Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It’s Up 2 You!

The best way to get your message out is through whatever format your audience is already attuned to. This is not always (big shock) a 200 word exhibit text panel. The most effective medium might be video, a blog, a game, or a graphic novel. This week’s guest blog is by Lisa Falk, director of education at the Arizona State Museum (ASM), University of Arizona, in Tucson, where she is the lead curator and project director for the Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living installation at ASM and project director and co-writer of the museum’s new comic book It’s Up 2 You!

The Arizona State Museum (ASM) is tackling a very hard assignment: how to talk to teenagers about obesity.

Nearly one-third of adults and children in the United States are overweight or obese and that rate is nearly double among American Indians/Alaskan Natives. Half of Native American children born today will develop type 2 diabetes, and the death rate for Native Americans with diabetes is three times higher than the general U.S. population. At ASM we look for opportunities to connect to contemporary issues, providing perspective, engagement and a safe haven for community members to learn about and reflect on how these issues affect their lives. The epidemic of obesity and attendant health problems afflicting our Native American community is not something we can ignore.

So we wrote a comic book.

This project grew out of Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living, an exhibit based on a children’s book series of the same name, which deals with diet, physical activity, history and culture with an emphasis on the Native American experience.

But we didn’t want this to be just an exhibit of flat art aimed at young children, so we developed a variety of exhibit elements, programs and activities that broaden the audience and localize the focus of the story. One great spin off is a comic book with messages similar to the original Eagle books but aimed at teens and with more of a Sonoran Desert look to the illustrations. Local Native American educator and artist Ryan Huna Smith worked with me to create the book with funding from the Kresge Foundation. Support from the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation enabled us to develop the PDF comic book into an interactive website and mobile app.

Ryan and I struggled with how to make the comic’s message interesting to youth, especially Native American and Latino youth, two groups hard hit by diabetes. We met with groups of teens to develop our storyline and figure out what information about diabetes and prevention to include. It turns out the teens didn’t know much about diabetes, but they knew what they liked and did not like. They did like Ryan’s Amerimanga/Japanimation style of drawing. But: no talking animals, no glossing over the hard stuff, and no black and white on the issues. They wanted reality, grey area, and to see themselves in the characters. We invited them to create their own comic strips dealing with healthy living and from this came the idea for the comic’s Scrooge-like dream sequence showing the horrors of diabetes and the joys of healthy living based in Native American traditions. The teens also helped generate the title, “It’s Up 2 You!”, expressing the story’s “big” message.

Making the comic accurate and effective, as well as attractive to the teens, required a lot of expert partners. Agnes Attakai at the UA College of Public Health helped to ensure the story reflected the right messages. Alicia Eller of the American Diabetes Association of Southern Arizona helped assemble facts and myths about diabetes and questions for a healthy challenge game in the digital versions. The Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School recorded youth and elders speaking the parts of the characters Samantha, Brandon, Tomás and an elder in Tohono O’odham, Spanish and English for the digital version.

With funding and encouragement from Pima County Health Department’s (PCHD) Communities Putting Prevention to Work project, we distributed 5,000 copies of It’s Up 2 You! at our multi-cultural health fair A Healthy Celebration and to local Native and Latino organizations and schools. The comic is hosted on PCHD’s new family-oriented website HealthyPima.org and available as a free mobile app on iTunes. The Web version is available as a free download to be added to any website. A traveling exhibit of the comic is also available.

What’s the “big message” of this project for the readers of this blog? When it comes to your personal health or that of your community or your museum—It’s up to you. Will your museum choose to be a community game changer? If so, what’s the right message, what’s the right medium, and what partners do you need to make a difference in the world?

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