The power of poetry - Rockford initiative is using art to increase health awareness
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health awarded $250 million in grants to fight COVID-19 and improve health literacy in some minority communities. Rockford was one of them. City organizations and another institution used this grant to increase health literacy.
Rockford Ready is an initiative that aims to improve health literacy in the community. It partnered with the University of Illinois in Chicago to help spread the message through poetry in English and Spanish. A six-part video series was created in partnership with Rockford Ready, the City of Rockford and the Rockford Area Arts Council. It was directed by Corbyn Tyson of Frank and Harvey Film Productions.
Guilyana Gamero is a former Rockford youth poet laureate. She wrote poems and performed for the series. Her goal is to help bridge communications across generations. In an interview that took place last year at the beginning of the initiative, Gamero said Rockford Ready was building the confidence of some of the city’s residents.
“It's an important message because sometimes you're scared to ask questions,” she explained, “but it can be really difficult to like, actually admit that you don't know something, or it can be a really difficult thing, and it's more common than you would expect.”
Gamero said she acted as a translator for her father.
Paula Allen-Meares is a professor of medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago and Chancellor Emeritus of the university. She leads a program on health literacy. Allen-Meares says she loves poetry.
“But adding the poetry series with the youth voices, I think creates a lot of opportunity for the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and sharing of knowledge,” she said. “So, again, I just want to say it added huge value to the initiative.”
Anqunette Parham is the executive director of health and human services for the city of Rockford. She said using poetry was a great avenue to help people communicate with their doctors.
"We know that, you know, art imitates life," she said. "And so in this instance, it was really a great avenue to honestly just highlight some of the intricacies of life and some of the nuances around communicating with, you know, with your provider with the health care system, and just how people of color often feel when we are engaging with these spaces."
Parham said the importance of health literacy and advocacy doesn’t begin in adulthood so it’s important for young people to learn about this type of advocacy and to feel comfortable about speaking up.
Allen-Meares mentioned a survey that focuses on adult literacy done by the National Center for Education Statistics that shows work needs to be done in the adult population.
“And in the United States, we found that 12% of Americans, adult Americans, had a difficult time with complicated health literacy tasks,” she said.
She said she’s hoping that the Rockford Ready initiative is able to put a dent in that number.
Parham says in addition to the poetry series, Rockford Ready is using other avenues to get the word out.
“We've produced what we call Ask Your Pharmacist, which is like a Facebook Live, where we go over a variety of health literacy topics in a variety of settings,” she added. “We've created toolkits for the use of individuals and community organizations and healthcare organizations.”
The group has also created education around health literacy and cultural humility for health care professionals and other community leaders.
Parham says talking about the importance of improving health literacy for people of color in the community has also brought community organizations together.
“It's really allowed them to get engaged in a very meaningful way about something that we're very hopeful can have a lasting impact in our community,” Parham said.
Allen-Meares said the goal is to make Rockford healthy.
The poetry series and other educational tools for health literacy can be found on the Rockford Ready Facebook page.