Notisha Massaquoi, an assistant professor in the department of health and society at U of T Scarborough, is a distinguished global authority on health equity.
For over 30 years, she has focused her career on addressing the healthcare obstacles that Black women confront.
(Photo by YWCA Toronto)
In the winter of 1991, a group of Black and racialised women staged a sit-in to protest the Ontario government’s cancellation of funding for a community health centre that would tackle the inequities they faced in the healthcare system.
Notisha Massaquoi, then a student, played a pivotal role in designing the centre’s services and structure.
When the founding members occupied the building and had their heat and water shut off, Massaquoi helped to smuggle in blankets and food to support the protest.
After one week, the government upheld its promise, and Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH) became the sole community health centre in North America to provide specialised primary healthcare for Black and racialised women.
Massaquoi has dedicated much of her career to exposing and challenging the disparities that Black women encounter in Canadian healthcare.
She was recently honoured with the 2023 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Award, a prestigious accolade that celebrates women who advance gender equality in their respective fields.
As Massaquoi puts it, “When it comes to Black women advancing in healthcare, I often say it’s not a glass ceiling, but a cement one.”
During the HIV pandemic in Toronto, Notisha Massaquoi arrived in the city to pursue her graduate studies.
The outbreak had a disproportionate impact on gay men and individuals from African, Caribbean, and Black communities.
Massaquoi took the initiative to establish Canada’s first counselling support programs for Africans living with HIV and played a crucial role in creating Africans in Partnership Against AIDS, a culturally grounded organisation that educates people about HIV/AIDS.
At that time, stigma was widespread, and healthcare providers were either unwilling or unprepared to treat Black patients.
Massaquoi, a young social worker at the time, was confronted with the deaths of every individual who had sought her assistance in the first year of running the program. “I was not prepared to deal with death in that way, and not for any reason other than lack of access to healthcare,” she reflects.
“It shaped everything about my research and what I intended to do. I never wanted anyone to experience that again.”
For 22 years, Massaquoi served as the executive director of WHIWH, where she noticed that many of the centre’s clients travelled for an hour from Scarborough. She then proposed and formulated the plan for TAIBU Community Health Centre, a community-led organisation that prioritises Black communities throughout the Greater Toronto Area and is located in Malvern.
Massaquoi firmly believes that health equity necessitates recognising that those who have personally experienced inequities are the only experts who can help identify solutions.
Notisha Massaquoi arrived in Toronto to attend graduate school at a time when the city was grappling with the HIV pandemic that disproportionately affected gay men and individuals from African, Caribbean and Black communities.
As a young social worker, she launched Canada’s first counselling support programs for Africans living with HIV and established the Africans in Partnership Against AIDS organisation that offers culturally-sensitive education on HIV/AIDS.
Massaquoi witnessed the rampant stigma and the lack of preparedness among physicians to treat Black patients, resulting in the death of every person who sought her assistance within the first year of her program.
This experience shaped her research and career trajectory, leading her to become the executive director of Women’s Health in Women’s Hands for 22 years and spearheading the creation of TAIBU Community Health Centre to prioritise Black communities across the GTA.
Following the death of Andrew Loku, a Black man murdered by the Toronto Police, Massaquoi was appointed to co-chair the anti-racism advisory committee for the Toronto Police Services board.
She spent several years developing the TPS race-based data collection policy, the first of its kind in Canada, requiring police to collect data on the race of every citizen they interact with. Her work earned her a spot on Toronto Life’s list of the 50 most influential Torontonians of 2022.
Though she had planned to retire after a 30-year career, the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder compelled Massaquoi to refocus on the next generation and pursue a Ph.D.
She received the 2020 Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, where she researched the relationship between violence and health in Black communities.
Last year, she founded the Black Health Equity Lab (BHEL) at U of T Scarborough, which aims to co-create solutions to health-care inequalities faced by the Black community in Toronto. BHEL’s first project is a partnership with TAIBU Community Health Centre to establish Ontario’s first clinical program for Black people living with HIV.
“Health equity champion Notisha Massaquoi receives prestigious award for her lifelong work in fighting for marginalised communities”
Massaquoi believes that people should not be complacent about progress made towards equity and should remain outraged at inequities while acting collectively to eliminate them.