Creating Better Public Health One Story at a Time

A Talk with Dr. David Fakunle
Portrait of Black man with beard and long braided hair wearing a orange flowered shirt and holding a staff.

Dr. David Fakunle. Photo by Schaun Champion

In classrooms, recovery centers, cultural centers, and libraries around Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. David Olawuyi Fakunle uses the art of storytelling to promote public health by listening, understanding, and addressing the personal, social, and structural factors that contribute to health disparities—a “mercenary of change” as he calls himself. He powerfully combines science with art and is transforming discussions about the role of storytelling in healing.

Among many affiliations, Dr. Fakunle is co-founder and CEO of DiscoverME/RecoverME, an organization that utilizes the African oral tradition to empower use of storytelling for healing and growth; is president of the National Association of Black Storytellers; serves as executive director of WombWork Productions, a Baltimore-based social change performing arts company; and serves as chair of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first state-level commission in the U.S. dedicated to chronicling and bringing justice to racial terror lynchings.

In our interview, Dr. Fakunle talks about his upbringing where arts and culture were the foundation for expressing himself and how he became involved in public health and using storytelling as a tool for healing.

As he notes in the interview, “An artful life, for me, is one where our creativity allows us to maximize our acknowledgement of ourselves and each other. It allows us to show appreciation for ourselves and each other. It allows us to respect ourselves and each other. It allows us to have an understanding of ourselves and each other…. it allows us to love ourselves and each other. So, to me, those existential determinants of health are elevated and strengthened when we are living an artful and creative life.”

Music Credit: “Smooth Actor” written and performed by Poddington Bear from the album Soul, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Music Credit: “Smooth Actor” written and performed by Poddington Bear from the album Soul, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive

Welcome to the online addition of American Artscape, I’m Josephine Reed. Today, we’re going to explore the intersection of art and public health with Dr. David Fakunle.   David Fakunle wears many hats but he is first and foremost a storyteller who received a PhD from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where he now a faculty member. He’s also an assistant professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy, and serves as adjunct assistant professor at the University of Florida Center for Arts and Medicine.  David is also the president of the National Association of Black Storytellers and serves as executive director of Womb Work Productions a social change performing arts company in Baltimore with a focus on kids. As I said, many hats—but all of his work explores the intersection of trauma and the healing power of storytelling and the centrality of the artful life to public health. 

Dr. David Fakunle: So I look to demonstrate the utility of storytelling, and really arts and culture overall, within the health context.  For me that shows up as research, that shows up as practice, that shows up as education, that shows up as advocacy, that shows up as activism.  Those would be, I think, the main five.  And, again, it's about showing that arts and culture are already present in our health.  We are all using some form of creative energy, and it does have a correlation and sometimes causation with our health and wellbeing.  What if we do that with more intentionality?  What if we do that with more emphasis?  What if we do that with more resources?  And that is the overall aim and goals of my work as a mercenary for change, which is what I call myself, is to just show  that these readily accessible tools, these readily accessible skills, can be cultivated in a way that is beneficial for individuals, families, communities, societies, and it relies above all else on our humanity, something that we already possess.  So it's showing to me the ultimate human-centered design in a lot of ways that I think recent time has kind of shown are very important when it comes to having what we consider a quality life.

Jo Reed: David grew up in Baltimore to a family of artists and musicians, and was exposed to the power of creative expression from a young age.

Dr. David Fakunle: I come from a family of creatives, particularly singers, where arts and culture has always been a foundation for who we are and how we express ourselves, and that's extended to African drumming, certainly storytelling like I mentioned before, theater, dance, we've always needed to express ourselves creatively.  So the idea of all of that being connected to how we felt as individuals, as family, as community, makes a lot of sense now and I think speaks a lot to, again, how much we valued arts and culture as a part of our overall wellbeing.

Jo Reed: And David also found cultural homes in various Baltimore artistic centers—like the Great Blacks in Wax Museum where he regularly attended cultural events. In fact, it was through an event at the museum that he would meet the woman who put him on the path to storytelling.

