Notisha Massaquoi, a renowned expert in health equity, joins U of T Scarborough

Notisha Massaquoi

(Photo courtesy of Notisha Massaquoi)

Notisha Massaquoi has spent more than 30 years advocating for greater access to primary health care in Black communities across Canada. Now, she is joining the University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of health and society as an assistant professor – and will teach a course on health equity and anti-Black racism. 

Originally from Sierra Leone, Massaquoi has been a tireless advocate in protecting the rights of LGBTQ2+ refugees from Africa. She established the first counselling support programs for queer Africans and Africans living with HIV in Canada.

A recent recipient of a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at U of T, Massaquoi served for two decades as executive director of  Women's Health in Women's Hands – the only community health centre in North America providing specialized primary health care for Black and racialized women. She also served as an adviser on the Ontario premier's advisory council on violence against women and co-chaired the Toronto Police Services Board’s Anti-Racism Advisory Panel, which was responsible for producing the first policy in the country that mandates a police service to collect race-based data for every interaction with the public.

Massaquoi recently spoke to U of T News about her research, teaching philosophy and what she’s looking forward to most about being at U of T Scarborough.

Can you tell us about your research?

My research looks at health equity issues. The goal is to find and eliminate the health disparities experienced by Black communities in Canada. So, I look at barriers that members of the Black community face when trying to access health services. My research shows the Black community's lack of trust in the health system due to the racism they experience is delaying when people get service. For example, if someone is delaying leaving home to go for health services because they don't trust that they’ll be treated well, or because they are trying to avoid repeated racist experiences, it impacts the health and well-being of Black communities.

What course will you be teaching at U of T Scarborough?

I developed a new special topics course called Health Equity, Anti-Black Racism, and the Art of Health Promotion. It looks at how to engage in health education and health promotion through the lens of understanding anti-Black racism and understanding what health equity means for Black and racialized communities. The course will provide a sense of what needs to be eliminated from our system to ensure that we get the proper health education and health information that we need as racialized communities.

Can you explain your teaching philosophy?

I teach by the philosophy of ubuntu. It’s a South African term meaning “I am because we are.”

No matter what course I teach, I understand that I exist because you exist. My well-being is dependent on your well-being. I want my students to understand the concept that I have to care about other people because my existence depends on their well-being.

To be successful in providing health-care services for Black communities, you must commit to the survival and well-being of Black people. It's not just learning about the Black community or learning about their health issues. What matters is what commitment you will be making to ensure that the community survives and that the individual in that community survives. It's about teaching collectivity.

I also want my students to know that I'm not the most influential person in the room. I'm just facilitating. We are collectively going to learn. I'm learning as much as you're learning, so it is very important to shift the power differential in the learning experience. I try to minimize power differentials between students and myself, and the power differentials between students. I'm trying to mirror anti-oppressive practice.

What are some of your other interests?

I love dancing. I am very passionate about cultural expression –and dancing is one of them. Because of COVID-19, everything is closed, so I dance in my house with my family. I used to dance professionally in an African dance company when I was younger. It's my childhood passion.

Is there anything else you want your students to know?

The issues I talk about are very serious, and so people take me as a very serious person. I am serious, but I like to have fun and learn at the same time.

After a 30-year career, I could have just retired – but I love working with young people. I think I'm very passionate about learning what the world is like for young people. I like to enjoy life and have fun. I think you can do that and still tackle some of these significant issues.

Our world is a tough place, so let's at least find some joy when we can.

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