Ten Years of Building Healthy Communities: The evolving role of arts and culture

I was grateful to learn another side of the Building Healthy Communities story from this session. The footprint of BHC, the California Endowment’s 10-year, 14-site initiative that sought to blend place-based organizing and statewide policy and systems change, is impossible to miss in the public health and community organizing sectors. As someone working in the orbit of TCE and BHC for years, I’d heard much about the initiative’s state and local policy campaigns and its narrative change work to “create an inclusive democracy and close health equity gaps.” But less well-known is this story of arts and culture as a radical community practice that was incubated in the Boyle Heights BHC.

This is the story that was unpacked here, which started poignantly with remembrances of the pivotal role of Bea Solis, TCE’s director of Healthy Communities, South Region who passed away earlier this year after a battle with cancer. According to her colleagues in philanthropy, Jennifer Ybarra at TCE and Maria Rosario Jackson of the Kresge Foundation, it was Bea’s vision and support that paved the way for arts and culture to be brought into four BHC sites. As Maria put it, “A lot of progress made over time in this work is owed to Bea Solis and her willingness to go with something that in the health field was not well understood but she believed in it. She went with it for the long haul and gave us the space to try it.”

In Boyle Heights, where BHC has fostered a vibrant struggle against displacement and gentrification, part of that organizing includes people like Juana, a single mom who led workshops on restorative quilting for her fellow parents at Roosevelt High School. This created space for women to share and listen to each other’s experiences of violence, trauma and healing. As their fingers stitched and wove, their memories and stories and full selves being called forth in that act of individual and collective creation, I can imagine the power these women began to recover and build. This is the deep and transformative power of shaping our own identities and creating something new together, beautiful and whole.

We know that our movements need to build power at all levels; we need to challenge the dominant narratives, shift discourse and create broad public support over time for policy and systems changes. But what actually goes into building and sustaining people’s power? All too often, I’ve focused on the “hard-hitting stuff”—campaigns, civic participation, voting, the ability to pressure decisionmakers and influence public discourse. Now more than ever, though, I believe all of us must take to heart what Bea embraced so presciently, even when it was little understood in her field. We must make space for reclaiming the arts, cultural and spiritual practices that heal and strengthen people’s capacity to dream big and take care of one another. It is from this place, of intentional coming together for and with one another to weave the social fabric—the convivio described by Quetzal Flores—that we can take bold action together, and that we can win.