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University of Toronto makes history with launch of new degree in Black health

Roberta Timothy, an assistant professor and the Black Health Lead at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has created a new Master of Public Health in Black Health program, to begin in fall 2023.
Racism has harmed the health of Black people for generations, and its impact on Canada’s health-care system has often led to worse outcomes. 

That’s why the University of Toronto is launching a Master of Public Health in Black Health to specifically train students entering health-care fields on how to improve the system and provide better care, said Roberta Timothy, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T.

“This is something that’s not only life-changing, but really critical for our community to have, to work differently with Black folks and really address not only anti-Black racism, but wellness and healing in our communities,” she said.

Black communities deserve health care that accounts for their diverse identities, incorporates cultural knowledge and practices, works to dismantle anti-Black racism and ultimately cares for their well-being, said Timothy, who created the program and is the Black health lead at the school.

And since the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected racialized people, it’s clear that inequities in health care that Black communities have faced for many decades must be confronted by the health system, as those communities require continued investment and improved care to combat historical anti-Black racism perpetuates harm, she said.

The two-year program will welcome its first cohort of 10 students in the fall of 2023. Timothy submitted a proposal to the university at the end of 2021 after consulting communities.

Some of the core competencies of the program include students developing understandings of the social and historical contexts that have led to a health crisis in the Black community that stems from anti-Black racism.

For many years, Black communities have been outspoken about mistreatment in the health system, including not being believed about their pain or feeling that they were left to die.

A 2021 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal calls on medicine as a field to tackle anti-Black racism, including stereotyping from health providers and the lack of Black physicians.

Students will also learn about how institutional public health practices can perpetuate anti-Black racism and why those practices needed to be dismantled. As well, they will learn about African Indigenous health-care methods and how to incorporate them.

“We’re going to be addressing African Black epistemologies, so ways of knowing and doing,” she said. “It’s an important piece to show there are Black folks who bring knowledge to health, and particularly public health.

“We’re going to be using scholars who have done the work in the community and outside of the community, using an African-centred lens,” she said. For instance, examples that could be discussed is why there is mistrust of the health-care system and sometimes vaccines, due to discrimination and being mistreated by public health, she said.

There is a significant history of Black people being exploited and abused within medical studies, including a U.S. study from the 1930s that specifically withheld widely available lifesaving syphilis treatment from Black men without their knowledge, leaving them to suffer.

“And then there’s a whole history of what African folks have done to support public health,” said Timothy.

Scientific concepts like inoculation have their origins in West Africa, Dr. Akwatu Khenti, a scientist at CAMH and an assistant professor with the Dalla Lana School, told the Star in February. But they weren’t given credit.

Timothy hopes that the creation of the program, which she said is the first in the world, will influence other schools to do the same.

She is also optimistic that funding will be gained to incorporate the concepts from the Master of Public Health in Black Health into other health-related degrees, including offering more classes and workshops in the future.

“One program cannot sustain the histories and current experiences of anti-Black racism and colonization and the impact on our health,” she said. “We need to train generations of practitioners.”

 

Olivia Bowden is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: obowden@thestar.ca

 

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