Connecting with youth: how arts-based health campaigns are engaging young Aboriginal people in NSW

Connecting with youth: how arts-based health campaigns are engaging young Aboriginal people in NSW

HIV Australia | Vol. 11 No. 3 | October 2013

By Matthew Rodgers

The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) would like to acknowledging the input of Aboriginal communities and workers into these campaigns.

Conducting a successful health promotion campaign is demanding at the best of times – and rolling out a campaign about sensitive topics like sexual health and drug use to young Aboriginal people presents additional challenges.

Aboriginal-specific resources relating to these topics are not easy to come by and mainstream messaging and standard health promotion material, like posters and mass media campaigns, often do not engage the interest of young Aboriginal people.

These were just some the challenges facing the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW (AH&MRC) when it was recently tasked with creating educational campaigns for young Aboriginal people to make informed choices about sexual and reproductive health, blood borne viruses (BBVs), and alcohol and other drugs issues.

As the peak representative body and voice of Aboriginal communities on health in NSW, the AH&MRC’s involvement was critical to achieving these goals at a state level.

In planning an effective strategy for reaching young Aboriginal people with messages on sensitive topics, the AH&MRC facilitated focus groups with young Aboriginal people through its membership, which consists of around 50 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Related Services (ACCHRS) located throughout the state.

Since the establishment of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern in 1971, ACCHSs have led the way in terms of providing effective comprehensive primary health care for Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal community control has its origins in Aboriginal people’s right to self-determination, as reinforced in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.1

This is the right to be involved in health service delivery and decision making according to protocols or procedures determined by Aboriginal communities based on the Aboriginal definition of health, as stated in the 1989 National Aboriginal Health Strategy:

‘Aboriginal health means not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole Community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential as a human being, thereby bringing about the total wellbeing of their Community.’2

Like its members, the AH&MRC is an Aboriginal community controlled health organisation, with a Board of Aboriginal community representatives selected regionally by AH&MRC members.

The organisation’s focus is to support, represent and advocate for the interests of ACCHSs in all aspects and to promote the unique and invaluable role these organisations play in health service delivery and policy development.

AH&MRC is experienced in delivering quality health promotion campaigns, particularly around sexual health.

For these reasons, the AH&MRC was successful in its proposal to deliver these campaigns at a much larger scale.

Since 2010, the AH&MRC has developed and delivered the following campaigns:

  • Where’s the Shame, Love Your Liver – aimed to increase awareness of hepatitis C in an environment where shame and stigma are prevalent (2011)
  • Staying Strong: Act Connect Survive – aimed to build young Aboriginal people’s resilience around drug use and BBVs (2013)
  • It’s Your Choice Have a Voice: Rights, Respect, Responsibility – aimed to increase young Aboriginal people’s literacy around sexual and reproductive health and related AOD issues (2010 and 2013).

Although HIV was not specifically identified as part of these campaigns, HIV prevention was included in the sexually transmissible infection and BBV prevention messages in all the campaigns.

The local ACCHSs in each area played a key role in the delivery of the campaigns, and were relied on to organise local working groups, identify young people to be involved, help facilitate the educational settings, and organise the community events around the campaigns.

While the make-up of the local working groups varied, the group usually comprised of representatives from the local ACCHS, the Local Health District Sexual Health team, the youth development officer from the local council, Aboriginal Education Officers from local schools and other local workers.

The AH&MRC provided a preparation workshop for the working group, and workers were also provided a support pack with resources and a detailed planning checklist, a letter to school principals, posters and flyers.

In 2010, funding was provided by the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch of NSW Health (now NSW Ministry of Health) to undertake two arts-based community education campaigns to:

  1. address sexual and reproductive health and related alcohol and other drug issues among Aboriginal adolescents, and
  2. to raise awareness of hepatitis C prevention, treatment and management in an environment where shame and stigma are prevalent.

Funding for the campaigns came from the National Partnership Agreements – Indigenous Early Childhood Development and the Indigenous Health streams.

The program was expanded in early 2011 through funding from the Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Office of NSW Health in order include key messages around drug and alcohol misuse.

Two different approaches for campaigns were developed:

It’s Your Choice, Have a Voice – occurred over three days, included workshops on campaign themes, dance workshops, hip hop song writing, resources with message themes for participants, and a Deadly Styles dance off at a local school.

Where’s the Shame, Love Your Liver – occurred over three days, included education sessions and activities around hepatitis C prevention, management and treatment, poster development, song writing workshops and video clip production, development of resources with message themes for participants, and a community event showcasing the video clips.

Where’s the Shame later led to the Staying Strong: Act Connect Survive campaign using the same format.

All campaigns included a social media component (Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud and website), managed and promoted by the AH&MRC.

The key messages of campaigns aimed to be positive in tone and resonate with youth and Aboriginal culture – with an action for participants to take away.

The campaign messages were focus tested with young Aboriginal people to ensure their relevance.

