Art and Healing Intersect at 11th Street Health Center with Mural Arts Porch Light Initiative

Originally posted on DrexelNow.

Can creating art heal a person, connect a family, or even strengthen a whole neighborhood? Members of the community served by Drexel’s 11th Street Family Health Services (11th Street) center in North Philadelphia are participating in a transformative neighborhood art project that aims to answer those questions.

The Porch Light Initiative, a project of the Mural Arts Program and the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, situates art and human connection at the heart of recovery and healing in distressed Philadelphia neighborhoods. In fall 2012, Drexel’s community-based, nurse-run health center became a participating site for Porch Light’s third year.

Under the guidance of an artist, a creative arts therapist and Mural Arts Porch Light Initiative staff, 11th Street is hosting weekly workshops for referred behavioral health patients, monthly open studios for the entire community and other events for public participation and project feedback. These activities will culminate with the creation of works of public art in the neighborhood in the spring of 2013 and a dedication event in the fall.

The Porch Light Initiative is based on the premise that art can play a critical role in healing, resilience and wellness. It is designed to help all participants– individuals who are healing, artists, community members, service providers and city government – create a connection to each other through the creation of participatory community-driven art. Porch Light’s organizers and participants hope these connections will be powerful forces as all work to make the community vibrant, healthy and strong.

Artwork of the concept of home by a participant in the Porch Light Initiative at 11th Street Family Health ServicesPorch Light participants at 11th Street have reported early benefits from their participation in these activities:

“Being a part of Porch Light has helped me take care of me better.  It helps me relax and puts me in control,” said Sherman, a participant who chose not to use his last name for privacy.

“Porch Light makes me feel good about my neighborhood and I’m excited about the entire city being able to notice my neighborhood in a positive light with the new murals,” said another participant, Bridgette.

“It’s incredible to me that a group of 11th Street patients are convening every week for nine months to further create meaning in their own lives, and simultaneously represent the community by discussing historic meaning that Richard Allen [local public housing] residents would appreciate seeing in the murals,” said Lindsay Meeks, 11th Street’s director of Creative Arts Therapies. “Although the murals will be the culminating product shared with all, this process of building trusting relationships, and generating communal stewardship, could be the longest lasting product.”

A Holistic Approach to Healthy Living

Drexel’s 11th Street Family Health Services is an interdisciplinary community-based health center run by the College of Nursing and Health Professions in collaboration with the Family Practice and Counseling Network to meet the needs of a historically underserved population. Patients at 11th Street see a core care team that includes a nurse practitioner, behavioral health specialist and social worker. In addition, based on the needs of the community, the center offers a wide array of health and wellness services including nutritional support and education, dental services, physical therapy, creative arts therapies and mindfulness meditation. The center has been cited as a model by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We’re thrilled that 11th Street has joined as a partner in Porch Light’s third year,” said Dr. Arthur C. Evans, commissioner of the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. “As an integrated, holistic behavioral health and physical health center, 11th Street is willing to step outside the traditional medical treatment box in innovative ways to improve individual and community health. Their approach is entirely consistent with the values and methods that the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services is taking in its public health approach to improving the population’s behavioral health.”

“The Porch Light program has added another dimension to the wide range of services offered at the center,” said Dr. Patricia Gerrity, director of 11th Street and a professor and associate dean for community programs in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions. “The extraordinary aspect of the program is its design and success in bringing patients, staff and the community together to improve their collective understanding and sensitivity to behavioral health through the creation of public art.”

Artwork of the concept of home, by a participant in the Porch Light Initiative at 11th StreetThe holistic approach to health at 11th Street sets it apart from other Porch Light sites, according to Sara Ansell, program manager of the Porch Light Initiative. She said it was easy to integrate Porch Light’s guided art activities with a group of patients who are accustomed to attending health promotion classes, such as cooking and yoga, at the center.

In addition, Ansell said, “11th Street has pushed us in a good way to broaden our language to make it applicable to any participants enrolled at all three sites this year.” Several of the other sites participating in Porch Light now and in the previous two years are centers focusing on treatment for substance abuse and specific behavioral health issues, Ansell said. “Now we talk about ‘healing’, rather than ‘recovery’; ‘therapeutic activity’, rather than treatment.’”

The Science of Healing through Art

A broader approach to healing through art could reap further benefits for health providers and artists who can implement art programs based on Porch Light’s model in the future. Ansell said that the Porch Light Initiative is developing guidelines to replicate its program at other sites around the country.

The program’s deep integration of measurement and evaluation into the program’s design will help shape that future planning. Researchers from Yale University’s School of Medicine are conducting a comprehensive scientific evaluation of Porch Light and its impact on health at the individual and neighborhood level.

At 11th Street and other Porch Light sites, researchers are conducting interviews with individual participants over time as well as in-depth case studies to assess the impact of Porch Light’s creative and therapeutic activities on individual well-being. In addition, researchers are measuring community outcomes to determine the potential impact of public art on the revitalization of the neighborhood. These measures include residents’ perceptions of neighborhood safety and reduction of neighborhood blight.

A participant in the Porch Light Initiative draws with colorful markers.The preliminary results from Yale’s study, based on data collected last year, are expected to be released in early Spring 2013.

“This is a true intersection of art and science,” Ansell said. “Measuring Porch Light in this way will help us better understand the impact of the work and shed light on what we can do better moving forward.”

For ongoing updates about the Porch Light Initiative and 11th Street’s participation, follow 11th Street and Porch Light on Facebook: and

About the Mural Arts Program: For 28 years, the Mural Arts Program has united artists and communities through a collaborative process, rooted in the traditions of mural-making, to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.  At the heart of its work are the 50 to 100 mural and other public art projects it leads each year.  These projects range in scale and purpose, but all include a diversity of stakeholders in the creation of the artwork, and working with partners to align projects to existing strategies.  This deeply collaborative approach to creating public art builds social capital, inspires a sense of communal ownership over public space, and empowers people to continue to work for positive change in their communities.  The murals also create unique project-based learning opportunities for thousands of marginalized youth and adults in Art Education for Youth, Restorative Justice, and Behavioral Health programs.

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