Ruth Cameron believes collective action is critical to improving health outcomes for Black people in her community of Kitchener-Waterloo.
Roughly two per cent of the population, Black people account for nine per cent of people stopped by police in the Ontario community. As well, they face discrimination in education, child welfare, and many other institutions.
As the executive director of the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo, & Area (ACCKWA), Cameron is aware of the ways that systemic oppression impacts health. Her own work, for example, aims to curb HIV transmission through several means, including awareness and anti-stigma work.
“We need to talk about a lot of the population health issues that we know we [Black communities] have disproportionately negative outcomes for -- things like diabetes, heart health, and hypertension,” she says in an interview.
“These are issues that have very complex stressors contributing to them including racism, including genetics, and including behavioural or lifestyle contributors. We really can’t discount the impact of the stress that we experience on our health (because of) everyday racism.”
With this in mind, residents of the Kitchener-Waterloo region gathered at the Kitchener City Hall Rotunda for the Ubuntu Health Fair on Saturday, February 10. The event aimed to increase awareness of the many ways that racism impacts Black people in the region, and to encourage a broader conversation about health and wellness in Black communities.
For the organizers of the Ubuntu Health Fair, health and wellness are not simply produced by the absence of ill-health but are, instead, achieved through an active and intentional creation of well-being. This requires identifying and discussion barriers to health and creating alternatives and solutions.
The fair’s organizers pulled together activists with wide-ranging interests and expertise in an effort to communicate the pervasiveness of anti-black racism. As the fair’s promotional materials indicate, attendees met “organizers focused on creating a safer, healthier future for our African, Caribbean and Black communities.”
The event revolved around two moderated panels featuring critical voices on systemic racism in policing, education, and health care, with the first examining HIV Prevention, food justice, and mental health support work; the second focused on the issue of policing.
Both panels were curated to spark conversations on Black past, Black present and Black futures, showcasing ongoing work in the local community organizers as well as presentations from Christien Levien, developer of the Legalswipe app, and Robyn Maynard, author of the best-selling Policing Black Lives.
The African concept of ubuntu, often interpreted as an ethic of unity, harmony, and humanity, is an apt descriptor for an event aiming to bring together Black community to discuss anti-Black racism in Canada.
In December 2017, the Ontario government released its Anti-Black Racism Strategy, a document derived from 10 public meetings with Black communities held between July and December 2016. Though the plan marks an important step toward addressing systemic racism in government policy, legislation, programs, and services, its stated intent to “lay the groundwork for long-term change towards 2024 and beyond” has left some wondering what can be done in the interim.
This is especially true in suburban and rural communities where the Black population is often smaller and more isolated. The Ubuntu Health Fair is, in part, a response to the isolation felt by Black community organizers in the region, a need to connect the various efforts and causes of Black community members with an vision of past, present, and future.
Cameron observes: “The isolation in rural communities sometimes means that we aren’t experiencing that sense of wellness, affirmation, and community with other Black folks. Also, with the structural racism that we’re experiencing we may come to believe that we’re the only ones experiencing that when we’re not in community.”
She adds: “By discussing these issues when we come together, we can dispel this myth and work together collectively to call structures to accountability so that we can experience wellness.”
Accountability is a central concern for those affiliated with the Ubuntu Health Fair. The relatively small Black population in the Kitchener-Waterloo can mean that the needs of Black Ontarians in the region are not prioritized on either the municipal, provincial, or federal levels. Yet, as Cameron notes, the needs of Black Ontarians in the Kitchener-Waterloo region must be taken seriously, given the disproportionately negative outcomes plaguing Black Ontarians in education, health, and policing.
In an interview, Maynard notes: “It’s really important to view health in a holistic way that actually encompasses the really harmful impacts of racism, of systemic racism, of day-to-day racist interactions as they’re experienced by racialized communities.”
“Often, we think of health as just the prevention of disease but there are so many other understudied issues that are starting to come to the forefront now in terms of social determinants of health,” Maynard says.
The recent death of American racial justice activist Erica Garner in New York is one example that has brought the conversation about the impacts of racism on health to the forefront.
Garner died of a heart attack on December 30, 2017 at the age of 27, prompting those closest to her to reflect on the impact on her health of the death of her father Eric Garner at the hands of New York police, and her subsequent fight for racial justice.
These questions are not only relevant in the United States but also here in Canada, where, as Maynard and the others involved with the Ubuntu Health Fair demonstrate, anti-Black racism is endemic.
Maynard’s work explores the role of state violence, including the police, in terms of social services, immigration detention, and deportation.
“Of course, all of those kinds of discrimination -- the kinds of discrimination that Black folks in Canada are experiencing from those institutions -- have really important impacts on their physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing,” Maynard says.
“It’s really important to focus on health in this way, on community health as well as individual health and family health.”
As the provincial and federal governments begin to address anti-Black racism, events such as the Ubuntu Health Fair are pushing the conversation forward in important and holistic ways, highlighting its complexities. In a context where much of the racial-justice organizing occurs in isolation, organizers at the Ubuntu Health Fair are working to ensure that movements can become better connected with other groups by sharing strategy, experiences, support, and various other resources. This not only combats isolation but also helps consolidate a critical mass of people in a region where, some argue, Black Ontarians have yet to be taken seriously as a constituency.
Phillip Dwight Morgan is the recipient of the first Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship, supported by rabble.ca and the Institute for Change Leaders. He is a Toronto-based journalist, poet, and researcher.
Photo: Sylma Fletcher
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