Dr. David Fakunle: It was a celebration for the unveiling of Colin Powell's statue.  So Colin Powell and his wife came to Baltimore for the unveiling. There was a celebration for this momentous accomplishment, and during this celebration a lot of the children of the museum, you know, children of staff, children in the neighborhood who frequented the museum, just started to be creative, right? They would sing, they would dance, they just kind of did whatever talent came to mind. And I admit, out of envy, I decided that I wanted to put myself front and center, so for whatever reason, I told a story, and I told the story of the yellow ribbon, and it was a hit most of all with Mary Carter Smith.  And Mary Carter Smith was a world-renowned griot, a Black storyteller, who had a radio show for 25 years at WEAA.  And she knew, like she knew that I got that story from her, like where else would a little boy know the story of the yellow ribbon if not for her radio show?  So she was impressed by my rendition, she mentioned me on her radio show, which my mother, my sister, and I listened to Saturday mornings, 10 to 11:00 AM.  And she eventually reached out to my family and asked if I could come to WEAA and be on her radio show to read stories.  And I'm thinking, well, this is the greatest thing ever, I'm getting picked up early from school, I get to drive over to Morgan State University, I'm on the radio, and then I get to go home and chill, right?  Like who else in my class can say they've been on the radio, right?  And eventually those reading stories turned into telling stories, and I still remember my first performance with Mary Carter Smith at the top of the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore, I was 10 years old.  So being able to do those stories with, again, a world-renowned artist, a world-renowned storyteller, was immense, and the learning that I absorbed from her, not always direct teaching, just being in her presence, being in her house which was its own museum of artifacts and just mementos of her incredible life, I mean, please look up Mary Carter Smith if you haven't, she was an incredible woman.  And it was above all else the love that she showed me, she became a grandmother figure in my life and was the driving force for me really getting into Black storytelling.

Jo Reed: Since the arts were so central to David’s upbringing, public health might be considered an unlikely career choice.

Dr. David Fakunle: I'll say that I didn't choose public health, public health chose me, as cliché as that may be, but it's true.  There was a time after I graduated with my bachelor's where I knew I wanted to get into research.  I had my research interests, which really was a reflection of my life, born and raised in East Baltimore.  You can look up stats on Baltimore, you can look up the story of Baltimore, it has its challenges, no doubt about it, and I lived in a part of Baltimore that had its challenges as well.  And for a young Black person like me it could have been very easy, again, the razor's edge that many of us live on, it could have been very easy for me to fall on another side of that razor's edge-- where it could have been, unfortunately, as it is for so many people who look like me, it can be substance use disorder or any other type of manifestation of trauma, it can be incarceration, or it can be death. And there have been people who I grew up in my neighborhood for whom that was their fate.  And I looked at my life where I had the opportunities to maximize my educational capabilities, maximize my creative capabilities, maximize my athletic capabilities, just opportunity after opportunity after opportunity, and I saw how it turned out for me, how it turned out for my sister, and I was always struck with the question, why?  Why me?  Why us?  What made the difference?  So for me I carried that fundamental question about my own life to the research world.  There's got to be something about this story that has a generalizability to other circumstances when it came to particularly young Black men.  That question could have been answered through so many different fields, I learned, and at that time in my life I didn't need more options, I needed an answer.  So it wasn't until I connected with a faculty member at Johns Hopkins in the Bloomberg School of Public Health where I was told, “You need to do public health.”  And it was specifically, you need to get a PhD in public health, and technically, because I've always got to give credence to the truth, a master's in social work.  I got one of them, the PhD in public health.  And what I quickly found out is that public health was the perfect space for me because it's everything.  Everything Is related to our health and wellbeing.  Buildings, right, buildings are related to our health and wellbeing.  Nature is related to our health and wellbeing.  Arts and culture is related to our health and wellbeing.  Yes, race is related to health and wellbeing.  Gender is related.  Everything is related to health and wellbeing. And it gives you, again, that carte blanche, that permission to explore everything, anything and everything, as long as you can make the connection to health it's fair game, and public health really suited me well from an intellectual standpoint to have that flexibility and almost kind of nebulous space, like I said, it's all over the place.