The It’s Your Choice campaign messages were that, in relation to sexual and reproductive health and drug and alcohol use:

  • The choices you are making now can affect your future (choices and consequences)
  • There is support available (identify a range of sources for support)
  • Respect yourself, your culture, your family and partner to have healthy relationships
  • You can be whatever you want to be; you have the power to make the choices that are right for you.

The Where’s the Shame, Love Your Liver campaign key messages were:

  • Hepatitis C affects everyone, families and communities
  • Shame surrounds hep C but we need to talk about it
  • Find out more about hep C from local health services
  • Hepatitis C is in prisons, be careful inside; protect yourself and your families.

The involvement of recognised artists helped greatly to capture the attention of young people, many of whom were eager to take part in activities that featured dancers or artists they identified with or viewed as celebrities – such as the Deadly Award-winning hip hop group The Last Kinection, who were partners in rolling out the Where’s the Shame, Love Your Liver and the Staying Strong: Act Connect Survive campaigns.

Evaluation and reach

The two initial campaigns were evaluated in 2011/12 by an independent consultant, and included pre- and post-campaign focus groups, process evaluation collected at workshops, monitoring of Facebook data and reach, survey of local workers (via SurveyMonkey) and stakeholder interviews.

Key findings included:

  • Both campaigns met their objectives and recall of messaging from focus groups was good.
  • The medium of hip hop dance and song/film production was key for engaging young Aboriginal people.
  • Using an arts-based campaign made it easier for local workers to discuss sensitive topics.
  • The social media component assisted with the reach to other young Aboriginal people and their peers.

It’s Your Choice was delivered to 14 communities in 2010, largely in schools.

Young Aboriginal people said they liked the way that the campaign was aimed at the whole school, so that the messaging around sexual and reproductive health and alcohol and other drug use wasn’t identified as an ‘Aboriginal’ issue.

A total of 4,000–5,000 young people are estimated to have been involved in the workshops and school Deadly Styles events.

Where’s the Shame, Love Your Liver was delivered to ten communities, community events were largely held at local ACCHSs, and 13 posters, 36 songs and 31 film clips were developed by participants and distributed across NSW.

Facebook played an important role by building excitement and continuing the dialogue around the campaigns.

The site statistics for It’s Your Choice in 2011, for example, show that activity through the site increased dramatically as the campaign rolled on: between the second and third weeks of the campaign, traffic through the site increased by 50% to 1,000 visits in a week.

Monthly users of the site peaked at over 1,700 by the end of the campaign. There was strong agreement by virtually all stakeholders that a creative arts approach – and the use of hip hop music and dance in particular – was an appropriate and effective strategy for engaging young Aboriginal people and delivering positive health and wellbeing messages.

However, it was not just the messaging that was important in the delivery of the campaign. The fact that the event was fun, something out of the ordinary for young people living in towns where there are few such opportunities, and targeted teenagers’ interests was critical.

Responses to post-campaign interviews and comments made on Facebook by workshop participants, organisers and other stakeholders indicate the campaign’s success, and it’s effectiveness in engaging young Aboriginal people, in particular:

‘I think it worked because it communicated with the kids on their level. They get so much health education at school, I think they start to switch off. This was fun and interactive.’ (Health Worker)

‘You have made me wanna do something i never wanted to do but today i applied for a scholarship to Griffith University to study the Bachelor of Music, thank you for making me realise that i can do something with my life’. (Participant).

‘Its Your Choice Have a voice xx loved performing today glad i participated ive gained confidence and happiness and an even stronger feel for dance thanks heaps love you all xx loved salsa to realise how good I was you bring out the best in all of us thanks again xx’. (Participant)

‘i just wanted to thank you for teaching me not only to dance but to have confidence to show what i can do and i really like to thank the dancers as well for teaching me that putting a salsa in my dance will build my [confidence] so thank you for everything and we hope you will come back to Balranald :D’. (Participant)

‘I learnt to respect myself an others an to have a go an dnt be afraid to do wat i want an if yous didnt come to balranald then i dnt think id be able to dance infront of any1 or even get up infront of any1 so thankz an I really hope u come back to balranald’. (Participant)

‘You guys are just amazing ! You taught us “That Shames Out The Door” Get Out The Because Were Only Young & Were The Future Of Our Community ! Come Back To Coonamble High, Really Soon; You will see a change in all of the students 🙂 you’s guys made the 3 days of hip hop the best!’. (Participant).

Matthew Rodgers is Media and Communications Coordinator at the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW.

The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Land on which we operate and pay our respects to Aboriginal Elders past and present.

We also gratefully acknowledge all of the Aboriginal community members and workers whose participation and feedback about the program has helped to shape and inform this article, including those quoted in the program evaluations reproduced above.


1 United Nations General Assembly. (2007). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from:

National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party. (1989). A National Aboriginal Health Strategy 1989. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra. Retrieved from: