ACTA program manager Quetzal Flores leads a collective songwriting workshop as part of ACTA's Building Healthy Communities work.

Building Healthy Communities

Elevating traditional arts practices that center community knowledge and culture in campaigns for health equity

Building Healthy Communities (BHC) is a 10-year statewide initiative of the California Endowment to address health inequities in 14 California communities. Since 2011, ACTA has been bringing traditional artists together with community members in Boyle Heights, Merced, Santa Ana, and the East Coachella Valley to open pathways for connection, reflection, and mobilization through the traditional arts.

Participants in a 2019 BHC event supporting the Invest in Youth campaign in Los Angeles. Posters creation led by Self Help Graphics artists. Photo by Timo Saarelma.

The BHC initiative focuses on building power locally by funding non-profit organizations in 14 communities across the state that have been devastated by health inequities. The Endowment has invested in those communities to facilitate collaboration toward policy change around three different areas: schools, neighborhoods, and preventive health. In the case of Boyle Heights, where gentrification has been impacting the neighborhood, a fourth area was added: anti-displacement.

ACTA contributes to this initiative by mobilizing participation in traditional arts practices as a way of building healthy communities. Our work has shown that gathering through the practice of the arts strengthens community resilience and resourcefulness, deepens a collective capacity for democratic deliberation and decision making, and enables individuals to hone and refine their creativity and virtuosity as artists and activists. People learn new skills, develop new interpersonal relations, and gain confidence about solving problems when they construct altars, participate in collective songwriting workshops, act in theatre productions, write a book about the cultural treasures in their neighborhood,  or organize gatherings to make murals, quilts, embroidered blouses, pillow cases, and aprons, to name just a few of the projects ACTA has seeded.

The art has helped us to listen, to break those chains, and release some things we have been carrying for a long time.”
—Juana Mena, ACTA Artist Fellow for Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights, 2019

For ACTA, the work with BHC began with a process to identify the culture bearers and traditional arts practitioners who were already part of the community and had been working there for a period of time. We did this through ACTA’s Participatory Cultural Asset Mapping methodology that convened a local taskforce to support us in collecting questionnaires identifying the people, places, events, and organizations that were culturally significant to the identity of the four communities we work in. These asset mapping methods honor and make visible cultural treasures that hold value in a particular community and foster spaces of belonging—an essential prerequisite for social change and work towards racial equity.

In the case of Boyle Heights, ACTA has continued to build on the initial asset map to mobilize local artists as community leaders. Over 100 cultural treasures were nominated by the community—from those, artists who had cultural knowledge and sensibility working with this specific community rose to the surface. ACTA arranged for these artists and culture bearers to lead a series of workshops within the different BHC campaigns that focus on improving health through schools, neighborhoods, preventative measures, and anti-displacement efforts. The workshops developed into formal artists fellowships that pair an artist fellow with one area of focus and with a mentee from the community who works with and learns from the artist fellow.

For almost a decade, ACTA has provided artists with the space, resources, and support for them to exercise their agency in experimenting within their practices to develop their own engagement methodologies. 


New Publication: SaludArte

Check out our newest bilingual publication "SaludArte: Building Health Equity on the Bedrock of Traditional Arts and Culture," which explores what can happen when traditional artists engage cultural practices to address social determinants of health like structural racism, poverty, and other conditions that impact our ability to lead healthy lives where we live, work, and play.

2021 Building Healthy Communities Artist Fellows

Participant in a 2019 workshop on quilting and restorative justice led by Artist Fellow Juana Mena. Photo by Timo Saarelma.

Omar Ramirez, Artist Fellow
Juana Mena, Artist Co-Fellow
Al Garcia, Mentee
Health Happens in Schools | Mural-making, drawing,  zine-making, radio broadcasting, restorative quilting

Vaneza Mari Calderón, Artist Fellow
Luz Marlene Cordero, Artist Fellow
Francisca Teodoro, Mentee
Health Happens in Neighborhoods | Mariachi music, collective songwriting, altar-making, visual art, handmade craft, foodways

Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, Artist Fellows
Mayra Simons, Mentee
Eastside Leads | Altar-making, visual art, handmade crafts, weaving

VIDEO: Learn how ACTA helps seed restorative justice practices in the community of Boyle Heights through the transformative work of Building Healthy Communities Artist Fellow and quilter, Juana Mena, with moms at Roosevelt High.


ACTA’s work with Building Healthy Communities is supported by The California Endowment.

Invest in California’s cultural wealth.

Every gift is a commitment to a culture bearer, and the people of California.