Leveraging the power of arts, culture, and the creative industries to frame, seed, and scale innovation in health and wellbeing.


The WORK of Art

Role of Arts in Health Policy

Today in America... your zip code has more to do with your life expectancy than does your genetic code. In my own Louisville, KY neighborhood of Smoketown, the nearly 2,000 residents live 9 years less than the average Louisvillian. Collectively, this means residents of Smoketown have around 6,500,00 less days to live, work, worship, learn and play than the average Louisville neighborhood of the same size.

Earlier this year, I was part of a team asked to pen an article for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation outlining ways that artists can help heal communities. One of my most powerful personal reflections from writing the article is the impact of time poverty.

Time Poverty is a result of historical and contemporary policies that shape today’s realities of both urban and rural poor. Just a couple weeks ago, an article from The Atlantic, “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong”, reinforced this thinking.

Time is not on our side in America. We must accelerate change if we are going to right the ship. We need new ways of building community agency -- social, political and economic capital.  We need to find new ways to lift largely unheard voices into equitable policymaking that can do the most good for the most people. We must do better at connecting the grass roots to the grass tops.

Organizations like Bridging Health & Community are bringing social innovation to the effort of overcoming the disconnect between the health sector and communities by tapping into the power of communities to shape the future of their own health. When such an approach is combined with the energy and creative power of arts and culture, a new transdiscplinary field emerges at the intersection of arts, humanities and population health. One that is geared toward social innovation in policy change.

In the 21st century, US policy leaders in health and education have increasingly acknowledged the need for interventions to address “the whole person.” This prompted the quest for a more integrated approach to policy development that can affect Americans at various life stages, across generations, and in multiple learning contexts. An arts and humanities approach provides an opportunity to accelerate the impact of the traditional levers of change like education, urban planning and workforce or economic development. 

An abundance of literature supports the positive health impacts of arts and culture engagement. We know well the evidence that shows the basic biometric benefits experienced by individuals through art and music therapy. Recent years have brought a deeper understanding of the intentional role that arts and culture can play in community development. This is largely understood in the context of national creative placemaking programs championed by the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace America.

Simultaneously, organizations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have expanded our understanding of the primary and interconnected nature of the social determinants and physical environment on community health. Philanthropy, in general, is beginning to understand new models for shaping policy where equity, social justice and evolved forms of community organizing must play a central and intentional role. 

What is missing is a replicable, population level process for synthesizing all of these approaches into one that simultaneously activates all levels of the social ecological model. 

This is why IDEAS xLab, Creative Agents of Change and The Center for Art + Health Innovation have created Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.)

Project HEAL uses arts and culture as accelerating factors within traditional levers of change—such as schools, workforce development and community organizing. This approach shows promise for: 

  • creating a new bridge between the “grass roots” with the “grass tops”,
  • bridging the “trust barriers” which exist between local communities and external professionals in the health sector, 
  • producing better “language” for talking about health in communities, and 
  • developing new transdisciplinary opportunities for advancing health protective policies with as specific focus on the arts as accelerating factors for impacting the social determinants.

By training artists to harness the unrealized potential of a community’s social networks (live, work, worship, learn, play), Project HEAL has a triple aim impact:

1.     Catalyzing Community: transforming communities by building social, political and economic power through arts and culture interventions.

2.     Moving Policy: using arts and culture as a form of language and as an experiential learning tool for building community capacity for self-advocacy around proven health policies, both public and private.

3.     Shifting Culture: developing a new health sector narrative that shifts it from a “sick-care provider” to a sector whose mission is “to support people’s dreams and to enable hope.” This is a massive transformational purpose that arts and culture are uniquely suited for.

Over the next week my colleague, Nicolle Bennett will be attending the Bridging Health & Community annual convening. Simultaneously, I will be participating as a researcher in the ArtPlace America annual convening. ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that works to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities.

Nicolle and I will be collaborating on a series of blog posts exploring how transdisciplinary work at the intersection of arts, culture, population health and policymaking are being incorporated, discussed and understood in different ways by Bridging Health & Community and ArtPlace America. 

It is my hope that we will be able to offer new transdisciplinary insights that can catalyze further investment in this nascent field that shows promise for developing artists and other cultural producers, organizers and workers as an allied population health work force.

Theo Edmonds is Chief Imaginator and co-founder of IDEAS xLab & Creative Agents of Change. An artist and former healthcare executive, he serves as Vice-Chair of the National Private Sector Council of Americans for the Arts. IDEAS xLab & Creative Agents of Change - which trains artists to find innovative ways to create equitable places and nurture healthy communities - was co-founded by colleagues, Josh Miller, Chris Radtke and Ayelet Aldouby.



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