Using Art to Build Healthy Communities

Using Art to Build Healthy Communities

From paintings to poetry, students team with Harvard Medical School to promote personal and public health

If you ever wondered whether art could change the world, the verdict is in. For hundreds of Boston and Cambridge middle schoolers participating in this year’s Reflection in Action: Building Healthy Communities™ (RIA) program, using art to communicate public health issues was a powerful experience.

“We bring close to 400 middle school students to Harvard Medical School to expose them to healthy lifestyles, to careers in the sciences, and to become more fit, physically, spiritually, and mentally,” said Dr. Sheila Nutt, Director of Educational Outreach Programs.

The program has steadily grown since 2003, this year involving 15 schools, mostly from Boston. Three Cambridge schools participated, including the Putnam Avenue Upper School, Cambridge Street Upper School, and the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School, leaving plenty of room for growth.

Partnering with middle school teachers, their aim is to educate and empower students to take control of their own wellbeing, and then to take action in their communities to improve public health.

“In middle school they’re studying the human body, so the focus of RIA is to have students use creative expression in the visual, written, and performing arts so that they can comment on a health disparity or health condition that affects their community,” explained Nutt.

The program is designed to celebrate the Civil Rights Movement and to reinforce the belief that individuals have the power to create change in their communities. Dr. Joan Reede, Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School, is the visionary behind the RIA program, now in its 11th year.

“Many of our youth don’t have opportunities to comment on the world around them, about what they see and what troubles them, and here’s a place where the adults are saying 'we want to hear from you, and want to hear your impressions, what you think is important about health,' and impart on them that they can make choices to act. The idea is to reflect on issues of social justice and civil rights and health so you can act on them,” said Reede.

Many of these students got their first glimpse of science jobs through Explorations, a one-day program offered in the fall by Harvard Medical School’s Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership, and modeled after Take Your Child to Work Day. Recognizing that many youth participating in that program would not be exposed to research labs, hospital clinics, and the full breadth of opportunities in science and medicine, the Explorations program was created to fill that gap.

“Explorations is about exploring careers, and going off with post docs and scientists and others, into the research labs and seeing experiments and hands-on activities,” explained Reede.

Many of the students who participate in Explorations come back for Reflections in Action in the spring, developing art projects to convey their public health concerns via performance, visual arts, or by writing poetry, essays, short stories, or presentations.

Student art projects were evaluated by a panel of 38 judges this year, and awards were presented during a day of celebration June 3rd at Harvard Medical School. The event featured student performances, an exhibition of student art, educational and fitness activities, and demonstrations to reinforce healthy lifestyles. All participating students were invited to the celebration, which included a Jeopardy-style game called the Health Bowl to test their knowledge of health issues.

Before playing the first round at the closing event, Reede said the students were asked if there was anybody smart in the room, and every hand went up.

Now that’s power.

Created with flickr slideshow.