FORWARD: Issue #1: Public Health

Chronic Disease

Chronic disease strains already-challenged care systems.

Around 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease annually; nearly one in 10 live with diabetes; 5.5 million have Alzheimer’s. And some alarming signs point to COVID-19 lingering after its acute phase is over.

Improvements in care create their own problems: as people live longer, more of them are going to need new forms of care and support. And the prohibitive cost of care, inequitable access to it, the adverse side effects of pharmaceuticals, and the ill effects of a degraded environment mean that we can’t confront chronic disease with biomedical tactics alone. After all, the World Health Organization’s definition of health is “complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

To achieve that holistic goal, we need to link care with community programs that tackle a whole range of issues. The National Conference of State Legislators recommends health and wellness programs in schools, worksites, and communities; better access to care for people with chronic conditions; and eliminating racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic health disparities, while teaching the public how to prevent chronic disease.

Offering arts and cultural activities in community health clinics and other institutions can help advance these goals. And arts and culture can boost connection, empathy, and social cohesion—reducing the stigma that surrounds chronic disease so that people are less hesitant to go for the care they need.

Jackson Medical Mall's Arts Programming

A Clinic for the Underserved That's Also a Vibrant Arts and Community Center

Location: Jackson, MS Lead Organization: Jackson Medical Mall Foundation Artist Role: Ranging from art-making to teaching to advisory roles in administration Cost: $3 Million over three years (2015-2018) Partners: Local artists

The mission of the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation (JMMF), housed in a once-abandoned shopping mall, is to eliminate healthcare disparities in the Mississippi city. But they do it, as their web site notes, “holistically through the promotion of creativity and innovation.”

The Mall’s approach to healthcare for the underserved seeks to further community development, economic growth, resiliency, health equity, and youth opportunity for their 5,000 daily visitors from across the state—­many of whom suffer from or are at high risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or other chronic conditions. The key? Arts and culture, used strategically. Along with traditional health services, a variety of creative programs engage community members, celebrate local culture, and promote healthy lifestyles. Art is used as a draw, animating and activating the Mall as a vibrant cultural center with music, performance, and exhibitions. Offering a welcoming, colorful space for its health-service clients, the Foundation also provides work and revenue for local artists.

The arts component was a new concept for many on the staff of this medical facility, according to Erica Reed, Chief of Staff to the Executive Director and Chief Development Officer. Early on, artists Daniel Johnson and Carlton Turner helped JMMF reimagine the space, craft a strategic plan, and understand how staff viewed art and local artists

That early internal groundwork “helped the staff [realize] that the arts are important, and to incorporate the art into everything we do,” Reed says. “From there on out, we incorporate art into every single meeting, and we always have the art director present.”

New developments include a farmer’s market and community gardens. Members of the community designed the garden, and a local farmer planted herbs, fruits and vegetables, which community members can sell for their own profit. There’s after-school programming (currently virtual), a space for dance and quilting programs, and more—activities that, Reed says, “created a whole different outlook from the health piece.”

"Community buy-in is included in everything we do. Instead of telling [the community] what we're going to do, we asked them what they want to see." - Erica Reed
"If we need some visual arts planning or something in an artistic way, we know exactly who to call because we have a relationship with them."
- Erica Reed

TOP OF PAGE: An exterior view of the mall complex.

New in 2020 are the JMMF farmer's market and community gardens. Community members designed the garden and are invited to participate in gardening and cooking demos, as well as sell the produce for their own profit.

POSTCARD: Artist Carlton Turner's support led to the formation of an arts advisory committee whose meetings evolved into popular social events­--artist Thursdays--for networking with local leaders.

ABOVE: When the mall holds an event or festival, health components are included in the programming along with the art, so children must go through dental and vision screening to participate. Face painting and other creative activities encourage participation from families and children, who are then able to access other services.

Photos courtesy the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation.

Dance Classes on Wheels to Help Fight Child Obesity

Location: Detroit, Michigan Cost: $20,000 initial investment Artist Role: Community Dance Instructor

Obesity and other chronic health problems afflict communities of color nationwide. A very young entrepreneur in Detroit decided to do something about the situation by getting young people in Detroit moving—and creating beauty as they moved. Amiya’s Mobile Dance Academy (AMDA) makes dance accessible to communities without dance opportunities for youth. The big pink bus takes dance classes to the young dancers.

Amiya Alexander founded the initiative in 2008 when, at the ripe old age of 10, she noticed a dearth of dance classes in her community, along with threatening levels of obesity in young people. But taking dance classes in other neighborhoods meant discouragingly long commutes, and the cost of dance instruction was another barrier for a large portion of the Detroit population.

The very young entrepreneur, who had been taking dance classes herself since she was 2, decided to create a dance studio. Her mother, Taberah Alexander, agreed to help, pulling in donations from family members until the project had $20,000, which they put toward the purchase of a 52-passenger school bus. They tore out the seats, installed a barre and a wooden floor, painted the vehicle bright pink, and Alexander had her mobile studio, where she teaches on the go: ballet, tap, jazz, salsa, and hip-hop. She also leads classes on wellness and healthy eating. And she keeps her tuition affordable: classes that would be $30-$60 elsewhere are about $12 at AMDA. The pink bus travels to schools and parks all over the city.

From the beginning, Alexander knew she wanted to focus her classes on youth—to give them a creative outlet, of course, and to celebrate the Black heritage, but also to combat health problems in that population; she vows to do everything she can to bring the childhood obesity rate in her community to zero. AMDA offers professional training to dancers ages two to twelve, helping them develop creativity, motivation, self-confidence, and self-discipline—and helping them stay at healthy weights while having plenty of fun.

"It was 1:06 in the morning, and I was sleeping in my room, and I woke up in the middle of the night, and in my head I saw a pink bus. I wrote my ideas down and I sketched out the bus and I colored it. And I ran to my mom and I woke her up and I told her." —Amiya Alexander (age 10) interviewed in The Grio, 2009.

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FORWARD: Issue #1

Public Health