Meet Mimi Chapman, A Social Work Professor Using Art To Enhance Empathy

Jun 1, 2015

The power of art is not lost on Mimi Chapman. She is a professor at the UNC School of Social Work who believes that art can have a profound impact on people’s ability to empathize. She also studies how art can help illuminate conscious and unconscious biases and affect how people treat one another.

Mimi grew up in San Antonio, Texas as an only child interested in writing. She majored in journalism and American studies in college but realized that while she liked storytelling, she wanted to take a more hands-on approach to helping others. Her career as a social worker has taken her from the pediatric emergency room at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore to classrooms in Siler City, North Carolina. Chapman’s current research focus is understanding the connection between art and the health care experiences of Latino adolescents.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Mimi Chapman about her life, work, and how the two things fit together. Chapman also blogs about the connection between the personal and professional at "Intersections: Reflections on the Personal and the Professional."

Here are some examples of the photography by Janet Jarman that Mimi Chapman uses in her trainings:

Tamaulipas, Mexico, 1996 – Marisol daydreams at dusk while anticipating the arrival of more garbage trucks at the municipal dump where she and siblings search for recyclable items to support their family’s income.
Credit Janet Jarman

Texas, U.S.A. 2011 – Marisol and Andrés take their children to watch CARS 2 in 3D at a local cinema. Going out as a family is a rare occasion, due to their financial limits. Normally, they either visit Marisol’s sisters at their home or go to the mall for ice cream or possibly to their favorite Chinese buffet.
Credit Janet Jarman
Hidalgo, Mexico, 2011 – Bored and counting the hours until she can return to the U.S., Marisol watches CARS 2 for the fifteenth time with her children, in the bedroom that will become hers, should she and Andrés ever live in Mexico permanently.
Credit Janet Jarman
Querétaro, Mexico, 2011 - Marisol and her children endure a 28-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Texas at the end of her three-week stay at her in-laws in Mexico. Traveling by bus has become increasingly dangerous, and she vowed never to travel this way again. During a previous bus ride, gunmen came onboard. They robbed everyone but her. She believes they skipped her out of empathy that she was a young mother traveling alone with children.
Credit Janet Jarman

Chapman was born in Italy, where her dad served as a Navy judge, but she moved to San Antonio when she was eight. In a city that still has a large Latino population, Chapman witnessed racial disparities.

She attended a “well-to-do” school near a cement factory where many Latino kids lived.

“There was this strange juxtaposition between those who had a lot and were white and those who were poor and who were Latino,” Chapman says.

Double majoring in journalism and American studies in college allowed Chapman to study a wide variety of subjects. During her sophomore year she began volunteering at a local housing project.

“It was a stark juxtaposition—all of the kids were African-American,” Chapman says. “I just began to think very consciously of the environment in which they were growing up, the physical environment, and it broke down this narrative of everyone starts from the same place and an even playing field.”

Chapman had thought about social work from a young age, but her college experiences inspired her to do more. She moved to Austin to get her master’s in social work. During her last semester took an internship with the National Institutes of Health. The position wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do, but a mentor from Texas advised her to take any position available and see what happened.

This was 1988, and the AIDS crisis in America was reaching a fever pitch. Chapman had some reservations about the safety of going into the field and working with HIV positive patients, but her supervisor quelled those fears and offered some career guidance.

‘You can’t be afraid if you’re going to do this work,’ Chapman’s supervisor told her. “That’s stuck with me,” Chapman says.

One of the pivotal moments in Chapman’s career occurred later at the NIH, when she was working with a man from Alaska, who’d been in and out of the hospital. He wasn’t easy to deal with, and one day Chapman told the attending physician her patient needed his family.

“We had to scout around for his parents,” Chapman says. “We got a hold of them, and I was with him when they arrived. They walked in from the cab that had brought them from the airport, and he was utterly transformed from being with him. They enveloped him in an embrace. It was just so wonderful, and so telling, and so important to me to see him in the context of his family and see him as someone who was treasured and loved.”

Chapman learned that health care treatment needed to include factors from one’s living environment and not just a hospital clipboard. She moved to Baltimore to work in the Johns Hopkins pediatric emergency room.

“I was utterly shocked when I arrived there to understand the conditions many people were living in, and that was OK with us as Americans,” Chapman says.

She developed a strong relationship with her supervisor, an African-American woman named Carrie Vick. That was the first time in Chapman’s life that she really got to know someone who wasn’t white, and it opened her eyes to different issues with race.  

Chapman saw a case where a rat climbed into a crib and bit a baby. She saw a girl who had ingested too many iron pills.

“The question for me was always, ‘is this neglect?’ ” Chapman says. “It was neglect, but it wasn’t necessarily parental neglect. It was societal neglect.”

Then she observed women with symptoms that had no medical reasons behind them. Chapman realized it wasn’t a matter of what was happening within the body but rather in the surrounding environment.

“They were living under constant stress,” Chapman says. “They were in danger a lot and this is sort of that manifested. They couldn’t talk about that all the time.”

Chapman left Baltimore after four years and moved to Chapel Hill to work at UNC Hospitals and soon after attended UNC-Chapel Hill for her PhD. She got her first teaching job at Columbia University, and there became interested in Latino kids and immigrants in Spanish Harlem.

“Kids would get to the eighth grade and they would be eligible to the New York summer jobs program, but that wasn’t open to them because they didn’t have a social security card,” Chapman says. “There would be an erosion in motivation because they knew college wasn’t an option for them and legitimate work opportunities weren’t going to be open to them.”

After moving back to North Carolina to teach at UNC, Chapman heard about a Yale professor taking students to an art museum to enhance observational skills and bring inductive and deductive reasoning together. She thought about using a similar method with her students and reached out to Ackland Art Museum.

Using the photography and work of Janet Jarman, Chapman teaches students how to better understand the thoughts and biases they bring to their work.  She guides them through an exercise where they first look at a picture with no context, then she reveals the caption and they revisit the photo to see how their opinions change once they hav emore information. Chapman now uses this training tool to inform interventions with school teachers and health care practitioners.

“If we have no context for what we’re seeing, a lot of what we’re talking about is us,” Chapman says. “People begin to reflect on their own experiences.”

As part of Mimi Chapman’s current work, a project called Envisioning Health, Co-Investigators from the School of Public Health, Drs. Alexandra Lightfoot and Eugenia Eng and Ms. Florence Simán of El Pueblo, Inc. led two photovoice groups in which young people from local Latino communities took pictures to address the question, “What I wish my doctor knew about my life.” The groups culminated in a forum with resident physicians and medical students at UNC Hospitals last fall. Here are two of the photographs:

You always have that sense in the back of your head. ‘[The police officer] could try to go for me instead of that dude.’ And [after] a while, it could accumulate. You could be in fear. . . .
Credit 15-year old male participant in the "Envisioning Health" Project
This photo is a picture of my Mom who has diabetes. And diabetes, you don’t necessarily have to do the wrong things to get it. You can be born with it or you can already have it, and then [it] just [shows] up later in life . . . It’s kind of one of those things where if your parents have it, you have a higher risk of getting it. That impacts me a lot; I should pay more attention.
Credit 17-year-old participant in the "Envisioning Health" project