The group of five women sit with heads bowed and eyes closed, apparently sleeping. In front of them, James Robinson stands, hands positioned as if holding a rifle, although no weapon is in his hands.
His stance is one of guarding, of protection, something he did as a soldier in the U.S. Army in Kuwait and Afghanistan. This time, there is no real danger to guard against.
In the social work course “Pre-Field One” at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Robinson and the rest of the group are part of an exercise known as “Still Images of Trust.” In it, groups of students develop metaphorical tableaus to represent various situations where trust is critical between participants. There is no talking during the groups’ presentations.
“I loved it, brother,” Robinson said. “It required a very open mind through nonverbal communication. It requires looking into detail and being able to pull from the picture, trying to draw a main point as you can from it. What could they be saying by saying absolutely nothing? How does it speak to our hearts and minds?”
Now in its fifth year, “Still Images of Trust” is a dual project—held in the social work course “Pre-Field I”—between Mary Andrews, associate lecturer in the Department of Social Work, and Laurie Melnik-Allen, executive director, professor of practice and Lyndhurst Chair of Excellence in Arts Education.
Trust is a critical element when a social worker is dealing with a client, Andrews said, and the “Still Images” exercise helps students learn one of the most important elements of social work.
“They don’t just need to learn facts. They need to learn how to apply it in their practice,” she said, “and it helps them to start thinking about it and then also getting in touch with their feelings about themselves that they might experience in the practice setting and that they’ll need to learn to use emotional intelligence to manage.”
Andrews said she enjoys the exercise because it’s not the usual classroom lesson from the standard ways of teaching.
“I felt that it would help the students grasp a much deeper meaning of one of the main tools that we use in our helping relationships, which is trust. It’s not something that you can touch and see and feel physically, like holding up a globe as a picture of the Earth, but it’s an opportunity for them to be able to see and think about trust and from a different perspective.”
Allen described it as the “Art of Meaning Making.”
“We freeze it because it allows us to pause a moment and, because of what we see, it makes us think different things,” Allen said, “so we’re also looking at different interpretations from our own unique perspectives and lenses, which adds to the beauty of this because so much of most of our communication is nonverbal and verbal.”
A member of the U.S. Army from 2004 until 2012, Robinson, a junior in social work from Chattanooga, said he was drawn to the major after he received help with post-traumatic stress disorder through the Veterans Administration.
“In doing so and going through the process I decided, ‘You know what? This is what I want to do,’” he explained. “I’ve always been drawn to people. I’ve always had the empathy and the drive to want to help people, but now this gives me the educational backing to go through it on the professional side.”
The course ”is almost counseling in itself because they give you the opportunity if you have the humility, we start with self-awareness,” he said. “The whole course is going back and diving into understanding yourself, where you’ve come from, what your critical thinking is based on.”
After each group finished its presentation but before explaining what they were trying to convey, students gave their interpretations of what they had seen.
During the “Still Images in Trust” exercise, one group showed a woman who had stopped drinking only to relapse. Her friends stood around her, touching her knee, arm and hand, letting her know they stood with her and were ready to help her get back on track.
“She trusts that those around her have the best interests in mind. She knows that her peers will comfort her, provide support and understand what she’s going through without judgment,” said Maria Camargo, a junior in social work from Cleveland, Tennessee, who was part of the six-student group.
“Trust in this setting is important because it gives these individuals a safe space to come back to and eventually can lead them to finding insularity,” Camargo said.