Helen Osborne: Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and your host of Health Literacy Out Loud.
In these podcasts, you get to listen in on my conversations with some pretty amazing people. You will hear what health literacy is, why it matters and ways all of us can help improve health understanding.
Today, I’m talking with Anita Woodley, who is an award-winning actress, playwright, producer, musician, poet and journalist. She also is a certified HIV counselor and an advocate for many healthcare initiatives.
One powerful way that Anita communicates is with ethnodramas, nontraditional theatrical performances that she uses to educate, promote and prevent harmful practices to overall health.
I heard about Anita’s wonderful work from Cornell Wright, a colleague of mine on the PCORI Advisory Panel for Communication and Dissemination Research. He saw one of Anita’s one-woman shows and raved about it. Happily, Cornell introduced me to her.
Anita Woodley: Hello.
Helen Osborne: I’m so glad you’re on Health Literacy Out Loud. I was reading your bio and, oh my goodness, you’ve done so many things. You’re an actress, poet, musician, playwright and journalist while also working in healthcare.
Give us the backstory. How did all these many parts of your life come together?
Anita Woodley: They all seemed to come together when I was a child in East Oakland, California, growing up with mostly women in my family in between two brothers.
I had the opportunity to be around a lot of elders and around a lot of youth who treated me as if I was an elder. Just imagine being 2 years old and everyone referring to you as Miss.
It was one of those things where you knew you were a storyteller, the mom, the auntie, the cousin and the sister and embodying all of that.
Then going on through life, you take on those different professions and figure out there’s a season for everything and it just worked out.
Helen Osborne: You wore all these many different hats. You put them together into something that you and others referred to as ethnodramas. Explain that to all of us please.
Anita Woodley: Those are a way to do theatrics where you use it for healthcare or some other type of way to disseminate information that laypeople probably wouldn’t usually get, and also making sure that it’s in cultural terms. It’s when you’re culturally aware.
For instance, if I was doing something on diabetes, I wouldn’t just say, “Your blood sugar level will be at a certain level.” I would use culturally appropriate ways to speak about it.
If someone was really into making sweetened beverages, like Kool-Aid or something like that, I would talk about in those terms versus saying, “Having a sweet tea or an iced tea.” More than likely, they’ll probably have Kool-Aid.
You find out not by making assumptions, but by asking them, “What’s your favorite sweetened beverage?
Helen Osborne: You put it in culturally relevant terms, and I understand it’s not the kind of dry, traditional way of doing health care, like just going with pathophysiology, nutrition and then recommendations. You’re putting that together. Tell us more in a theatric way what you would do about this Kool-Aid and diabetes stuff.
Anita Woodley: For instance, in one show, I portray a guy that I call B.B. Blue as in the blues player B.B. who happened to also have diabetes.
My great grandmother said, “They told me to watch my sugar.” The way he translated, and I will just say it in B.B.’s voice quickly, was, “You want me to watch my sugar, so what I did was, while I was pouring it inside this cup, I watched it go in it. I’m watching my sugar. It’s really easy to live with diabetes.” Of course, we know that’s not what they meant.
Helen Osborne: I just can’t stop laughing as this man B.B., who doesn’t sound anything like Anita who I’m talking to, is watching his sugar. He’s looking at his sugar. Is that what people really do? Is this a respectful way?
Anita Woodley: Yes. My great-grandmother did that. She watched her sugar. “I’m watching it,” and she would say it.
Helen Osborne: No kidding, so it’s very respectful and very culturally appropriate.
Anita Woodley: Yes, and it’s very matter of fact. I know in my culture of being an African American and in the section I grew up in, everything was literal. If you said it, they took it for your word.
You have to think about that. They’re not going to think, “Let me translate this.” Then it’s on the provider to actually be diversified and to translate what their patients are probably thinking. The best way to do that is to ask questions.
Helen Osborne: I have a lot of questions to ask you. You’re not just brought in as a great performer and a great character actor, but you’re brought in intentionally to teach a health message. Is that correct? Does some organization bring you in?
Anita Woodley: Yes.
