SPOTLIGHT | May 10, 2021

African Americans Enlist Community Health Ambassadors to Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the video “Mask Up,” New Orleans bounce artist, Big Freedia, praises the use of masks to help fight a pandemic that’s taken a particular toll on African American communities. “Y’all are wearing your masks, and I am proud of you!” she says. Then the popular rapper delivers a pointed message to those who aren’t wearing theirs correctly.

“What’s wrong with you?” Freedia asks, comically twisting her own mask so that her nose is exposed, then her mouth. She then demonstrates step-by-step the proper way to wear the mask – “And yes, baby, it should be tight” – followed by a final nudge to stay mindful.

“Remember, folks,” Freedia says. “It ain’t over.”

Across the country strategic partnerships with messengers like Freedia are helping to loosen COVID-19’s deadly grip in communities distrustful of the medical establishment. And if Freedia’s effort is any measure, these messengers are having a big impact; Freedia’s “Mask Up” video, along with other COVID-19 music and outreach videos she’s made, have reached an estimated audience of 2.18 million people, and increasing numbers of her fans are getting vaccinated.

Freedia has become one of a growing number of so-called “community health ambassadors” — people who have an intimate understanding of the culture, language, and needs of the people living around them — who are lending their time and talent to spread the word about COVID-19 in the African American community. And community health ambassadors aren’t all major national figures. Most are locally known, and, thus, locally trusted.

“It’s important that the Black community sees national voices, but when you can touch, feel and connect to people that you know, those are the kind of things that have resonance.”

Shearon Roberts, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Xavier University

“It’s important that the Black community sees national voices, but when you can touch, feel and connect to people that you know, those are the kind of things that have resonance,” explained Shearon Roberts, Ph.D., an associate professor of mass communications at Xavier University in New Orleans and a Louisiana member of the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities. “Their messaging seems to hit home.”

The activities of these community health ambassadors, a diverse group who often work behind the scenes, vary widely from state to state, region to region, and person to person. But they all have one thing in common: the ability to build trust and broker change. And they are doing it unique ways. In Florida, ambassadors held food drives where they gave out much-needed pantry items, all while disseminating COVID-19 information, masks, and directions to vaccine sites. In rural Mississippi, community health ambassadors conducted listening sessions with residents to better understand their concerns about COVID-19 and the vaccines; then they developed infographics about COVID-19 tailored to those communities.

And in North Carolina, health ambassadors partnered with local pastors — a traditional source of trust and healing for the African American community — to host a series of COVID-19 webinars featuring experts of color, the largest of which drew a record-breaking 23,000 people.

“Our pastors were very clear about getting trusted information – not getting so much technical information that no one could understand,” said Goldie Byrd, Ph.D., director of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity and a member of the North Carolina CEAL Research Team. “They wanted to assure that we would bring people of color as leaders and influencers to the table to talk about COVID testing, clinical trial participation, and vaccine uptake.”

Community health ambassadors are committed to doing whatever it takes to save their local communities.

Five people wearing face masks stand in front of a tent.
Members of the North Carolina CEAL team, including Dr. Goldie Byrd (third from left), pose with pastors and other community ambassadors at a food distribution center in Warrenton, North Carolina.

Explore Our Resources

Do you want to share trustworthy, factual information about COVID-19 basics, vaccines, diversity & inclusion, or clinical trials in your community or networks? Check out our Resource Catalog to find the information you need.