School of Social Work

What COVID-19 has brought us to: Art, activism, and changes in social work education, by Dr. Paula Gerstenblatt

Qualitative Social Work, a respected peer review journal, issued the call for papers for a special issue, Reflections on a Pandemic: Disruptions, Distractions, and Discoveries early in the timeline of events, just three months after the first reported death in Wuhan. QSW asked for short reflexive essays which would grapple with the unfolding experiences: How was it impacting social worker’s practice, research, or teaching? How were social workers’ making sense of it? At the sound of the closing bell three months later, on 6 July 2020, we had received 174 manuscripts, rivaling the number QSW normally receives in a single year. Equally astounding, they had arrived from 35 unique countries and every continent except Antarctica. 

 Dr. Paula Gerstenblatt, Associate Professor submitted an essay titled What COVID-19 has brought us to: Art, activism, and changes in social work education, which was one of the essays selected. Dr. Gerstenblatt describes her essay as follows, "This essay was a way for me to be authentic and articulate concerns that existed before COVID, and how we as social workers can use this tragedy to reimagine and create a better world. I am honored to be included with such amazing work by these scholars".  In the essay she writes, "Being on sabbatical, I was able to reflect without the pressure of the day to day grind. I have been thinking about how COVID-19 has changed me and how to use this change for the better. Daily peaks and valleys find me bursting with joy as I paint or dive into research, only to slide into the COVID blues and ask myself what’s the point? Who really cares about this blog post or painting? How will this reading or assignment be meaningful to my students, particularly for those trying to cope with loss, financial pressure, balancing work, school, and homeschooling children at the same time? What is the best way for me to contribute? For me the answer to this question has always been the same–tell the stories.  An artist friend and I were discussing making art in the time of COVID. Is it self-indulgent or insensitive to savor this unexpected bounty of time to create? Perhaps; however, I believe it is my job as an artist/scholar to document stories in the best and worst of times. We are currently living an unfolding historic trauma and someday our art will become an important part of the collective narrative–what we saw, felt, lost, and gained. A smile forming while watching birds in flight. Finding a handwritten letter in the mailbox. Dancing at a live concert on a neighbor’s lawn. Allowing space for sadness, despair, anger. Noticing what we were too busy to see or feel. Details of our confinement spaces–the green kitchen sink, art table, pile of books, trees outside the window, cityscapes and landscapes. Across a chasm, street, or country. The lines of cars at food banks, bodies in cold storage, unrelenting grief, voices heard and overlooked. What saved or nearly sunk us. When the COVID blues grip my soul, I’ll remember blues are part of the telling. And when I struggle to answer the what’s the point question–why paint, write, teach, or yearn for a future I can no longer imagine, it will be to survive and pay tribute to those who fell. We need a better world that is more than gliding over one false bottom after the other. My job is the telling–as an artist, scholar, teacher, and human. At our best we are dispensers of truth, and hope, for without it there is no other side to fight for".