How Youth Are Using Poetry To Change The Conversation About Diabetes

Posted by Jose Vadi

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.

To put this into perspective for us, Dean placed us in the seat of an unknown hospital waiting room, handing us basic sugar-level tests to find out if we were pre-diabetic. Something none of us ever wanted to discover but it forced me to analyze the dietary decisions I was making, and the neighborhood in which I was making them; this lead to me to write and produce THE CORNER, inspired by the intersection of 14th and Jackson in Downtown Oakland.

At Youth Speaks we take great pride in using art as a weapon for social change, believing that youth have to be at the center of any conversation that involves their betterment and empowerment. Erica’s poem was truly the driving inspiration and example of the collaboration between Youth Speaks and UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations. Not surprisingly, Erica’s poem was turned into a short film “Death Recipe”, produced and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Jamie DeWolf. “Death Recipe” was shot in Erica’s home in San Francisco, with her mother making a cameo in the film itself. The film was accepted and featured in the inaugural Food & Farms Film Festival at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco.

Since 2010, the project has produced thirteen short films that flip the motif of the traditional this-is-your-brains-on-drugs Public Service Announcement to high-quality poetry-laced short films that deliver unapologetic cautionary tales about the type 2 diabetes epidemic. These films, directed by Jamie DeWolf and Dimitri Moore respectively, have garnered national attention throughout social media.

We wrapped up 2013 with our first bilingual videos on sugar-sweetened beverages with an accompanying Spanish-language website for Latinos, one of the communities most affected by the disease. This year, the Bigger Picture is poised for a larger statewide rollout throughout California, notably in Richmond and Stockton. We just produced two new films about soda and its high contributions to the type 2 diabetes epidemic: “Good Soldiers” by Gabriel Cortez and “Targets” by Oakland youth poet laureate, Obasi Davis. They will be released in the coming months so stay tuned. 

If you would like to get involved and help change the conversation about diabetes to make young adults more conscious about the environmental and social factors that cause the spread of this disease, here’s how you can help:

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