Jonathan Oppenheimer (in the Midway St. Paul T-shirt) with neighbors and artists next to a mural.Jonathan Oppenheimer (in the Midway St. Paul T-shirt) led a neighborhood mural project.

The art of connecting

Master’s student Jonathan Oppenheimer is pursuing a dual degree in social work and public affairs

Graduate programs are really launching pads to do great things in a field, says Jonathan Oppenheimer.

It was during his master of social work (MSW) program that Oppenheimer got the idea to apply for a grant to create public art to bring people together. A few months later his proposal won a Knight Arts Challenge grant, and four murals have now been created in his home neighborhood, the Hamline Midway area of Saint Paul.

“While it was my own creation, the initial grant was written while I was in a class with a wonderful group of classmates,” says Oppenheimer. “There really are opportunities to take what we’re learning and apply it in the real world. Graduate school is much more than sitting in classes. It’s most meaningful when it’s being applied, and that happens all the time.”

Oppenheimer had become a homeowner and it changed the way he looked at his neighborhood. As a renter, he hadn’t felt as invested as he could have been.

“Nobody can run from the fact that we have serious economic disparities in Minnesota, and a lot of the people lacking resources and opportunity are immigrants and people of color,” he observes. “You live side by side with people and realize we’re too often not talking to one another, but we have a lot of work to do together to make this community as strong as it can be.”

Oppenheimer aimed to bring people together and also to strengthen the economy and bridge cultural divides. The grant from the Knight Foundation was to lead the mural project, but it was much more than public art. He assembled a team of artistically diverse muralists and community partners, and his project—one of the first of the inaugural round’s 42 winners to be completed—has been gaining lots of media attention for the stunning art works.

“The murals are just incredible,” says Oppenheimer. “There are a lot of ways you can make your neighborhood better . . . this was one that I thought would brighten up mine.”

A priority for people

Oppenheimer grew up in Massachusetts and first came to the Midwest in 2000 to earn a degree in French at the University of Wisconsin. Since then he has lived in France for two years and in Philadelphia before moving to Saint Paul in 2009, following the girlfriend soon to be his wife. He arrived in July that year and had the job he wanted by September.

That job was working as a counselor in the school-based health clinics in the Saint Paul Public Schools. After six years in the sexual and reproductive health field, he applied for the MSW program.

“In order to help people—to help adolescents, in the case of what I was doing—I needed an advanced degree to be able to go deeper and better help young people work through a lot of the issues beyond sexual health that I was encountering in my work.”

Oppenheimer was working side by side with clinical social workers, so he knew the social work path was the right one for him. He also knew that the graduates who came out of the University’s School of Social Work are highly respected and bring a strong focus on social justice, which is important to him.

“The School of Social Work has wonderful, caring, compassionate people who positively affect the student experience,” he says. Along the way, he added the master of public policy program offered through the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“In the School of Social Work we say, ‘Policy is always in the room,’” he explains. “It helps to understand policy and how it gets made and who is making it. We do a lot of complaining about problems, but if we neglect policy, it’s at our own peril. This was a piece I wanted.”

Completing both programs will take four years instead of three due to time off to run the mural project. The project is completed but Oppenheimer looks forward to building on the public art foundation that it created in his neighborhood. He is a full-time student again with a policy internship at the Council on Crime and Justice. He also referees soccer games and works at Target Field in the summers. All the activity is a good match for him.

“My mother was a social worker and if you asked her about where I am today, she’d tell you it’s not the least bit surprising that I’m doing this,” he says. “I just love interacting with people. My priority in life is always that people around me are doing well and are given the opportunities needed to reach their potential. I do this because it’s the right thing to do, because it makes me feel good, and because I can play a small part in making the world around me a more just and equitable and beautiful place.”

Learn more about the School of Social Work and the Midway Murals project.

Watch the Big Ten Network video, “For a Minnesota grad student, home is where his art is.”

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo courtesy of Big Ten Network | November 2015