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The Importance of “Aunting”: The Auntie Betty Story

October 17, 2022

Written by Tagan Mani, Marketing and Fund Development Coordinator

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Aunting. This a term you may not be familiar with, but you should, as you have probably already experienced its impact of it. Both Jordyn Gibson and Amanda Ottley use it to define the roles that are there to support wherever and whenever needed, whether it be the doulas or nurses, these are the “professional aunties” in your life, making you feel safe and comfortable with no hidden agenda.

Some of us have an “aunty” figure in our lives, whether it is through blood or not, but someone who cares for us and we can rely on when things get tough or when we just need a little help for the time being. So what happens when the world gets flipped upside down and everyone becomes isolated from one another? Or when so many false theories and concerns are passed around, how can communities at risk seek reassurance and support from someone they can depend on?

That’s when the need for Auntie Betty was identified, and how using innovative technology, Auntie Betty was developed and made accessible to anyone who needed her.

To learn more about Auntie Betty’s story, we spoke with Amanda Ottley and Jordyn Gibson, who have been instrumental in promoting Auntie Betty to share their experience and thoughts.

Who is Auntie Betty? What was the most significant need, and why do you think it was successful?

Auntie Betty is a virtual Aunt who uses chatbot technology to support the Black community with accurate information and referral to other help in the community. The first iteration of Auntie Betty, more commonly known as Auntie Betty 1.0, was developed for the WhatsApp platform with in-kind support from, the same company that developed the World Health Organization’s Covid Health Alert App. In 2022, Auntie Betty 1.0 won the “Award for Research Excellence in Black Community Impact” from the Black Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine/Health Conference held by the Canadian Black Scientists Network.

Now in its second iteration, Auntie Betty 2.0 is powered by the VIRA Chatbot developed by Johns Hopkins University and IBM Research. Community members can get their Covid questions answered 24 hours a day at Auntie Betty 2.0 covers over 200 topics and provides support for those who need further information from a real person whom they can trust.

Amanda believes the success of Auntie Betty was primarily due to the fact that professional storytellers from the community were used to create Auntie Betty. As a result, Auntie Betty feels real because it’s grounded in our lived experience. For Jordyn, she believes the warmth and humanity component of Auntie Betty breaks down people’s defenses regarding health promotion. She describes it as a less intense, loving, welcoming tool since it “speaks with us, not to us.”

How did you get involved with Auntie Betty?

Amanda recalls the concept was birthed during a conversation with family and saying that there are so many people suffering and no one to care. She wanted to be there for everyone, but it wasn’t possible to be everyone’s Aunt. It is her sister-in-law, Anne Moraa, a feminist writer, editor, and performer, that first suggested the concept of a virtual aunt who could bridge that gap, especially regarding information about Covid-19 and vaccines. With knowledge built through being a partner with the South Scarborough Vaccine Engagement Team and as lead for the Save Toronto Carnival grassroots group, Amanda focused her excellent community work on developing Auntie Betty. Recognizing the importance of Amanda’s work, SCHC provided Amanda with research funding through their Public Health Agency of Canada Immunization Partner Fund project. SCHC worked with partners to reach neighborhoods and communities most impacted by Covid-19 and provide wrap-around support, resources, and information on vaccines and how to keep healthy during the pandemic.

Amanda’s team formed Pamoja Institute for Community Engagement and Action to further develop Auntie Betty and continue working for a just future now. Since then, Amanda has been forming partnerships to research and develop her idea and bring awareness of this innovative approach to those who need it most. Jordyn got involved officially in August 2022. Her role is to support Amanda through outreach, such as hosting a booth at the UTSC homecoming or cross-promoting Auntie Betty with other black health professionals in Toronto.  

What are your thoughts on US Public Health Departments using Auntie Betty 2.0 as a model for vaccine engagement?

Amanda shared that it is “super exciting for us as a team!”  She is aware that there are many other matrifocal communities across the world that could benefit from a virtual Aunt, so she is happy to share and work with US partners to save lives across the border. “When we started working with the teams from Johns Hopkins, IBM Research, and House9, never in our wildest dreams did we expect that Auntie Betty x VIRA would be used as an example for US public health units when working with marginalized communities.”

The International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health plans to work with 25 health departments to implement and manage a customized VIRA chatbot for their client populations.  Auntie Betty 2.0 is being used as an example of how technology can be used in a creative and culturally safe manner to share public health guidance.  The campaign is called VIRA x NACCHO and will be available at no cost to the participating US public health units. 

Over here in Canada, Jordyn notes that the Pamoja team continues to seek financial support, and they are hopeful to be able to release, scale, and spread this kind of work across Canada’s varied demographics. They were encouraged that, at least in the US, there are leaders who are seeing the value of this, as she noticed there is more interest there compared to Canada, even though Auntie Betty originated from Scarborough.

What is the Significance of Scarborough with respect to Auntie Betty?

Jordyn reiterated that the sad reality is that Scarborough does not always have the resources required to meet the community’s needs. The uniqueness and resourcefulness of Scarborough stem heavily from being so diverse, including the significantly diverse black population with needs that are often unmet. Since Community Health Centres can only do so much, Auntie Betty solved a real problem, especially at the start of the pandemic when Scarborough was on fire.

Amanda states that Auntie Betty is Scarborough and has the spirit of community you can only find in Scarborough. She also shared that Auntie Betty’s biggest cheerleaders were at SCHC. She wanted to give a special thanks to our SCHC CEO Jeannie Argiropoulos and the SCHC vaccine engagement project team for their support; as she states, Auntie Betty would never have happened if it wasn’t for SCHC’s support.

The voice of Auntie Betty with Scarborough—Guildwood MPP Mitzie Hunter

How did your partnership with SCHC and others in the Public Health Immunization Partner Fund project impact/influence this innovative idea and its development?

Amanda shared that the storytelling techniques made Auntie Betty feel real, and the collaboration with local organizations, grassroots groups, community ambassadors, and SHN Vaxfacts helped make the intervention effective. Another strength was the ability of Auntie Betty to refer members of the community to real people, ambassadors, and doctors from SHN Vaxfacts, whom they knew and could vouch for was invaluable. 

Amanda recalls that in the beginning, there was a lot of misinformation about the vaccine rollout, so the accessibility of the SCHC team to answer questions (sometimes on weekends) was amazing, in addition to the non-coercive, multi-touch approach of the Vaccine Engagement Team who validated concerns and always kept the door open for discussion. She is also thankful for SHN Vaxfacts, as many in the Black community did not and still do not have family doctors to call and ask questions. 

There you have it. Now you know the story of how a virtual Aunting via chatbot became an essential tool to remove barriers and concerns among different communities so they can feel safe and healthy and make sound decisions. Auntie Betty has just started, and we are looking forward to seeing the growth in the upcoming future and where else Auntie Betty will be featured. Amanda asks us to “Look out for our peer-reviewed article in an upcoming issue of The Society for Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness journal. And stay tuned to the SCHC blog and social media for any upcoming announcements regarding Auntie Betty!