SHAMARA BAIDOOBONSO - ROLE MODEL & AMBASSADOR
Officially Inducted into the “National Wall of Role Models” on June 7, 2014 ( See full list www.BlackCanadianAwards.com )
Dr. Shamara Baidoobonso is originally from Kingston, Jamaica, but emigrated from there to the United States as a child. She moved to Canada several years after completing university in the Unites States. She has been involved in community service as a volunteer since she was 12 years old in the United States. Community service is very important to her, because she feels it is her responsibility to be involved in the community in which she lives. Hence, within her local community, she makes it a point to volunteer for various initiatives that enhance the quality of life for people in her community. Her volunteer work has spanned many of her interests and various sectors, but it has always focused on improving the lives of vulnerable people and those in need. She has volunteered with AIDS service organizations, hospitals, immigration councils, social justice groups, diversity groups, LGBT groups, and community development groups, to name a few. When she is not volunteering, she works as a Clinical Epidemiologist in an organization that provides evidence for health care policies.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born to a young, single mother in Kingston, Jamaica. Things were quite difficult for us there, and my opportunities were limited, so my mother and I emigrated to the United States. I excelled academically and graduated at the top of my classes in elementary and high school. I was awarded a full scholarship to attend Dartmouth College, an Ivy League university. I graduated from there with honours and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Biology. After that, I completed a graduate certificate in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My training in Public Health ignited a passion in me and made me realize that, although I wanted to impact the way healthcare is delivered, I did not want to become a medical doctor. Hence, I started a graduate program at Western University (University of Western Ontario) that led to a Ph.D. in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. My academic career was quite successful. In addition to graduating from schools with honours, I have received multiple academic awards and scholarships.
Ever since I was 12 years old, I have been volunteering. Throughout high school, I volunteered at a hospital, in first grade classroom in a low-income neighbourhood, as a mentor to underprivileged children, and with a club on campus. At the hospital, I helped the physicians and other staff with errands. I also read to the children in the pediatric unit and visited with patients in other units. During my time at the elementary school, I taught students how to read and do simple Math and helped the teacher with activities and lessons. As a mentor, I wrote letters to my mentee and participated in group activities, such as picnics. I co-founded the campus club with which I volunteered. The club aimed to strengthen the relationship between my high school and the surrounding community. My high school’s gifted program attracted students from all over the city, so many students, who had no connection to the community. Building the relationship between the community and the school was imperative. Through the club, I helped to collect food, clothes and other items for local underprivileged families and new refugee families. The other students and I used our networks to help the refugee families to integrate into the community and obtain the training and mentorship they needed in order to practice their professions or continue their education in the United States.
My volunteer work as a university undergraduate focused on issues related to diversity training and advocacy, HIV/AIDS and strengthening the Black student community. I worked with students from various campus communities (i.e. LGBT, Asian, Latino, international, etc.) to host events aimed at addressing issues related to social justice and combatting prejudice. We delivered diversity training and planned retreats for the training sessions. On these initiatives, I also worked with the Deans of Student Life and Pluralism and Leadership, as well as the various advisors working with each minority student community. Additionally, I collaborated with students from political and advocacy organizations to raise awareness about the social impact of HIV/AIDS in political forums. As a group, we attended conferences in Washington D.C. and spoke with United States presidential candidates about HIV/AIDS policies during town halls and meetings. I also worked with students from fraternities, sororities and medical student groups to create the Christopher Campaign Team through which we collected medical supplies for an HIV/AIDS charity in Marondera, Zimbabwe. Recognizing that the Black student community was divided along ethnic lines, I also worked various Black student groups to hold joint events, including a forum focused on recognizing and respecting our differences while appealing to Black students to unite. This was in addition to serving as the President of AfriCaSO (an African and Caribbean student group).
After completing my undergraduate degree, I continued to volunteer in roles that required a higher level of skill and responsibility. For example, while completing my certificate in Public Health, I volunteered full-time in the emergency department of a hospital. Within a few months, I was responsible for training new volunteers and helping with management tasks for the emergency department. I left the position when I moved to Canada, and upon arriving in London, Ontario, I again began to volunteer extensively. I started out volunteering with the prevention department of the local AIDS service organization, and I helped to plan the AIDS Walk and worked on other fundraisers. Additionally, I started to volunteer as the Secretary of London’s Black history committee, and I later became its Chair. As Chair, I focused on introducing new events, enhancing existing events and connecting with disparate parts of the Black community to engage them and collaborate with them. As an extension of my role, I was a founding member of a group aimed at saving London’s “fugitive slave chapel” from demolition. In addition, I was a Board Member and Vice President for an African community organization that focused on culture and economic development. My responsibilities included planning a cultural event that brought several African communities together, and hiring and supervising professional staff for an employment and economic development project. My other major volunteer role consisted of me being part of a council that is involved in strategic planning for immigration services. Now that I have moved to a new city, I am looking for opportunities to volunteer. My volunteer work will focus on health, culture and education. I intend to volunteer with a Black community organization and one other group.
