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Program Uses Art to Engage At-Risk Kids and Identify Needs


Identifying the public health and safety needs of children from low-income communities may be accomplished through art, according to a study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and University of Pittsburgh. Their paper, published in the current online issue of Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education and Action, describes the success of Visual Voices, an arts-based program that engages community members as partners in research. 

The study was based on Visual Voices programs conducted with 22 children ages 8 to 15 in two low-income and predominantly African-American communities in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. During the Visual Voices sessions, participants created paintings and drawings to share their perceptions, both positive and negative, of community safety and violence, and their hopes for the future. Afterward, they combined their individual art projects into two “visual voice” exhibits that were publically displayed in each city. 

Andrea Gielen, ScM, ScD, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Bloomberg School, and colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine used qualitative research methods to review and code the participants’ art projects for themes. Factors that participants identified as important to safety included school and social networks—family, friends and the local community. Places that they identified as unsafe were corner stores, streets and alleys with poor lighting and abandoned houses. Other contextual factors identified as unsafe were drugs, guns and violence, smoking, drinking and gambling.

“This project allowed us to hear directly from Baltimore children about issues in their communities that concern them, including neighborhood safety and violence,” said Gielen. “Garnering this type of information is instrumental to developing public health programs and interventions that are appropriate for specific communities.”

“Community members are experts in their own lives much more so than those who reside outside their communities,” added Michael A. Yonas, DrPH, Visual Voices creator and assistant professor, Department of Family Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Visual Voices helps incorporate residents’ unique expertise into the research process in a non-intrusive and fun way and creates valuable data about their lived experiences. It is different than surveys or focus groups because it uses tools—crayons, paint and markers—that are familiar to children, and can lead to in-depth discussions, encourage self-efficacy and help build trusting relationships between academic researchers and the communities they serve.”

It also can help experts prioritize public health interventions, he added. In Baltimore, for example, the project findings were adapted and used by the organizational leadership of EDEN Jobs, a nonprofit career development and employment placement organization component of New Song Urban Ministries located in West Baltimore, and a partner in the research project. Pieces of the artwork are currently on display at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The project was funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. Co-authors of the study include Kimberly Rak, University of Pittsburgh; Antoine Bennett, New Song Urban Ministries; Vera Kelly, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and Jessica Burke, PhD, University of Pittsburgh.