A New Approach to Hometown Health

Josh Miller and Theo Edmonds, co-founders of IDEAS xLab. Photo by Antonio Pantoja.

IDEAS xLab Addresses Public Health From Its Intersection With Arts and Culture

By Remy Sisk

Health is a complex word. To most, it immediately evokes thoughts of doctors, nutrition, exercise and other more traditional aspects associated with being “healthy.” However, there is an organization in Louisville that’s approaching the concept of health from a different standpoint – and consequently receiving national attention. Headquartered on East Market Street in NuLu, IDEAS xLab was co-founded by Josh Miller and Theo Edmonds and currently boasts two other partners in Louisville-based artist Chris Radtke and New-York based curator Ayelet Aldouby. Along with a staff including Health Equity Strategist Hannah Drake and Community Health Champion ShawnNika Queen, the organization is now working on a larger and larger scale to utilize arts and culture to impact community health.

Canadian artist Domonique Paul with Meyzeek Middle School students.

“Over the last five years, IDEAS xLab has engaged over 50 different artists representing eight states and six different countries in various projects, and we are actively working right now in seven communities across the country,” describes Edmonds. “And while we are based in Louisville, the Louisville model we’re creating is having an impact nationally, and it’s causing people to look at Louisville as a place of innovation in the arts. So it’s raising Louisville’s profile on a national scene and also causing people to look at Louisville as an innovator in health.”

The organization was originally realized through the exceedingly eclectic backgrounds of the team members, all of which illustrated a sort of intersectionality that was indicative of tremendous potential. “Our team is made up of artists with varying backgrounds, along with our curatorial partner,” Miller explains. “I am a photographer with an M.B.A. and background in editorial production, and Theo is a transdisciplinary artist with a law degree and master’s in healthcare administration. Through our diverse backgrounds, we understood the importance of transdisciplinary work and saw the potential for engaging artists from across disciplines as catalysts for change.

“When we first started,” he continues, “we were exploring two specific areas: artist as corporate innovator, with corporations like Humana and GE, which was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; and artist as civic innovator with nonprofits, like our primary partner in Smoketown, YouthBuild Louisville, which was funded through ArtPlace America and the Educational Foundation of America, among others. It was through these early projects that we narrowed our focus on the intersection of arts/culture, health and well-being, and community development.”

IDEASxLab Health Equity Strategist Hannah Drake and poet Robin G. present Shirley Mae with a poem during One Poem at a Time Historical Poetry Walk, joined by Council person Barbara Sexton Smith. Photo by Josh Miller.

IDEAS xLab essentially functions in a series of three steps. First, they work with artists – and that means all artists, from visual artists to poets to dancers to actors and cultural leaders – to train them on the IDEAS xLab model. Next, they work with these artists as well as a predetermined community to design programs that are intended to create a positive health impact in that community. Finally, they form research partnerships with universities to continue the studies and examinations of these programs’ impacts on public health.

The primary delivery model for IDEAS xLab’s work across communities is called Project HEAL, which stands for health, equity, art and learning and is based on the theory that health is culturally created. “The three pillars of approach that we take to Project HEAL are summed up in these three sentences: Culture shapes health. Artists shape culture. Communities shape change,” Edmonds elaborates. “So IDEAS xLab with Project HEAL allows the best of the research, the best people, the best tools from all three of these sectors – arts, health and community development – to come together and reinforce each other in a way that benefits and is relevant to people in their day-to-day lives.”

The outcome and intention of Project HEAL is twofold. “The first outcome is using arts and culture to work with communities to identify their priorities and then turning those priorities into a policy initiative and using arts and culture to drive civic engagement toward that policy,” Edmonds relates. “The second is using arts and culture to create new opportunities for educational achievement for neighborhood young people and to create new opportunities for economic development and economic well-being within neighborhoods.”

One of the positive messages displayed in Smoketown as a result of a policy that restricts predatory advertising in communities with high levels of health disparity. Photo by Josh Miller.

An example of creating opportunities for educational achievement can be seen in IDEAS xLab’s recent work with Meyzeek Middle School. The organization has collaborated with the school on an artist residency program that uses visual artists to combine data science with art to teach young people about environmental justice. Meanwhile, the creation of opportunities for economic development is evident in how an old liquor store is being turned into a fully-functioning laundromat that also houses a networking hub and meeting space.

“It’s through initiatives like these that Project HEAL delivers on that promise of increasing educational achievement opportunities and economic well-being in communities,” Edmonds maintains. “You take those two things together, combine them with civic engagement and the ability of a community to have the resources and tools it needs to shape policies that shape the community and you have the recipe for a healthier community.”

Again, this concept of health, or more so, IDEAS xLab and its multitude of collaborators’ approach to health, extends so vastly beyond pure medicine or diet and exercise. As Miller emphasizes, “When we’re talking about health, health is about so much more than what happens inside the doctor’s office. Health is what happens in our neighborhoods, when we’re at school, it’s created in our relationships with family and with friends, it’s based on safety and economic well-being, and arts and culture are a way to catalyze those things and also create hope. So when we think about our outlook for the future, arts and culture are a great way to re-envision what the future looks like and how health and well-being are created.”

One example of the sort of work that has been implemented to create a more robust sense of hope is One Poem at a Time, created by IDEAS xLab Health Equity Strategist Hannah Drake. The project is focused on using poetry and photography to change policy and positively impact racial and economic segregation. In such neighborhoods as Smoketown, there is often a high density of very negative billboards (i.e. gun shows, drug-snifffing dogs, paying cash for your house), which can, without question, inject the community with its own kind of negative social toxin. Drake and IDEAS xLab as a whole is thus seeking to implement a policy that restricts predatory advertising in communities with high levels of health disparity, many of which are in the process of rebuilding. 

Both Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness and the Louisville Health Advisory Board, along with State Representative Attica Scott and Councilperson Barbara Sexton Smith, have stepped up to partner with IDEAS xLab and the community of Smoketown to champion the policy change. So far, two billboard campaigns have already been implemented and seen much positive reception in the community. As one participant said, “I’ve never seen people that look like me on a billboard that wasn’t for something negative – like heart disease or fast food.”

But this is just one example of the incredible work IDEAS xLab is doing to improve the health of the community via arts and culture. Thanks to an extraordinary response from members of the greater Louisville community, IDEAS xLab has been able to partner with myriad individuals and organizations, all of whom help further develop the reach and strength of the organization’s initiatives. “We are artists, we are catalysts for change,” Edmonds contends. “And it’s people making space for us at the dinner table that has allowed our work to really flourish.”

One such partner is The Humana Foundation, which recently signed on as a major supporter of Project HEAL. “The Humana Foundation is delighted to support Project HEAL’s important work addressing health disparities by using arts and other cultural programs as health interventions,” says Pattie Dale Tye, interim executive director of The Humana Foundation. “Through this work, Project HEAL is increasing access to health services for individuals and families who need it most.”

Going forward, IDEAS xLab hopes to extend Project HEAL to several different communities, proving that health can indeed be improved outside of a doctor’s office. The diversity of the communities it intends to reach is matched in fact by the very staff of the organization, 100 percent of whom are women, LGBTQ+ or people of color. Thanks to deliberate steps taken by the organization’s team and their partners, there seems to be absolutely no doubt that IDEAS xLab and its work with Project HEAL will only continue to make strides across communities, strides that celebrate the intersectionality of arts, culture and health while doing, measureable, authentic and unequivocal good. VT