How Youth Are Using Poetry To Change The Conversation About Diabetes
Raised in the neighborhood of Fillmore in San Francisco, Erica McMath Sheppard comes from a large family in which the majority is battling diabetes. She is the living statistic of the type 2 diabetes epidemic affecting low-income communities of color. She comes straight from the so-called vulnerable communities that exist in neighborhoods labeled “food deserts” where exercising in public parks is not an option because the streets are prone to violence and crime.
As a Youth Speaks poet, Erica uses poetry to articulate her daily stress and living condition, as it relates to poverty, leading her to self-destructing eating behaviors and a battle with obesity. Her poem originally titled “Feen” helped catapult her to first place in the Bay Area Teen Poetry Slam and a spot in the HBO Documentary Brave New Voices. Erica provides a raw, lived perspective (and also acknowledgement of complicity) from the voice of a teenager as she describes, “knowing most of your family has diabetes but you’re still smackin’ on Sour Patch Kids while walking your auntie to her dialysis appointment.”
The night Erica was crowned Grand Slam Champion in 2010 for her poetic performance, Dr. Dean Schillinger, founder of the UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, happened to be in the audience. Stunned by the power of her performance, he was inspired to team up with Youth Speaks to develop short films with spoken word poetry about type 2 diabetes and the environmental factors affecting youth. This collaborative project grew into what we now call The Bigger Picture.
I, along with about a dozen of local Youth Speaks poets, stepped into a ten-week workshop with Dean, which began with an in-depth history, analysis, and education on type 2 diabetes. We learned the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, how to use a lancet (and what a lancet was), and how type 2 diabetes is a preventable disease that overwhelmingly affects low-income communities of color. Through this process, the key facts that stood out to us were incorporated as bookends to our Bigger Picture films.