Helen Osborne: You’re brought in, you know the science and you know the medicine. Somebody had taught you that. They say, “We want to teach the community about proper nutrition with diabetes,” or something.
You’re brought in and they bring together the audience. Is that correct?
Anita Woodley: Yes. They bring in the audience. At Novant Hospital, they wanted to reach African American women who are dying of breast cancer at an alarming rate, so they used their Maya Angelou Women’s Health Center and the hospital to bring in different congregations. I was the guest. They also had a panel of doctors afterward.
Helen Osborne: That’s probably where this gentleman Cornell Wright, through whom I met you, saw you doing one of these. It’s a one-woman show. It’s you, but you might embody many different characters.
Anita Woodley: Exactly. When he saw it I was at a Health Touch, an alternative health place where they do massage, Reiki and acupuncture, and he was there. This was just a small group of maybe 20 or 25 people and he sat in the room and watched the whole show there. I do them in all spaces.
Helen Osborne: You perform them, but are you also the one who essentially translates that health content and makes it into something that’s performance worthy?
Anita Woodley: Exactly. That’s what I do. They tell me what they want and they will give me maybe what their organization uses. They’ll say, “This is our mission. These are the things we teach. Can you put those into your play?” I’ll say, “Sure. We’ll put it in seamlessly.”
The people don’t even know they’re learning. It’s just part of it. The laughter is the catalyst. The laughter is what opens them to receive those seeds. Who knows? They might not germinate when we want them to, but they’ve received the message.
Helen Osborne: I love that. What you don’t know about me or maybe you do or don’t know about health literacy, it’s about communicating in all the ways that work. It’s not just the same traditional give a handout and say something, but let’s do whatever works for our audience.
I think that’s what drew me to learn more about your work. You’re doing that with drama, but you’re also saying you’re doing that with laughter.
For our podcast listeners, who I’m sure will be very entertained and want to know you too, we’re not going to be actors probably, but what can we do? What lessons can we take from all that hard work you have done to translate these health messages in very palatable, enlightening, informative and enjoyable ways?
Anita Woodley: I would say to embrace the art of improvisation. That’s at the heart of what I do. It’s about being authentic and being there in that moment with your patient. You just roll with them when they say something, like if it’s a B.B. and he says, “I want to watch my sugar,” and you say, “Are we planning on keeping a good eye on it?”
Have some fun. Health can be very taxing on the provider, but there’s no reason you can’t just sit back and have a good time with them in the moment that they’re in.
For instance, I read this book and I give it out in my shows as if I’m Oprah giving out cars where she says, “You get a car and you get a car.” I like to say, “You get a perk for cancer and you get a perk.”
A friend of mine that’s an RN is a breast cancer survivor and her name is Susan Gonzales. She co-authored a book called The 100 Perks of Having Cancer. People think I’m nuts. A perk? Please.
Then when I turn into my 100-year-old great-grandma and I use her voice that I grew up around and I say, “One perk is you will diversify and enlarge your vocabulary. You’re going to learn words you didn’t even know your mouth could produce,” and everyone starts laughing and saying, “Oh, yes, Tamoxifen,” and all these things.
Helen Osborne: Oh my goodness, so you were teaching new language there and the words somebody needs to know. Tamoxifen is a very serious word about a very serious medication for a serious disease, but you’re doing it in the voice of your 100-year-old grandma.
Anita Woodley: Yes. When I grew up around her, it was something about her voice and demeanor that made me see the silver lining. Even if there wasn’t one there, for some reason, I was like Harold and The Purple Crayon. A silver crayon popped into my hand and I was drawing beautiful things. That’s what we need in our lives.
Helen Osborne: I’m recapping a few of the ideas because I want to hear more of what we can be doing, those of us who do this work day in and day out.
You talked about being authentic, being in the moment and this idea of the perks. It sounds like you are just standing traditional concepts on their head. Instead of breast cancer being miserable, you’re trying to find some sweet spot in there.
Anita Woodley: Yes. We all have our base of knowledge and that’s valid. I don’t care if you don’t have diabetes. Maybe your dog got sick and you can relate and say, “I had that moment when I had to treat someone or something that I really loved, and I get it.”
