This Black History and Futures Month, we are spotlighting and celebrating our Black team and community members from across the organization as part of our We are Women’s series.
Name: Suzanne M. Charles Watson
Title & Department: Director, Anti-racism, Equity and Social Accountability
On the WCH team for: One year (February 2022)
1. Where were you born? If you were born outside of Canada, when did you come to Canada?
I was born in the beautiful twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, but I consider myself a real Caribbean person as I have roots in Grenada on my father’s side, Barbados on my mother’s side and I’m married to a Jamaican with a what I call my TrinJaican son.
We arrived in Canada on Friday, September 29, 2017.
2. Why is Black History and Futures Month significant to you?
It offers a space to unapologetically celebrate all things Black. To enjoy some Black Joy and revel in Black Excellence. It also offers a space to examine the pathologies that persist within Black communities and, irrespective of the roots of those issues, to commit to doing better at the personal level and to commit to do the work to dismantle the systems from which many of these pathologies spring.
It’s like celebrating the principles of Kwanza (unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) for an entire month!
3. How has your Black heritage influenced your work in healthcare?
Wherever I go, I always work to show up as Black Excellence, prepared and ready to facilitate and advocate for change and social justice. It’s no secret that racialized folks are most vulnerable in health care systems, yet – because of entrenched systemic discrimination – continue to receive far less than equitable care. Being a part of that system, particularly as a Black immigrant woman working in equity, means that my job is to work to build capacity around how we change the systems that disadvantage folks that look like me and all folks that have also been traditionally excluded.
My vision for the work at Women’s College Hospital situates equity as both an institutional priority as well as an academic endeavour, designed to drive solutions, address health gaps and enhance health systems.
4. What do you perceive as the main challenge(s) for the Black community in healthcare, both as patients and providers?
Long-held perceptions about Black folks, rooted in ignorance and systems of exclusion.
Unfortunately, established archetypes about who and what a doctor looks like persist; in many quarters, and despite centuries of Black excellence and innovation in medicine and health care, in 2023 that is still not a Black person. These ideas impact ideas of who can and must matriculate into medical schools and into positions within health management.
Consequently, we have a limited scope of medical/health research and a myopic vision of how care can be and is delivered, and models of care that are woefully culturally inadequate, inappropriate and oftentimes downright dangerous, as observed most readily in cases of pain management and maternal mortality.
We need to problematize and challenge this kind of thinking at a fundamental level and interrupt patterns of exclusion from kindergarten where historically excluded groups are encouraged, facilitated and mentored in STEAM areas of the curriculum.
It also means that the few racialized healthcare workers often end up being over extended in an attempt to care for their communities.
Moreover, we need to develop interventions that address issues that have little to do directly with clinical care but nonetheless impact health outcomes. Things like access to safe and affordable housing, quality and nutritious food, technology, preparatory education to take advantage of economic opportunity, safe communities and social and cultural cohesion are just a few factors around which we have to build policy that determines access to quality care and influences health outcomes.
5. What is your greatest wish for 2023 as it relates to Black History and Futures Month and healthcare?
Authenticity in an ideological and resource commitment to building and maintaining system-disrupting policy that allows all folks access to health care that makes sense to them, is informed by rigorous research designed with them in mind and includes them as partners in the process of care.
6. Who is your Black mentor or role model? Why?
I’ve been very lucky to have had a host of Black women who have shaped who I am from infancy.
Immediately I think of my mother, who instilled the importance of being authentic and understanding that your name was the most valuable asset one could possess.
I think of my maternal grandmother, who had the amazing capacity to make every one of her many, many grandchildren believe they were her favorite and had her undivided attention even when we were altogether in a room
I think of my paternal grandmother who, at 15 and already pregnant, had the temerity to leave her home in Grenada for Trinidad for a better life. Her work ethic remains the stuff of legend and she remains an icon of style, as her legacy produced three of her five children themselves having children with PhDs.
I think of even of my two older sisters whose generosity and grace are matchless.
I think of my favourite undergraduate lecturer, Dr. Gwendoline Williams, whose nugget of wisdom to “never put yourself in a position to beg for mercy, but to demand justice” remains with me twenty years later.
I think of a former boss, Professor Barbara Bailey, whose intellectual and procedural approach to work continues to impact my own professional approach to this day. She taught the importance of rigor in research, but that there must be kindness in collecting data, and that there must be love in finding solutions; that we must overturn and find nuances in gender analysis, because nothing is as simple, antagonistic or dualistic as it initially appears. That our lives and livelihoods are complicated, and the nuances of our humanity are found at the intersections and in our diversities.
I think of my former choir director and friend Dr. Patricia Allison Bishop whose work as a historian, an artist and a musician brought our nation closer to an understanding of our inherent value as people, particularly outside of the colonial understanding of the things about a people and culture that ought to be considered important. Her work to instill national (and personal) pride was reflected in her philosophy of collective responsibility, where she advocated that we were all responsible to “do the work” to create the kind of society in which we would all wish to live. This she summed up in one of her iconic sayings that “Until all have crossed, none have crossed. And some, we will have to carry.”
I’m deeply aware that it is on the shoulders of these women that I stand; and I hope my work will make each of these women proud and contribute to their legacies as I build my own.