By Azaria Evans 

Aishe Keita is an actor and educator with the Freehold Engaged Theater Program at Washington Correctional Center for Women. She focuses on doing applied theater work: bringing self-expression, poetry, writings, anything that involves the ‘self-singing’, into marginalized communities to give a voice.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle when it comes to achieving lasting health equity?
A: Independence – I’m a woman of color from Mali and Jamaica and we don’t have independence. Independence can bring a state of capability if you feel independence if you feel confident and you feel capable to do this – to find health care, to find the profession, or to get the education you need. The lack of independence and capability that we have in this country really prohibits that for us, really makes it very dim for people of color to find the resources. If you’re not [able] to get a job, or a car, then your resources are less than someone that has all of those opportunities. We need to balance giving people full human capacity, full capability, and access to education and health care.

Q: Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to gain that independence?
A: I would say reach out and find a community. I would bring it back to my work in theater development which can really bring courage to the human, and if you have courage you can go and say – I’m not going to lay in bed today and I’m going to have the courage to get up and go find help, I’m going to go see what’s out there for me. And I’m going to find my worth and I have the courage, independence, and self-confidence that theater can bring, to give you a voice to do those things.

Q: What does your work mean to you and how does it connect to health equity?
A: My work means so much to me. I work with incarcerated women and that’s a very deep connection [for] me because my father was incarcerated for 45 years and died in prison. I believe the system is very cracked, there wasn’t a lot of health equity at all and that’s one of the reasons why he passed away – and I feel there’s a connection to my work. Being able to give people resources to themselves, I do not have resources to being a doctor or being a practitioner in any way, but I can give you resources to tap into who you are and to be proud of who you are, and that’s a connection with health equity — tapping into your human existence, your humanity.

Q: How can systems shift power to communities in the work for health equity?
A: By listening and asking; systems often assume: this is what this person needs, this is what this person is going through; and that is never the case. They need to realize that we already have systems in place that we’re working on, but we need assistance, we need people to ask us: “what can we do”, rather than saying we’re going to build something else for these people, or we’re going to do something and not really say: “who are you and what do you need?” Do not assume. Give people the voice. Step down and give people a platform who have so many [barriers] ahead of them. This world is built for [certain people] and [others] are trailing behind. Systems need to understand that there is a lot that they have to relinquish for people of color to come up to the same position.

Q: How do you think we as society shift how we treat people who have experienced trauma?
A: I don’t think we ignore it, I think we don’t recognize that there are many people living with trauma. I have PTSD and continuous PTSD from slavery and it’s completely ignored and I don’t think that people take the time to say [anything other than] ‘now that we’re not in a time of slavery’ — that we’ve moved passed it. There’s no recognition, there’s no asking, there’s no rehabilitation in any shape of form in the prison system, there’s no rehabilitation for anyone out here. I think it’s really giving space and having a heightened sense of awareness of – who are the people around you, and is there anyone in the room that is a person of color or a woman – let them speak first, see what do they have to say and listen.

Q: How can we as people and as organizations better address or prevent structural injustices through our health equity work?
A: That’s a tough one because the whole system to me is constructed to disadvantage of people of color, so it really is completely changing the structure of what we’ve been doing. If you want people to be healthy and have equity in health you have to give them the capability, you have to give them the means. And it’s not just building a recreational center or a medical facility, it’s educating them on what health is and who they are, where they come from, what we can do. We weren’t educated in any way shape or form on who we are and that is a disadvantage to us as people of color and that makes us feel like we are not capable to do things. We need to completely restructure education, rehabilitation, and health. Everything needs to be inclusive, they have excluded every person of color in every system that is in place, so they need to go back and restructure everything.

Q: Can you provide any advice to people that are just starting their work in health equity?
A: Find a great mentor that you can trust and who will bring you along with them. Listen, find your own voice, and keep finding out how you can bring your own flair to this work, because we’re all so different and no one is you — what you offer is what no one else can offer. Trust that you’re here for the right reasons, know that if you’re giving it your best and doing it for the right reasons and you know what those reasons are, you’re doing a great job and you’ll see that eventually and the universe will provide that for you.