debbie darnell

Debbie Darnell is the senior policy and programs officer of Participation for Equity and Health section of VicHealth (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation). She works in the race-based discrimination area, specifically with the Arts About Us program and the Building Bridges program. Debbie spoke to arts interview about the Arts About Us program and how art supports VicHealth in promoting diversity.

Interview by Iris Siyi Shen

What is your role in Vic Health?

My role is to work with artists and arts organisations funded by VicHealth to develop projects that start conversations around the harmful effects of race-based discrimination and the benefit of cultural diversity.

VicHealth is keen to support this work because we know that exposure to ethnic and race-based discrimination is linked to anxiety and depression. There is emerging evidence of a link between discrimination and poor physical health such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Race-based discrimination can also lead to poor self-esteem and stress, which in turn affects physical and mental health.

Discrimination can prevent access to education, employment, social support, and participation in sports, cultural and civic activities – all of the things we need for good health.

We believe health is a fundamental human right and that is why we form partnerships to tackle race-based discrimination. Our activity is geared towards promoting good health and safety, and preventing ill health.

What is the Arts About Us program and how does it support VicHealth in promoting diversity and health strategies?

Arts About Us currently provides three-year funding to 17 community and arts organisations, which have partnered with VicHealth to deliver the pilot phase of the program. This program champions the many benefits of cultural diversity and highlights the harm race-based discrimination causes.

Each project creates and showcases art that strengthens cultural understanding, celebrates cultural diversity, and generates discussion about race-based discrimination. For many years VicHealth has developed strong partnerships with arts organisations to increase participation in arts activities, break down social isolation and build social connectedness. This has included supporting Indigenous, migrant, and refugee communities to strengthen and present their arts and culture. Arts About Us takes this approach a step further by using various artistic pursuits to communicate about cultural diversity, race-based discrimination, and intercultural relations to a wider audience.

Can you provide a successful example that VicHealth has funded, which demonstrates such advocacy in action?

Arts About Us organisations are as diverse as The Torch, the City of Greater Dandenong, A.R.A.B., La Mama and Museum Victoria. Now into their third year all organisations have developed strong programs showcasing outstanding work in their field.

A specific example is Regional Arts Victoria (RAV). Through the Arts About Us program, RAV commissioned works by two of Australia’s leading producers: The Merger, by Damian Callinan and The Caravan Burlesque, by legendary burlesque production house, Finucane & Smith. Both productions have been ‘built to tour’ and will visit regional and remote communities across Australia over the next two years. Each production explores themes of cultural diversity and discrimination, but approaches this task from extremely different perspectives: The Merger tells the story of the Bodgey Creek football club, a club that attempts to stave off a take-over bid by recruiting players from the Asylum Seekers Refuge Centre. Caravan Burlesque is a pop up Parisian salon that challenges cultural stereotyping and breaks down artificial barriers between people.

 In your opinion, what were the challenges in initiating and implementing the Arts About Us program and how does the arts help reach a more diverse group than a standard health strategy? 

While the arts provide a good setting in which to prevent discrimination, research suggests that there is some potential to ‘do harm’ in this area. It is important to identify and match the content of arts activities and communications carefully to increase the likelihood of messages being accepted, and to reduce the risk of reinforcing negative views and stereotypes.

Health promotion uses different communications strategies for different messages and audiences, and constantly refreshes itself. People are attracted to the arts because they are entertaining and can equally create opportunities for dialogue and ‘food-for-thought’. They connect with people on their terms, rather than imposing ideas and messages, and reach people who might otherwise have limited opportunities to connect with issues of diversity.

Producer Artistic Merit is also developing a road-show. This will allow us to reach a much wider audience across rural and regional Victoria. The art projects that will be part of the road-show are mobile touring to traditional and non-traditional venues (sports clubs, outdoor spaces etc.) providing a range of interests that will hopefully allow us to have ‘something for everyone’. The Arts About Us pilot is currently being evaluated and will continue into mid-2012. We will look at the evaluation to work out the direction of the program in the future. The inclusion of a road-show next year will provide greater opportunity for audiences in rural and regional Victoria to enjoy the creativity within the program.

Further reading on diversity and the arts: