‘We are living in Black history in the making’: Black health and community leaders reflect on triumphs and needs for the future

Watching leaders in Black communities, from doctors to those working in engagement on the ground, tackle long-standing health inequities has given Dr. Onye Nnorom continued hope for the future.

“Despite the devastation that this pandemic caused, we are living in Black history in the making,” said Nnorom, a family physician specializing in health equity and an assistant professor at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

“Black communities and leaders rallied in many innovative ways that helped to lift up Black communities, and other communities that are experiencing health inequities,” she said.

The Star spoke to multiple leaders from Black communities in Toronto who work in health or examine social determinants of health in their jobs about the impact of the pandemic on the people they work with, how they see Black History month and what initiatives they are looking forward to .

While the needs of Black people should not only be relegated to Black History Month — the month can be used as a time to reflect on all the work that has been done and continue to acknowledge how the wider public and institutions can better invest in Black communities. and tackle racism, they said.

Here are their responses:

Dr. Onye Nnorom, family physician specializing in health equity and an assistant professor at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Nnorom said she’s hopeful that strides in health care that Black communities have advocated for, like prioritizing culturally-relavant care, are permanently incorporated into Ontario’s institutions.

For instance, the Black Physicians Association of Ontario worked with multiple organizations including community groups, and public health to bring vaccine access to communities that were COVID-19 hot spots in ways that built trust with Black people, she explained.

Black residents have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19due to long-standing health inequities and neglect of communities, along with mistrust of the health care system due to racism and harm it has caused.

In February 2021, Toronto announced a $6.8 million dollar plan to address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black people. That included creating a Black Scientist Task Force on Vaccine Equity that Nnorom is also a member of.

“There are lessons to be learned by society in general on how to rise to the occasion and address real inequities in a way that’s impactful, and done in partnership and allyship with communities that are facing these disparities,” she said.

Nnorom was also a part of a team that drastically increased cancer screenings for Black residents in Scarborough, that was another indication of how culturally-relevant care can be successful.

Now that there’s more willingness from health care institutions to focus on in-need communities, the culture of health care itself can shift, she said.

“It’s that lens toward rejuvenation that I’m very much looking forward to,” she said.

Agapi Gessesse is the executive director of the Center for Young Black Professionals.

Agapi Gessesse, the executive director of the Center for Young Black Professionals.

The health of Black people is at the core of what Agapi Gessesse addresses at the Center for Young Black Professionals, a charity organization that examines social and economic barriers that impact Black youth and their employment.

The Center includes psychologists and social workers to tackle social determinants of health, trauma from racism, and barriers to housing, food security and child-care, said Gessesse. Culturally-relevant programming is also a crucial part of her work, and that involves workshops on being Black in the workplace and how to cope with issues they may face.

Gessesse says she often gets asked what the Center is doing for Black History Month, when really the work they are doing that is focused on the community is year-round.

“We often don’t think about how we’re making history at this moment,” she said.

The hope is that there will be a point where the Center no longer needs to exist, as a degree of equity would be accomplished, as improving social-determinants of health are at the core of improving employment, she said.

“I feel the same way about Black History Month. We’re going to continue to have Black History Month until people start to recognize that Black history is Canadian history, and that we have the same playing field as the other eleven months,” she said.

Dr. Akwatu Khenti is faculty at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T and chair of the Black Scientists' Task Force.

Dr Akwatu Khenti, scientist at CAMH and an assistant professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

There’s never been a task force in Ontario like the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, said Dr. Akwatu Khenti, who is a member of the group along with his role as a scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research and as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“There’s been pandemics before … but there was no sympathy for Black communities and Black experiences back in those days,” he said, referring to the 1918 pandemic.

Khenti said it’s historically unprecedented to also have a range of Black experts on vaccinations and science involved in battling COVID-19.

But it’s also clear that during the COVID-19 pandemic, failures to address the needs of Black communities, which includes understanding the history of how Black people have been treated in Toronto and beyond, have caused harm, he said.

There is an important history of scientific concepts including inoculation coming out of Africa, and Black people may not know about those aspects as they’ve been absent from history books, he said.

“Even people who are sympathetic to Africans … suffer from the same historical neglect of Africa’s role in the history of vaccinations,” he said.

Khenti points to how the idea of ​​inoculation itself was first brought to the United States by a Black man named Onesimus in the early 18th century, who was a slave taken from West Africa. Inoculation was a concept common at his home in West Africa, but not in the US Onesimus’ captor, clergyman Cotton Mather, took credit for the idea, according to a report by Harvard University.

It’s with this lack of historical understanding that Khenti has on his mind while being part of the Task Force to ensure more Black people have access to the COVID-19 vaccine and address hesitation that is often based on mistreatment by the health care system. There is so much more that needs to be taught about Black history, I have explained.

“African history with respect to vaccines is missing from most Black history textbooks,” said Khenti. “Some people assume that African health traditions are about herbs and spices … they don’t think of infectious diseases.”

Fatimah Jackson-Best is a project manager at Pathways to Care and and an assistant professor at McMaster University.

Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, project manager at Pathways to Care and assistant professor at McMaster University.

This year, Pathways to Care, an initiative that works to improve the mental health and life of Black Children and Youth in Ontario, has completed crucial data collection needed to improve mental health services for Black young people, said Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, the project manager at the organization.

Pathways is continuing to connect with other community organizations to service Black youth and improve their health outcomes, she said.

But one aspect of this work that can be reflected on, is the need for larger organizations that aren’t oriented to the Black community to reach out and partner up with groups like Pathways, she explained.

“A lot of Black organizations are working in silos, or working amongst themselves because they know the community … but larger organizations in mainstream are not reaching out to create partnerships,” she said. “It’s essential if you want to properly reach Black children and youth.”

Jackon-Best along with the Black Health Alliance, a charity focused on the health of Black Canadians, are working to facilitate future partnerships with larger organizations and that’s something she’s looking forward to this year, she said.

“The work that we do, it continues before, after and during Black History Month. Es una [month] where our work can be amplified… it’s always nice to be recognized, but in the grand scheme of things… it doesn’t really have a huge impact on the work that we do,” she said.

While it’s clear there has been a shift in more investment in Black communities in the last two years, there’s also been a degree of backlash and sometimes failure to commit to real engagement and funding, she explained.

“But I always remain hopeful, and when people ask me what they can do… sharing information about Black communities, that’s one kind of introductory step,” she said. “But we need people who remain committed, no matter what, to the long-term… it’s not just a moment, this is every single day.”


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