Shamara Baidoobonso says she feels a tremendous responsibility to make a difference in the Black community on P.E.I.
The 35-year-old provincial epidemiologist, who lives in Stratford, was recently named by Chatelaine as one of two Islanders on the magazine’s list of 33 Black Canadians making change now.
Baidobonsoo joins Tamara Steele, president of the Black Cultural Society of P.E.I. on the list. (The Guardian also reached out to Steele for comment but was unsuccessful in reaching her.)
The magazine states that the muffled conversations about systemic racism has become a roar and that the people on the list like Baidoobonso and Steele have helped raise the volume.
In an interview with The Guardian, Baidoobonso said she is deeply honoured by the recognition, describing it as one little sign that change is happening, that society is doing things to address systemic racism.
“It gives me a platform,’’ Baidoobonso said about the recognition and how it has led to things like this media interview, “and, I have always felt a personal responsibility. We’re not overrun with Black epidemiologists in Canada. In my graduate program, some years there were no Black students in the epidemiology program.’’
That fact alone inspired her to become a Black leader in health care, ultimately leading her to join P.E.I.’s Chief Public Health Office in 2018.
Dr. Heather Morrison, the province’s chief public health officer, said she is proud of Baidoobonso.
“Dr. Baidoobonso’s recent recognition by Chatelaine magazine for her community-based work on HIV in African, Carribean and Black communities is well deserved,’’ Morrison said. “Since joining our team, I have seen those same skills and dedication to community applied towards the promotion and protection of the health of all Islanders. We are fortunate to have her on our team.’’
Baidoobonso originally planned to study health in the transgendered community. She soon discovered the people in Canada’s Black community were disproportionately affected by HIV and that very little research was being done.
So, she decided to pursue a career as an epidemiologist and make HIV research a project she would focus on.
“I built my own team. I built my own funds.’’
Baidoobonso was determined to make an impact.
“I felt a responsibility as a Black woman who was in this priviledged position of being able to go to graduate school and focus on research and have these skills and access to resources. I felt a responsibility to do a project that was focused on HIV in Black communities because I knew that was something that could make a difference.’’
The Guardian asked Baidoobonso what five key traits make for a good leader when it comes to systemic racism:
- Persistence: It has become a long and difficult issue that needs people to see things to the end.
- Inclusiveness: The Black community is very diverse with many ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. Everyone needs to be brought under the same tent.
- Courage: Being a minority it sometimes takes courage to stand up to systemic racism and speak out.
- Collaboration: When it comes to identifying problems, it is important that people have allies that can help.
- Support network: Experiencing systemic racism can be psychologically jarring. Having people to lean on from time to time is important.
Even though her full-time job has her working in the public service, Baidoobonso spends most of her free time connecting with her research team, working with people in the community and and helping to mentor and support people who are living with HIV.
One of her research participants is now the director of an agency that provides treatment for people living with HIV while another participant manages community relations for a global pharmaceutical company.
“That’s powerful,’’ she said, tears of pride welling in her eyes.
Being included on Chatelaine’s list is a big honour, she says. But, it means so much more to her this year considering the tragic events that have been going on in Canada and the United States this year.
The deaths of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd hurt. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch the video of Floyd’s death.
She struggles to find the words to describe what it did to her.
“For me, it was here we go again ... it starts becoming overwhelming ... after a certain point I stopped following the (news). I don’t have the stomach to watch it.’’
She assumed the news cycle would simply move on as it always has in the past. She figured people would forget.
However, Baidoobonso believes society is paying attention in a way it never has before.
“There are all these people who were never engaged before who started to pay attention and started to use their voices to raise awareness. It felt different. Quite frankly, I think COVID might have helped. People were home, watching TV and the internet. That helped to amplify things.’’
Baidoobonso said more and more people are becoming a part of the conversation.
She again points to this interview about the Chatelaine list and the interest it has created.
“So, we are now also having conversations about systemic racism and I did not think this would happen in my lifetime.’’
Baidoobonso said the diversity of her family has helped her become a more accepting person in life. Her husband is white. There are a variety of races, religions and sexual orientations in her family.
“I love everyone and their diversity. There will always be people who have a different world view; who think that one group is better than anyone; who values one person’s life more than another. For me to have that world view would mean discounting members of my own family who I love and who love and support me.’’
Baidoobonso said institutions, such as her own, can help fight systemic racism, explaining that society needs to put in place systems that are inclusive, ones strong enough to overcome the prejudiced views of the few.
She’s doing her part in the health-care field.
“If we’re all doing our part and committed to tackling systemic racism we can make a difference.’’
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