Since high school, I have received numerous honours and awards in recognition of my community involvement. They include: a Diversity Award, an X-Factor Award, a Golden Heart Award, and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In addition to doing volunteer work that serves the Black community and other marginalized communities, I have used my research skills and academic credentials for the benefit of these communities as well. For instance, for the past several years, I have been conducting community-based research aimed at understanding immigration experiences and social determinants of HIV vulnerability in the Black community in London, Canada. For this project, I worked with members of the local Black community and organizations that were in a position to implement the recommendations from the research. The results will be used to impact HIV prevention programs and settlement services for the community. Additionally, I have volunteered as a researcher on a number of projects focused on improving health outcomes for Black people in Ontario. I continue to serve in the volunteer role as a member of the ACCHO (African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario) Research Committee, which informs the provincial strategy to address HIV/AIDS in Ontario. Additionally, I am helping to collect detailed information that will be used to improve HIV prevention and care services for Black Canadians. My work also involves leading workshops and talks aimed at educating people in the community about HIV stigma and how to overcome it. My research work has also focused on mental health and health care access for LGBT communities. As with my research with Black communities, these projects have also been community-based, and the results will be translated into policies and programs for the betterment of the communities. Now, in my new role as a Clinical Epidemiologist, the bulk of my work focuses on using research to inform health care policies for Ontarians, and potentially people in other locales.
What many people may not know about you?
Most people do not know that I was an artist in high school, and I am a fan of colourful abstract art, especially cubism. Although I have not created artwork since leaving high school, I plan to start painting and building sculptures again.
What's your inspiration and how do you get motivated?
My mother is my inspiration. I think about the sacrifices she made so that my life could be better than hers, and so that I could have more opportunities than she did. Despite her being a young, single mother, she was determined that I would not become a “statistic”. Seeing her work as hard as she did to be a positive example for me, I could not fathom doing anything that would disappoint her. As I see it, she did her part as a parent, so I did mine as her child.
How did you get to where you are now and what more should we expect?
I am where I am today because of the sacrifices previous generations have made on my behalf—from the people who died so that I could get an education, to my mother who made sure I became a statistician rather than a statistic. I always remember that I am standing on the shoulders of many people in the community, and I am proudly drawing on their collective strength and wisdom. The people who paved the way are a tremendous community resource on which I draw, so it is imperative for me to renew that resource by contributing to the community. I will continue to serve my community as an avid volunteer and mentor. My work has always required collaboration and partnerships, so my colleagues have been instrumental in my success as well. Hence, I will continue to work with others, in groups, to create positive outcomes for the community.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered for my honesty, fairness, and selfless dedication to improving my community and the lives of marginalized people. It is important for me to stick to my principles and values, because they impact my thoughts and actions, and ultimately, who I am. I maintain my integrity by adhering to those core principles. It is important for me to tell the truth, even if it is difficult. It is also important for me to be fair to everyone, by treating each person with dignity and respect, and recognizing that we are all shaped by the context our experiences. When volunteering in the community, I am as committed to my volunteer work as I am to my paid work. I recognize that much of the work in community is thankless, behind-the-scenes, without glory, but very necessary. When doing community work, I don’t think about myself, I think about all of us, collectively.
How do you balance work, family, friends and leisure?
I balance everything by establishing time limits when possible, keeping a schedule, and being very organized. I always keep an updated schedule that includes my appointments and meetings, responsibilities, and tasks. It helps me to stay organized and recognize when I need to say “no” to a project or opportunity. I also prioritize the tasks on my schedule, which helps me to address the most important or time-sensitive items first. Since time is very limited, and I am fully committed to anything with which I am involved, I choose my activities very carefully based on interest, enthusiasm, time commitment, conflicts that may arise, etc. I leave large “blank” areas in my schedule for leisure, and there are certain days that are dedicated to family and friends—no work, volunteering, etc. With my schedule and the boundaries that I have put in place, I am able to lead a healthy, balanced life.
What's your favorite food, book, music and movie?
I love soup…any kind of soup, as long as it has some ingredients that I can chew. I also enjoy eating bread with butter or cheese. My favourite book is The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. I re-read it every few years, and I always take something new from it. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is also high on my list. As for music, I like anything that sounds good to me, but my favourite song right now is “Butterflies” by Michael Jackson (it was originally performed by Floetry). My favourite movie right now is Les Miserables, the one that was released recently. I saw it several times.
What's your experience as a Black person in Canada?
All in all, my experience as a Black person in Canada has been positive. I haven’t faced any overt racism, but I have experienced covert racism and racial insensitivity. These forms of prejudice are dangerous, because they limit Black people’s options and opportunities to lead full lives. I lived in the United States for many years before coming to Canada, and while there, I had never seen a Confederate flag, which is part of United States’ history. However, during my first weekend in Canada, I saw the flag twice, and people told me that the flag represented strength and nonconformity. In my opinion, it represents the oppression and dehumanization of people based on their race. More recently, while I was looking for an apartment in Toronto, a friend and I visited a middle-class neighbourhood where an open house was being held, and we decided to visit the house. To our dismay, the realtor did not open the door for us. Little did he know, we were both young Black professionals, and we could afford to purchase the house. The realtor made assumptions about us and what we could afford based on our race, so he denied us the opportunity to even see the house. This was similar to the experience Oprah had in Switzerland, when a sales clerk was denying her the opportunity to purchase a bag, because the sales clerk made assumptions about what Oprah could afford, based on her race.
Based on my experience, it appears that people seldom talk about or address racism and racial insensitivity in Canada. Hence, unless a racial slur is used, many people are not educated or corrected when they say or do things that are racist or racially insensitive. I think there needs to be more dialogue around these issues so that people know how to address them appropriately. Although this dialogue will be difficult, it is important to have the conversation, because we cannot address issues that are not acknowledged. Furthermore, by not addressing these issues, we may be creating a situation in which it will be very difficult for the current generation and next generation to advance. They will not have equal opportunities due to the assumptions people make based on their race.
Are there as many opportunities for Blacks in Canada that can produce role models and institutions like TD Jakes, Beyonce, Tyler Perry, Obama, BET, etc.
I don’t think I have been in Canada long enough to be able to answer this question adequately. I get the sense that the size of our population in Canada (~2% versus about 13% in the United States) is what hinders us from creating institutions and role models that are similar to those in the United States. Additionally, our Black population in Canada is far more ethnically diverse than the Black population in the United States. While ~90% of Black in Canada have direct African or Caribbean roots, ~90% of Blacks in the United States are multi-generational African Americans whose families have been in the United States since slavery. When we divide ourselves along ethnic lines, we are much smaller than 2% of the Canadian population. In my opinion, we need to unite under our common, shared identity if we want to create and sustain institutions and roles models like the ones that are in the United States.
Mention a few of your favorite Black Canadian Leaders, Artists and Role Models?
Jean Augustine and Lincoln Alexander (deceased) have paved the way in terms of politics and public service. I respect the images they present and appreciate the contributions they’ve made. Aside from these individuals, the leaders who I admire most are those in the local community in London, Ontario. These are the non-famous people who help to develop the local community, and they include Councillor Harold Usher, Christina Lord, Carl Cadogan, and many more.
Should and do Blacks support / patronize black music, events and businesses?
We should absolutely support Black music, events, and businesses. When we support each other, we build trust and community, so this support is the foundation needed to build a strong and influential Black community. If we don’t support each other, then why should others support us? Now, for the second part of the question, I don’t think we support each other enough. I have been a member of several groups that focus on planning free events to showcase Black cultures and history. Turnout from the Black community is usually low for these events. In my opinion, not supporting community events and businesses is part of a larger problem of us not being very involved in the Black community and the broader Canadian community. There are many social factors that serve as barriers to our participation in our community and society as a whole. However, the fact is, we are generally not engaged, and we are disconnected from the community, and both are harmful.
What’s your understanding of Black History in Canada?
Many people fail to realize that, just as Blacks are a founding population of the United States, we are a founding population of Canada. Black people have been in Canada since the 1600s, but most of us don’t know this. Additionally, while the first Black person in Canada was not a slave, Blacks were enslaved in Canada, just as in the United States. Even after slavery was abolished in Canada, racism limited our opportunities and ability to fully participate in Canadian society. Our history in Canada is not taught in many schools, and most people in Canada do not know our history. I personally think that Black history must be taught in Canadian schools—it should be part of the curriculum. Our history is the story of how we got to where we are today. If we don’t know our history, we don’t know our context, where we are on our journey as a people, or where we are going. Like us, others will have a better understanding of who we are once they know our history, too.
A few words from you to an uninspired person?
I have never met a person who has not faced any challenges in his or her life. Facing challenges is normal, but what is not normal, is making those challenges determine our success, regardless of how we define success. I would advise the uninspired person to think of challenges as opportunities to gain wisdom and grow. Every successful person I know overcame their personal challenges with determination and a commitment to being stronger. The things that are challenging are usually the things that can potentially have the greatest positive impact on our lives. Don’t shy away from challenges that arise in your path; face them head-on and know that you will succeed.