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Shifting Perspectives and Bridging Differences: VTS with a Social Justice Lens

Shifting Perspectives and Bridging Differences: VTS with a Social Justice Lens

By Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis and Walae Hayek

“What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?” These three questions form the basis of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a facilitation method that fosters collaborative, inclusive, and community-building dialogue. Many in the museum field know VTS as a way to engage K-12 audiences during field trips or the general public in gallery tours. Yet when we examine the very foundation of this highly researched methodology, the application of VTS for capacity-building towards social justice becomes extremely important.

VTS uses visual art as the vehicle to facilitate people-centered conversations. Participants learn to explore their implicit and explicit thinking patterns formed from their lived experiences as independent individuals operating within a larger sociopolitical system. The process allows participants to contextualize their own identities, their experiences, and their thought processes so as to recognize their cognitive schemas by connecting the dots between what they see, why they see it, and why someone else may see it differently. With art as the vehicle, participants find a low-risk and highly engaging way to explore a methodical approach to problem solving: silent, reflective looking; establishing a baseline understanding; facilitating verbal dialogue; providing evidence for assertions; validating contributions; and thinking reiteratively.

More specifically, conducting VTS conversations through a social justice and equity lens provides a framework to understanding the cumulative impact of systemic, institutional, and individual factors on one’s lived experiences and transferring that understanding into actionable approaches that address disparities and inequities in impact outcomes. In the workplace, practicing VTS through a social justice and equity lens establishes a foundation that guides collaborative and impact driven work around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB).

During VTS discussions, participants receive the associated perspective sharing and capacity building for effective communication that comes from viewing art. The beauty in this approach lies within the added benefits of the dialogue itself: improved observation skills, improved communication skills, strengthened team dynamic, greater comfort with ambiguity, greater consideration of multiple perspectives, better listening skills, and improved visual assessment skills (i.e. “reading” the audience or room). Over time, this level of deep thought and critical thinking informs participants’ understanding of their work, challenges them to consider ways to improve, and empowers a visual curiosity that leads to a heightened sense of empathy and larger capacity to hold difficult conversations around power, privilege, and personal identities.

When Philip Yenawine and Abigail Housen created VTS decades ago, they did so with a broad, general museum audience in mind. However, as they refined the methodology, a K-12 audience became the focus. Most of the research that exists on VTS highlights its effects on school-age children. Very little is written about its effects on adults, although it has been incorporated into some medical education and training for over two decades now. Several compelling articles demonstrate the powerful impact of continuous exposure to VTS on medical practitioners. Consider that time-strapped healthcare workers are prone to staccato looking, making quick assessments about what they see, sometimes erroneously so. Fostering visual literacy combats that, providing clinicians with important communication and observation skills, building resilience and patience, and ultimately increasing empathy. Medical practitioners’ gain a deeper understanding of their work, strengthen their compassion for their patients, and develop a respectful curiosity for their colleagues’ work and opinions.

Using a social justice lens with VTS allows people to consider systemic issues and internal biases in ways that evade the natural defensiveness that arises when considering innate power, privilege, and identity. Consider that same time-strapped healthcare worker needing to make an assessment on an immigrant patient with a different cultural background. The patient may refuse the recommended treatment for personal, cultural, or religious beliefs leading the provider to become frustrated at the patient’s seemingly noncompliant response. However, with the provider’s capacity to contextualize the sociopolitical dynamics of the encounter, the provider can now understand that this patient’s “noncompliance” is rooted in a different perspective. The provider is then able to pivot the conversation accordingly. This is applying VTS in real life - seeing, listening, understanding, and reaching the capacity to acknowledge multiple truths.

In an increasingly visual environment and the expanding social media presence in our daily lives, we are forced to see more: more movies, more pictures, more news, more information. In her book Visual Culture, Alexis L. Boylan reminds us that “we are forced to see more, yet given fewer tools and less time to think about seeing.” When considering even broader applications to VTS, its use and sheer necessity for all adults becomes clear. Should the benefits of continuous exposure to VTS be limited to healthcare workers? Absolutely not. What profession would not benefit from its workers possessing greater communication and observation skills, more creativity, better problem solving skills, and more empathy and tolerance? VTS equips participants with the tools to critically think and engage with their visual worlds.

The events of the past two years serve as a great reminder that despite a global pandemic and a national stay-at-home order, 1.4 billion people watched videos of police brutality in the two weeks following George Floyd’s murder that led to nationwide demonstrations. In that same month, Republicans witnessing the events online reported a 10% increased support of the movement since earlier that year. How did this come about? The increased exposure to visuals: videos, pictures, and news, associated with police brutality against Black and Brown people. In addition to the events of the past two years weighing heavily on everyone and our nation facing a mental health crisis, this demonstrates the power of visual art in finding ways to help people shift perspectives and bridge differences.

The late social revolutionary and author of All About Love, bell hooks teaches us “the heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.” VTS lays the groundwork for us to do just that. The magic comes from the mechanism. By anchoring conversations to something external, the VTS approach presents an aesthetic stimulus for participants to attach their observations, comments, and responses to. The piece of art becomes something to discover and analyze as a communal experience, but careful facilitation prevents the discussion from becoming about consensus building. The collective conversation allows for differing views because adults culturally accept that people naturally see art in unique ways: adults can explicitly acknowledge that what they each see is what the piece of art is.

Over time, that acceptance of truth expands outwards. Adults’ lived experiences, societal expectations, and myriad other influences shape how each individual sees a piece of art, and subsequently through guided discussion, how each individual sees the world and every situation they find themselves in. By framing the inquiries within a social justice lens, participants become accustomed to answering how their identities, privileges, and barriers lead them to their perspectives. Ultimately, doing so expands their capacity to share their truths, learn from them, accept alternative truths from others, and work towards a shared understanding rooted in equity. The ultimate aim is for every participant to hold multiple possibilities of the truth: two or three or four things can be true at once. Differences do not negate the similarities; they leverage them.

If an adult can accept that Kara Walker’s powerful work holds multiple layers of meaning depending on the viewer, with more practice, that same adult will learn to accept the multiple perspectives of humans experiencing systemic inequities in our society. The goal here is not just to challenge the thinking processes of participants, although that comes with the practice; the goal is to demonstrate possibility to the participants. The possibility of multiple truths. The possibility of wildly different interpretations. The possibility that the way one person sees the artwork is not the ONLY way to see the artwork. The possibility that sharing differences leads to collective understanding and community building. That space created, where possibility takes hold, is what makes room for empathy to root, grow, and flourish.

Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis is the Principal for Yellow Room Consulting, and Walae Hayek is founder of ROYA, a social advocacy nonprofit. Erin and Walae found each other through a mutual connection and bonded over their mutual passion for arts-in-healthcare, DEIB, and community engagement. Together, their work utilizes the power of art to transform the way we experience ourselves and each other as we all strive for a more just society.


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