The Role of the Artist Is to Make [the Maternal Health] Revolution Irresistible

Artists, by nature of their innate passion and talent for inspiring audiences, can empower a local community in ways that others can't... They can say more with their songs and art than any of us can say with a simple Tweet or Facebook post.
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I came across a photograph on my Facebook news feed a few months ago that depicted a mural in Rome scribed with the quote, "The role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible."


As a documentary filmmaker and social activist, my first reaction was to share it amongst my more so-called "radical" artist colleagues who are participating in revolutionary movements, such as those in the Middle East, or protesting police brutality in New York City, or engaging in some other form of political protest. However, I realized I should have forwarded it to my maternal health colleagues as well.

With my work, I straddle two worlds -- the global health and development community, and the international socially conscious artists' movement. Over the last 10 years, I have documented maternal health issues such as obstetric fistula, unsafe abortions, pre-eclampsia and other reproductive health issues. Based on the relatively short time I've been doing this work, I believe there is a revolution of sorts happening around the issue of maternal health. It's not visually evident; there is no protest-driven violence taking place on the streets. And it's not necessarily a hot topic in the media. However, the behind-the-scenes work of some of our most committed maternal health pioneers, funders and institutions are helping to transform social norms that have allowed women to die needlessly for so long during pregnancy and childbirth. And that, in my opinion, is pretty revolutionary.

Progress is being made. The United Nations Population Fund recently reported that maternal deaths have nearly halved in the last 20 years (from 1990 to 2010, the annual number of maternal deaths dropped from more than 543,000 to 287,000 -- a decline of 47 percent). However, the fact that nearly 300,000 women, mostly in resource-poor areas of the world, are still dying annually from mostly preventable or treatable conditions, says to me the revolution is in need of a jolt. And I think local artists -- not mega-celebrities or Western pop stars, but the artists who have a firm foot in the communities they reach and are involved in social issues anyway -- can be incredible sources of information, inspiration and change to push us from incremental progress to really and truly ending unnecessary deaths from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

Case in point: Last February, in Sierra Leone (which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world), I filmed the work of WE CARE Solar, an award-winning organization whose mission is to "design portable, cost-effective solar suitcases that power critical lighting, mobile communication devices and medical devices in low resource areas without reliable electricity." Our entourage came across a rural clinic where a 40-year-old woman had been waiting two weeks to go into labor. Upon further evaluation, it was noted that this woman was at extremely high risk for pre-eclampsia and other life-threatening conditions. She had a history of delivering stillborns, had developed scoliosis, and she was small and frail and at the upper end of her reproductive years. She was eventually referred by ambulance to the regional hospital.

When her husband arrived, his concern for the health and safety of his wife transformed into a deep worry about how to cover the medical expenses associated with her visit. Despite the Government of Sierra Leone's new "Free Health Care Medical Insurance" law, which was launched in April of 2010 and grants free healthcare for pregnant and breast-feeding women and children under five, this family had to be convinced to demand free care when they reached the hospital. During this woman's visit, she was unaware of her rights.

On a global level, the number of new initiatives, conferences and spokespersons can attest to the rising global commitment to safe deliveries for all women. However for programs to be effective, they need to be owned by the people. If the resources and programs are there, but the people they were created for don't know about them or can't access them, how can they really be totally effective?

My current interest is aligning my film work with those who can make this revolution truly irresistible -- specifically professional artists who have incredible influence at the community level and are indigenous to the concerns and matters of the local people. This includes artists like Fid Q, from Tanzania, who is one of East Africa's most well-known hip-hop artists, Azfar Rizvi, a filmmaker in Pakistan, Yoonki Kim, a photographer in Thailand, or Bhupi, a graffiti artist in Kenya. These individuals use their art form to spark dialogue on pressing community issues ranging from land rights, to racial and gender disparities, to labor rights and more. (They are also contributing artists to my initiative -- an interactive website and online community I co-founded uniting artists and activists in the fight to reach MDG #5 by 2015 which I'll write about in later posts.)

Such artists, by nature of their innate passion and talent for inspiring audiences, can empower a local community in ways that others can't. These artists can be true messengers -- not just entertainers. And they can say more with their songs and art than any of us can say with a simple Tweet or Facebook post.

2012-12-07-russell.jpgFid Q, hip-hop artist from Tanzania, and an contributing artist, performing in Mwanza to over 20,000 fans.

Since returning from Sierra Leone last February, I've had the privilege of working as a filmmaker to produce a music video called "Give Peace a Chance" with Sierra Leonean superstars, Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew (who sell out the Sierra Leone national stadium of 50,000-plus fans when they perform). But as a maternal health activist, I am now having artist-to-artist conversations about the challenges facing pregnant women in their country and figuring out ways to relay critical information to save the lives of women -- like the 40-year-old pregnant woman I met with complications -- in their home countries. If they were armed with the right information and had enough exposure to the issue to be passionate about it, they could relay it in their songs, performances and special appearances, and deliver it with authentic cultural context and most importantly, in their local language. In my opinion, this can be an extremely effective way to reach the populations who are most vulnerable and marginalized in different societies.

My focus as a contributor to the Huffington Post's Global Motherhood platform will be to further develop ideas and initiate conversations about engaging creative professionals who, with researchers, practitioners, tech innovators, community mobilizers and others, can help elevate the important and innovative work taking place at the community level, where the local people's needs are at the helm and where the revolution will not be televised.

Lisa Russell, MPH is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, a global maternal health advocate, a teaching artist and co-founder of

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