Dr. Notisha Massaquoi has spent the last 30 years helping shape community-level health care programs that have impacted thousands of Black and racialized people in Canada. And this year, she is being recognized as a recipient of the YWCA Toronto’s Women of Distinction Awards. She sits down with Kim Parlee to discuss her career journey in health equity.
First off, congratulations on the award.
Thank you so much.
Yeah. Very well-deserved. And when you read through some of the work that you've done, it's been a long time you've been doing this work. I think I was reading 30 years that you've been involved in health equity. Can we just go back to the beginning? What got you started in the field?
What really got me started in health equity was actually working in the Violence Against Women movement. One of my first jobs out of school was working in a women's shelter for abused women-- that was the term we used at that time-- and seeing the need in terms of what kinds of services were available for women, but also how women were treated in the health care system when they were experiencing domestic violence.
To speed things up a little bit, I got a good sense of the experiences that women were having that were different than their male counterparts. But then Black women within that whole realm and racialized women were having an even different experience. When I started working in health care specifically, and mental health in particular, I was seeing that racialized women were not getting the same level of service that other women were receiving.
And when I arrived in Toronto for grad school, it was the height of the AIDS pandemic. And that's when I really saw how racial disparities played out. I was seeing Black people not being able to get health care. Those living with HIV-- physicians not wanting to treat them, not being able to get health coverage or benefits. And that first year that I worked in an organization for people living with AIDS-- African people in particular-- my entire client load died--
--simply because of lack of access to support, care, and the level of stigma and shame that people were made to feel if they had contracted HIV, and in particular if they were Black. Canadians often blamed African people, Haitian people for bringing HIV to Canada. And that's what really pushed me to really sit down and think about, what would it look like if we had a truly equitable health care system?
It's hard to hear. I mean, that's-- and I'm sure it's incredibly hard to work in what you've done. Can I ask-- and I hope you don't mind me asking. But when we were talking earlier, you mentioned that you thought you would retire. Then you came back. Maybe tell us a little bit about that, just in terms of the work you've done and what brought you back in to really keep moving forward.
Absolutely. After 30 years doing this work, 22 years as the Executive Director of Women's Health in Women's Hands Community Health Center, which is totally dedicated to increasing access to health care services for Black and racialized women, I thought it was time to step down from doing that work and hand things over to a younger generation. That was in 2018-- December 2018, to be specific.
And then by 2019, we were in the full throes of a COVID-19 pandemic. And then the murder of George Floyd happened. And then my phone started ringing, literally. Former colleagues saying, all that time and all those things that you had been telling us about inequities in health care, we get it now.
We fully understand the experiences that Black people are having that are absolutely different than the rest of society, simply because of anti-Black racism they're experiencing. And that's what really made me think, OK, I have a good sense of what I want to do now. A lot of it revolves around teaching and influencing the next generation, especially the next generation of health researchers, who really, really are going to take a look at this issue in depth and develop systems that will change the lives for Black and racialized people.
It's incredible work. And we've only got a bit of time today, but I know just a couple things that you talked the first HIV program for Black communities in Ontario, and also the Black Health Equity Lab. I know each one of these is a two-hour topic. But can you just give us a taste of just what they are so people are aware?
Sure. I'm really excited about the Black Health Equity Lab. I founded it last year, literally. The goal of the lab is to provide opportunities for students to learn about how to work effectively with Black communities, how to develop health programs and services that will actually serve Black people, and how to work in partnership with Black communities to develop programs that are going to work effectively for them.
It gives students an opportunity-- not only just Black students. Any student who is interested in addressing issues of anti-Black racism through research and health care is welcome to join the lab. So we're very, very excited about the opportunities that we're providing students.
Our first major project is the development of the first HIV clinical program for Black people in Ontario. It's housed at TAIBU Community Health Center. It has started. We started about three weeks ago.
We provide clinical services, specifically to newly diagnosed people living with HIV who identify as members of the Black community. Because of anti-Black racism, because of the social determinants of health-- we saw it during COVID-- high rates of chronic illness is one of the results of that for Black people, and HIV is one of those chronic illnesses where we have an overrepresentation in terms of new HIV infections.
So what would services look like for a community if they were racially and culturally appropriate and treated people with dignity and respect? So the health center will be providing those services. We're going to be studying the effectiveness of providing culturally and racially specific services.
Better outcomes. Better-- yeah.
Absolutely. Finetuning it so that we can actually present a model that could be replicated across the province as well as looking at other chronic illnesses-- how to work better, more effectively, and respectfully with Black people.
I apologize for this. I've got about 30 seconds. But if I was to ask you-- so much work has been done. And you've been doing this, and you've seen the arc of how this is moving forward. How much more work is there to do?
I keep telling people that I do a lot of consulting work with, today you're starting, but it means you're going to be doing this for the rest of your career. It's the understanding that we have about 400 years to rectify in Canada in terms of the length of time Black people have been in this country. And we can't start today and expect overnight success. This is long-term commitment work that we're going to be doing for the rest of our lives.
We have to understand that everybody has to participate. Everybody has to be involved. Everyone has to be outraged by the level of injustice that we are seeing Black, Indigenous, racialized communities experiencing in Canada, and everyone has to be part of that change.
Well, it is incredibly inspiring to hear the work-- and troubling at the same time, but inspiring to see the work that has been done. Thanks so much for your time today.
Thank you so much.