Harlem First


Harlem First

Exhibition design:
2017 DSI Cohort
Kevin O'Callaghan

Cheryl Heller

Gabriel Schuster

How can social innovation design influence the health of a community? And who should be part of the conversation?

This was the question I and my first-year Design for Social Innovation (DSI) peers tackled during the fall semester’s Mapping and Visualization Design class. The community in question was East Harlem, where DSI was partnering with the Poptech Institute, the Arnhold Global Health Institute, and Harlem community organization Strive International on Harlem First, an initiative bringing together designers, community leaders, residents, data scientists and health care professionals to conceive a different future of wellness care.

“The Harlem First initiative is a great example of
the power that social design has to bring diverse collaborators together to make a difference in people’s lives. We’re committed to creating opportunities for
our students to learn by working beyond the classroom and in partnership with the people and institutions on the ground.”

- Cheryl Heller

What is community mapping?

Community mapping is a process through which citizens in the community participate in the collection of their own data – recording what they view as forces that influence health – as well as the creation of solutions.

We began by mapping an East Harlem neighborhood using techniques of community mapping, looking at factors that are beyond the traditional purview of the medical profession, such as crime, homelessness, open space, poverty, availability of healthy food, and gentrification. We collected data on negative health impacts, including noise, access to open space, and availability of health services and, working with Harlem residents to map the same area, recorded what they view as forces that influence health. We know that being healthy depends on more than seeing and being treated by a doctor, and we wanted to explore the other factors
that have an impact, and why there is a disconnect between health providers and the community they serve. Can social impact design create a new way to understand and address the health needs of a community?


DSI’s 2016 gallery exhibition brought this work to a wider audience.  Working with cartographer Gabriel Schuster and Kevin O’CallaghanHarlem First: Mapping the Health of a Community, which ran at SVA Gramercy Gallery from January 11 to February 1, included experiential maps of the neighborhood designed by DSI students, exploring various forces at work there, together with an interactive project room for visitors to learn more and leave their thoughts and input.

The guiding thesis of Harlem First is to co-create with the community, not for it. DSI's hope is that this initial effort will be the beginning of a process that can be taken to other cities in the U.S. How can social innovation designers have an impact on inequalities in the health of a community?  And where does this discussion fit into the larger questions of health in America and around the world? DSI wants to begin a conversation that involves all the people involved in the health of a community in finding solutions, and is excited to see where it can go from here.