Jo Reed: But according to David, his exploration of storytelling as a public health resource came almost by chance.

Dr. David Fakunle: Now, arts and culture that part, serendipity shows up once again.  My first year of completing my PhD I took a class called Gaps in Opportunities in Public Mental Health.  I was in the mental health department at Hopkins, and this class, unlike all the others, was a practicum so it was about doing something as opposed to not just learning and just listening but doing.  And my instructor in that class found out I was a storyteller, and what she asked me to do for the practicum was go to a recovery center in West Baltimore that she was connected with, teach the clients storytelling.  I'm going to be honest, I was a little apprehensive, not because I didn't believe in storytelling, but the mindset that I brought to a place like Hopkins-- best probably health school in the world, they'll tell you, oh, they'll tell you-- was in order to survive, I wasn't even thinking about thriving, in order to survive getting this PhD from, again, the best public health school in the world I've got to be 100 percent focused on everything they're telling me that I need to do, right, epidemiology, biostatistics, research.  Research, that's your path, right, that's your journey.  But this instructor was adamant and, again, it's the instructor giving me my grade, so I'm like, okay, I'm going to do what the instructor asked me to do.

And so I went to this recovery center with my mother, a storyteller as well, I went with my aunt who is also a storyteller.  She may not be a professional storyteller in the sense that my mother and I are, but she is a professional-level storyteller, and what makes her presence so profound was she's been in recovery from substance use disorder my entire life. I grew up in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous, and I say that proudly because in support of my aunt's recovery, my mother, my sister, and I would go to her NA meetings to support her.  Now, granted, probably shouldn't have been in those meetings with all the cursing that was happening, there were things I probably shouldn't have heard just given my age, but the wisdom that was passed down, whether those women-- and it was women-- whether those women realized it or not, they were giving me so many lessons about life, real life, <laughs> right? Those proverbs, those lessons that you only learn through living, and even at eight, nine, ten years old, I was absorbing them, right? I may not have fully understood them at that time, but again, the seeds that were planted later on. So, my mother, my aunt, and I, we went to this recovery center, we met with the clinical director, the executive director. We made it clear this is not a research project. This is just to bring storytelling to people who should have the power to tell their story.

Jo Reed: Meanwhile, back on campus, David is looking at his courses with fresh eyes.

Dr. David Fakunle: This is being juxtaposed with what I'm learning at Hopkins, in other classes. I was on a training grant for drug epidemiology, so we were talking drugs all the time, “What's the relationship between this location, or that aspect, and the availability of substances, the use of those substances?” I'm thinking to myself “Is there anybody in this room who's ever used any of these substances? That knows what that experience is like?” Because I know people who <laughs> had those experiences. I'll bring my aunt <laughs> in a minute to tell her story. Even the clients at this particular recovery center, recovery and community, they were never going to be at the table where I was. But I knew from, again, the lessons I learned as a child, their wisdom and their knowledge deserves a place at this table. Even more than that, it's necessary; so it's not a charity case. In order for us to best understand these health issues, you need them at the table. They need to be a part of this story. So, I looked at it from that standpoint, to equip people to be better advocates for their health. It became a space where the storytelling was the healing, right? It wasn't about the training, it was just creating space for people to tell their story, and to listen to each other's narratives, to find those opportunities where the lessons and the experiences could serve as a reminder of who everyone really was. Dealing with substance use disorder, being around people who have dealt with substance use disorder, you hear everything but who they are, a lot of times. Even in the rooms in recovery, there'll be a lot of times where the narrative focuses on the actions and behaviors related to the addiction, understandably so. That is part of the story. So, there’s no sugar coating or hiding the fact that you are in this space because of a health challenge that you're dealing with. That doesn't mean that's the entirety of the story. And the reference point, my aunt. My aunt was more than someone who was in recovery for 30 plus years at this point. There's more to her than that, and that was what I wanted people to understand about themselves. Even me, if I had to put the researcher hat on one day, if I had to put on the professor hat one day, I wanted whoever I work with to know that all of you are way more than just your age, your race, your sex, your gender, and the fact that you use substances. There's more to you than that. But in the research, that's how many of you would just show up. That's it. A compilation of statistics. Statistics don't make up humanity, <laughs> I'm sorry. So, for me, creating that space where people could have their humanity reaffirmed, in conjunction with all the other healing that was happening in the space, we weren’t the only piece, it was part of the overall puzzle, a part of the overall process of healing. As we went through this iterative process, it started off almost like a kind of formal curriculum, we soon threw that away. It doesn't work in this space. It just had to be a fluid, flexible space where whoever showed up, whether it was a few people or over a dozen people, could feel comfortable telling their stories. What made it impactful was my mother and I were telling our stories. We have folk tales from the traditions that we brought to serve as catalysts for discussion, catalysts for people to tell their stories, characters to relate to, to find those connections between the narrative that we're presenting and their own narrative. But then sometimes we just had to tell our truth, what was going on that day for us. And I hold a special place in my heart for them because they were as much the emotional support that I needed to finish my PhD as anybody.

