Reflections on the SBCC Summit from Darriel Harris

Post by Darriel Harris, MA, MDiv, Project Officer, Baltimore Food and Faith Project of Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

The SBCC conference was an amazing experience for me. Not only was I able to convene with approximately 800 professionals using various strategies and skills to promote behavior change around the world, I was also able to share a portion of the work I’ve done and the successes that it has brought.

One of the conference aspects that quickly became apparent was that the conference was a space with more questions than answers. I mean this admirably. From the opening to the closing session we were left wrestling with a multitude of questions, questions that we were solicited to help solve. The multitude of questions conveyed that there is much to learn, that there is no single panacea to solve all our problems, and that there is room for new ideas. And it were the new ideas that excited me.

I attended a workshop where people were attempting to change perceptions and eventually behaviors around exclusive breastfeeding in Southeast Asia. Instead of holding community based workshops, putting up billboards, or creating literature on the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and the dangers of mingling breastmilk with other liquids, they created a television drama that would air during prime time hours that chronicles an inter-generational drama enticing to the people of that geographic region. The purpose of the drama was pure entertainment, and it presenting like entertainment and nothing else. Their innovation was to include within this entertaining drama series a few powerful lines between a new mother and her mother-in-law that depicted the new mother rejecting the mother-in-law’s efforts to feed the newborn child river water, honey, and Holy water.

I thought this was ingenious. What I’ve learned about people and health messaging is that altering behaviors that are deep seeded in culture, religious beliefs, and pseudo-science is often less about the factual information put forth and more about how the people feel as the messages are received. The television drama spoke to people about exclusive breastfeeding within a larger, entertaining context while their affect towards the messenger (the television drama series) was positive, which hopefully translates into new behaviors. Another reason I enjoyed it so much was because it highlighted the level of investment necessary to change behaviors. Too often we look for the quick solutions, ignoring the reality that the yielded results are typically commensurate with the level of creativity and investment utilized in their creation.

Other people offered new creative ideas employing basic cellular phones, social media, village level dramas, and religion. Religion is a hot button topic for me, because it has been the primary means through which I have altered community-wide health behaviors. At the conference, my suspicion that religion was not my strategy alone was confirmed. There are groups in Ethiopia, Malawi, and South America that are attempting to change behavior by creating resources that intersect public health and religion, and many other regions of the world interested in beginning.

On the first day of the conference, I was privileged with the opportunity of sharing my experiences in South Sudan, where I created a community health curriculum that fused health best practices with Biblical scriptures. My theory was that people would be open to health messages if they were embedded in a format that they already accepted. The people were trusting of the Bible but suspicious of Westerners attempting to change their culture and micromanage their ways of life. Thus, instead of holding health workshops, we help Bible workshops and the texts we studied pertained to various health lessons. After I presented my CommTalk at the conference, many people approached me about the possibility of utilizing my strategy in their respective regions of the world. This pleased me because although this has been my strategy, I’m open to learning from others the details through which the strategy is employed and the varying results following the differences in implementation. I’m open to learning the best way to implement my strategy, or even if there are other aspects of the strategy that need to be considered. Again, these are more questions, and SBCC was a wonderful place to ask.

Watch Darriels’ CommTalk from the SBCC Summit: