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In the Spotlight: Roberta Timothy

U of T public health professor discusses pandemic, health care in Black community
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Roberta Timothy is an assistant professor at U of T. COURTESY OF ROBERTA TIMOTHY
Roberta Timothy is an assistant professor at U of T. COURTESY OF ROBERTA TIMOTHY

Roberta Timothy is an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, but she considers herself a community member first. Timothy studies intersectionality and health, and works on creating practices that do not cause additional harm to communities that have historically been mistreated by the health care system.

The Varsity talked to Timothy about her experiences, research, and current projects, including Black Health Matters, where she serves as principal investigator. 

Being an activist in academia

Although Timothy works in academia, she does not consider herself an academic. Timothy spoke about the relationship between activism and academia, expressing how coming from an activist community has influenced her work. 

“The whole dichotomy between academia and community is a problem,” she said. “I want to talk about how we can do work and continue to do work in the community as community members.”

Citing her upbringing taking part in feminist and pan-African movements, she expressed, “For me, education was also the education that I received in my community.” Conversely, being an activist is not something she learned just in universities.

Timothy also works in private practice and trains therapists in ‘anti-oppression psychotherapy,’ a model that looks to decolonize psychotherapy and trauma. 

Timothy’s work has been focused around resistance education and Black resistance movements. She explained that resistance methodologies look to answer questions such as, “How do people fight back and still heal, or be well, or act within systems that have excluded them or harmed them?”

Although there has been increasing interest in studying resistance in recent years, when Timothy began her work in academia, “folks did not necessarily want to hear about anti-Black racism and white supremacy.”

Now, as a professor, Timothy believes that teaching can be an important part of decolonizing work. She added that while teaching during the pandemic, “I am understanding that, for myself, like students, we are dealing with a challenging time.”

Health violence during COVID-19

In April 2020, Timothy co-organized the first Canada-wide forum on the impacts of COVID-19 on African and Black communities in Canada. As the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on the Black community became apparent, the forum discussed implications of the pandemic on these communities due to the disproportionate health violence they face. 

Timothy defines health violence as a health care system with “policies, practices, and actions that actually limit the health or well-being of particular groups of people based on historical and current types of discrimination or abuse.” 

Timothy noted that there are other factors that may contribute to health violence outside of the health care system itself, such as income inequality.

The existing inequalities make Timothy skeptical of the idea of returning to ‘normal’ after COVID-19, noting that ‘normal’ for the Black community has always involved disproportionate health violence.

“I want to change the system. I want our communities to have access to health care that treats them well [and] doesn’t harm them,” Timothy said.

“Health violence is supported by health care systems that actually do not consider the health of Black, Indigenous, [and] purposefully marginalized people important,” she added.

Black Health Matters

Currently, Timothy is the principal investigator on the Black Health Matters: National and Transnational COVID-19 Impact, Resistance and Intervention Strategies Project, which studies the impacts of COVID-19 on African and Black individuals. 

In addition to Timothy, the project has a postdoctoral fellow, a consultant, research assistants, and an advisory committee of 25 members from different disciplines and backgrounds nationwide. Timothy is also in the process of creating a global advisory committee. 

The project came about as Timothy decided during COVID-19, “We need our own data, and it needs to be analyzed by us, for us.”

Timothy described the project as looking at how COVID-19 is impacting people, but also “how people are resisting, and also looking at creative interventions — how are people surviving?”

To gather people’s experiences, the project is currently soliciting responses through a Canadian survey, with an international survey to follow. The approximately 45-minute survey asks questions on a variety of different topics relating to people’s experiences with COVID-19, from employment and housing security, to coping strategies and vaccination.

On her own philosophy of research, Timothy said, “I am a researcher who believes that we need to be responsible for the type of research that we do. And the research has to empower communities not hinder them, particularly within health.” 

“For me, it’s a very political thing. Research is political; mental health and healing is political.”