Jo Reed: The experience turned out to be transformative for David and his thinking about public health.

Dr. David Fakunle: I was just looking to get a good grade <laughs> in the class. That's all I was looking for at that time. But then the experience of actually doing it opened me up to other possibilities. It really was a revelation, and I use that word very intentionally, because the way that I felt, and the impact that we were having in such a short amount of time, we have public health projects all the time that understandably take a lot of development, a lot of foundation building in order for it to have the impact that it’s looking to have. This was happening just like that, and it was happening with low resources, low tech, it's mobile. All these things that we know can be beneficial to public health, especially when it's dire, I'm demonstrating it and I just started here, <laughter> right? I just started at Hopkins, and I found this pathway that just made all the sense in the world.

Jo Reed: But then the question quickly became how would the faculty at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health respond to David Fakunle’s ideas about storytelling and public health.

Dr. David Fakunle: That allowed the idea to grow and to be cultivated was the support that I got from faculty. To me, as much as they may believe in the storytelling, and there certainly was that, they believed in me, and they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt to say “Okay, let me see what you're talking about.” I quickly realized that's the opening that I needed. If I could bring them into the space, they'd understand. Even for this particular professor, tenured, highly regarded, has all the accolades, they were willing to accept the data of the experience. I didn't have to give them a paper, I didn't have to show them a formula. I said “Come into this space and you'll understand everything I'm trying to tell you,” and they did. So, even that in itself was, again, confirmation that okay, I get the importance of quantitative data, I get the importance of being able to show it in an empirical sense, but sometimes you just need to be there, and that’s all the confirmation and validity that you need. So,the momentum grew, the support grew, so when I did graduate from Hopkins in 2018, literally the next week, after I walked across the stage and got my <laughs> PhD, I was teaching a class on storytelling in the Mental Health Department. Because I also recognized that storytelling had a value when it came to the dissemination of public health research. Having to be in workshops, having to be at seminars, having to be at keynotes, a lot of those professors, as brilliant as they are and were with their science, sucked. And I say it, “Sucked,” in telling the story. So, no wonder people were falling asleep, <laughs> or on their phones trying to get out of there, <laughs> myself included, and thinking to myself “All this time, and energy, and brilliance that's ultimately being wasted because no one's listening.” It's not resonating. So, if you incorporate just some of the basic elements of storytelling, which I grew up with, yeah, people would be a lot better. Again, a lot of the faculty and staff in the Mental Health Department supported that idea. They saw that vision and gave me the space to try, and I think all I was looking for was just the opportunity to try. If I failed, I failed, but at least I gave it a try. The story goes, it was successful, <laughter> very successful. So, again, my intuition and the skills that I brought as a storyteller, and honestly, when I say the PhD in storytelling that I brought to Hopkins is really what allowed me to find his marriage, to find this symbiotic relationship of the importance of creativity and obviously the necessity of health, and seeing that that whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes the only way we can explain this thing called life is to sing, to dance, to paint, to sculpt, to act. But it shares this is what this is like for me, this thing called life, and the ultimate denominator is we all are doing that. So, it goes both ways. We want health people to use arts and culture, we want arts and culture people to know how much they contribute to health, and being intentional about that. You don't even need six degrees of separation to make that connection to health. It's always there, it's about bringing it out into the open, into the forefront.

