DSI Getting Back to Nature with Danielle Skinn’s (‘20) Compostable Pillow Studio

Can Social Innovation Design Influence the Health of a Community? Reporting on DSI’s Harlem First Initiative

For the fall semester’s Mapping and Visualization Design class, first-year DSI students tackled the question: How can social innovation design influence the health of a community? And who should be part of the conversation? The community in question is East Harlem, where DSI is already partnering with the Poptech Institute, the Arnhold Global Health Institute, and Harlem community organization Strive International on Harlem First, an initiative bringing together designers, community leaders, residents, data scientists and health care professionals to conceive a different future of wellness care.

“The Harlem First initiative is a great example of the power that social design has to bring diverse collaborators together to make a difference in people’s lives”, says DSI Chair, Cheryl Heller. “We’re committed to creating opportunities for our students to learn by working beyond the classroom and in partnership with the people and institutions on the ground.”

Community mapping is a process through which citizens in the community participate in the collection of their own data – recording what they view as forces that influence health – as well as the creation of solutions.

DSI students began by mapping an East Harlem neighborhood using techniques of community mapping, looking at factors that are beyond the traditional purview of the medical profession, such as crime, homelessness, open space, poverty, availability of healthy food, and gentrification. Students collected data on negative health impacts, including noise, access to open space, and availability of health services and, working with Harlem residents to map the same area, recorded what they view as forces that influence health. We know that being healthy depends on more than seeing and being treated by a doctor, and we wanted to explore the other factors that have an impact, and why there is a disconnect between health providers and the community they serve. Can social impact design create a new way to understand and address the health needs of a community?

DSI’s 2016 gallery exhibition brought this work to a wider audience.  Working with cartographer Gabriel Schuster and the ever-amazing Kevin O’Callaghan, Harlem First: Mapping the Health of a Community, which ran at SVA Gramercy Gallery from January 11 to February 1, included experiential maps of the neighborhood designed by DSI students, exploring various forces at work there, together with an interactive project room for visitors to learn more and leave their thoughts and input.

But this initiative needs of course to extend beyond our gallery walls, and the Harlem First team organized a series of workshops and events throughout January, beginning with an interactive gallery workshop which brought DSI students together with East Harlem health providers, local residents, agencies and nonprofits, data specialists and academics.

We were thrilled to bring Primož Kovačič, one of the world’s foremost community mappers, to DSI in January to host two master classes for students, Harlem residents, community organizations and health providers. Introducing methodologies that have been developed in informal settlements in Kenya, Primož’s workshops covered topics of network mapping, spatial interpretation of issues such as security, access to healthy food and health services, gentrification, gender equality, and also participatory map drawing. By juxtaposing actors and issues, the network maps gave us an insight into the potential gaps between health issues, as identified by the community members, and health services provided by health workers and other institutions. The workshops were also an opportunity for Primož and DSI students to test these methodologies’ applicability in an area such as East Harlem. Primož says: “In my opinion, the methods are easily transferable between places due to the universality of the problems at hand – in this case the health of a marginalized community.”

All this work came together at the Harlem First Symposium, convened by DSI at the SVA Beatrice Theater on February 1, and bringing together health professionals, politicians, local agencies, designers, community leaders, Harlem residents, and data scientists to hear a conversation about the insights this initiative has brought to light.

Our panelists, including Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.; community leader and public servant, Clyde Williams; Prabhjot Singh, Director of the Arnhold Global Health Institute; East Harlem tenants’ activist Carmen Quinones; and Rob Carmona, co-founder of Strive, represented health providers, government, community leaders and residents. The panel discussed community health through the lens of policing, surveillance and criminal justice; the impact of unemployment; the visibility of health services; affordable housing; and what a community loses when its longer-term residents leave. 

The guiding thesis of Harlem First is to co-create with the community, not for it. We hope that this initial effort will be the beginning of a process that we can take to other cities in the U.S. How can social innovation designers have an impact on inequalities in the health of a community?  And where does this discussion fit into the larger questions of health in America and around the world? We do not expect to have all the answers, but to begin a conversation that involves all the people involved in the health of a community in finding solutions. We’re excited to see where we can go from here.

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