It begins with the click of a mouse. Playful yet motivated music slowly builds, then gradually fades away.
“Hi everyone, this is Rica and Kaya, and you’re listening to the Black Aspiration Podcast,” announce the voices of two Western undergrad students.
They are taking the lead on a podcast aimed at ensuring the voices, experiences and specific health concerns of Black communities are recognized, amplified and valued.
The podcast is just one component of the Black Aspiration Project, led by Cornel Grey, professor in the department of gender, sexuality and women’s studies. The project is supported by a research mobilization, creation and innovation grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
“The project is a knowledge mobilization initiative. We’re running community forums, we have a keynote speaker in March and we’re also doing the podcast,” said Grey.
For him, the project is an opportunity to learn about efforts to improve health outcomes in Black communities. Anti-Black racism, he said, continues to be present in health care and has created harm.
“Racism affects how health-care providers and researchers engage Black subjects,” said Grey.
The podcast series features health-care leaders, community members and advocates for Black health who explore the unique experiences and challenges of Black individuals with respect to health and health care.
“Typically, when we have events, it’s a one-day thing and there’s no way for people to look back and reflect on the discussions that took place. We wanted something people could return to as needed,” said Grey.
Grey wanted to tackle assumptions that still inform how some disciplines think about Black health, but he was knew he was going to need help. Enter Ulrica (Rica) Schweizer Samuels and Kaya Anderson, two undergraduates who leapt at the opportunity to be Grey’s research assistants.
A unique learning opportunity
Samuels, in her fourth year of a major in kinesiology and a minor in sexuality studies, met Anderson in a Black studies class taught by Grey last year.
“I took the class on a whim, because I thought it was a great way to intersect my major and minor, and in that first week I fell in love with the topics,” said Samuels. Both students said the class was one of their favourites, thanks to Grey’s instruction and knowledge.
“Black health studies has been one of my main interests in women and gender studies, so getting involved in the podcast has been such a joy,” said Anderson, third-year major in women and gender studies.
The pair have taken the initiative on the podcast, and have already launched the first three episodes. They plan for seven or eight in total.
They have interviewed professor Fatimah Jackson-Best of the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University; Shani Robertson, a registered midwife promoting the betterment of Black health and human rights; and Kevin Blanks, a PhD student from George Washington University, who shared his experience as a Black, queer and disabled scholar.
Realities behind the research
While the pair were already motivated to promote Black health, the aim of the project also hit close to home.
“I wanted to pursue this path of advocacy for Black health because of my mom,” said Samuels.
While in her second semester, her mother was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, which suddenly made the research become real and deeply personal for Samuels.
“We did a lot of reading about anti-Black racism within health care, but I didn’t really connect to the stories. Following my mom’s diagnosis, suddenly these stories felt more real and that’s how the project started for me.”
Anderson has been around health care her whole life, with her mom being a midwife who has worked with Black, Indigenous, people of colour and newcomers. She said this project was an extension of what she grew up talking about with her mom.
“If a health-care provider is listening, I’d want them to think about what people are saying. Anti-Black racism is a reality, and we have biases in health care we may not realize. You don’t know what someone is going through. I remember Fatimah [Jackson-Best] said, ‘our research comes out of love,’” said Anderson.
Grey is thrilled with the work the two have already accomplished on the podcast.
“They’re both motivated students deeply invested in Black health. Their creativity and professionalism have made the project one of the highlights of my time at Western,” said Grey.
Through this project, Grey wants to see the needle move more to realizing that public health and Black life are compatible with each other.
He sees the time after the COVID-19 pandemic as an interesting space where people and scholars are thinking about questions of anti-Black racism within their various work spaces, including health care.
“I do think the needle is moving. I think it’s slow in some respects, but there’s an ongoing conversation about what anti-Black racism looks like, and how that has affected people’s lives,” said Grey.
Grey foresees collaboration across all research fields to answer some of these challenges.
“Western is well positioned to do this work. There are several folks across campus thinking about health care using different theories and methods and I think our project is an example of what that could look like,” he said.
Podcast and Upcoming Events:
The first three episodes of the Black Aspiration Podcast are available here. They can also be found on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify.
The project will also be hosting professor Marlon M. Bailey from Washington University in St. Louis as keynote speaker on March 6. More details will be available in the coming weeks.