As a summer teacher in a Baltimore City public school, Maya Nadison found out that one of her students lost a sibling to rape and murder. Learning of the violent crime itself was distressing, but Nadison was even more upset by how students reacted to the news. “The students in the classroom were unperturbed upon hearing this tragic story – they had already heard stories of sexual violence and murder in their communities,” Nadison recalled. “Although I was appalled at how quickly these students apparently ‘normalized’ the situation, I realized that they did not have the luxury of being sheltered, as I was, from these heart-wrenching events.”
Nadison took that experience and built her Schweitzer Fellowship project around it. Nadison, a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is teaching teens in Baltimore about body ownership, personal safety and communication with trusted adults. She partnered with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center to create a workshop employing puppetry to help teens talk about these difficult issues.
Q: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
A: The school setting offers the unique opportunity to reach large numbers of children within the classroom, allowing for reflection about program content. I want to offer these students a more hopeful, yet realistic perspective on sexual abuse, and I am using puppets to communicate these sensitive messages. Puppets are “neutral”, meaning that they do not necessarily identify with a specific culture, language, or social class. This is particularly true when anthropomorphizing the characters (giving human attributes to animals). Therefore, puppets can deliver serious public health messages without offending or intimidating an audience.
For as long as I can remember, I have tried to integrate my passion for the arts with my chosen career in public health. My project is, at its core, interdisciplinary in nature — embracing the fields of child mental health, education, and theater. Child sexual abuse represents a significant public health challenge, and is consistently associated with increased vulnerability to depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexual abuse is also correlated with academic and social-emotional problems. With support from a school social worker and staff from the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, I meet with middle-school students weekly to help them construct puppets and prepare for an end-of-year puppetry performance on the topic of sexual abuse. In parallel, I am working on a script, constructing puppets, and designing scenery for a school-based public outreach program to address child sexual abuse. Eventually, I hope to engage a troupe of volunteer adult thespians to perform in schools in, and around Baltimore.
Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
A: Discussing sexual abuse with teenagers in the school context is a colossal task. I understand that some of the students in my puppetry workshop may know someone who experienced sexual abuse, or are victims themselves. Although I am not privy to this information, I am reassured by the thought that I can direct students to the Baltimore Child Abuse Center if they need help processing their feelings. Regardless of students’ history of victimization, the workshops deliver crucial information about ways to protect oneself from danger (whether sexual or other), while emphasizing the importance of communicating with a trusted adult in times of need. Additionally, the puppetry workshop creates a network of students who bond through shared activities (such as learning to sew, or rehearsing for a performance). The puppetry workshops provide a space for the students to create and acquire new skills, while learning essential life lessons.
Beyond my time as a Fellow, I hope that the prevention team at BCAC will continue to use the model that I will have created to sensitize students about sexual abuse through the use of puppetry. In the meantime, I plan to continue leading this puppetry workshop for as long as possible. To further assure the dissemination of this work, I intend to write and illustrate a children’s book to spread important messages about sexual abuse. My hope is that eventually this book will accompany the performance and serve to reinforce the important public health messages that I strive to communicate.
Q: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
A: As a student of child mental health, I see child abuse and neglect as one of the most daunting public health challenges of our time. Child abuse is ubiquitous and includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Abused children experience a gamut of physical, emotional, developmental and social problems, often hindering their ability to live healthy and fruitful lives.
Given the devastating consequences of victimization through abuse, there is a growing need for universal programs to raise awareness about child abuse and neglect through education. I believe that prevention programs need to target both the children and their parents. Communicating about abuse and neglect can help lift the taboo that weighs on abused children. I hope that my project can contribute somehow to these prevention efforts.
Q: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
A: During my time as a Schweitzer Fellow, I have come to realize just how prevalent child sexual abuse really is. It is one thing to read the statistics about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, but it is another to have people tell you firsthand about their histories of abuse. Over and over, I have encountered individuals, who upon hearing of my project, volunteered information about their personal history of abuse and asked if they could contribute to the project in some way. I am truly grateful for the trust these individuals have placed in me, and I firmly believe that talking about the abuse is the first step to healing.
Q: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
A: Naturally, the Schweitzer Fellowship has created a community of talented individuals who strive for the betterment of their respective communities. Being a Schweitzer Fellow invokes respect and sets a standard for high quality community work. However, what I value most is how the Schweitzer community welcomes innovative projects, often involving the arts. Personally, I have struggled to combine my passions for theater and public health — often finding it difficult to capture the imagination of individuals I wished would be proponents of my work. Becoming a Schweitzer Fellow has renewed my fervor in theater for public health, and I am hopeful that this community will lead to collaborations in the future.
Click here to learn more about the Baltimore Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.