Impact Stories

Art for Change:
ASTU's Journey with Creative Corps and the Healthy Places Index

Impact Story | November 14, 2023
LOS ANGELES, CA (Public Health Alliance of Southern California) --   ASTU, a Black, queer, and gender-expansive Oakland-based artist, is being honored as an 18th Street Arts Center awardee of the Creative Corps Pilot Program. With a spectrum of talents encompassing singing, songwriting, composing, acting, and directing, ASTU drew from their rich tapestry of personal experiences to conceptualize their Creative Corps theatre production, Sanctuary. 

For ASTU, stumbling upon Creative Corps’ call for applications on social media was a pivotal moment,
“What really struck me was discovering that a salary was provided separately from the grant or the project funds—I’ve never seen that structure before. The directive was crystal clear, and without a doubt, it has absolutely lived up to the hype.”
Portrait of ASTU photographed by Sasha Kelley.
While the pandemic brought financial and emotional strain for artists, including ASTU, it also marked a time of profound introspection and crystallization of purpose. Confronted with challenges, such as loss of reliable income from closed venues and residencies, ASTU shared that they and their fellow artists rallied with resilience, creativity, and resourcefulness. Through these trials, they emerged not only stronger but also with a renewed dedication to their craft and community.  
“Artists, in times of real hardship, just dive deeper into themselves and always end up coming out stronger and more sure of their purpose on the other side,” ASTU said.
The California Arts Council’s (CAC) Creative Corps Pilot Program, the first initiative of its kind in the U.S., was designed to address health inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and to get artists back to work during unprecedented times. Backed by $60 million in general funds, the program aims to promote health equity by supporting artists and organizations across California to co-create artistic projects that raise awareness and promote social justice, public health, civic engagement, and climate mitigation. To meet the Creative Corps grant allocation requirements, awardees must either live in or work closely with communities that fall within the lowest quartile of the California Healthy Places Index (HPI).
Developed by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, HPI evaluates the relationship between 23 evidence-based key drivers of health and life expectancy at birth — which can vary dramatically by neighborhood. Based on that analysis, it produces a score that shows the relative impact of community conditions in a selected area compared to all other such places in the state. 

The healthier a community, the higher its HPI score; HPI quartile one communities represent neighborhoods with disproportionate health inequities and less healthy community conditions. HPI is a powerful, user-friendly data mapping and policy platform that has been used to direct over $4.2 billion in equitable investments, policies, and programs across California.
Watch this video that is being screened at the 2023 American Public Health Association Film Festival to learn more about why the California Arts Council says HPI is addressing a statewide need for equitable and comprehensive data analysis!

Throughout the application process, ASTU noted that the Creative Corps Program conducted presentations to artists and organizations on the HPI. These sessions showcased how policymakers have utilized HPI to foster positive change and advance health equity. Furthermore, applicants were guided on incorporating HPI into project proposals to support the priorities of communities that are underserved by or with limited access to resources. This guidance included using HPI data for program design and implementing engagement strategies that align with the culture of HPI quartile one communities, among other supports.
 “When I found out about HPI, I was just floored, and it really expanded my understanding of what kind of change my work can create and produce. There are platforms like HPI, tools to create real change that we (artists) didn’t have any idea about. When I was writing the proposal throughout the workshops, I kept asking myself how my project fit into the Healthy Places Index,” reflected ASTU.

 Journey to Sanctuary: ASTU’s Tale of Identity, Empowerment, and Creating a Haven for the Queer and Trans Community

 ASTU, originally from San Jose, grew up as the child of Christian Eritrean refugees who fled civil war and religious persecution. Their religious upbringing led them to serve as a preacher in Oklahoma, where they grappled with witnessing hypocrisy and abuse within the church community. A return to San Jose and then Oakland introduced ASTU to a supportive Black, Queer, and Trans community.

Fully embracing their identity, they used music to voice social and racial justice issues, especially for LGBTQ+ BIPOC individuals. Fueled by a desire to create a space where creativity and sustainability coexist, ASTU co-founded Boyish, an organization dedicated to empowering artists, especially from the Black Queer and Trans community, providing them with safe spaces for expression and personal growth.

“I came into my own music and power, into my sexuality, into my Blackness, and all of that has led me to this place,” ASTU said.

The seeds for ASTU’s Creative Corps project Sanctuary were sown during a vocal performance they gave in a church, surrounded by their community. They explained, “It looked like church, but it was our church,” highlighting an unaddressed need for a space that truly belonged to them — a realization that years later manifested into the concept of Sanctuary.
Curated, written, and directed by ASTU, Sanctuary is a musical theatre production that will reimagine church through the experience, expression, and celebration of the Black Trans and Queer community. It will also explore themes of ancestral wisdom and spiritual practices, “God” as the embodiment of change, and pleasure as birthright.  Sanctuary will act as a medium for healing, inviting the community to embrace the fullness of their being and establish an intentional space that centers BIPOC LGBTQ+, healing, power, and spirituality.
“We deserve joy. We embody the joy of love and not only to embody it but to put it on display. The audacity to show that to the world is revolutionary,” shares ASTU.

Sanctuary is part of a wider movement that seeks to redefine happiness and freedom, essential components of health equity, civic engagement, and public health within the Black and LGBTQ+ community. In Sanctuary, expressions of joy and love will be boldly celebrated to foster emotional wellness in a community often othered in society. For ASTU, Sanctuary is a revolutionary act that will benefit the economic and mental well-being of the community.
A critical aspect of Sanctuary’s development is engaging with HPI quartile one community members to conserve African ancestral wisdom. ASTU explained that societal stigmas and emotional trauma threaten the continuation of certain traditions, making it challenging for families to pass them on to the next generation.
“I want to know the truth before Christianity, before adopting someone else's perspective on God, life, and reality. I absolutely believe that my ancestors' truths are in my DNA, and in seeking them, they will come to me,”ASTU explained.

Sanctuary features a cast and production team of 30 BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals. ASTU highlighted that this level of intersectional representation is unprecedented in the field, and the creation of Sanctuary is serving as a healing process for all involved,
  “Freedom begins with belief in possibility. The idea that we can create something completely ours is empowering. It's ours, and we can create whatever we want. We are showing our divinity, inviting everyone to join us in our joy. When the lowest among us are honored and amplified, we all rise, and so the healing is already being done.”
 Set to debut in June 2024 in Oakland, Sanctuary will be open for the community without charge. For more on Sanctuary and other 18th Street Arts Center projects, use this link.

 Pioneering Pathways to Health Equity With HPI

The HPI transcends mere data—it's the north star for ground-breaking initiatives like the Creative Corps Pilot Program, amplifying their impact and resonance. The California Arts Council noted that HPI is addressing a statewide need for equitable and comprehensive data analysis and is urging other agencies to use HPI to drive equitable investments. By leveraging HPI in Creative Corps, arts are emerging as a vessel for advocacy and equity in communities that have been historically divested.  With Creative Corps, every sung note and every narrative shared is deeply rooted in HPI’s quest for health equity and community well-being.
ASTU also voiced profound appreciation for the Creative Corps Pilot Program and its adept use of the HPI,
“As artists, we don't just create work that reflects our lived experiences.  We change the narrative, challenge the status quo, and spotlight pressing issues to make a real difference. Creative Corps gets that. And with HPI in the program, we've truly grasped how our art can spark meaningful change where it matters most.”