Austin Miles, left, and Kristal Brown pose together in early March in front of a mural the two created.
Austin Miles, left, and Kristal Brown pose together in early March in front of a mural the two created. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Mural inspired by a VCU student’s doctoral dissertation brings a public health topic to life

A project on the effect of racism on obesity in young black women has turned statistics and numbers into a vibrant, warm message.

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Kristal Brown’s dissertation examines the role of race-related discrimination in obesity and cardiovascular disease risk among young African American women. During this school year, Brown, who is completing her doctoral degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, worked with a local artist to take that research off the pages, transforming charts and graphs into a mural in Richmond that visually highlights the experiences of black women. 

“When you think about my dissertation, my dissertation is all numbers,” Brown said. “Whereas in my community project, not only does it parallel my dissertation, but it's a narrative. Like it actually puts stories, it puts voices to the numbers that I am analyzing over here.”

Shifting between the roles of academic and community activist, Brown led discussions with Richmonders during the winter and spring about experiences of discrimination and facilitated creation of the Brown Girl Narratives mural on the side of Max Market at 1125 Hull St. in the Manchester neighborhood. The mural sends a bold and powerful message, transforming Brown’s dissertation into a narrative that many can enjoy and that validates black women. 

“A lot of times black women talk about their voices not being heard,” Brown said. “Art is a source of healing in different communities, so I wanted to put up murals. I wanted to talk to black women in the community. I wanted them to be in my same age range as my dissertation because I wanted to parallel that, so 18- to 25-year-olds.” 

With support from a grant last year from Initiatives of Change and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Brown developed the Brown Girl Narratives project under her Black Women Cache, which focuses on highlighting the experiences of black women in projects that range from promoting healthy lifestyle behaviors to racial injustices.

“Brown Girl Narratives used discussion groups and visual media to explore the lived experiences of black women 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia,” Brown said. “I posed questions such as: What is it like to be a black woman? What are some of your experiences with racism and then how do you deal with it?”

My dissertation is all numbers. Whereas in my community project, not only does it parallel my dissertation, but it's a narrative. Like it actually puts stories, it puts voices to the numbers.

To get those images and messages out to the community, Brown worked with Austin Miles, a VCU School of the Arts graduate and muralist.

“I was a part of one of those discussions,” Miles said. “It was healing. It was therapeutic. I am a black woman who has experienced racial trauma. And body image is a huge thing that I discuss in my work and being comfortable in your body. So it ties together.”

Miles said black women’s positive body image can be altered by external opinions conveyed by magazines, jokes or racism that lead some women to ask if they should love their bodies the way they are or change them.

Brown’s adviser, Jessica LaRose, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy who runs the OPT for Health Center for Lifestyle & Intervention Research in the School of Medicine, supported Brown going beyond her dissertation research. 

“Kristal is committed to having a broader impact outside of academia — she has lived that out since I’ve known her. And an emphasis on health equity and partnership with the communities we are trying to serve is consistent with our department’s mission. Kristal’s project is very well-aligned with those goals,” LaRose said. 

“Personally, as her adviser, it has been inspiring to watch her embark on this journey. I am so proud of her commitment to representing these women’s voices in an authentic way. I think it’s amazing that she’s evidenced her commitment to social justice and having a broader impact outside of academia by creating something tangible that will have a positive and powerful influence in the community.” 

What took shape through the community process was a 20-foot by 60-foot image of seven diverse black women staring out at the viewer. Their faces are framed by large sprays of dogwood flowers and the Richmond skyline appears behind them. The mural includes words and phrases from the conversations Brown led: "Superwoman," "We are shaping our narratives," "I am living the legacy of my ancestors," "The audacity to be great," "Courage," "Overcoming anything," "All shapes and sizes," "Trendsetters," "Strength,” “we have to work hard for everything,” “I wouldn’t want to be anything other than Black," "Beauty that can't be defined." 

Kristal Brown standing inside a VCU building.
Brown's dissertation examines the role of race-related discrimination in obesity and cardiovascular disease risk among young African American women. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Creating a mural was important to Brown because so few of the murals in Richmond reflect Black women. Brown and Miles say the Brown Girl Narratives mural makes a statement about positive images to counter the many overt and subliminally negative messages directed at Black women. An open call for women to act as models during a photo shoot resulted in the final design and portraits. Media attention brought a wide range of volunteers to help paint. Brown said she especially values community involvement as a Black woman scholar.

LaRose described the community paint day as a no-fail situation for a multigenerational group of community members where Miles set it up so that helpers could “paint by numbers.” LaRose felt the community involvement was powerful and important.

“Kristal [Brown] understands the importance of the multisector and intersectional work she is doing and the importance of integrating it into society,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, an activist who led the granting process while working at Initiatives of Change. “She is bold and brave enough to have a research idea brought into the community. I want to give her all the credit in the world that she can collaborate with the community and create this art and message. There are not many pieces on sides of buildings that look like me. There’s really nothing like it in the city. It says: This is what Richmond is all about.”

As Brown works to complete her dissertation and a study investigating health in young black women and their experiences with racism in Richmond, she recently accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in Johns Hopkins University’s General Internal Medicine Fellowship program. Her training will focus on behavioral interventions to address cardiovascular disease

She feels her soon-to-be-published academic work, and the Brown Girl Narratives mural will have an impact on improving public health.

“We've had people who have randomly said, ‘I drive this route every day now because I want to see the mural,’” Brown said. “There are people who have felt it just brightened up the whole street. People take photos of themselves and their kids in front of it. People are excited about it. Some people love it so much, especially people who have lived there for years. And so to put a mural on a place, front and center like that on the street, I think it speaks volumes.”