Meet the Scholars: Jasmine L. Blanks Jones
Jasmine L. Blanks Jones is a joint PhD candidate in education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a part of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2016.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.
I’m an artist! I was raised in a very musical family, and at a young age developed a deep love for theater and dance as well. As the founder of Burning Barriers, Building Bridges (B4) Youth Theatre, I’ve had the honor of bringing together my artistic interests with my background in education and public policy to create an organization where young people are able to amplify their voices on issues that impact their daily lives and the places where they live, work and play. This important and community-engaged theater work drives my research interests, especially as young people of color in Africa and the diaspora are often targets of health and education interventions, yet their voices are frequently ignored in the identification of problems and policy solutions that impact them directly.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
In 2014, I was at the B4 Youth Theatre national program site in Liberia when the Ebola virus began spreading throughout the country. The young people decided early on that it was their duty as citizens to educate the public about how they could prevent the spread of the virus through theater. They led the earliest public awareness campaign on Ebola in the country, and over a year-and-a-half reached roughly 300,000 people through street drama. This sparked my early research questions around the value of the arts to health communications and why we weren’t seeing more investment in the arts globally as a tool not just for dissemination of public health information but also as a means for deeply engaging communities around the issues they care about.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.
As the entire world faces the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the young people with whom I continue to do participatory action research in Liberia have partnered with me to expand their health communications through the arts model to create the Global Youth Arts Collaborative for Healthy Lives Training Initiative. This eight- to ten-week program, which launched for the first time this summer, trains youth artists from around the world in a model based on lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak. Participants produce a series of prevention videos rooted in local communities’ current health-related concerns and collect data on community members’ responses to their videos. Those data can then be shared with the health policy community to tailor messaging around the COVID-19 response to the needs and concerns of specific populations. I’m excited to work with young people who are eager to make their arts research actionable to help improve global health.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
The use of theater for community engagement and health messaging has been used in many parts of the world for a very long time. These performance-based methods are important for creating valuable feedback loops between communities and those who shape policies that impact them.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
I really admire Soyini Madison. She’s a performance studies scholar and anthropologist who has done fabulous work in Ghana and in the United States, directly engaging communities on issues related to social determinants of health, spanning a wide variety of topics from gender-based violence to economic disparities. Because of its performance-based methodology, her work allows her to dig into the nuance of an issue and clarify both sides of a debate or policy concern with those who are directly impacted. Her research is also a call-to-action and especially critical in times like these, when structural inequities have even greater differential impacts on the ways in which people are able to benefit from policy decisions.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
HPRS has made me part of a diverse network of scholars who grapple with some of the same challenges that I face as a woman of color in academia. We strategically and collectively overcome these challenges by sharing resources and other systems of support. Throughout my time as a scholar, HPRS has provided financial support, enabling me to attend conferences and take advantage of other opportunities that would have otherwise been cost-prohibitive. That support also allowed me to complete extended field research as a new mother without having to choose between completing my data collection and caring for my child. The dissertation award also helped make my research possible.
In the RWJF HPRS program we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
In the current moment, I think it is important to expand the funding opportunities available to artists who promote civic engagement. In times of mass public health crisis, it is imperative that citizens be able to develop shared values around social and behavioral norms that promote health. The U.S. is very divided right now, and the work of artists is essential in helping communities shift their perceptions and, in turn, develop a new normal. Lessons learned from my research on Ebola in Liberia around health communications and community engagement could be a game changer for how we handle COVID-19 prevention now and how we plan to dismantle systems of inequality that may continue to negatively impact coronavirus survivors, many of whom are low-income people of color.
Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?
Ethiopia. I went in 2004 but had a tight performance schedule so was unable to see some of the sites that are important to my faith culturally and historically, such as Aksum.