At DAREarts, we’re firm believers in the power of the arts in creating positive change in communities. We see this power at work every day with our students. So last year, we decided to apply this potential to a new challenge: diabetes prevention.
Wait – what do the arts have to do with diabetes prevention?
While the arts and health promotion may seem like completely disconnected realms, many organizations have seen huge success using an art-based approach to community- based disease prevention work, especially when working with youth.
Recently, this approach has been applied to the mental health and wellness space. The power of the arts to tell stories, share information and include multiple voices in message creation has made art-based awareness and support programs very effective for youth participants.
Combining this method with the effectiveness of peer-to-peer learning and a focus on youth as community leaders only makes this approach more useful in sharing important information and encouraging healthier behaviors and choices.
What we did – About the Project
In consultation with our First Roots community partners in Attawapiskat First Nation, we developed a pilot program focused on Type 2 Diabetes prevention, management and awareness for their community that was informed and guided by traditional knowledge and values.
Within this project, our students were seen as leaders in defining the specific ways diabetes affected their lives and took up space in their community. We then worked with them to design ways we could take action to prevent diabetes, spread awareness and encourage healthier behaviours for themselves and the community as a whole, using a variety of art forms. We were thrilled by just how enthusiastically and creatively our students approached this challenge.
First, we used journaling and story-telling as a way to share information about type 2 diabetes, encourage personal behaviour changes focused on getting more physically active, incorporating more healthy foods into daily meals and practicing mindfulness to improve overall wellness. We included a community gardening project into this work to increase access to fresh herbs and greens.
Then, we worked with the students to identify ways they could encourage others in their community to adopt the healthier choices they had. The students decided they wanted to address the lack of awareness they saw among their peers the affects of diabetes and what people could do to prevent developing this chronic illness. They decided to use visual arts and design to create awareness posters to spread information in their school and larger community.
To unpack the concept of healthy eating and connect it to traditional knowledge and values, the students then adapted recipes for their favorite meals to include more nutritious ingredients and wrote and designed a community cookbook.
To demonstrate their understanding of diabetes and health as a shared community issue, the students wrote, produced and performed an original song. They saw their song as an anthem to inspire others to take care of themselves and each other.
Finally, to celebrate and share their projects, the students organized a community feast for their family, friends, teachers and supporters.
During our time working together students, teachers and community stakeholders shared that this unique and accessible form of diabetes prevention and health promotion had started new conversations, sparked new learnings and led to a deeper understanding of both diabetes and whole-community health.
Students had the opportunity to build the information and skills to act as leaders in both their own lives and in their community throughout the project. They were encouraged to see how their own actions impacted larger community life by being challenged to make positive changes individually and sharing their new knowledge in creative ways to make broader change possible.
We’re working closely with our partners in Attawapiskat First Nation to track the longer-term impact of the program in encouraging healthier behaviours and increasing awareness of diabetes. Initial feedback and information shared with us from the community showed an increase in knowledge surrounding diabetes and prevention methods, an increase in adopting preventative behaviors (eating healthier foods, being more physically active, managing stress through mindfulness) and an increase in students feeling like their health was important enough to take care of.
What happens now?
We’re heading back to Attawapiskat First Nation this winter and are excited to launch phase two of the project, which is focused on increasing community capacity to offer ongoing programming through hiring and supporting program alumni to serve as facilitators of the program throughout the school year.
What’s clear is that merging the power of peer-to-peer health promotion, youth leadership and arts-based learning opens up huge possibilities for community grounded and led initiatives aimed at disease prevention and improving health and wellness. We’re so excited to continue this project and find new ways we can leverage the power of the arts to equip and empower young people to take action on the issues that matter to them most.
This pilot project was made possible through the incredible commitment to community health of our program partner Novo Nordisk. Because of their generous support, we will be able to continue this work during our 2019-2020 programming year.