Allied for Inclusion

Feb 22, 2017

Lisa RobinsonAt a time when the world seems more transfixed on building walls than bridges — literally and metaphorically — we need to take a moment to reflect on how we in the Faculty of Medicine are building and sustaining an equitable community. As John Donne wrote in 1642, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Or put more succinctly: We’re all in this together! And because of that, it’s important to consider the role each of us plays in fostering an inclusive environment.

I have found the concept of “allyship” helpful in approaching this topic. Being an ally isn’t a title you apply to yourself. Instead, it’s a process you undertake throughout your life to build relationships rooted in trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals and groups. That sounds straightforward, but how do we actually live it? To begin with, we can turn to our colleagues at Mount Sinai Hospital who have developed a terrific campaign — Are you an ALLY? — which includes great resources that both define this concept and help us understand how we can practise it.

As they explain, being an ally begins first with reflection. Are we aware of our own prejudices? Sometimes we know of certain biases we may hold, but often there are some we don’t even recognize. Discovering those implicit biases can allow each of us to identify areas for reflection. Online tools like the Implicit Association Test are a good way to start this process of self-reflection.

The second step is to consider how acts of bias or intolerance impact those on the receiving end. This is about recognizing our own privileges and developing a greater understanding of the needs of marginalized groups through self-study. It’s also about recognizing that acts of intolerance can build upon others. In the days that followed the horrific attack on a Quebec City mosque late last month, authorities reported a spike in hate-related incidents. That’s why it’s important that we also take action — which is the third and final step.

Taking action can include:

  • Being aware of our own prejudices and avoid making assumptions based on a person’s appearance
  • Questioning stereotypes and negative assumptions made by others and speaking up when we hear demeaning jokes/comments
  • Supporting colleagues, peers, friends and family who experience discrimination or harassment

While we might be thinking about these approaches in new ways, they aren’t new ideas. As we mark Black History Month, I’ve been reflecting on the example of the first two Black physicians to graduate in Toronto. The American-born Dr. Alexander T. Augusta arrived in Toronto in the early 1850s, having been denied entry to U.S. medical schools because of the colour of his skin. He earned a Bachelor of Medicine degree in 1860 from Trinity Medical College (an institution that would later merge with U of T’s Faculty of Medicine). Not far behind him was Toronto-born Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, who spent four years studying under Augusta. Abbott earned his medical license in 1861. They were able to support each other throughout their careers, all too aware of the discrimination that surrounded them, but never silenced by the adversity they faced.

Speak to our students and you quickly come to understand the importance of peer support. Being able to talk with someone who has faced — or is facing — some of the same challenges as you can provide insights, comfort and strategies for success. That’s just one of the reasons the work of the Black Medical Students Association is so appreciated and deserving of recognition. But, what more can we do to apply the concept of allyship within the Faculty of Medicine? I welcome you to share ideas with me by tweeting them to @DrLisaRobinson or by emailing me at Helping to support me in this effort is Anita Balakrishna, the Faculty’s new Diversity Strategist. In this role, she will create and build comprehensive programs and policies across the Faculty to promote diversity and inclusion initiatives, in collaboration with our internal and external stakeholders. Anita has a strong background in human rights law, inclusivity/anti-oppression training and programming, and equity policy development. I am thrilled to have her on our team!

Delivering on the Faculty’s commitment to inclusion isn’t the responsibility of one small office alone, but of every one of us. It is often the day-to-day actions of support and resistance that make such a difference to others. If we in the Faculty of Medicine can each do our part to create an allied community, we will go a long way to building a more inclusive, respectful, and compassionate environment for all. So we’re looking for allies, and I hope you’ll be one.

Lisa Robinson
Chief Diversity Officer, Faculty of Medicine
Professor, Department of Paediatrics


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