Designed to Save Lives: Artists Craft Coronavirus Messaging for Underserved Communities





Graphic designers and artists are helping deliver COVID-19 information to underserved populations and communities heavily impacted by the virus.


By Melanie D. G. Kaplan, ContributorJune 11, 2020, at 10:47 a.m.


Artists and designers have helped target coronavirus information to communities for whom mainstream messaging may not resonate.(MALIK SENEFERU/SAN FRANCISCO HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION/VANESSA BOWEN/WORDCRAFT CIRCLE OF NATIVE WRITERS AND STORYTELLERS/GARY LICHTENSTEIN EDITIONS/URBAN PATHWAYS)


WHEN BRONX ARTIST ERIC Orr got a call from a silk screener he'd worked with before the pandemic, asking if he could create some COVID-19 signs for at-risk and formerly homeless men, women and children in New York City, he didn't miss a beat.


"It was a good feeling to try to convey a lighter message about what's going on," says Orr, who collaborated with graffiti artistKeith Haringin the 1980s and is known for his Max Robot character and hip-hop comic book. "Most of the information going out for COVID was just plain text. The posters bring something animated to a time that's not so animated. Hopefully they will engage people so they read the message."


Orr and the silk screener, Gary Lichtenstein, produced and donated hundreds of posters for Urban Pathways, a nonprofit social services organization with 14 residential buildings in four of the city's five boroughs. The robot posters, which hang in common areas, are printed with playful colors like neon pink and day-glo orange and feature clear, concise messaging: Wear your mask, wash your hands, keep your distance. Now, Lichtenstein is handprinting smaller posters for each of the 850 residents to hang in their apartments.

"We've got to do something where people will read the message," says Lichtenstein, who works out of a studio in Jersey City, New Jersey. He adds that creating messaging to help people already experiencing trauma and transition has been his most inspiring project in years. He's thinking about what he can print next – perhaps signs for senior residences. "How cool would that be to be able to print an upbeat message for people who have been alone so long?" he says. "Do they want a CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) sign on the door to their room? Not a chance."

Across the country, graphic designers and artists have deployed their talents to deliver COVID-19 health messaging to underserved populations and communities that are disproportionately impacted by the virus. In many cases, mainstream messaging isn't available, isn't trusted or simply isn't resonating.

In Washington, D.C., for example, where black people make up less than half of the city's population but account for three-fourths of COVID-19 deaths, Maurice Cook looked at the minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic and saw disparity, not only in supplies but in information. He worked with Capitol Hill Arts Workshop graphic designer Kent Gay to create brightly colored posters that read, "Racism causes a higher risk of coronavirus related illness or death in the black community."


Across the country, graphic designers and artists have deployed their talents to deliver COVID-19 health messaging to underserved populations and communities that are disproportionately impacted by the virus. In many cases, mainstream messaging isn't available, isn't trusted or simply isn't resonating.

In Washington, D.C., for example, where black people make up less than half of the city's population but account for three-fourths of COVID-19 deaths, Maurice Cook looked at the minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic and saw disparity, not only in supplies but in information. He worked with Capitol Hill Arts Workshop graphic designer Kent Gay to create brightly colored posters that read, "Racism causes a higher risk of coronavirus related illness or death in the black community."


"We had to be very explicit, that it's racism that has made us more vulnerable to the virus," says Cook, who runs the nonprofit Serve Your City for underserved students and also now co-leads the city's Ward 6 Mutual Aid Network. He stresses that every message doesn't touch every community. "That's promotional marketing 101. The messaging from the institutions are not crafted for the communities of which I'm a part."

The Ward 6 network has distributed thousands of brochures and posters in bags of free groceries and within public housing communities. Cook says he felt a personal responsibility to get the word out and, in some cases, correct misinformation – including early rumors that black people don't get COVID-19. "I understand the distrust in government communicating anything to black people, so I knew we'd have to do this on our own."


In San Francisco, Human Rights Commission Executive Director Sheryl Davis saw young people referencing "the Rona" on social media early in the pandemic.

"We tested out the messaging with some of our Asian and white communities, and some of them were like, 'What's the Rona?'" Davis says. "We heard very clearly that we couldn't use it in some communities because it required too much explaining. It was very culturally specific."

The black community, however, understood right away. The government commission hired an African American-led firm to design "The Rona is not a game" flyers, which were emailed to black faith-based leaders, used as ads in a local black newspaper and distributed in San Francisco neighborhoods with black communities such as Bayview and Sunnydale.

"We had to think about what was going to resonate," Davis says. Although the city provides outreach materials in languages like Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Russian and Arabic and the San Francisco Latino Task Force has created a trilingual website for COVID resources, Davis says some of the translated institutional material may have unintended consequences, such as reminding immigrants of militaristic government policies in the countries they fled.

"We have to work on changing our system so we are not just relying on one piece of material and translating it into a lot of languages without thinking about context," Davis says. "We knew if we were going to flatten the curve, it couldn't be one-size-fits-all."

To address community concerns about face coverings – that they would, for instance, perpetuate criminal stereotypes – the Human Rights Commission worked with area artist Malik Seneferu to create posters with colorful images and the words "masks can be beautiful."


In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, capital of the Cherokee Nation, graphic designer Stephanie Remer created brochures and graphics for tribal citizens, including a couple thousand elders for whom Cherokee is their first language. In addition to messaging about distancing and staying healthy, one design reads, "Show Respect: Protect our elders. Protect our language. Protect each other." The brochures, which went into emergency food packages, include Cherokee syllabary as well as English. Not only do Cherokee speakers feel more comfortable hearing messages in their native language, but there's value in a message delivered from their tribe versus the CDC, says Julie Hubbard, with Cherokee Nation communications. Hubbard's department also translated a mailer to Cherokee speakers that included symptoms and a hotline for medicine and food supplies. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lee Francis IV – owner of Red Planet Books & Comics and creator of Indigenous Comic Con – says he realized by reading posts online that the Native American community needed its own messaging. "We needed to put something out to the world, especially when it comes to taking care of the grandmas and grandpas," Francis says. Well before he learned that the Navajo Nation has such a shockingly high COVID-19 infection rate, he reached out to native artists and asked them to create messages that reflect the art deco style of old propaganda posters. "Those posters always had an impact on me – very deliberate, dynamic, evocative, memorable. I wanted very simple messages that we can take into a community for people to remember." The posters feature bold graphics and images: One celebrates native doctors; another appeals to Native Americans to "be a true warrior" and "take care of your community"; and another reads, "Protect your elders as they've protected you." The posters are available to download for free, and Francis says several reservation-based health centers have reprinted them. The Wisconsin Historical Society, which encourages people to create their own public information posters, commissioned 13 artists to create COVID-19-themed pieces based on existing posters in the society's collection. Messages include learning at home, assisting elderly neighbors, helping each other with food drives and conserving resources. "It's giving voices to the (communities) that are experiencing this," says Christian Overland, the society's director, noting that the artists represent different ethnicities and backgrounds. He imagines historians looking back at the posters being created today. "One of our roles as a historical society is documenting this transformative moment, which will change our society for a long time," he says. "In 100 years, people can see how things are handled during the pandemic." Melanie D. G. Kaplan, Contributor Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a freelance writer in Washington. Her website is melaniedgkaplan.com. ...  READ MORE Tags: coronavirus, art, race

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