Stephen Thomas, Storyteller
Professor of Health Services Administration
UMD School of Public Health
How can the arts address health disparities?
Working with the Clarice Smith Center means that health disparities become more than simply statistical differences in rates of death or rates of disease. Health disparities are differences caused by something, and that cause is racism and discrimination. That’s not easy to communicate.
These are social issues. For the broader society to understand and appreciate that, we need a bigger stage than simply our medical journals and our public health journals. We need to give voice to the people who are suffering from the disparities and I’m convinced only the performance stage can do that.
Someone is suffering from obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes because of racism and discrimination. It’s not an easy concept in the 21st century. This is where arts come in — to contextualize the fact that these are not simply biomedical issues. These are social issues. For the broader society to understand and appreciate that, we need a bigger stage than simply our medical journals and our public health journals. We need to give voice to the people who are suffering from the disparities and I’m convinced only the performance stage can do that.
The arts have a broader set of tools that we have not utilized. We want to go in with a medication or pharmaceutical intervention or a set of rules to tell people what to eat. And in order for there to be real uptake on the part of the individuals we’re trying to reach, they need that information translated in a form they can appreciate and understand.
In order for society not to look at people and say they have no self-responsibility or ask what’s wrong with them, we need to put it in a broader context where these people live in neighborhoods that have no access to full-service grocery stores, where they are inundated with fast food restaurants, or where they’ve been systematically targeted by tobacco companies. We think the arts are a way of raising awareness. Not just about one disease, but about this whole area that we call racial and ethnic health disparities.