Who we are as 'scholars' matters.

In my recent IJEH article "Five ways health 'scholars' are complicit in upholding inequities, and how to stop", I argue that who we are and what we do in these spaces matter. As a new IJEH editorial team member, I'm excited to share more about myself & my motivations in this invited blog post!
Who we are as 'scholars' matters.
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I’ve been invited to contribute to Springer Nature’s Meet the SDG3 researcher blog collection. They are interviewing a series of academics and practitioners working in diverse fields to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. You can find other posts in this collection here, and discover what else Springer Nature is doing to advance progress towards achieving this goal on their SDG3 hub.

How did you get into this work?

My positionality as a researcher is intrinsically linked to my research program’s goals which is focused on transforming systems, (like health, research, government systems), to work more fairly for all of us. As a woman, a visible minority and the child of non-English-speaking immigrants growing up in the then almost exclusively white, rural, Township of Langley, my life has been defined by living in ‘in-between’ spaces for most of my life. I am truly in my element when working within similarly complex, contradictory and non-linear systems and figuring out how they can be reconciled to serve our collective ideals around equitable health outcomes in more authentic ways.

The multiplicities of my social locations also play out very clearly in my non-linear career trajectory- this trajectory has been paramount to my development as a researcher. As a result of my various positions ranging from sales to health communications roles to broad involvement in federal politics and working within health systems, I know that what works at the research ‘bench’ rarely works in practice without deliberate design. As a co-Director of the Science of Health Equity Learning Lab, deliberately co-designing research that works for end users is central to everything that we do!

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

One of the biggest challenges facing my field is actually both an opportunity and risk- the ubiquity of attention to issues of equity in this moment, prompted by many intersecting factors, is a welcome shift in attention. However, with this increased attention and rush to ‘do something’, there’s risk that the centuries of scholarship, thinking, theory and action to advance justice will be diluted by more palatable and marketable ‘checklist’-oriented actions that appease our own sense of ‘goodness’, without meaningfully redistributing power, resources or opportunities. One strategy for mitigating this in my own work has been to increasingly expand the overlap between my work as a health equity scholar and the work of the systems within which we want to see change.

For example, since 2016, I have served as an Embedded Health Equity Scholar with our local health authority, Interior Health, where I have worked to varying degrees with the Population Health and Research and other departments to bring evidence directly into the spaces where day to day decisions are being made. This strategy, among others, has been key in responding to an inherent challenge in health research, where researchers and decision-makers often ask fundamentally different questions about the same problem. While researchers ask ‘what do we know?’ about a problem, decision-makers necessarily want to know ‘what should we do?” about this problem and increasing our mutual capacity to answer both questions, together, is going to be one of the most important ways in which we advance equity-oriented systems transformation.

This is, of course, a complex issue to solve in and of itself and is just one example of the ways in which our work can respond to the SDG3 goals, in particular, target 10.3 to ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome. Like I mention in my paper, we actually have to be and do differently, we can’t just keep behaving the same and with the same metrics, structures and institutional silos and expect that the outcomes of our work will be different.

What are the biggest hurdles in your career?

One of the biggest hurdles in my career is a constant need for code-switching to move our work forward. By nature of the multi-disciplinary and multi-partnered work that I do, I often have to communicate about the same topic in vastly different ways, often in the same day. For example, how you discuss a problem and the solutions to that problem are quite different depending on if you’re speaking to someone who is being directly harmed by the problem or if you are speaking to a funding institution or to your own academic institution. Finding ways to satisfy institutional, academic and bureaucratic measures to continue to have the resources, time and opportunities to do the ‘real-life’ work of supporting community partners is always a constant struggle- luckily, I am able to lean on the wisdom of many community-engaged scholars to figure out how best to navigate this and there appears to be a very real appetite to address some of the structural barriers to doing this type of work in academia.

 Who has helped you along the way?

I’m very fortunate to have had incredible mentors throughout my academic training and career, including from superstar nurse scholars Dr. Joan Bottorff (PhD Supervisor) and Dr. Bernie Pauly (Postdoc Supervisor). Thanks to their mentorship and guidance, I was able to join the School of Nursing at UBC’s Okanagan campus as their first non-nurse faculty member in 2019! Dr. Bottorff prepared me for leading a rigorous independent research career and Dr. Pauly further helped me refine my interests into a focused research program in complex systems change and health equity, that was firmly rooted in service to community in the pursuit of justice. Dr. Christopher Horsethief, a complex systems theorist, methodologist, and Ktunaxa Scholar, has further supported my development as a researcher, first as my postdoc supervisor and now as my co-lead, mentor and co-conspirator (alongside Dr. Pauly and others!) in disrupting harmful systems towards equity.

There are truly too many special influences to individually name but I remain indebted to so many brilliant folks, (including the Cedar Project team, Ktunaxa Elders, community partners, Interior Health leaders, etc.) for guiding and correcting me along this path. Of course, I would be remiss to forget to shout out Dr. Katrina Plamondon, my co-Director with the Science of Health Equity Learning Lab and an  health equity and global health leader that I am lucky to get to learn alongside, and with, her brilliance as we navigate the wild world of academia together.

What resources or reports are inspiring you these days?

One resource that has really inspired a lot of my work and thinking lately has been the report ‘Disaggregated demographic data collection in British Columbia: The grandmother perspective’. Conceptualized by another of my mentors and collaborators, Gwen Phillips of Ktunaxa Nation, the framework lays out an approach to data collection rooted in a commitment to justice for those the data is collected. It sets out an elegant and powerful reminder about to whom our work belongs and it inspires me to continue to believe in the emancipatory potential of research and scholarship, even if it sometimes feels like we’ve got a long way to go before we can reach our ideals. The people I get to spend my days with, from partners, mentors, colleagues, trainees and students are a constant reminder to me that these ideals are endlessly worth pursuing, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity and privileges afforded to me through my appointment to at least try.

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