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Roland Dimaya with participants in "The Art of Looking"

Roland Dimaya sets up — and discusses — a mobile art gallery at Special People in North Philadelphia (SPIN). Dimaya is using art as a means to promote interpersonal skills and self-confidence among people with disabilities.

From an art therapy program serving low-income women to an a cappella project that’s helping high school students find their voice to an art-making group that’s helping older adults overcome isolation, the Schweitzer Fellowship has a multi-year track record of supporting initiatives that address the intersection of health and the arts.

That intersection is exactly where Roland Dimaya—a student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and a former teacher at the Yale University Art Gallery—operates.

As one of this year’s Schweitzer Fellows, Dimaya has launched a community service project called “The Art of Looking.” In partnership with organizations including Special People in Northeast Philadelphia (SPIN), Dimaya is leading regular, guided visits to Philadelphia art institutions and mobile art galleries for people with physical and mental disabilities.

ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

RD: I’m a lifelong student in both the humanities and the sciences. While pursuing my MPH, I led art lessons at the Yale University Art Gallery that focused on visitors’ personal perceptions of the art that they viewed. I worked to build skills of guided inquiry to facilitate visitors’ ability to share their observations, encouraging them to see and communicate about art subjectively—steering away from the often intimidating notion of art as an objective, exclusive field.

In developing my Schweitzer project, “The Art of Looking,” I identified and explored a connection between the skills of art museum education and clinical patient interactions.  During my first year of medical school, in my case presentations to classmates and patient encounters, I found myself asking the same questions I asked while giving art lessons. The answers to these questions helped me to develop more comprehensive diagnoses and to better understand patient symptoms.

Driven to further synthesize the connection between museum education and patient interactions, I developed “The Art of Looking” to reach underserved populations—particularly those who are veterans and who have mental and/or physical disabilities—through mobile art galleries and visits to local art museums.

ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

RD:  Within the project’s target populations, participants’ voices are often overlooked. As a result of stigma attached to their disabilities, they may become disenfranchised from sharing and interacting. I hope that by providing an open forum for these individuals to interact with art, a subject completely independent from their condition, the participants can see the power of simple observations in answering, “What do you see?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

As the project is carried out—both now, with our current sites, and in the future, with expansion to other community organizations—I hope that it will encourage participants to more freely share their personal observations and perceptions. Through engaging these groups at institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I hope that participants can realize their ability to participate in local Philadelphia art culture.

Group photo

Dimaya, Philadelphia Schweitzer Program Director Nicole Cobb-Moore, PCOM students, and project participants.

Another key goal of my project is to train medical and psychology students in rapport-building and inquiry skills.

ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

RD: Philadelphia is considered a historical mecca of American medicine, yet it exists as one of America’s unhealthiest cities. I have limited clinical experience as a second-year medical student, but I have seen the impact of patient education on gateways to health, such as diet and exercise.

While “patient education” has sometimes been reduced to pamphlet distribution and referral to websites, I think a key action in addressing health issues is the innovation of educational programs that I’ve seen exemplified by my own Schweitzer Fellowship year. Tackling health issues through dental clinics at breakfast missions or working with teenagers on nutrition and body image are just some of the ways that I’ve seen other Fellows find ways to affect people’s health before they even step into the physician’s office.

ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

RD: One of the most surprising aspects of being both a Schweitzer Fellow and a medical student has been the critical lack of emphasis on community service in some professional graduate programs. I feel that community service is integral in seeing the real-life applications of classroom lessons, and is particularly salient for medical and health profession students.

I’m heartened by the efforts of the Schweitzer Fellowship and the Fellows for Life in championing support for community service efforts. I hope that more and more schools will be receptive.

ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?

RD: The network of Schweitzer Fellows represents, for me, a group of service-driven women and men who think critically and act creatively to effect positive changes among individuals and within populations.

As a current Fellow and soon, as a Fellow for Life, I hope to mature as healthcare provider both in the company of such innovation and from the virtues of service. The Schweitzer Fellowship has allowed me to explore the local community in ways that I would have never encountered at my school alone; accordingly, it has enriched my experience as a medical student and it will continue to drive my dedication to service and to caring for the whole person.

Click here to learn more about the Greater Philadelphia Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to improve health, develop leaders, and create change in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.