Local Public Health, Arts & History Partnership

State: MN Type: Promising Practice Year: 2023

Otter Tail County Public Health employs 37 staff who work to promote, protect and perserve the health of those who live, work and play in Otter Tail County.  Otter Tail County is located in Western Minnesota, three hours north of the twin cities, and 30 minutes west of the North Dakota border. Otter Tail County's population is 60,000, spread over a large geographic area consisting of 2,225 square miles of lakes, prairie, and dozens of small farming towns. Otter Tail County has a uniquely diverse population that ranges from multi-generational farm owners, to Somali, Mexican and Bosnian immigrants, to hospital workers, young families, low-income seniors, and wealthy retirees. 

In the past 2.5 years, the COVID pandemic has illuminated disparities, disrupted education and work, and further divided an already polarized nation. As adults in various leadership positions made life changing decisions about shut downs, social isolation, and then later, masking and vaccinations, children and youth observed, but had very little say. They were some of the most affected, but some of the least heard or asked about their experiences. In April 2021, the availability of vaccines, which for some was met with relief and joy, was also met with more suspicion, mistrust, and fear. Healthcare workers in Otter Tail County, a rural, politically conservative region in West Central Minnesota, saw these impacts firsthand. They did what they could to combat misinformation, answer questions and worries about vaccinations without judgment, and make sure vaccination clinics were accessible, but at times these efforts felt futile against the tide of vaccine hesitation that was washing over social media and other platforms. In September 2021, after 6 months of the vaccine being widely available, local vaccine rates were at 49%, far behind national rates, COVID cases were up, at a rate of 12.58%, and there were no local mask mandates to combat the spread. Springboard reached out to staff at Otter Tail Public Health, to explore potential collaborations between the arts and public health to increase local vaccine confidence. Jody Lien, Otter Tail County's Public Health Director, shared two distinct observations about her experiences in educating the community about vaccines and COVID safety. One was her admiration for local teens, and their inclination to organize one another to practice care and solidarity by campaigning to wear masks, even though the school was not implementing any mandates. They simply wanted their activities be as normal as possible, and not go back to distant learning. Jody wondered how teens might be able to have more of a platform and voice and whether that could influence the wider community, and wished her staff had more time to explore that potential. The other challenge Jody named at the time was the isolation local healthcare workers were feeling as they simply tried to do their job and share their expertise. Unfortunately the distrust for science and healthcare practices was running deep. They felt dehumanized, having their expertise questioned, mocked or ignored completely, but even more so, frustrated that basic recommendations to keep the community safe were being largely ignored. While navigating vaccine distribution, there was also a simple need to provide support and visibility to the hardships healthcare workers were going through.. These two themes - humanizing healthcare workers, and giving teens a platform about their pandemic experience - are what guided the development of the multimedia exhibit Return to Normal? COVID Diaries from Local Youth,” facilitated by local artist organizers Naomi RaMona Schliesman and Wesley Fawcett Creigh.

This project was a unique and timely opportunity for Springboard for the Arts, Otter Tail County Historical Society, and Otter Tail County Public Health to collaborate and bring the three organization's broad range of strengths together into one project. It also felt urgent and necessary to bring the community together around our own unique COVID story, as a way to get past the fear, suspicion, and divisiveness that had taken center stage in the community, and promote trust, interdependence and reflection. PROJECT ACTIVITIES -Storytelling workshop with local partners (Springboard, Public Health, and the Museum) -Individual interviews with a local healthcare worker about their pandemic experience -Regular 1:1 meetings for project development support from Naomi and Wesley -Development of an original work of art, and a COVID self portrait for inclusion in the exhibit -Development of local radio ads promoting the exhibit -Two public receptions / open houses -Archiving the final work in the museum

Funding for this effort is made possible through a subaward from the CDC Foundation and is part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) financial assistance award totaling $2,500,000.00 with 100 percent funding from CDC/HHS. 

While this project reached and engaged people of all ages and backgrounds, the target population for this project are younger residents becuase this age group had the lowest vaccination rates and the highest increase in new cases at the time.  As such, a core value driving this project is it must be youth-led in order to be effective. Young people have a critical role to play in helping one another discover and understand their place in the region's pandemic response yet have had little to no opportunities to have their voices heard in how our daily decisions impact our collective community's overall health and vibrancy.

As Otter Tail County is so geographically large, the planning team was very intentional to get broad representation of students across the county with different lived experiences and varying skills in the arts, health, and storytelling. 