Jo Reed: As I had mentioned David Fakunle is also the executive director of WombWork Productions—a social change performing arts company that focuses on kids—in fact, David had joined WombWork as a 14 year old boy—and he realizes how much that informs his work today.

Dr. David Fakunle: That was really the institution that laid the groundwork for how arts and culture can be used for health because for 25 plus years WombWork has used performing arts, particularly theater, to tell the story of circumstances, issues in the neighborhood.  So based out of Baltimore, we've talked about the issues in West Baltimore, we've talked about issues in the East Baltimore, we've talked about issues in Baltimore overall, the state of Maryland, the United States of America, the entire world.  And the mantra, the model that you can find on Womb Works website is to heal and empower communities-- youth, families, and community heal.  You can't spell health without heal, it's right there, but we never put two and two together until the time was right to put two and two together.

Jo Reed: Under David’s direction, the implicit public health impact of WombWork became explicit.

Dr. David Fakunle: So, it continues to serve as a living example that creativity can be intentionally applied to health, whether it comes in the form of communication-- and we have talked about some very serious health topics, HIV, AIDS, gang violence, inter-partner violence, sexual abuse, child sexual abuse.  Again, stuff that goes there where it's not just about bringing awareness to the public health issue-- and in most cases we didn't need to bring awareness, people know these things exist-- but there's never been a comfortable space where people can explore those health issues.   And, you know, we all have so many memories of us being on stage where we were telling our own stories even as teenagers, as young people, telling our stories of the health circumstances that we experienced in real time in Baltimore City-- being able to express that was healing in itself, putting the script together, being on stage rehearsing, all part of the healing process, focusing those stories not just on the health challenge but what we as young people, as a community, could do about it.  That's what was demonstrated even back then, the transformative power of creativity to address individual, familial, community health.  And now that there is, I think, the explicit intentionality-- like we're really calling out the fact that Womb Work in particular is a public health organization as much as it's an arts and culture organization-- has made I think a big difference in the support that the organization has gained, and really the opportunities to really dive into what other aspects of health can we start to affect and bring impact to with arts and culture being the foundation?

Jo Reed: I brought it back full circle and asked David to t share five words that come to mind when he reflected on the idea of an artful life.

Dr. David Fakunle: So, an artful life? The five words that I will use are the five words that I designated as the existential determinants of health. What I mean by that is we understand many of our social determinants of health, race make-- again, race plays a factor, and location plays a factor, socio-economic status plays a factor. All those things play a factor in our health and well-being. What's above that? What are those true determinants that even despite all those social determinants, we can find across humanity? An artful life, for me, is one where our creativity allows us to maximize our acknowledgement of ourselves and each other. It allows us to show appreciation for ourselves and each other. It allows us to respect ourselves and each other. It allows us to have an understanding of ourselves and each other. You probably know what the last one is, it allows us to love ourselves and each other. So, to me, those existential determinants of health are elevated and strengthened when we are living an artful and creative life.

Jo Reed: That was Dr David Fakunle—among his many affiliations, he is on faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; he’s also an assistant professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy, and serves as adjunct assistant professor at the University of Florida Center for Arts and Medicine.  David is also the president of the National Association of Black Storytellers and serves as executive director of Womb Works productions as well as the founder and CEO of DiscoverME/RecoverME. Additionally, he is the chair of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Committee.  I asked if he ever sleeps. He says he naps often.

We recorded this interview at WEAA at Morgan State University the radio home of  Mary Carter Smith for 25 years. Many thanks for their kindness and generosity.

This has been the online addition of American Artscape. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.