A Favorite Combo: Arts x Community

Having spent some time in Lengkok Bahru as an intern at Beyond Social Services, it was such a heartmelt moment to be re-introduced to the neighborhood by Alfred Goh :”) Inspired to share this beautiful work co-created by 5 children and their mentors, also because it is one of my favorite combos! I really love it when arts is used in community building to foster the sense of place, re-story what might be a negative dominant narrative, and connect diverse people together in loving inclusion ๐Ÿ’–

What I really loved was how the so-called ‘intervention’ is really empowering, in that it celebrates wholeheartedly the voices of each children involved. Each child created an artform to culminate conversations with their mentors as they explored what resilience looks like over- I almost couldn’t believe it– 6 years ๐Ÿ˜ฒ Such participation, co-creation and the intimate journeying with these children by Superhero Me gives me such hopeful feels. The thought that authentic human bonds that foster community can be built in the ‘helping process’, and how many of the significant memories in their childhoods would be linked to the relationships with their mentors and the neighborhood. Also, that these significant memories would likely form a story of resilience and self-confidence.

Coming from a predominantly casework and programme background, such community development work feels foreign even as I am inspired. Putting on my social worker hat, questions arise: Is 6 years necessary for this programme? Is there a more efficient way to have more kids onboard? How were the sessions planned over the 6 years?

Yet I am also keenly aware that this is the language of KPIs. I was thinking to myself, isn’t it a bit sad and telling that social work is not part of the arts x community combo? The dominant impression of a social worker in Singapore is likely a professional who does casework and maybe groupwork programmes, to address problems faced by different groups of people. It feels like social work has been largely framed by problem definitions of the community or people the profession seeks to serve. Why is community work not as prominent in the picture the public have of social work?

As abstract as I sounds, I believe it has to do with language and discourse (the way things are being discussed) in different spheres. Oftentimes, to justify the importance of a project/programme/service, a need (read: problem) must be identified. While this makes sense, it is also true that the positive aspects of a person’s life plays a significant role in their resilience to overcome life adversities. These are mostly non-measurable, like grit, relationship networks, and supportive social structures (van Breda, 2018- open access article). However, the language used in discussing about interventions or programmes tend to be problem-focused. As a social worker, one important clinical skill is needs assessment- being able to identify the issues. While the identification of skills and resources are required, it is often driven by the needs assessment. By contrast, the language of community work and community arts is often centred on relationships and connections in the places that are meaningful for the people.

This is why I am always invigorated when I join in the artmaking as an intern in Beyond- applied drama and Photovoice were the two I experienced in my short time there. Thinking back, I feel like one of the best moments in my counselling with youths was when they made art- be it the Tree of Life or drawing to re-story their perspectives on the problem (these are narrative therapy approaches, by the way). It felt like when they did put their heart into creating these, they were the most connected with their preferred identities of who they want to be. And as a helping professional, I truly felt privileged to share that space with them :’)

This is also why I decided that I needed to leave direct work to explore community work formally, because I felt like the constraints to practice community work in the social service sector will be there unless more people chip away at them. Indeed, when I left direct work and had the capacity to connect with different people in the community work scene as a PhD student, I am really encouraged to see that community work is gaining momentum in Singapore in the recent years. Thankful to be part of this in a small way, though I am not sure where this path will lead ๐Ÿ˜Š

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