Meet the Women of AANAC: Mattye J. WillisKomen: News & Events
Meet the Women of AANAC: Mattye J. Willis
In 1999, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
formed the African American National Advisory Committee
(AANAC), composed of African American women on the front lines of the nationwide battle against breast cancer.Their charge?To keep the Foundation on task in terms of reaching, informing and serving the breast health needs of the African American community.AANAC members come from many areas, including health care, social services and both corporate and academic worlds.Their quarterly meetings in Dallas are provocative and exciting, purposeful and laugh-filled.Who are the members of AANAC?
...Frontline will introduce you to a number of these vibrant women over the coming months, beginning with Mattye Willis, a member of the board of directors of the Komen Arkansas Affiliate. Mattye J. Willis
: Deputy Director of The Witness Project®, an ingenious program designed to teach medically underserved African American women the importance of detecting breast and cervical cancer early.The program started in 1990 in the rural delta areas of Arkansas and now has grown to 26 programs in 18 states.
...A deeply spiritual woman, Ms. Willis sees her involvement with The Witness Project® as a calling, a covenant she's keeping with God.
More about her
calling: The Witness Project® relies on specially trained Witness Role Models and Lay Health Advocates who visit African American churches in areas where access to breast health education and services is minimal or non-existent.Ms. Willis's survivor status allows her
to tell her
breast cancer story, a critical component in building rapport with other women.The Witness Project® teams wage a gentle, but persistent battle against generations of health misinformation, mistrust and myth, and against widespread and chronic economic and educational disadvantage.These deeply entrenched forces keep pockets of elderly, rural African American women from health screening and treatment services that could save their lives.
Why it works: The Witness Project® meets women on their own turf and works with their beliefs, not against them.The church has long held a central role in the lives of African Americans.As a spiritual retreat, a community center, and the locus of all main life events, the church is a place of solace and a citadel of trust.
The Witness Project® role models, like Ms. Willis
, are living proof.
The power of appearance: Ms. Willis
says image plays an important part in the success of Witness Project® meetings, along with prayer, scripture, testimonials, devotions and praise."I tell the women who train for the program that they've got to be looking good and feeling good when we make our entrance into that church.It's our way of saying, ‘Cancer isn't necessarily a death sentence.Look at us!We're alive!We made it!We're fine!
There are things you can do to help yourselves!' If a team member doesn't feel good, we ask that they stay home that day," Ms. Willis
says.Positive image projection is critical to helping women believe they can help themselves to better health.
Changing attitudes, saving lives: The Witness Project® meetings combine lots of carefully researched educational techniques – storytelling, humor, sharing of experience – to get the message across.The Witness Project® role models take the lead in the witnessing, since they have "been there" and have emerged whole and healthy to talk about it.The lay health advocates then follow, giving a more standard breast and cervical health education presentation that includes handing out written materials and information about where women may receive health services in their area.For the frail elderly, The Witness Project® volunteers serve as navigators – transporting their charges to appointments and remaining with them, if needed, to serve as guides and intermediaries with medical personnel.
"Everyone is connected in some way to someone who has gotten breast cancer," Ms. Willis
says, explaining why The Witness Project® volunteers once met with 350 off-duty Little Rock firemen to give their presentation.The firefighters were very attentive and receptive, "especially when we reminded them that they can make major brownie points for showing concern and caring for their wives and girlfriends," she
Komen reaches out: Ms. Willis
is involved in the Komen Foundation's Arkansas Affiliate and has taken part in the local Affiliate's Komen Race for the Cure® events for five years.She's
grateful for Komen's early, critically important funding of research done on The Witness Project® – key to the program's ability to be replicated beyond rural Arkansas for the benefit of many medically underserved African American women.Ms. Willis, who has an extensive background in communications and teaching through her former work with an AFL-CIO job training program, estimates she has trained well over 300 women to take The Witness Project®'s message to areas around the nation.AANAC's
service to the Foundation is key to making sure the Komen Foundation
includes women of color in all aspects of its mission – research, education, screening and treatment.
End quote: "The Komen Foundation
and its AANAC committee are leaders in this war and the women involved around the nation in The Witness Project
are proud to be some of the foot soldiers working to win this battle," Ms. Willis
says."We are confident [that] with God
's help, we will be victorious.We are going to find the cure in my lifetime.We just have to keep working."