Over the past year we have seen various public health funders ramp up their giving to fight the country's opioid epidemic. It's a devastating problem; in some states, the number of young people dying from drug overdoses has quadrupled in the past decade. Funders have supported different strategies for reducing that toll, but one challenge is finding ways to get through to alienated young people with messages that they'll hear.
Does the arts have a role to play? Recent news from New Jersey suggests that some funders think so.
NJTV, New Jersey's public television network, announced an open call for original poetry about the impacts of drug addition. The initiative is part of the network's year-long community engagement project called Healthy NJ: New Jersey's Drug Addition Crisis, which addresses the state's opioid and heroin overdose epidemic.
"Broadening the project to include creative, public storytelling like this is an intriguing way to dig deeper into the issue in a very personal way, and allows more people to share their experiences with others," said NJTV General Manager John Servidio.
The initiative is made possible with major funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and additional support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
Robert Wood Johnson's involvement is hardly surprising. Not only is this grantmaker — also known as the "Mothership of Health Philanthropy" — an outsized player in the field of public health, it's also quite a big funder in its home state of New Jersey, including for work that might not fit so neatly into its regular program priorities. As well, RWJF has long shown willingness to embrace various mediums to get its message out. This is a funder that's unusually attuned to the underlying values and cultural norms that influence human behavior and play out in public policy debates. It's given millions to support journalism aimed at educating the public on health issues. In one recent example, the foundation awarded a $150,000 grant to The Pulse, a radio health news show on WHYY Philadelphia. It gave a much larger grant for wide-ranging health coverage at WNYC, and it has long bankrolled NPR's national health coverage.
Clearly, RWJF believes the medium of poetry can be effective, as well. You can see why, too. There's a real renaissance in poetry among young people right now, with an emphasis on edgy spoken-word forms of expression that often channels the angst of a generation struggling with a lack of opportunity.
Nor can we say we're surprised that the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation chipped in. Not only is it the major arts funder in the Garden State, its Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Viewed through this lens, Dodge's involvement in Healthy NJ: New Jersey's Drug Addition Crisis makes perfect sense. It also raises the perfectly logical question: Why stop with poetry?
Indeed, given the breadth of the country's opioid epidemic, there's nothing preventing funders from exploring other mediums — film and visual arts most immediately come to mind — that might be harnessed to the urgent causes of prevention, treatment, and recovery.
Those interested in submitting a poem as part of the Healthy NJ project can visit njdrugcrisis.org/poems for more information. The deadline is November 30th.