Ties That Bind


Department of Health and Human Services

Artist: Elizabeth Jabar: Printmaker/Bookmaker, Head of Print Department at MECA

Participants: Immigration & Refugee Services, Family Shelter, Barron Center, a long term care center, admin, social workers, food services, nutrition, directors, nurses, receptionists

Activities: Immigration & Refugee Services staff created four multi-layered prints that focused on their individual heritages (Scots, Eritrean, Somali and German/Dutch). The prints hang in the conference room that their department shares with General Assistance, City Hall, and the Barron Center.

As part of an intricate network of State, Federal, private and public organizations, the Department of Health & Human Services addresses critical and arguably some of the most stressful terrain in any city. They deal with issues that touch every part of the city’s life; General Assistance, Public Health, Homeless Services, Child Welfare, Crime, Health Indicators/Risk Factor Monitoring, Elder Issues, Mental Health & Substance Abuse, Population/Immigrant & Refugee Services.

From the first Art At Work workshop, the staff’s strong sense of public service and caring has been evident. Each participant has shared powerful stories about what brought them to their work and how they continue to sustain themselves. The challenges are impressive,and the effects disappointing leading to a high rate of turnover in many of the jobs.

The importance of having a tight working team, the cost of training, the legal requirements re: staffing, the critical nature of much of the work are all places where the impact of turnover shows up. There is also the rarely discussed effect of dedicating oneself to work that is so misunderstood and misrepresented by the general public.

The greatest challenge that Art At Work has had isn’t finding people who would like to participate, but finding the time for overworked municipal workers to come to participate. Strategies that have we’ve tried have included meeting during lunch time (which doesn’t allow enough time for the deeper gains) meeting at staggered hour and a half workshops; using individual sketchbooks to keep the work portable; and setting up an area onsite with arts materials so the participants can work there in between the workshops.

There’s more to be worked out, but so far prints by the staff of Immigrant & Refugee Services have transformed the conference room used by HHS, and have been the focus of an exhibit at City Hall’s Art At Work gallery. Over thirty stories from the staff at Barron Center, a city-ownedlong term care center, about the work they do were combined with collages, drawings and maps about their heritage. All will be featured on the Ties That Bind blog on both the City’s and Art At Work’s websites.

We begin our workshops with Health and Human Service Department employees with questions to stir dialogue and bridge barriers. City employees respond with work stories and images from with their own cultural traditions such as maps, photographs, textile patterns, or iconic symbols. They explore their own heritage as a dynamic tradition, and at the same time learn about the cultures of their co-workers.

Sharing the journey, excited for themselves and for each other, they build a deeper understanding of who they are together and how that brings them closer and makes them more effective as a team. Every workshop has been powerful.The prints that the participants have made are hung in the offices, staff and conference rooms throughout the city. The stories and images are also becoming a Ties That Bind blog on the City’s and Art At Work’s website.

As we continue, the workshop assignments will include interviewing co-workers about their heritages, asking our original questions and adding ones we develop as a group, as well as research into Portland’s past. 

New prints, books, blog postings will be created representing a wider and wider number of employees, generating a cultural map of the department that recognizes diversity as a strength and asset. My residency in the Health and Human Services Department is particularly exciting as it has the most diverse employees of any city department. The work we make plays a powerful role inre-orienting city workers, politicians, and citizens to the reality of Portland’s cultural diversity.

My years of work in community arts has confirmed my belief that changing perceptions is a key element in creating new possibilities, possibilities that the city can embrace and leverage in ways that benefit the long term health of everyone.

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Pottenger and Jabar at HHS

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