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  • Meera Chakravarthy

Healthy Communities through the Arts

Public health can traditionally be seen as ways to prevent population from disease/illness, providing access to universal healthcare, and promoting wellness and healthy behaviors. When people think public health in underserved communities, they think of HIV prevention. They think of menstrual hygiene. They think of basic water and food access.


But, Michele Briere, the Executive Director of the Marsalis Center for Music in the ninth ward of New Orleans looks at public health in a highly holistic and community-driven aspect--through an arts lens. She fosters an environment for rich music education and exchange; her tool to drive healthy communities is the arts. Briere was brought to lead the Center for Music in 2010, 5 years after Hurricane Katrina hit the city, destroying most of the land, economic opportunity, and displacing much of the community. Briere had a vision, which was to create safe spaces for children and community members in a post Katrina era, finding focus and passion through music and arts. 


Music has and will always be central to New Orleans’ soul. The leaders of this center knew a large part of their mission would be to rebuild affordable housing for artists and create somewhat of a micro-community in the surrounding area that feeds and sustains itself through a central focus of culture. This community is filled with talented musicians living in shotgun houses called the “Musicians Village”. Right in the middle of this village sits the Center for Music, an arts educational hub for community members and children ages 7-18. Briere promotes a healthy and resilient community by ensuring that when students are in her Center, they are fed healthy snacks, they have access to good hygiene, they have the opportunity to have counselors or people to speak with about anything that might be bothering them, and they have extra help with tutoring. All of this leads to a less violent community, and a more thriving space for collaboration. 


While Michele will self-define herself as a storyteller, she is also one of the truest definitions of a community leader. Poised, focused, and selfless, she puts her people and her community at the center of every thought she has, and she harbors their pains while helping them spread their joys. Michele has created a model of successful community building and healthy communities by simply taking the very soul of  community and music, while creating an environment that teaches, promotes, and spreads this concept.


After visiting Michele and her thriving school, my first thought was, why can we not do this with international communities? What are the strategies we must incorporate when building resilient, cultural communities?


Here are 4 thoughts: 

1. Building safe and healthy communities begins with targeting a community’s values

Every community cares deeply about a topic, sometimes multiple topics. This is often the engine for the economic industries in a place, or what keeps tourism alive in that region. More importantly, it is often the motivation for citizens to get up every day and go about their lives. For example, in Kita, Mali, the music and dance culture Is part of an 800 year old tradition embedded in storytelling and advisorship. By focusing on what actually draws the community together, we can build more resilient and healthier communities that ultimately lead to economic gains. This may be building a music recording studio, or it may be providing opportunities for international exchange through the arts.  


2. Creating a community around the arts can inadvertently and strategically improve access to water, food, and job opportunities

Just like individuals, communities need incentives to work on themselves. When a community is working towards a common goal, such as building a music school,  there is more momentum and focus to build up other industries without getting distracted. For example, in order to build a music school, a community needs access to clean water and food. In order to build a music school a community needs to look at improving its technology and transportation access. In order to build a music school, a community must think about what job opportunities will be created and how to preserve and manifest jobs in multiple industries. An arts and culture project can bring focus to building up a community slowly and intentionally. Using a “ground up” model for community development in international communities also provides a level of sensitivity and community ownership when dealing with international governments.


3. Arts can be used as a behavioral change communication tool

When we think about the performing arts we often resort to thinking about concerts where people sit, enjoy for a confined period of time, and then continue about their daily lives. However, art can be seen more and more as a multidisciplinary activity with the ability to not only engage other disciplines, but affect behavior. Take for example our trip to Kita, Mali, citizens of the Keita school. The children put on a play that taught the community the importance of learning English and learning computer science skills. This ultimately inspired many children to start practicing their English and asking for access to computers. Arts can greatly spread positive behaviors and messaging. It can also be used as a tool to communicate safe domestic relationship experiences or HIV prevention practices.  


4. It all begins and sustains with community led leadership and buy in

When we develop in international communities, we have to gain community buy in because at the end of the day, the community will be the one most impacted with sustaining and maintaining development. Not us. This requires deep initial research and understanding of what the community’s needs are and what their motivation of life is. It requires ethnographic study on what their economic, social, political, and health needs are. And finally, it requires community leadership on the ground to help the idea of development move forward. If a leader has something tangible, like a music school, to champion, it is much easier for its citizens to understand and get excited about the long standing effects associated with the build. It also keeps the motivation moving in the community as leadership transitions occur. 

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