It’s finding that common ground, because as humans we all have it. I don’t care about the race or however many divisive things we put up to say, “That’s them and this is me,” we are one. It’s really capturing that and saying “We’re one.”
What would I want when I come into that situation? If I were giving this news to someone today, what would I want someone to say to me? Would I want someone to just gently touch me on the shoulder as they’re giving me the information? There’s a big difference.
Helen Osborne: Wow. I’m just really impressed by this.
What about the role of language? When you choose words, you speak to people of all colors and all walks of life. What do you do about word choice? It sounds like you want to match their words when you talk about something like “watch the sugar.” How do you do that? How can we who are in practice do it?
Anita Woodley: You do it by listening. When they say, for instance, “Watch my sugar,” you just say, “I haven’t heard that term before, so can you diversify me a little bit? Do you mean you’re going to really watch it or are you going to do this? When I say ‘watching your sugar,’ this is what I’m thinking about.”
What we’re doing is bridging that divide, and the only way you can do that is if you’re available in the moment. You can’t do that if you’re rushing to the next patient.
Helen Osborne: People are rushing though.
Anita Woodley: Yes, but you can be there while you’re there.
Helen Osborne: I love that. Be there while you’re there.
Anita Woodley: Exactly. You can’t give them anything else, but you can be there in that moment.
Helen Osborne: I love that. I think that’s going to be a mantra. Be there while you’re there.
Anita Woodley: It’s all we can do.
Helen Osborne: It is. You sound so excited about this work. What keeps you going? This must be hard because you do a whole lot of different healthcare concepts and a whole lot of different audiences. What keeps you excited about this?
Anita Woodley: What keeps me excited is seeing people being able to help themselves.
My mom died of breast cancer at 47. That’s what got me started in this. I watched her go through all of that, but what I noticed is that the key is really laughter. It keeps me going.
It makes me think, “Wow,” when you see somebody’s eyes light up like “I never thought of it that way.” This was a person who two minutes earlier came in your office saying, “I don’t even want to live. I can’t do this.”
That laughter really is a balm and a medication that not only can you disseminate, but that people can take with them and whip out and create whenever they want.
When you empower people, that’s what keeps you going because you know that you live through them and they live, and other people are seeing their example. It’s the most beautiful and natural thing, and it costs nothing.
One of the biggest questions I wish people would ask patients is, “What are you doing for self-care? How are you laughing? When is the last time you laughed?” They say, “What? Are you kidding me?”
Helen Osborne: I’m getting goose bumps listening to you, but I’m also hearing this bridge. You talked about what we have in common, and I think that what we have in common is probably that we all went into whatever we’re doing because we want to help. We want to make things better for ourselves, but more than that, for others. This is one way of doing it.
You’re giving us all these tips and strategies of how we can take what you’re putting into your world in your performances into our world and our communication.
I always want to have how people can learn more. Yours is very visual. I’ve seen a little video clip of some of your work. You’re amazing.
Anita Woodley: Thank you.
Helen Osborne: How can our listeners watch you a little bit or get a sense of what you’re doing?
Anita Woodley: They can go on my website. I spent a lot of hours and more this week putting up all the videos. I have so much work. I didn’t realize how much I’ve done.
Helen Osborne: What is your URL?
Anita Woodley: It’s www.AnitaWoodley.com and everything is there. Everything you can imagine is there and more. I’m even a princess. We won’t go into that, but I met my ancestral tribe and became a princess and that’s even there.
Helen Osborne: Anita, you are great. We will have your Health Literacy Out Loud web page. We will put that link on there.
Wow, I just want to thank you for doing all you do and showing us that there’s a world of ways to communicate health information in ways people can really get and act on, live with and laugh with. Thank you so much for being a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud.
Anita Woodley: Thank you for having me.
Helen Osborne: As we just heard from Anita Woodley, it is so important to communicate health messages in ways that really resonate and have meaning to our audience. But communicating well like that is not always easy.
For help clearly communicating your health message, please visit my health literacy consulting website at www.HealthLiteracy.com. While you are there, feel free to sign up for the newsletter, What’s New in Health Literacy Consulting?
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Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.