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Science Spotlight: Chantal Phillips, 2019–2020 Co-President of the Black Medical Students’ Association

Addressing advocacy through medicine, the health of Black people in Canada
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COURTESY OF CHANTAL PHILLIPS
COURTESY OF CHANTAL PHILLIPS

Chantal Phillips is a second-year student in the Faculty of Medicine and served as the 2019–2020 co-president of the Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA). 

According to Phillips, her term as co-president was been marked by an increase in the number of Black medical students in pre-clerkship courses from 20 to 30, and collaborations between the BMSA and other organizations, such as Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns.

Phillips herself has been working on two collaborative equity projects examining the inequities in the medical school application process and the level of support offered for Black and Indigenous medical students across Ontario.

She wrote to The Varsity to discuss her experiences and expertise. 

Road to medicine 

Phillips explained that even though she has had interactions with the health care system growing up, she didn’t imagine herself as a doctor since she did not see herself in the physicians she encountered. However, this changed after she was exposed to personal support workers (PSW), such as her mother, who cared deeply for her patients “despite dangerous working conditions and poor wages.”

“Having her as an example was a game changer. From that point forward, I could see myself wanting to identify and care for the physical and social needs of patients.”

Phillips described how her road to medicine didn’t stop when she got into medical school. She wondered whether her advocacy work would be better supported if she was a community organizer or a social worker, but then she realized there were further opportunities to impact the communities she cared about within medicine.

Her experiences have shaped her vision for medicine as a field that uses the life experiences of its practitioners as assets for equity and advocacy.

“Medicine needs me — my passion for addressing health inequities in the Black community, my exposure to and respect for the work of PSWs and other health professionals, my struggle with certain adverse childhood experiences.”

She continued, “When you reflect on your life experiences and how they have formed you into the person you are today, do not forget that when mobilized, those experiences make you an asset and medicine is in need of that.”

Bridging the gap in health care through leadership

Phillips reflected on the role she played as co-president of the BMSA alongside Semir Bulle. 

“My goal as co-President is to ensure that we are achieving our vision: to generate a robust community of Black physicians and allies empowered and informed to improve the health outcomes of the broader Black community.”

According to Phillips, her time with the BMSA has seen improvements in pre-clerkship representation among Black medical students and a new peer-to-peer mentoring program for incoming medical students to support their transition into their first year.

A focus of the BMSA has been collaborative advocacy, with the BMSA acting as a connection between the medical community and the Black community. 

For example, Phillips wrote that her “work with the Partnership and Accountability Circle for the Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit (CABR) at the City of Toronto is bringing the BMSA and CABR together to address COVID-19 public messaging within the Black community.” She added that “it is not a choice” for the community to benefit from the BMSA’s work. 

“While the Black community in Toronto is not a monolith and deserves to be appreciated for its diversity like any other community, we come from these communities,” she noted. “The end goal has never been the money or prestige that come with being a physician; it has been the opportunity to use our voice and privilege to address and subvert the systems in place that reinforce the mortality and morbidity of Black Canadians every day.”

Phillips noted that student groups such as the BMSA are important not only for increasing representation and providing inclusive communities for students, but also for providing support for initiatives that positively impact those peers who may not be as aware of the same social issues. 

On allyship

Phillips also stressed the difference between allyship and saviourship, writing that “it is imperialistic to come into communities that you do not personally identify with and assume that you have a solution to all problems.”

“Tread lightly and take time to listen. Allyship is key because there are privileges and spaces that allies have access to that sometimes we do not,” Phillips noted. “To identify ways to leverage that privilege for the good of those you are supporting can be valuable, if that is what is desired by the community that you are listening to.”

Editor’s Note (May 22, 5:50 pm): This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Phillips’ term as the BMSA’s 2019–2020 co-president has ended.