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Using Theatre to Confront Healthcare Discrimination in NYC


The NYC Health Equity Project’s recent workshop explored how theatre can help change discriminatory attitudes and actions in healthcare.

Joe Salvatore speaks to event attendees in front of a projector that reads, NYC Health Equity Project

Joe Salvatore speaks to NYC Health Equity Project workshop attendees.

In April 2024, NYU Steinhardt’s Theatre and Health LabJameel Arts & Health Lab, and Verbatim Performance Lab hosted an interactive theatre workshop exploring health equity issues in New York City. 

Healthcare providers, students, educators, researchers, artists, and community members from across NYC engaged with a story of healthcare discrimination, delivered by actor and Steinhardt alum Derek Herman (MA ’22, Educational Theatre). Through activities and discussions, attendees were invited to share their observations, perspectives, and insights. This not only brought the story to life for attendees, but also allowed the NYC Health Equity Project to further explore their hypotheses around arts engagement as a tool for dismantling discriminatory attitudes and actions in healthcare.

The event was facilitated by Nisha Sajnani, director of the program in drama therapy, director of the Theatre and Health Lab, and co-director of the Jameel Arts & Health Lab, and Joe Salvatore, director of Steinhardt's Verbatim Performance Lab and clinical professor of educational theatre.

Nisha Sajnani facilitates conversation among attendees

Nisha Sajnani facilitates conversation at the NYC Health Equity Project workshop.

“We are currently navigating relatively uncharted territory,” said Sajnani. “There haven’t been many theatrical interventions aimed at disrupting bias within healthcare settings. While non-theatrical interventions have successfully raised awareness of bias, these changes are often not sustained.” 

As part of an international project carried out in collaboration with partners from Brock University and supported by the New Frontiers in Research Fund, the NYC Health Equity Project aims to shed light on and reduce biases in healthcare service delivery. 

For example, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), approximately 6 percent of NYC adults reported experiencing hassles, being made to feel inferior, or being discriminated against while seeking healthcare treatment, citing reasons like insurance status, race, and income.

Discrepancies are especially prevalent in maternal and infant care, with predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods reporting some of the highest rates of infant mortality in the city. The NYC DOHMH found that Black women are 8 times more likely than White women to die from pregnancy-related causes and 2.6 times more likely to experience a serious complication from giving birth.

Actor Derek Herman performs for attendees

Actor Derek Herman performs at the workshop.

The NYC Health Equity Project’s work includes conducting interviews, collecting stories of discrimination and inequity in healthcare, pioneering engaging theatrical experiences of those stories, and testing their short- and long-term results, especially among healthcare workers. Their recent workshop is part of discovering the ideal way to deliver these artistic interventions for lasting, positive change. 

Said Salvatore, “Feedback from workshop participants was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the interactive components and the emotional impact of connecting with the actor and other participants.” The team is working closely with the NYC DOHMH to refine their protocol and to disseminate findings. 

The NYC Health Equity Project invites New York City residents who have experienced or witnessed discrimination in accessing and receiving healthcare to participate in their ongoing study by filling out this Google Form.

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