HIP Intern Reflections:
Getting Creative for a Climate and Health Movement
By Raina Wellman
During my time as a Communications and Advocacy intern at Human Impact Partners last summer, I found myself reflecting on how art, design, and communications can mobilize people to respond to the joint climate and public health crises. I kept coming back to the work of Natalie Jeremijenko, which first sparked my interest in the intertwined spaces of health, climate, and community engagement years ago.
Jeremijenko is a professor, artist, and scientist known for her speculative design work investigating the interplay of climate crisis, environment, and health. I discovered her work at a museum when I was a teenager, and was immediately drawn to her way of looking at and articulating the overlapping forces that shape our world and our collective wellbeing. Jeremijenko’s work communicates powerfully in a way I found both accessible and compelling. Through a creative lens, Jeremijenko was able to effectively spark community engagement and public dialogue in response to her work.
Inspired in part by this creative approach to health and the environment, I went on to pursue a career in graphic design and public health. As a Master’s in Public Health candidate at Columbia University with a focus in infectious disease epidemiology and health communications, I can clearly see the ways in which human health is inseparable from the health of our planet and our economic, social, and built infrastructure systems. And as a graphic designer, I believe that prioritizing accessible, clear, and culturally relevant communications will be a critical component of our collective response to the intertwined challenges of the climate crisis and health inequity .
Communications, particularly visual communications, has long been a powerful tool to support public health. My personal research centers on this subject: for the past several years, I’ve been developing a visual archive to examine the ways that public health and graphic design intersect to create impactful and beautiful communication tools.
The archive reveals an inspiring history of community-driven design action in response to public health crises, from the Black Panther Party’s poster and flyer designs to spread the word about their Free Breakfast Program, to Movement Generation’s Just Transitions Zine that lays out a framework for a shift toward a more equitable, healthy, and sustainable economy.
The work done by HIV/AIDS activists in the 80’s is another example of how communications can drive change. In an environment of widespread homophobia, governmental silence, and apathy, patchwork community-based voluntary service organizations were the only real response to the pandemic in North America. Direct action groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the Gran Fury artist collective were formed by community members, activists, and graphic artists to design engaging and culturally relevant communications materials that challenged stigmatizing views about AIDS, called for greater treatment access, and created unity during protest actions. These groups collaborated closely with the HIV-impacted community and advocates to create public media — shirts, buttons, stickers, posters, billboards, flyers, and performances — that inspired action and helped disseminate information in an engaging and widely accessible way.
In a recollection of his experiences as a member of the Gran Fury collective, artist and activist Avram Finkelstein speaks to the relationship between design and power: “We were a consciousness-raising group, but as our meetings dug deeper, I felt we were bordering on a political collective, and within the constraints of our own uniformity of privilege, we spent a lot of time exploring how race and gender were being foregrounded or ignored in media depictions of AIDS and in public policy.” Finkelstein’s reflections exemplify the type of community power-building that can arise from a collective design process for public health justice, which involve self reflection, personal politicization, and actively working with impacted communities.
Today, the stakes of communication continue to be extremely high for the health of our people and planet. During the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout we’ve seen the devastating impacts of disinformation campaigns sweep across the country, while climate change denial continues despite overwhelming evidence. The need for accessible and engaging information about climate and health issues is more important than ever, and we can fulfill that need via thoughtful and culturally relevant design and communication tactics.
Due to the work and organizing led by impacted communities and climate and health justice advocates, climate and public health are increasingly being understood as interwoven issues. And now, as creatives move forward to boost important information regarding the climate and health crises, they can learn from history and make use of the power-building approaches that are so central to organizations like HIP. By developing collaborations with people in the creative fields, public health can in turn share information that is clear and concise, while communicating from a place of optimism, innovation, and hope.
Responding to mounting challenges to make real progress towards equity must be done collectively, led and mobilized by communities who are most impacted. These messages need to resonate, center the voices of impacted community members, and aim to inspire collaborative action, motivation, and understanding. With the goal of creating material that is culturally relevant, public health practitioners and organizations can create more outlets and spaces to facilitate design action, collective organizing, observation sharing, and creative solution making.
As a designer and artist, I look forward to the many ways in which the creative fields can assist in building toward a future where the collective health of people and planet is nurtured. I am hopeful that by considering the interconnectedness of our lives and building collective power we can work together to re-envision and build a healthy and liberated future.
Raina Wellman worked with HIP as a Communications and Advocacy Intern in summer of 2021. Raina is a masters in public health candidate at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health with a certificate in Infectious Disease Epidemiology and a focus on health communications. Raina is passionate about addressing social determinants of health, centering health equity, and collaborating with community members to reach lasting solutions.