‘We see it in you’: UBC panel celebrates Black excellence in healthcare

Community members gathered to celebrate Black excellence in health care at a virtual panel Tuesday afternoon.

“Beyond Representation: Celebrating Black Excellence in BC Healthcare” was organized by the Vancouver Coastal Health and UBC Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Respectful Environment, Diversity and Inclusion to spotlight the stories and achievements of Black medical practitioners in the UBC and Vancouver community.

Moderators UBC Faculty of Medicine Equity Advisor Madison Tardif and VCH Regional Manager for Anti-Racism Oluwaseun Ajaja led the discussion, with panelists discussing how Black medical practitioners are invigorating BC’s medical landscape with high-quality care.

“This collaboration … is incredibly important as we think about what it means to support current and train future health care providers in their pursuit to promote wellness and health across what is currently known as BC,” said Tardif.

Gold standard of care

During Barbara Sutherland’s decades-spanning career, she’s had her share of experiences overcoming racist biases in healthcare. She recounted her experiences as one of the few minority nurses in the ICU in the '90s, and having family members of patients scrutinize her.

In these instances, it wasn’t long before the quality of her care spoke for itself.

“I could see the changes on their faces. They started to be a little more at ease and, by the end of the day, they wanted to know [when I was] coming back. They were very happy with the care,” Sutherland said. “I [would] always go above and beyond to provide that care, because I was very well aware that I was looked at [as] less than.”

Today, Sutherland continues to go above and beyond. She acts as the Director of VCH Coastal and Acute Services, and previously served as the Director of Operations at Royal Columbian Hospital. She began her career 40 years ago as a care aide, and now has certification as a registered nurse with a master’s degree in organizational leadership.

Assistant professor in medical sciences at UNBC Dr. Taru Manyanga described how connecting with Black community in health care helped him weather similar experiences of racism in the workplace. As a physiotherapist with a PhD in epidemiology, he reminisced on his experiences working with his “incredible” Black peers.

“We are experts in what we do,” he said. “And so we should have a seat at the table.”

“We know when we show up, we have to do more than the next person. We know whatever we are doing, we have to cross our T’s [and] dot our I’s, because people expect less than,” said Manyanga.

Addressing barriers

When asked what needed to be done to address systemic issues for Black medical practitioners, the panelists were unanimous: we need representation where it matters.

“When we show up, when we exude excellence … I feel it in my bones. I know it. I can taste it. I can feel it — so excellence really is about being and showing up unapologetically Black.”

Sutherland emphasized the need for comprehensive representation, specifically in leadership. She cited an informal survey done at her workplace that found a concerning percentage of workers experienced racism. This is an observed trend across the nation: a 2020 study that surveyed nearly 50 Black physicians in Ontario found racism to be a recurrent issue in the workplace.

“We need leadership that looks like us,” said Manyanga. “When the system itself is not designed to acknowledge the inequality that exists, we are going to be especially suffering.”

UBC Midwifery Student Manager Aisha Sallad is dedicated to making UBC’s midwifery program more diverse. She cited targeted recruitment strategies, as well as steps to remove biases from the multiple-mini interview step of the admissions process.

On an institutional level, Sallad noted the importance of addressing systemic inequalities. She said UBC should be taking steps to engage and establish partnerships with Black communities “to understand [their] specific health care needs.”

A practicing physician, psychiatrist and UBC Clinical Instructor Dr. Oluseyi Malomo also pointed out barriers that exist for Black patients. Medical practitioners often don’t understand how Black patients might be coming into the health care system with hesitations stemming from racism and broken trust.

“I personally think it boils down to leaders actively listening to concerns of the community,” he said. “I think that goes a long way.”

Celebrating Black excellence

During his introduction, Ajaja highlighted the Black trailblazers that have shaped the medical landscape in Canada, like cancer researcher Dr. Juliet Daniel, pediatric nephrologist Dr. Lisa Robinson and psychiatrist Dr. Kwame McKenzie, just to name a few.

“Their stories serve as a testament to the resilience, ingenuity and unwavering commitment to excellence that defines the Black community,” he said.

The panelists emphasized the importance of mentorship in the health care sector to adequately support the next generation of Black excellence.

Malomo said he liked to be honest with mentees about the challenges they’ll face while Black in health care, but also advised that “there’s no mountain too difficult to climb.”

The panel discussion touched on personal experiences, barriers and paths to social growth. But most notably, the panelists spoke to the resounding joy of being Black and the pride that comes with being a part of a community that exemplifies excellence.

“We see it in you … We hear it in our voices, in our passion, in our soul, rich histories and backgrounds and things we do. We see it in all of the innovation that Black people have championed,” said Manyanga.

“I am so inspired when I see Black folk do what they do, and do what they do best.”