“Art is the outward manifestation of human experience in the world. Art is necessary for survival. To be human and alive is to be an active art maker. Everything that humans create in their act of living is art.” -Tamati Patuwai, MAD AVE ‘Healthy and Thriving Communities’ Glen Innes, New Zealand
It was a happy accident, an unintended yet very welcome consequence of studying ‘how the Kiwis’ do community health from the ground (literally) up, from the community members’ perspectives. The recent experience has changed how I think about community health, has deepened my respect for the power of art (and libraries) to change lives, and has even altered how I view my own community back home in Seattle.
First, a brief recap of the experience to provide some perspective. What I’m referring to here is the recent University of Washington Study Abroad in New Zealand 5-week immersive program I co-led with Jim Diers, a social worker and internationally-acclaimed community development expert. Here is what our course description said about the study abroad program:
“Empowering Healthy Communities is an interdisciplinary Exploration Seminar in New Zealand, focusing on how various communities organize and advocate for overall health and wellbeing. In this seminar, we will combine community-engaged service-learning, community case studies, readings, reflective writing, student independent projects, and immersive living experiences, to challenge students to think more broadly and creatively about participatory democracy, civic engagement, sustainability, and the social determinants of health. This course is grounded in an international, community-engaged, service-learning format aimed at creating opportunities for transformational student learning. We will address the meanings of ‘diversity’ within global and local communities; issues of power and privilege; social justice; what it means to be civically engaged at the local and global levels; and the tensions and differences between tourism vs. travel, and community service vs. engagement.
New Zealand is an ideal location for this Exploration Seminar. The country has a unique blend of indigenous and immigrant cultures, and its people have a rugged, “number eight wire” can-do, and highly creative approach to solving individual and community problems. In 2014, New Zealand ranked number one in the Harvard Business School’s Social Progress Index for overall wellbeing, while the U.S. ranked number sixteen, just above Slovenia. New Zealand spends one-third less per person on health care than we do in the U.S., yet they have much better population health outcomes. How do they do it? That is one of the main questions we will ask and explore through our work and study in New Zealand. In addition, as New Zealand is a world leader in environmental sustainability efforts, we will challenge ourselves to go ‘as green’ as possible: living in youth hostels, recycling, walking and taking public transportation, and eating a mainly vegetarian diet for our group meals.”
As we discussed with the students at the beginning of our program, New Zealand slipped somewhat in the 2015 Social Progress Index, but is still in the top tier/top ten of the 133 countries with sufficient comparison data to include. In 2015 for the ‘Health and Wellness’ category, New Zealand ranked 9th and the U.S. ranked 68th. And somewhat ironically in light of our study abroad program, the U.S. ranks first world-wide in the Access to Advanced Education category, and is weakest in Health and Wellness and Ecosystem Sustainability. I tried to remind students of this fact, especially when some of them grumbled about the vegetarian meals and relying on public transportation.
Using connections through the amazing New-Zealand group Inspiring Communities, we focused our time on a variety of local community groups working to empower and improve the places they call home. The Central Business District/ Karangahape Road in Auckland. The Avondale and Henderson communities on the outskirts of Auckland. Devonport and Waiheke Island, both more affluent communities. The Ruapotaka marae in Glen Innes. Then south to the Wellington area communities of Porirua, Bromphore School, and Epuni. Consistent through all of these communities was an emphasis the community members placed on the use of the arts to catalyze positive change and to enable community wellbeing. That and public libraries, which community members treasured as being the heart and soul and ‘mind food’ of their communities. Places where true democracy happens. Places to “dream up and enact crazy ideas.” Places that nurture “the freedom to change.”
Art, including literary art, was literally everywhere we turned in these communities. And not just the typical government-sanctioned commissioned public art we are used to seeing in the U.S., but also much more grassroots , low barrier, “anybody can participate” community art shown in my photos in this post.
This sort of art not only beautified the communities, it also built community identity and promoted wellbeing. Walking around my hometown of Seattle this past week, I’ve been searching for similar sparks of community wellbeing through art and have had a hard time finding them. Yes, we do have some great bus shelter artwork, as well as some building and wall murals–and our public library system has been one of the best in the country (and hopefully will remain so despite a very silly rebranding effort), but I cannot find the same level of empowering healthy communities through art. Perhaps this is an important ‘take home’ message, one we could use to improve community health and wellbeing in the U.S. More art, less guns.