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Culture of Health-Advancing Together (CHAT) joins Mid-America Arts Alliance

By Elizabeth Snell

CHAT announcement with headshot of Dr. Aisha Siddiqui, CHAT’s founder and executive director in red and a photo of children and administrators at an after-school arts program.

Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Populations through Art and Community Health

As a major port of entry into the United States, Houston, Texas has a large immigrant and refugee community. Over 90 languages are spoken in the city and immigrants compose 1.7 million of the total population (nearly one out of every four residents) of the metro area. 

What may not be as widely known is that Lincoln, Nebraska, has a large Sudanese immigrant population. The Kansas City, Missouri, metro area has the second largest population of Somali immigrants in the United States. There is a large Marshallese population in Northwest Arkansas, and St. Louis, Missouri, has the third fastest growth rate of immigrant populations of all cities in the United States. 

Immigrants and refugees are an increasing percentage of our region’s population and our constituency, in areas both urban and rural.

That’s why Culture of Health–Advancing Together (CHAT) has joined Mid-America Arts Alliance, to bring more visibility to the needs of immigrant and refugee communities in our region and to bring awareness to the role the arts can play in helping build community and increase access to vital resources. 

About Houston, Texas’s Culture of HealthAdvancing Together

CHAT was founded in 2015 by Dr. Aisha Siddiqui with the desire to foster the health and well-being of the immigrant and refugee community in Houston through education, arts, advocacy, and access to healthcare. CHAT envisions a healthy community that is self-sufficient and meets the everyday challenges of living in a diverse society.

CHAT believes in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s definition of Culture of Health: 

“Building a Culture of Health means working together to improve health for all in America. It means placing well-being at the center of every aspect of our lives. In a Culture of Health, Americans understand that we’re all in this together—no one is excluded. Everyone has access to the care they need and a fair and just opportunity to make healthier choices. In a Culture of Health, communities flourish and individuals thrive.”

Improving immigrant and refugee health and well-being by reducing isolation, facilitating acculturation, and connecting resources is what CHAT has achieved unlike any other existing organization in Houston. It has the cultural and language expertise that is required for empowering the refugee community. 

Founder and Executive Director Dr. Siddiqui, who earned a Doctorate in Public Health, Management, Policy, and Community Health Practice from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and CHAT’s board Chair, Dr. Ross Shegog, who holds a PhD in Behavioral Science from the same university, have worked very closely with M-AAA through our Engage program. M-AAA has assisted CHAT’s organizational development from a self-funded fledgling organization to one that now, in just eight short years, has amassed nearly 20 health industry collaborators, including Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas School of Public Health, Harris County Public Health, and Houston Health Department. Currently, CHAT receives funding from the Houston Arts Alliance, Houston Methodist Hospital, Houston Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Houston in Action, Ima Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, Houston Endowment, Centers for Disease Control, and Houston Health Department, among others, along with an impressive number of individual community donors.

CHAT in Action: The Gulfton Story Trail

One of CHAT’s recent achievements is the Gulfton Story Trail, an immersive art experience that invites the residents and visitors to discover the many cultures and voices of the Houston neighborhood. 

Nestled in between Gulfton’s global cuisines and eclectic shops are 17 inspiring murals created by some of Houston’s most talented street artists. Each vibrant piece is multidimensional, born from poetry written by Gulfton students, blending Gulfton’s stories with their own. 

Founder and Executive Director Dr. Aisha Siddiqui notes that “Art is the gateway to reaching the immigrant children and families. It is the doorway to connecting with the children of these immigrant families. They don’t speak English, so art gives them a way to express themselves. 

“Our goal is to promote a holistic way to help immigrant families thrive in their new home. They don’t want a handout – they just want a chance to become part of the community. Art experiences are part of that healthy strategy. Health is a central part of creating a good living environment and art is the closest connection.”  

CHAT and M-AAA: A Partnership for Belonging, Community, and Hope

In 2020, M-AAA began a conversation with CHAT about becoming a part of Mid-America Arts Alliance. There is need throughout the region for its work and its mission does not restrict CHAT to Houston or even Texas. 

Bringing CHAT into M-AAA as a program provides us with an opportunity to expand our cross-sector work in the area of Arts and Health, which has most recently been advanced with our five-year cooperative agreement with the National Endowment for the Arts through the creation of the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant program, a national program in partnership with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers.

This provides the ability to serve a constituency, the immigrant and refugee population, which meets one of our four primary strategic goals for commitment to diversity and equity through policies, practices, programs, and services. Additionally, it is aligned with multiple objectives of our strategic plan and embodies our core values.

The model for what has been successfully created in Houston can be replicated, over time, throughout the region, much as M-AAA has done with other community-based programs like Engage’s organizational services and Artist INC’s artistic professional development workshops and through our national expansion of traveling exhibition service ExhibitsUSA

Like those programs, this partnership with CHAT allows us to broaden our reach, expand opportunities, deepen our connections, and enrich the communities we serve and the staff we employ. 

Click here to learn more about CHAT’s work.