Poetry and Photovoice combined to replace negative outdoor messages on billboards.

Project HEAL Health Impact Assessment Part I: One Poem At A Time

One Poem At A Time billboard in Smoketown depicting participants in the urban farm on YouthBuild Louisville’s green campus. Photo by Josh Miller.

Billboards for drug sniffing dogs, cheap lawyers, gun shows, pay cash for your house.

Examples of signage in Smoketown.

These are just a few of the messages often found on billboards in low-income census tracks with high-levels of health disparity. This is the case for Smoketown, Louisville’s oldest African-American neighborhood, where IDEAS xLab has been working for almost four years.

Through IDEAS xLab’s work with Project HEAL, we came to understand that just as lead puts an environmental toxin into an environment, negative and predatory messages can put a social toxin into the environment.

And, through a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) on Project HEAL, we saw that “visual disorder created by a barrage of outdoor advertisements may create inequality by marking such neighborhoods as impoverished or undesirable and by lessening assessed value by residents and business owners” (Kwate & Lee, 2007).

In other words, the images we see every day impact our health, our beliefs and how we see ourselves and relate to communities around us.

One Poem At A Time billboard displayed beside the STEAM Exchange community arts space. Photo by Josh Miller.

One Poem At A Time, created by artist and IDEAS xLab team member Hannah Drake — replaced 19 billboards in 2017 in Smoketown with positive historical and contemporary images of people and places, paired with one-line poems written with community members.

“The power is in the people,” says Hannah Drake about One Poem At A Time. “But sometimes you have to show people they have the power to change anything they want to.”

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.”

One Poem At A Time billboard of students participating in the STEAM Exchange after-school program. Photo by Josh Miller.

Our goal, through One Poem At A Time, is to help people envision what implementing a policy that restricts predatory advertising in communities that are in the process of reviving and rebuilding could look like.

On April 1, 2017 — One Poem At A Time launched with a historic poetry walk in Smoketown lifting up the history and cultural heritage of the 151-year-old community. The walk brought together community residents and stakeholders, along with artists and policymakers to further the discussion around using the community’s collective power to advocate for such a policy change.

Since the launch of One Poem At A Time, the Smoketown Neighborhood Association, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, and the Louisville Health Advisory Board Cultural/Social Impact Committee have demonstrated support of Smoketown’s push toward policy change.

As outlined in the HIA, “The research shows that changing the density and content of the negative messaging most likely will serve as a health protective factor influencing the emotional well-being of the community as well as the community’s perceived value by outsiders.”

To learn more about the potential impacts of One Poem At A Time and to read the full Project HEAL Health Impact Assessment click here.

The Health Impact Assessment was authored by the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, IDEAS xLab, and the Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky, with additional support from the Health Impact Project — a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

Photo from the One Poem At A Time launch on April 1, 2017. Photo by Josh Miller.