Storytelling is important to public health communication tool.  Developing skills in our local youth while finding a new way to share information with our community during a devisive time helped to overcome a level of resistance.  It also allowed space for healing and a safe place for healthcare workers to share their experiences to then be shared through mutli media art. Locally we found a way to share our communities story and that will be part of the history of Otter Tail County for years to come.

The project will promote vaccine confidence by humanizing healthcare workers in the community and build community trust and reciprocity with the people who are working hard to keep the community safe. It was our theory that hearing the stories of the vaccine's efficacy and safety from local neighbors, embedded in their own personal journeys related to the pandemic, will be a grounding reminder that we all share a future with one another - resulting in an increase in local vaccine confidence and combatting misinformation, as well as inspiring a local culture of community care and interdependence.

Steps taken to acheive the goal included a project manager, and clear communication of goals and objectives, and regularly scheduled planning meetings. 

The local health departments role included sharing our lived experiences, providing Covid-19 information and local data and statistics, connecting students to a variety of healthcare partners, and some limited oversight to for accuracy of health information. We advocated for broad student participation, and broad healthcare impact lenses. 

This project was a unique and timely intersection between three organizations who have complementary strengths and skills. Springboard for the Arts brings a strong local artist network and a national reputation of rural community development through the arts. The Otter Tail County Historical Society works to preserve, collect and educate local residents about local history, including collecting local stories of important events, like COVID-19, that we are living through in the 21st century. Otter Tail County Public Health is leading vaccination distribution and education in the region.

The CDC grant supported artist and student stipends, in addition to project fees and prject managment.  The grant in total that was awarded was $75,000.  Work began with the grant submission in fall of 2021, and work began early 2022 once we learned the prject was awarded funding.  The opening of the exhbit occuring July 12, 2022. 

Creating a platform for local youth was a primary goal of this project. One of the most common themes in the feedback about the exhibit was that community members wished the exhibit had happened earlier in the pandemic, to help the community better understand the toll that the crisis had taken on youth, as well as to illuminate the ideas and perspectives that could help us more effectively address our challenges. The lesson: Communities should involve and seek out the perspectives of youth during crises of all types to help illuminate the impact of leadership decisions and actions. The development of this exhibit first connected the youth to local healthcare workers, and then wove the healthcare worker's individual stories into new artwork. Community members were able to see healthcare workers with fresh eyes. They were neighbors and humans whose lives were deeply impacted by COVID - from fear of bringing the virus home to their families, to being accused of participating in a national conspiracy by long-time patients, to losing patients whose lives they desperately tried to save. The exhibit provided a way to reflect on and illuminate the sacrifices these workers took to keep the community as safe as possible. The lesson: the arts are essential to help us process trauma, promote empathy, and make overlooked community members feel more visible and valued. By working with professional artists in a museum setting to plan their exhibit from start to finish, the six young artists that developed Return to Normal benefited from a unique, experiential, "community as classroom" process that cultivated important leadership, arts and social skills. Beyond creating the work itself, two of the young artists recorded radio ads with the local radio station, and all six participated in public receptions where they gained experience speaking publicly and answering questions about their creative process. The Lesson: Connecting the arts, youth, and an urgent community or social issue connects many life and career skills: communication, leadership, networking, critical thinking, and storytelling. This was the first collaboration between Springboard, the Otter Tail County Museum, and Otter Tail County Public Health, but it's clear it will not be the last. Each partner brought a spirit of flexibility and learning to this project that was essential for its success, and as a result, new connections are being made for the exhibit to travel to other public health convenings, and for artists to support other challenges and efforts in the public realm. The lesson: While it's important to have clear goals when launching a community arts project, it's critical to prioritize learning and relationship building - the process - over the perfect end product. This is what will cultivate the resilience needed to respond to challenges and opportunities in the community in the long term.

900 exhibit visitors 6 student interviews with local healthcare workers 6 original new pieces of art with professional documentation 1 workshop with public health workers 3 media highlights Multiple invitations to bring exhibit to new locations Completed vaccination series rates at  project close 55.8%

New partnerhships were formed between the local arts, historical society and the Public Health Department.  The opportunity to use the arts gave voice and told the story of the communities impacted in a deeply felt and nonadversarial way.  In addition, the exhibit offered space and healing for those impacted by Covid-19 both personally and professionally. 

Grant funding gave suport to do the work, however, the relationships built will allow for ongoing partner development, sharing, and opportunities to support our communities.