Street art breaks down barriers to discuss NCDs with Gen Z

A street artist at work. Photo by: Clem Onojeghuo / Pexels

CANBERRA — For the Pacific Islands, noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer, are important health challenges to tackle. They are a major social and economic development challenge for the region and are draining government resources.

It is not just a challenge for the adult population. NCDs are increasingly being diagnosed in young people, with tobacco, harmful use of alcohol, poor diets, and lack of physical exercise exacerbating this growing epidemic.

But in a space where messaging to young people is saturated by advertisements for junk food and other products they should be avoiding, how can health professionals engage children and young adults in a conversation on NCDs?

“The NCD response needs activism and a social movement to challenge the status quo. Street art is an activists medium of expression by excellence.”

— Ferdinand Strobel, health and development specialist at UNDP

Engaging on NCDs through street art

The Pacific Community, also known as SPC, and United Nations Development Programme have opened a challenge for youth ages 18 to 30 in SPCs 22 member countries and territories. In a team of up to four people, participants will submit a graffiti sketch on the theme of NCDs — including designs on diseases, causes or consequences.

The choice of graffiti was one Ferdinand Strobel, a health and development specialist with UNDP in Suva, Fiji, believes will engage their target audience.

“This is a medium favored by young people which is visible by the public at large,” Strobel told Devex.

“Street art allows for lots of creative freedom in a universal language — pictorial. And it is often thought provoking.”

Street art can also be in direct visual competition with billboards used to promote junk food, tobacco, and alcohol industries directed at youth.

“They are in the same ‘spaces,’ both physical and emotional,” Strobel said. “We want to encourage young people to occupy these spaces and communicate.”

The challenge is an important opportunity to engage young people on NCDs — particularly as there are not many other strategies trying to start this conversation with this group of society.

“Traditionally youth are engaged in a top-down manner,” Strobel said.

“They are taught or told about what to do or not do and their views are not taken into account very often. By encouraging young people to craft their own messages about health and well-being, using their own codes and metaphors we empower them. We hope they will challenge the assumptions and status quo about consumerism and some other broader determinants of NCDs — whether social, political, or cultural — that are the root of the global NCD epidemic.”

Through the competition, Strobel is hoping designers will be able to convey positive messages about health and well-being, as well as equity in health, empowerment of youth, and the idea that everyone can take charge of their own health.

“Yet at the same time challenge the idea that it is all about individual choice,” he said.

“We hope they will also challenge some of the powerful economic interests that drive this epidemic as well as linkages with the health of the planet, the environment as all are linked.”

Varying the media

This year’s challenge follows a similar initiative in 2017 when participants were asked to produce a short film communicating the impact of NCDs.

The full impact of the 2017 challenge is yet to be fully analyzed, but one video had 32,000 views and 624 shares within hours in Vanuatu — a country with a population of 270,000 people. But it is the spillover effects that Strobel considered the most interesting.

“One of the groups in Vanuatu used the financial support they received from shooting their video to record their first music album in a professional studio,” he said.

“Another group from Fiji reported that they liked the experience so much that some of their members have decided to become health promotion professionals. Another took on the initiative to show their film in a local theater to their community in South Auckland. And in some of the French territories, the films were shown on national TV and we have anecdotal evidence they provoked community-wide discussions.”

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The media interest in the 2017 challenge suggested to Strobel that there were perhaps “onto something refreshing.”

“The young people who participated were extremely engaged and interested in this subject, which was a surprise to us as NCDs are generally understood as a ‘diseases of the elderly,’” Strobel said.

“But in fact, young people are very concerned. And perhaps this is a sign that things are slowly starting to change for the better.”

The videos from the 2017 challenge depicted the effects of risk factors and also the responsibility of adults or role models in shaping young people’s behavior.

“We anticipate that street art will be an equally powerful medium as it has been long used to raise awareness on social and political issues,” Strobel said.

“It is also nonconventional and ‘cool,’ which is attractive to young people. The NCD response needs activism and a social movement to challenge the status quo. Street art is an activists medium of expression by excellence. Although highly criticized in its early days it has become more socially acceptable now but still retain a certain degree of provocation, which is perhaps necessary.”

How to enter

The street art challenge for 2018 is open for entries until June 15 with winning teams traveling to Noumea, New Caledonia, to participate in a graffiti techniques training workshop and refining their concept with health communication specialists before returning home to paint their final mural.

Strobel is hopeful for strong entries this year — and information on submitting an entry can be found on the SPC website.

For more coverage of NCDs, visit the Taking the Pulse series here.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.