April 9, 2018

These Louisville middle schoolers are creating super hero stories using local issues

Through a partnership with a local nonprofit, students at Meyzeek Middle School learn about civic engagement and policy-making that can positively impact environmental health

Meyzeek Middle School students collect soil samples from YouthBuild Louisville’s urban farm. Photo by Josh Miller

Policy is an imagining of the future—an activity that is fundamentally cultural. And in Louisville, Kentucky’s Smoketown neighborhood, a year-long adventure to cultivate super heroes is focused on policy making as their superpower and environmental justice—in the form of healthy air, water, and soil—as their cause.

Hero+Shero Journeys is a series of artist residencies that combine the power of community with art, data science, mythology, and storytelling to engage over 150 sixth graders at Smoketown’s Meyzeek Middle School. Students learn about civic engagement and policy-making that can positively impact environmental health.

As an artist-led, cultural innovation group, the IDEAS xLab team has been working in Smoketown to impact community health through Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.). We got the idea to create Hero+Shero Journeys in the spring of 2017, after a presentation to Meyzeek students from Canadian artist Dominique Paul. Paul’s “Air Quality Dress” that visualizes surrounding air quality through LED lights had students amazed. Students gasped as she walked into the classroom: “Is that Lady Gaga?!” they shouted, as she moved through the room clad head-to-toe in silver with a bodice of pulsing lights with air quality sensors attached.

Since then, Hero+Shero Journeys has been deployed by an intergenerational group of artists. “We all remember 6th grade,” said artist Todd Smith, whose artist residency focused on soil quality. “I uncovered a poetry project I had done in my 6th grade class over 25 years ago. The dozens of short poems were embarrassingly empty of insight, creative metaphor, or awareness. I realized my teacher hadn’t given me the language, nor did she ask for more than just completing the proper poetic structures. I knew what I needed to do different when supporting the Meyzeek students in their learning journey.”

Meyzeek stands squarely in the middle of Smoketown, the oldest African American neighborhood in Louisville. Settled by formerly enslaved people following the Civil War, Smoketown got its name from brick production, with the fire from the kilns spewing clouds of smoke into the air.

Today, Meyzeek’s student population (roughly 1,100) consists primarily of qualified Advanced Placement ethnically mixed students bussed to school from all parts of the county-wide district. Meyzeek is also the local public middle school for Smoketown’s neighborhood students, primarily African American, most of whom are placed in the Regular Program after testing. The separation of the two programs within the school mirrors Louisville’s own citywide segregation. We saw environmental health and justice as an opportunity for artists to serve as a bridge for the students to envision a different, collaborative, shared future.

Artist Dominique Paul shows students at Meyzeek Middle School how her wearable art piece changes color in response to the air quality. Photo by Josh Miller

By partnering with language arts teacher and spoken word poet Christopher Rasheed, along with teachers across disciplines, Journeys has consisted of a series of four two-week artist residencies that combine science, art, and environmental justice. To make sure the science was right, we invited local conservationists to advise and guide both the artists and students on current issues and information.

In addition to local advisors, Journeys’ potential immediate and long-term benefits have been outlined in a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). The first of its kind conducted on an arts and culture focused population health program in the U.S., the HIA highlights that there is “a continued strong connection between arts learning during childhood years and academic success and other prosocial outcomes in later life. … Academic performance of arts-involved students compared to other students improved even more with time.”

Artists shape culture. Culture shapes health. Communities shape change.

By delving into the neighborhood’s history, along with Louisville’s 2017 Health Equity Report, the 6th graders had all the history, soil terms, health equity and disparity data floating in their heads. This is where the collaboration with their teacher, Mr. Rasheed, really became magical, said Smith. “He connected the dots, broke it down, and pulled out brilliant responses through mutual respect. His openness and honesty created a space for these kids to express their voices on racism and other tough issues that are part of these young people’s daily lives. The resulting poetry blew me away.”

One of the poems written by 6th grader Shaleah during Smith’s residency titled Diverse Ground, summed it up best. “Smoketown is where my ancestors grew up … and, I’ve got the keys, and the knowledge, that’s why, my bedrock is solid.”

Artists shape culture. Culture shapes health. Communities shape change. These are the tools of policy making that young people at Meyzeek are now using as both “mirrors of reflection” and “hammers for change.” All of the Journeys’ artist residencies throughout the year are culminating in the creation of a superhero comic book illustrating how a league of Smoketown super heroes and sheroes will tackle a single environmental justice issue while putting forward a proposed policy solution designed by the students to positively impact environmental health and equity in the Smoketown neighborhood.

To learn more about IDEAS xLab’s cultural innovation model for population health improvement, visit www.culture.health.

Chris Radtke and Todd Smith


Chris Radtke is a partner with Louisville’s artist-run IDEAS xLab, a cultural innovation organization developing measurable strategies to improve population health. As a practicing artist for the past 30 years and founding member of artist owned Zephyr Gallery, her work has been exhibited and collected by many museums and corporations throughout the region. Recent collaborations include set designs for the Louisville Ballet with the Balanchine Foundation. Radtke chaired the Metro Commission on Public Art that oversaw the writing of Louisville’s first master plan for public art.

Todd C. Smith is an interdisciplinary artist and committed educator and currently teaches a variety of 2D, 3D and digital subjects at universities in the Louisville, Kentucky area. His artistic practice considers our collective impact on the urban environment. Projects range from community-based, data-driven projects interpreting bike usage into sound, photography and video series exploring human movement through urban structures and green spaces, and interactive sculptures that vary in their use of found materials, analog technologies, and emerging digital media.
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