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Social Work project combines art and research

November 14, 2006

Source: University of Toronto

Coming Together photos on display through Nov. 29Nov 14/06by W.D. Lighthall

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, a professor of social work is using the powerful ability of photographic images to tell a story to pack some real-world punch into an academic research project.

Coming Together: Homeless Women and Social Support, a community-based research project by Professor Izumi Sakamoto, uses photos, paintings and handmade masks created by a group of homeless women to communicate their experiences and present the findings of the Coming Together project.

"If you read an article in an academic journal, it tells you what the research is about in academic words and that is helpful for researchers but it doesnít step outside the academic world," Sakamoto said. "When we have pictures that really convey the messages that these women would like to share as part of this research, that gets out far and wide."

Coming Together is a collaboration among the Faculty of Social Work, Regent Park Community Health Centre and Sistering: A Womenís Place, a support centre for homeless and low-income women. The two-year research project, which included contributions from a doctoral student, two masterís students and an undergraduate, studied the social support systems and other strengths homeless or marginally housed women develop to survive and cope.

The study included a formal fact-finding and qualitative research stage, followed by a second stage at four shelters where participants shared their stories of homelessness and marginalization with the research project team.

"So these women re-enacted these stories as in the theatre, they painted the images that came to them from these stories and portrayed their stories in front of the camera," Sakamoto said. "I was interested in the support networks women build for each other because often in research, homeless women are portrayed as victims of marginalization, without obvious strengths. So this project confronts the stereotype of homeless women, makes a space for the voice of homeless women and challenges the charity-based model of social services."

Coming Together is the inaugural project featured by the newly created Arts and Social Work Research Initiative, sponsored by U of Tís Centre for Applied Social Research. The Arts and Social Work Initiative was founded by Sakamoto, Ernie Lightman and Adrienne Chambon, all professors of social work at U of T.

Chambon described the initiative as a space where academics, researchers, community-based organizations, activists and artists can come together to forge partnerships and participate in seminars, conferences and research projects.

"Itís a unique opportunity to bring together these diverse groups of people and make connections between professional education, social work, art and community organizations," Chambon said. "Itís about trying to balance the scientific approach with the humanistic approach."

She said Coming Together was chosen as the inaugural project for the Arts and Social Work Research Initiative because of its strong fit with the initiativeís mandate Ė itís a community-based research project, one that includes local agency partners and incorporates an arts-based approach into a larger research and societal issue. "So itís bridging the university with organizations in the community. Itís connecting the humanities with the social sciences and professional knowledge and then connecting that with out partner agencies out in the community," she said.

In conjunction with the launch of the Arts and Social Work Research Initiative, artwork and materials from Coming Together are on display until Nov. 29 in the third-floor student lounge in the Faculty of Social Work, located at Bloor and Bedford streets.



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