Community Art Takes On Topic of Community Health

July 12, 2013
By Julie Eisen

How do you get a community talking about the ways a person’s neighborhood, economic status and cultural traditions can impact obesity? For the Somerville, Mass., team of the Healthy Weight Collaborative, the answer was to paint.

A multi-sector group with representation from a variety of local health and human services agencies as well as local family advocates and parents, worked together to examine the health disparities data of their community, find the story in the data, and paint a visual design in the Somerville Head Start’s waiting room. The end result is a mural that reinforces healthy lifestyles, while reflecting the community’s unique cultural and economic realities.

“It was the perfect opportunity to learn together in a way that would truly engage people from across the sectors,” says Lisa Brukilacchio, OTR, MEd, team lead and director of the Somerville Community Health Agenda.

In Somerville, like in many other American cities, public health officials are seeing not just increasing rates of childhood overweight and obesity, but also growing disparities between populations based on ethnicity and socioeconomic levels. According to 2010 statistics from the Cambridge Health Alliance, among Hispanic patients ages 2 to 5 from Somerville, 53 percent were overweight or obese—a disproportionately high number compared to other ethnic groups.* Other data show that 32 percent of Somerville’s Head Start kids are overweight or obese.

A multi-sector team focused on fighting this trend joined NICHQ’s Healthy Weight Collaborative in March 2012. They concentrated their obesity prevention efforts on the 205 low-income, predominately Latino children ages 3 to 5 served at the Community Action Agency of Somerville’s Head Start center, along with their families. The mural emerged as one way to help reinforce the healthy living habits being taught at Head Start.

Finding the right story for the mural took some time. Brainstorming workshops led by Rahul and Emily Bhargava, data mural experts and the husband-and-wife team that originally proposed the mural project, engaged partners and parents to discuss and understand the current demographic, socioeconomic and health data of Somerville’s Head Start population. Parents actively contributed to the conversations and were vocal in pointing out the living reality behind the numbers.

“At one point, folks in the room suggested that the story be that kids need to eat more healthfully and get more exercise and there was a little bit of finger pointing,” explains Emily. “The parents in the room responded very quickly and said, ‘This is not choice. The community and resources that exist dictate what we do, how we eat, and how much we move around. It’s not all on our shoulders.’”

In time, the story that would shape their mural became clear: The data say that economic status of families, cultural traditions and where you live play a part in the health of all children. We want to tell the story because the culture of the home, the culture of the community and the culture of its organizations need to work together toward improving child health.

After a collective total of 24 hours of painting by more than 20 volunteers, on June 14 the 10-foot by 7-foot wall art was complete. The mural features a neighborhood with a main street lined with buildings—each one embodying an organization that can contribute to keeping kids healthy—a school, grocery store, a doctor’s office, a church, WIC and Head Start. Above the buildings are four clouds that represent the challenges preventing healthy living that the group identified: “Not enough time, Not enough play, Too little money, and Expensive food and housing.” People in the mural counteract those challenges by reminding the kids what they can do to stay healthy: a healthcare professional asks the kids how much TV they watch; a babysitter with toddlers in the park lets the kids know that her family has fun playing outside every day.

Video courtesy of Rahul Bhargava

At the front lines of Head Start, Chris Hosman, enrollment specialist and instrumental designer in the project, sees the mural as a powerful way to start conversations with parents. “It immediately puts people at ease to discuss healthy eating, healthy living and the connections to healthy weight. Also it reinforces for parents in one-on-one conversations that this is a community-wide issue that everyone is working on.”

A week after the mural has been up, Hosman is already seeing the impact of the newly decorated waiting room. “Kids come in and are pointing to the figures, and parents are reading the word bubbles out loud to their kids.” Previously, pamphlets with similar information on health and community resources lined the waiting room, but they typically went unread. “What used to reach nobody is now reaching the parents and the children, which is amazing,” he says.

For more information on creating data murals see Emily Bhargava’s website and Rahul Bhargava’s blog. The mural was supported by the MIT Center for Civic Media as part of their Data Murals project.

*NOTE: Data is not entirely representative of all children in Somerville 2-5 years old. This point-in-time sample from Cambridge Health Alliance, the local safety net health care provider, offers an indication of the challenges in obesity prevention efforts of addressing the needs of young children across economic status and different cultural experiences.