Arts in the Alley from a social work perspective

You may be wondering “What does painting murals have to do with social work?” A lot, actually.  To start broadly, AITA goes into neighborhoods and helps community members and business owners to make improvements to their buildings.  These improvements, whether they be as detailed as a mural or as simple as a fresh coat of paint, make a difference in how people experience that community.  Social work is a profession that focuses on how people exist in their environment and their environment’s influence on them.  There is a concept in social work called social capital.  Social capital is the power a person has, or feels that they have, over his or her situation in life.  People have different amounts of social capital based on gender, race, economic background, geographic location, education level, etc.  Social capital affects how people interact with their environment.

What is sometimes hard to understand is that the appearance of a neighborhood is often a reflection of how the community members feel about themselves, how low their perceived social capital is.  If the community members feel disrespected, why should they give respect?  If no one is helping them, why should they help others?  If they feel powerless, why should they try and change anything?  Nothing they do will make a difference.  This is neighborhood depression.  People don’t try because they feel they don’t have the power over their situation.  But something changes in the collective neighborhood mind when someone decides to pick up trash around the bus stops one day.  Something changes when a store owner puts up a new sign.  Something changes when a group of kids gets together to mow neighborhood lawns.

When a few community members decide that they have the power to make a difference, even if it is a small one, something changes.  The actions of a few can start a ripple effect.  People will start to remember that they are worth taking care of, and so is their neighborhood, and they have the power to make a change.  The neighborhood depression begins to lift.

This is where Arts in Alley can come in and help neighbors to make a difference in their own community.  A mural on a neighborhood business is a way to signal, “things are changing, and the community itself can make the change happen.”  At an AITA event, neighbors get together, people from different communities work side by side and educate each other, seniors work with children, people from all walks of life work together towards a common goal.

Erin O’Donovan, MSW (one of Arts in the Alley’s volunteer leaders)


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