly responsible. He might have felt differently had the bride attended medical school (where the more usual debt figure is more like $250,000). The young woman had earned an art degree and was working part time as a photographer. He felt betrayed that she had never disclosed her indebtedness to him.
I am all for pushing the boundaries of and expanding the depth of art therapy. I earned a Ph.D. in 1986 through Union University, a program that many art therapists attended between the 1970's and 1990's. For a variety of reasons, Union no longer supports expressive arts candidates and it is a loss to our profession. Important books in art therapy by authors such as Shaun McNiff, Harriet Wadeson, Bruce Moon and many others began as Ph.D. dissertations in that experimental and learner-centered program.
More art therapy educators will no doubt follow the lead of Mount Mary College and Lesley University and begin to offer art therapy Ph.D. programs. I hope when designing such programs and calculating cost, benefit, and unintended consequences, educators and prospective students apply a social justice lens to decision making that accounts for how to best foster the art therapist as a whole person living in a complex world. I hope schools will embrace online and self-directed learning, seek ways to make education affordable to a wide range of students and resist institutional efforts to focus only on the bottom line. I also hope that art therapists will consider other options besides more degrees when they imagine career development. We are in a time that begs for new models, reviving apprenticeships, or self study models that lead to the self-granted title of independent scholar. Our creativity must be applied in how we shape the world; the ultimate social sculpture. For those who seek conventional degree status, we should  be seeking to create government supported post graduate service opportunities for art therapists willing to work in under served communities or in the increasing sectors where natural devastation wreaks havoc.  Loans could be written off in exchange for providing service. What we expect, dream and vision can come into being. How we resist, how we engage and how we seek justice are key components of what we call success.