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)


  1. Argh...third attempt to post. The last one almost worked, but the process failed because the program couldn't upload a photo. I'm on my way out to plant some flowers so this will be my very short answer...I've worked at dysfunctional places because I can't turn my back on the people who need those places. I'll do a more detailed post later.

  2. I lost another post...not sure how or why. I tried logging in with my Google account. I'll copy this one before I try to post it. One more thoughts are:

    1. Difficult though it may be to change a bureaucratic culture, there have to be people working on the inside to make it happen. Public policy and/or statutory changes are also essential, but you need people to implement those changes or they won't happen.

    2. There are often opportunities to be involved with policy change at facilities both public and private. I've taken advantage of a few. One was a massive psychiatric rehabilitation project that started with a very small group of people, including me, who clocked more than 1,500 hours each with a researcher from Boston University. He taught us a rehabilitation model they had developed. We became the trainers for the facility. Eventually, the project expanded statewide. Another project was a suicide prevention program for New York State prison staff. I was also a trainer in this instance. A social worker and I worked with Corrections Officers at Attica Correctional Facility.

    3. Safety is an issue when patient acuity is high and staffing low, but every place I've ever worked has had staff training to address safety. Training has included techniques for bringing someone who has become violent under control without anyone getting hurt as well as deescalation techniques intended to prevent violent outbursts before they happen. I no longer intervene in violent situations because I don't have the physical capacity, but there are procedures that people like me can follow to insure that we have back-up. The hospital where I work now, a private psych facility, requires student interns to have the same training as anyone else. Maybe this could be something that art therapy training programs can consider as a requirement for prospective internship placements.

    4. I didn't walk away form the dysfunctional system (NYS Department of Mental Health), but it's possible that the setting contributed to exacerbation of a chronic illness. I left because I kept getting sick...mostly bacterial infections. The work setting, Attica Correctional Facility, was stressful and that may have been a contributing factor although I did like the work. The physical setting was also unhealthy. I had mice and sparrows in my office. I got used to them after a while, but I often found mouse droppings on my desk and urine stains on my papers...not good signs. Shortly after I left, an OSHA complaint led to the discovery that the crawlspace directly above one of the offices in which I'd worked was filled with pigeon droppings, feathers, and dead birds that had probably been piling up for decades. Other people got sick there.

    5. I was active in my labor union wherever I worked. It probably helped knowing that I was doing something for other employees.

  3. I was inspired by the large number of people in the room as the Social Justice Caucus met at last week's AATA conference. Clearly there is alot of interest in considering larger societal context issues in the work of art therapy. This blog and other resources and blogs that are emerging are part of an essential dialogue. I'm gratified to connect with others working within the AATA system to bring this conversation forward.

    During the Caucus the organizers read a focus statement about the Caucus which included what sounded like inclusive wording towards diversity. I am hopeful that statement can be posted to this blog but in the meantime did want to suggest one change. The wording referenced "sexual preference" as it attempted to articulate the importance of inclusion in the work of the caucus. Unfortunately, the word "preference" comes with historical baggage as it is often used to suggest that being LGBT is a choice, as if it is simply a preference rather than an inherent at birth part of ones sexuality. Suggesting being on the continuum as a choice is then used to justify discrimination, as if one can just change one's mind, it's just something preferred on a given day. I realize that was not the intention of the caucus statement but given the historical baggage associated with the term "sexual preference" I would like to suggest we change it to "sexual orientation".

    I would also like to suggest we expand the terminology to also include transgender people and acknowledgment of gender variance. Thus, the terminology in the Caucus focus statement may better read to include "sexual orientation, gender identity and expression".

    Thanks for considering this. I hope many others will contribute to this dialogue. Some initial problems posting and had to try twice but once I first signed in to my Google account I was then able to post.

  4. Hi Dana,
    Thanks for the excellent clarification of the language of the SJC P&P. I'm really glad to hear about the turnout at the meeting at the conference. Once the language is amended I will post it here.


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