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Racialized Communities Leading Research with Culturally-Safe Allied Academics

Dr. Charlotte Loppie, a Community-Based Research Canada board director and University of Victoria professor and Associate Dean of Research, answers questions on the theme of the Fall 2020 e-News, Community-Based Research with Racialized Communities.

What does the term racialized communities mean and why is it the common term we are using today?

This is the most recent terminology in an evolution of racial concepts. In the past, race was thought of as a biological state, which has been scientifically refuted. Race is socially constructed, and we racialize folks by comparing them and labeling them. By using the term “racialized community” to refer to non-white people, we demonstrate that white people are thought of as a kind of racial default. Their race is often not consciously identified. We are still living with a racial ideology and we are not past the hierarchy of race, but I think we are starting to see people identified by their country of origin; place rather than race.

How did your career begin in community-based research with racialized communities?

I am Indigenous from Nova Scotia and I married into an African-Nova Scotian family in 1978. In the early 2000s, I was asked to work on a project with African-Nova Scotian women called “The Myth of the Strong Black Woman”. This was long before the concept of allies was being used. This project was my first as an ally. The women in this community invited me in and trusted me as a non-black person, and I felt a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability.

What are some wise practices that you have adopted?

A key feature of wise practices is that we respond to requests from communities and community organizations, rather than ‘chase’ communities to engage research that is interesting to researchers. Communities should control projects from the get-go. If we, as academics, are doing our jobs well, we provide a service to the community. When I demonstrate, over many years, that I am honest and get my work done, they will continue to seek out those services.

Can you tell me more about a research project that demonstrates excellence in community-based research?

The Indigenous women who lead the Visioning Health research project approached me to write a grant in collaboration with them. These women, Doris Peltier and Tracey Prentice, made a commitment to having Indigenous women living with HIV form a Women’s Circle that led the project decision making and engaged women at the local level. (Watch a CBR Canada webinar recording of Doris and Tracey speaking about this project). A national elder and a local elder were also engaged in the project. Data analysis was led by an amazing Circle of HIV-positive women, who created a visual representation of their collective experiences. Data analysis is typically conducted by an academic who knows the theory and content; however, no one understands the stories like the people who have lived those experiences.

The project utilized a peer-mentoring model. Women’s from the first Visioning Health project (the pilot study) mentored women from Visioning Health 2. The women flourished in the mentorship role. I was also mentored by the women who led the project. In academia, standard practice is a one-way mentorship or capacity building model, in which academics typically mentor community members in the use of research methods. I use the term ‘capacity-bridging’ because it recognizes that communities already have lots of capacity that, with support, can bridge to a different context or project.

Do you have any suggestions for how CBR Canada can better address institutional and systemic racism?

The first questions to ask is how are we representing diverse communities (gender, sex, ethnicity)? Each person brings a unique personal and cultural perspective. Cultural safety training is critical - at the very highest level of an organization. Systems have to create supports for cultural safety as well as consequences for culturally unsafe practice. Bigotry should be viewed as a health and safety threat in the same way that we view COVID 19. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) just funded the BC Network Environment for Indigenous Health Research (BC NEIHR) for 5 years - to support Indigenous peoples to engage in research that is meaningful to them. We are going to develop cultural safety training for researchers because that doesn’t really exist yet. You can stay tuned to access this resource.

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