FORWARD: Issue #1: Public Health

Facing challenges addressing public health issues?

Now is the time to partner with creative problem solvers.

by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, LFAPA, Hon AIA

Public health is concerned with an array of interventions that prevent or contain the spread of disease in the general public.

These range from ensuring the sanitary systems for water, sewage, and garbage to the establishment of health stations that deliver “well baby” care. Public health efforts have helped to increase the length and quality of life all over the world. Yet new issues arise constantly and new methods of communication are needed, and even new insights into how to communicate. This has been a starting point for the collaboration between public health and the arts, which has grown in many directions.

I first observed the contributions of the arts to public health campaigns during the AIDS epidemic. As we know, that epidemic unfolded in the midst of entrenched hatred and stigmatization of gay people, which was strong enough to shut down the public health system. The gay community took the leadership in doing public health, eventually forcing the system to desegregate and work for gay people, intravenous drug users, Haitians, and others who were initially left to die. In the process, the community taught public health how to call on a wide array of assets in fighting disease spread. The gay community used arts in every facet of its AIDS work, creating posters, events, information brochures, and demonstrations that could break through denial and stop the spread of HIV. Among other signs of the campaign’s success was the relationship its leaders developed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of NIAID, the reorientation of a lead scientist that continues to benefit the nation.

"Artists know things about the world that we science nerds don’t know and might not even get when we’re told."

Hula hoop tree made by Anthony Gonzalez for Hike the Heights in 2019 in Manhattan. Photo by Anthony Gonzalez.

The daring and success of the gay community challenged the public health system—which can be slow and stolid—to up its game. In many corners of public health, new kinds of media with new messages emerged. For example, a series of posters were created to make the point that “housing is healthcare.” Instead of the dogmatic text public health might have used, those posters depicted scenes in people’s homes, like medicine bottles by the bedside in an SRO hotel. The beauty of the posters contrasted with typical skull-and-crossbones public health messaging.

The shift in public health thinking is not only in the pursuit of beauty, but also in the domain of engagement. Public health has the idea that a “health fair”—where we measure blood pressure and give out pamphlets—is a great public event. When artist/arts educator Anthony Gonzalez began to work with us at City Life Is Moving Bodies, he brought a whole new imaginary to the table. He “saw” things we couldn’t imagine, and made them real at Hike the Heights, our annual event. In 2019, when CLIMB was observing the anniversary of the first arrival of Africans at Jamestown to be sold into bondage, Gonzalez used long lengths of hula hoop tubing make a tree on which people could hang their wishes for equality. This tree accomplished many tasks at once: it engaged people with the anniversary, it gave them a way to express their hopes, it promoted activity, and, by being, slightly bizarre, it entertained and challenged all the attendees at the party.

Photos from the Housing is Healthcare Project (2000-2002), Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center (ETAC), Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. Courtesy of the photographer, Richard Renaldi.

"We have to use messages that attract and activate. We have to understand the actions that express the cry of the people for decent treatment in a decent society."

Artists know things about the world that we science nerds don’t know and might not even get when we’re told. The partnership with the arts, in my experience, has meant expanding my understanding of how to connect to people in ways that inspire them to healthier living. One piece of this is that much of healthier living has to do with inclusion in a functional democracy, rather than the enactment of “self-care.” Tooth brushing is essential, but if the police are going to knock your teeth out, you have some bigger problems. Motivating people to vote, to go to city council meetings, to join their block watch: these are even more fundamental public health behaviors that we must encourage.

We know that we can’t rely on fear. We have to use messages that attract and activate. We have to understand the actions that express the cry of the people for decent treatment in a decent society. A large black fist raised in the middle of the street created an altar to remember George Floyd, just as a quilt taught us the size of the AIDS epidemic: both attracting people and giving them a way forward toward better health.

Our collaboration with artists has only just begun. As we listen and learn, public health will be able to expand to meet the challenges on the horizon: breaking through denial about climate change, managing the threats of emerging epidemics, ending police violence, and protecting our precious democracy.

Watch the first FORWARD conversation series talk

HOW ARTISTS CAN ADDRESS PUBLIC HEALTH CHALLENGES, a FORWARD conversation series talk with Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, LFAPA, Hon AIA

Esteemed author and social psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Fullilove is joined by Elizabeth Hamby (NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene), and Miguel Angel Vazquez (Riverside County Department of Public Health), in a roundtable on the importance of the work around arts, culture, racial justice, and public health. Facilitated by Mallory Rukhsana Nezam (Justice + Joy). This conversation took place on Wednesday, November 11, 2020 12:00 – 1:00 PM CST


Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, LFAPA, Hon AIA

Social Psychiatrist and Professor of Urban Policy and Health

Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, LFAPA, Hon AIA, is a social psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School. Since 1986, she has conducted research on AIDS and other epidemics of poor communities, with a special interest in the relationship between the collapse of communities and decline in health. From her research, she has published numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs. She has also written: The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, and Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities. A third edition of Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People's Power, which she helped her father, Ernest Thompson, write, was released in May 2018 by New Village Press. She is co-author, with Hannah L. F. Cooper, of From Enforcers to Guardians: A public health primer on ending police violence, issued by Johns Hopkins University Press in January 2020. Her latest book, Main Street: How a City’s Heart Connects Us All, was released in September 2020 by New Village Press.

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FORWARD: Issue #1

Public Health