On September 15, UTSC announced the Black Health Equity Lab (BHEL). Housed at the Department of Health and Society at UTSC, BHEL is a community-based research lab that examines the health disparities faced by Black people and provides primary health-care access to Black communities in Scarborough. 

In an interview with The Varsity, BHEL Director and Assistant Professor at UTSC’s Department of Health and Society Notisha Massaquoi talked about BHEL, BHEL’s community-based approach, and why she believes that the BHEL is a vital addition to UTSC.

Engaging students and Black communities in health equity

Massaquoi said that BHEL seeks to improve access to health services for Black communities and provide opportunities for students to engage in health-equity research. 

BHEL’s first major project is providing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) services to and prevention programs for Black communities in Scarborough. Currently, Black people face disproportionately high rates of new HIV infections in Ontario. 

A study by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network found that, in 2015, African, Caribbean, and Black communities in Ontario made up 25 per cent of all new HIV diagnoses, while making up less than five per cent of Ontario’s population.

In an effort to combat the disproportionately high rates of new HIV infections among the Black community, BHEL is working to establish the first clinical program in the province to specifically cater to Black people living with HIV. 

This month, BHEL is set to hire a team who will run the clinical program located at their community partner organization, TAIBU Community Health Centre, a Scarborough-based organization devoted to providing Black-identifying individuals in the GTA with effective and accessible health care. 

Additionally, a team of undergraduate students from BHEL has already conducted interviews with members of the Black community living with HIV and collected other qualitative data last summer. Next, they will conduct research on developing an effective HIV services program for Black communities.

A community-based research approach

Community is at the centre of BHEL’s research approach. For Massaquoi, this means allowing community members to define the goals of the research. “It’s not about what I want to do as a researcher or what I’m interested in. It’s what the community determines as a priority,” explained Massaquoi.

Community members also determine what the research process is, how they want to engage in the research, and what the success of the project should look like. Massaquoi said that, ultimately, community-based research must improve the well-being of the community involved in the research. 

For Massaquoi, this means that BHEL aims to “improve the survival and the well-being of Black people in [the community].”

To this end, BHEL has partnered with TAIBU Community Health Centre that has “a solid reputation with the Black community.” According to Massaquoi, this partnership allows BHEL researchers to build trusting relationships and a good rapport with Black communities in Scarborough, even before the onset of the research process.

“Most communities don’t have solid relationships [and trust] with academic institutions or researchers. So, step one is building the network and learning about Black people in Scarborough,” said Massaquoi.

The importance of the Lab at UTSC 

Massaquoi believes that UTSC is the perfect place for BHEL because of two factors: the Scarborough Charter and UTSC’s focus on community engagement.

The Scarborough Charter is a historic set of commitments that recognize and seek to end anti-Black racism in postsecondary structures and policies. UTSC Vice-President & Principal Wisdom Tettey led the creation of Charter, which was signed by almost 50 postsecondary institutions across Canada — including U of T — by November 2021. For Massaquoi, the signing of the Charter means that policy-wise, U of T is saying, “We’re prioritizing the lives of Black people.”

Massaquoi also said that UTSC is committed to fostering community partnerships in Scarborough. The Community Partnerships and Engagement Department at UTSC is specifically tasked with using UTSC’s resources to advance community interests and needs. The department also provides resources and mentorship support to scholars, such as Massaquoi, whose work focuses on community engagement.

Taken together, Massaquoi said that UTSC is able to provide “the foundation for [researchers] to do meaningful research with particular communities, especially the ones that are located in Scarborough.”

Ultimately, Massaquoi emphasized that BHEL’s work is important, not just for Black communities, but for communities at large: “My interest is that all communities have access to healthcare equally that we shouldn’t have any barriers. So, the work that we’re doing to eliminate those barriers for Black communities is going to benefit everybody as a whole. It’s just going to make a better [healthcare] system.”

Massaquoi also wants students to recognize the fundamental role that they play in improving health-care systems: “This lab is really helping people not only become health professionals, but to understand that they have a role in changing the system and to make a better system for everyone.”