Raphael Duvoue and Dr. Andrew Brown

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Black History Month celebrates the achievements and contributions of Black people and their communities, raises awareness of the challenges faced by Black people and provides an opportunity to further action towards ending anti-Black racism.

In the summer of 2020, Unity Health established anti-racism as a formal strategic priority and committed to tackling racism more directly than we have in the past. Part of this commitment includes the amplification of Black voices and several actions to improve the experiences that Black people have within our organization.

Raphael Duvoue is an Operations Leader in the Environmental Services Department at St. Michael’s Hospital. Dr. Andrew Brown is an Interventional Radiologist, researcher and educator at St. Michael’s. They joined us to talk about their experiences working in health care, their thoughts on Unity Health Toronto’s efforts to combat anti-Black racism and the meaning of Black History Month.

How do you think that your experience working in health care has been shaped by being Black?

RD: I’m acutely aware of racism in the workplace. I feel like I’m often looking over my shoulder in the same way as if I was being followed around a store. It’s not a good feeling but it’s encouraged me to push myself and work harder to prove myself. I’ve learned more compassion and understanding and I’ve been motivated to learn the health care system really well. We tend to see more Caucasian people in health care leadership roles and in spaces of change but we don’t see many Black people. I’m making grounds for Black people, especially Black men, to be more visible in health care and in leadership roles.

AB: There’s a level of reverence that’s paid to physicians and I’ve benefitted from that. I’m also fortunate to have the support of my colleagues and to work in a place that’s so special to me and my family. I recognize that privilege. What gives me pause is thinking of the patients. That’s the experience that’s more challenged. When my mother was a patient, she’d describe her illness and I could see that practitioners didn’t understand where she was coming from. I’m fortunate that I work in a position where I could support her and translate for her and her care team but not everyone has that.

How often do you encounter anti-Black racism in the workplace? Have you experienced any other adversity throughout your academic or professional journey?

RD: I see racism pretty often, both within my department and across the organization. It’s not always anti-Black racism, sometimes it’s against colleagues of other races, but it’s always there. I try not to take it personally or let it weigh me down. I usually shrug it off and move onto the next thing.

AB: It was challenging going through high school and undergrad. There’s an expectation that someone who’s racialized or Black isn’t smart or isn’t interested in school and those messages can make it harder for you to see yourself in some of these roles. Coming from that experience, when I was in school, I tried to create programming to help students from marginalized groups make it to university and aspire to go to medical school. In my current role, I feel very grateful to work in a place where I feel supported.

Why is representation important?

RD: I have children and grandchildren and I want them to know that they can do whatever they want. I want them to see people of colour in prominent positions – vice presidents, doctors, chartered accountants – and realize that they can do the same. We all need mentors who look like us. People we can look up to and say ok, if they can do it, I can do it too.

AB: If we want to provide care that’s relevant to patients, we need our health care professionals to reflect the communities we serve. It’s really important that we understand how things like research, medication and procedures play out in different groups but that’s hard to do if you don’t have staff who belong to those groups. You also need role models. My parents emigrated from Jamaica in the 1970s and they never went to university so it was challenging for them to provide that context around education. I relied heavily on others around me but if you don’t have that – and if you don’t see people who look like you in the roles you’re aspiring for – it’s very difficult to see a path forward.

Unity Health has been on a journey since the summer of 2020 to combat anti-Black racism within our organization. How do you think we’re doing?

RD: I think we’re doing well. I’m really glad to be part of the Black Staff Affinity Group at Unity Health because it gives me a safe space to share feedback and talk about my experiences being Black. I don’t think I’d be comfortable to do that with people of other races. I don’t think they’d understand it. It’s also nice to listen to other people’s stories and be able to help and support each other. I’m very grateful for the space and for all the opportunities benefitted to me as a member of the group.

AB: I think we’re doing well too. If you look at the landscape, a lot of organizations are trying to engage in this work but Unity Health stands out to me because of our leadership, who seems to take the work seriously. We have folks in place like Allison Needham, who are committed and who understand how to mitigate these issues of racism and equity. And that’s not easy. These are complicated issues that need to be addressed in a way that’s tactical and respectful and that brings people together. It’s a journey but I’m encouraged by the work that we’re doing.

February is Black History Month. What does the month mean to you?

RD: It’s nice to have a month dedicated to Black history but I find it gets forgotten or overshadowed by other celebrations in February, like Valentine’s Day. It’s also the shortest and coldest month of the year. I believe we should celebrate our Black diaspora every day and month, not just in February.

AB: I think it’s really important. It wasn’t always easy for my parents to articulate the contributions of Black people but for me, that’s the significance of the month. When I was in high school and university, I volunteered with a multicultural inventor’s museum, which showcased the contributions of Black people through history. Seeing folks who look like me and who have had this impact on the world encouraged me and made me think that perhaps I could do that too. Seeing that Black people play an important role in our communities and in science, that’s the special magic of Black history.

The burden of teaching and telling stories during Black History Month often falls on Black people. How can we find a balance between amplifying Black voices and not burdening Black people?

RD: I don’t think the word burden should be used. Teaching and sharing Black history and storytelling is the only way we can educate others on Black people and our history. The history needs to be amplified, our stories need to be told and our voices need to be heard. As a Black nation, we’ve been silent for too long. The best way to find balance is to keep educating others and amplifying our voices. Black slavery may be abolished but racism is still alive and it’s up to all of us as a collective to change that.

AB: Black people aren’t a monolith so it’s hard for one person to encapsulate the entire Black narrative. At least for me, that’s where it becomes a burden. I’m in a position of privilege but that’s not the case for everyone so I’m not comfortable speaking for all Black people. But if the objective is to communicate my own personal experiences, I think that’s reasonable. To your point, it’s important to amplify Black voices, we just need to make sure it’s done in a way that’s reasonable and measured and that provides value. I don’t want to impart my views on everyone but if folks want to learn, I’m happy to share.

What would you tell your colleagues about Black history or about the experience of being Black?

RD: I would encourage people to inform themselves about the history of slavery and anti-Black racism. Most people aren’t familiar with that history and it’s crucial if we want to move forward. I also want to teach people to be kind to one another. We’re all born wanting to be loved and respected. It doesn’t matter what colour you are or where you’re from, just treat people how you want to be treated.

AB: I want people to recognize that the Black community isn’t one group and that the colour of my skin doesn’t automatically put me in this box. As humans, I think we are hardwired to make quick decisions and judgments based on people’s appearance but we need to understand that that’s harmful and unfair to those individuals. We need to work hard to address that. If a Black patient comes in, there’s often a bias placed on that person and it can affect their care. That’s something we need to discuss.

By: Anna Wassermann