Artists’ innovations show better healthcare solutions lie in culture.

‘It’s all vines and no taters’ is an old mountain saying my people use to describe someone very showy but of no substance. It’s a good description of our nation’s political leaders on the issue of healthcare in 2017.

Artist Rae Goodwin conducting a workshop in the Robinson Research Forest near Jackson, KY. Part of IDEAS xLab’s Summer of Justice — using the arts to engage Kentucky youth in understanding the relationship between Health, Policy, and Environmental Justice.

Despite all the political maneuvering in The Capitol and state houses, the future of affordable healthcare in this country has rarely seemed so murky. Fortunately, new ways to create healthy communities has never been so clear.

There is a growing notion that the future of medical care is in precision medicine, a medical model that proposes the customization of healthcare, with medical decisions, practices and products tailored to the individual patient. The model encourages and incentivizes public-private sector collaboration and solution finding. The result is a new, emerging market that is projected to grow to $88 billion by 2022.

The medical industry has learned that one size does not fit all and has learned how to monetize the opportunity. I believe that artists and other cultural producers can foster a similarly dramatic shift in how we approach the creation, delivery and financing of community-wide, population health programs.

Click here to learn more about IDEAS xLab’s Project HEAL.

Today in America, a person’s zip code matters more to their life expectancy than their genetic code. In general, feelings of social isolation, combined with a lack of economic mobility, cause Appalachia and the South to bear some of the largest per capita burdens of poor physical health and depression.

As an artist and health professional who has lived and worked in these regions all my life, I have learned that to impact health, we can’t just focus on one thing — we have to focus on everything at the same time if we truly want to bring about meaningful change.

One of my big ‘aha’ moments came when a woman Natchez, Mississippi, told me the story of her grandmother’s recipe card, handwritten, torn and tattered — the first ingredient was two cups of lard! But for her, making the recipe was not just about putting food on the table. It was an act of connecting her to her roots, her heritage, to her family. It was a celebration of her identity and her resiliency as a Black woman in the Deep South.

As a gay Kentuckian who grew up in Appalachia, I could identify. I took to heart her lesson that culture shapes health — one size does not fit all when it comes to community health development and data alone may move governments to action, but it rarely moves a person to want to change.

Instead, a flexible development approach that builds upon valued cultural traditions and norms may lead us to discover innovative policy solutions for unleashing exponential growth in historically low-opportunity neighborhoods.

Through a combination of arts and culture, data and social justice, the artist innovation group I cofounded, IDEAS xLab, is successfully prototyping this new approach to community health. Our model is called, Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.). It is a cultural blueprint for creative, just, healthy communities and a model that could potentially be replicated across America.

Communities have their own best solutions for wellbeing. Science tells us that increasing civic engagement toward better policy is the most efficient way to create large-scale improvement in community health. Project HEAL activates the untapped potential of a community’s arts and culture assets to support increased government access, more equitable policymaking and cross-sector pathways to economic mobility through cultural and social entrepreneurship.

To better understand the potential of Project HEAL as a health improvement strategy, IDEAS xLab partnered with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness and the Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky at University of Louisville School of Public Health & Information Sciences to write a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) that further makes the case for this type of arts and culture model. Through the HIA, research outlined the potential benefits of engaging community members in a challenging model of artistic production that combines qualitative and quantitative data and research, uses the arts as a lever for policy change and, ultimately, creates opportunities for culture to become a catalyst for expanding pathways to economic mobility.

Consider the example of One Poem At A Time, an arts activism initiative and social sculpture that uses poetry and Photovoice — a technique that combines photography, dialogue and social action to address community issues. Created by spoken word artist Hannah Drake, and in partnership with community stakeholders, IDEAS xLab replaced negative outdoor messaging on billboards and posters in Kentucky’s oldest African American neighborhood with positive photographs of community members and one-line poems.

As one participate said of One Poem At A Time, “I’ve never seen people that look like me on a billboard that wasn’t for something negative — like heart disease or fast food.”

People in municipal and state governments took notice, and they are currently working to better understand how this initial effort can lead to policy changes that mitigate the negative health impacts of targeted and enduring racism traditionally exhibited through outdoor advertising in communities of color with significant health disparities.

But this is just the beginning.

By connecting grassroots activism with the grass tops of policymaking in community health development, IDEAS xLab may also reveal opportunities for funding arts and culture that move beyond traditional arts philanthropy and into social impact financing models.

Culture is where policies begin and results are measured. It is a busy intersection where imagining the future is the domain of the artist and the oppressed. And it is here that we are building a new and healthier future.

We hope you will join us.

About the Author:

Theo Edmonds, JD, MHA, MFA is Chief Imaginator + Co-Founder of IDEAS xLab (Louisville, KY and New York, NY). He is a cultural futurist, artist, poet and social entrepreneur. A former healthcare executive and champion clogger, he was named as one of “50 People Changing the Face of the South” by Southern Living Magazine. IDEAS xLab core team includes: Josh Miller, Ayelet Aldouby, Chris Radtke, Hannah Drake and ShawnNika Queen. For more on IDEAS xLab or to read the Health Impact Assessment, visit

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