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The SJP Experience: Exploring Art as a Tool to Break Down Barriers

Stories | 04.06.21

At Adler University, first-year students work with community organizations through their Social Justice Practicum (SJP) to help advance social justice.  

Daniel Merker, an Online Campus student in the Industrial and Organizational Psychology M.A. program completed his Justice Practicum internship in 2020 at Amarillo Museum of Art in Amarillo, Texas In recognition of his work to promote strong and inclusive communities, Merker received a 2020 Alfred Adler Social Justice Award presented by the Institute on Public Safety and Social JusticeHe shares his experience at the museum, where he worked with communities to create programs that build connections and advance social justice through art.

I approached The Amarillo Museum of Art with an idea of an internship that incorporated a holistic approach focused on community, outreach, education, and social justice, in addition to a school program. At the same time, I began building relationships in the refugee community and I felt the SJP coursework was equipping me for more meaningful work with my new refugee friends. I see a natural connection between the experiences and life stories of our local refugees and the idea that the art on the walls of the museum are little more than visual representations of the life stories and experiences of the artists that created them. 

Combining my passion for building relationships with the refugee community and my background as an educator, I was able to help complete two large scale initiativesThe Art of the Story Community Storytelling Event and the Museum in Residence School curriculum.  

Storytelling is elevated when we use painting, printmaking, dancing, song, or any other form of art. I saw the museum as a way to draw closer previously unreached members of the community and be a support to help empower the refugee community to tell their story through their art. 

One thing that we talked about in SJP is how we can break down barriers to a more just society. One such idea is how our misconceptions of others are formed and perpetuated by separation. Museums all over the country are beginning to see how the idea that art is only for a certain type of person has led to a separation that has been created between them and the communities they inhabit. I felt that with my SJP experience and skills I could help the museum move the needle a bit more towards being a museum ‘for’ its community to being a museum ‘of’ and ‘by’ its community.  

Large scale change takes time and commitment. One of the ways I hoped to help instill change was through a school curriculum, titled “Museum in Residence Program,” which has been selected as a finalist for the Texas Women for the Arts Grant. Through the program, two area schools will be chosen for the museum to inhabit their campuses for 10 weeks. The idea of taking the museum into the community, rather than the other way around, excites me. For 10 weeks, all students from first through fifth grade will be exposed to social justice concepts while making art inspired by artists such as Shantel Martin, Kehinde Wiley, and Vanessa German.  

While learning important art skills, students will be creating art that empowers them to speak their truth, have positive self-talk, and see the beauty in themselves and others. As the pandemic began to take hold of our way of living, this program has been put on hold until COVID is able to be more easily navigated in schools. We are hopeful that a grant will allow someone to take on a role of a full-time facilitator of the curriculum for students to come.  

At Adler University, we discuss the importance of social justice in our own words and for me, the answer is simple. I love people. I love helping people and solving problems. My internship allowed me to find a way to combine these things with my love of art. We look for ourselves in art, whether it is visual art or music or dance. Art helps us cope, centers us in knowing we are not alone, and provides us an opportunity to see the world from someone else’s perspective. While social justice issues are complex and many times, feel insurmountable, a simple act of drawing someone near can advance the cause.  

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