In this post, Natasha Freidus describes how diverse organizations in King County, Washington State developed a collaborative media and mapping project to address health disparities.
Food deserts? In Seattle? Shortly after I moved here, I remember asking if it was possible to get a salad in a restaurant that wasn’t from a Washington farm. It was almost overwhelming how “organic” and “local” everything was. Being new to the area, I didn’t know that all I had to do was travel five miles south to see a starkly different scene.
While Seattle is known for its popular locavore movement, for its parks system, and for its REI-clad cyclists, there’s another reality here. In South Seattle and the neighboring cities of King County, many have to take multiple buses to get healthy produce. If you are low-income, you are seven times as likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke. Diabetes prevalence and mortality rates for African-Americans in King County are among the highest in the nation. In short, King County reflects the health inequity of our nation as a whole.
Screenshot of www.mappingvoices.org.
Chipping away at that inequity are dozens of community organizations, city agencies, the health department, all working to create better access to physical activity, healthy eating, and reduce tobacco usage. In the summer of 2010, several of us came together to design the MOVE website, our response to a health department RFP fueled by stimulus funds.
MOVE is both an online and offline strategy to reduce health inequity through maps and stories. Our intention is to both highlight the successful changes supporting tobacco and obesity prevention efforts and to use media as a tool promote new changes. The site features
• Over seventy-five community produced, multilingual stories about the personal impact of health inequities.
• A map documenting policy changes to create tobacco-free environments and prevent obesity.
• An extensive “take action” section.
Audience at the I.D. on the MOVE community forum, October 2011. Photo by Julie Swanson.
On October 28th, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s International District, well over one hundred people gathered for MOVE’s launch to speak about the limited access to physical activity in their neighborhood. Over half of the crowd was monolingual, but that didn’t stop them from presenting their stories to the panel of Seattle City Councilors. Local community organizers commented that they hadn’t seen a crowd that size come to a community policy event in over twenty years.
1. Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. Community health clinics, a teen media portal, a LGBTQ non-profit…not your traditional partners. These disparate groups spearheaded MOVE and have met monthly for over a year now—seeing each other’s neighborhoods, tasting each other’s snacks, delving into democratic logo design, bearing with one another’s bureaucracies, watching stories in one another’s languages. Collectively, we are much more than the sum of our parts.
2. Story at the Center. We all believe strongly in the power of story to affect change. We also believe that each community is best equipped to find its own mediators to bring out those stories. To that end, each partner organization has trained staff on hand to conduct outreach, to lead workshops, to listen, honor, and record stories. The stories on the MOVE site are the experiences of individuals; the issues they address are tied to changes at the level of institutions, neighborhoods, school systems, and cities. We asked each storyteller to consider the changes they’d like to see. Some chose to focus on smoke free parks. Others looked at urban school gardens. We created facilitator guides and take action items to accompany the stories—so the link between stories and action was as clear as possible for viewers.
3. Keep it simple. While our stories and mapping interface are sophisticated, we have used tools that are either open source, free or low-cost, and simple. We work to make story production, data entry, and editing the website as easy as possible. We drew on each other’s strengths, found creative solutions to technology problems, and didn’t let the technology rule us.
4. Website as catalyst – not endpoint. While MOVE is an online platform for change, it’s also a grassroots strategy to organize communities around public health issues. From the beginning, we were clear that we intended to use MOVE as a facilitated tool. Sure, we are learning to tweet, but we know our communities. We have a team working to show the map and stories in health clinic waiting rooms, in diabetes prevention classes, in the Mayor’s chambers. We believe that this map and its stories can be a catalyst for change, an excuse to begin a conversation about healthier communities.
Julie and Diane testify for City Council. Photo by Julie Swanson.
5. Fostering leadership. We’ve just begun the process of using MOVE for policy-work. We have a lot to learn. But one thing we have noticed so far with is that by engaging our storytellers, we’ve tapped into a new form of civic engagement. People bring along their husbands, children, and neighbors to our screenings and forums — in part because they care about the cause but also because they are proud of their work. They are willing to speak in public because they have already put their voices out there. They feel part of something larger because their stories are online alongside those of their friends and neighbors — icons upon icons, voices upon voices, spreading through the neighborhood, united on the map.
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I remember hearing Pete Seeger singing One Grain of Sand at MIT over ten years ago. He told the audience: “I know I’m just one more grain of sand in this world,” he once said. “But I’d rather throw my weight, however small, on the side of what I think is right. …” At Mapping Our Voices for Equality, we hope that each story can serve as a grain of sand to tip the scales of inequity in our city.
Mapping Our Voices for Equality is funded by Public Health – Seattle & King County and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Natasha Freidus earned a Masters in City Planning degree from MIT in 2001. She consults and provides training on the role of stories as a tool for change as the director of Creative Narrations.