Women Are Taking Control Of Their Own Health At This Toronto Community Clinic
Women taking ownership of their bodies and health is a passionate topic on various levels – one that can be both enlightening and frustrating, depending on your vantage point.
In Toronto, a positive space exists where women maintain control over their own health and well-being in partnership with dedicated healthcare professionals. The organization is aptly named generously Women’s Health In Women’s Hands Community Health Centre (WHIWH).
WHIWH is a primarily government-funded, completely women-run, and totally women-centered healthcare provider, but what makes it even more unique is that it cares specifically for the health and wellness of racialized women from African, Caribbean, Black, Latin American and South Asian communities in the Toronto area.
Offering primary healthcare, mental health services, clinical care and community health programs, WHIWH is the only community health center in North America that walks the walk and talks the talk regarding culturally-appropriate and holistic healthcare for women within an anti-oppressive framework.
Notisha Massaquoi began her relationship with the center as a client and then served as a senior executive for 18 years. Since 2006, she’s worked as WHIWH executive director.
“We understand that women are experts in their own health and need to be partners in their healthcare. All of our services are designed with, and not just for, the racialized and cultural communities we serve,” she says.
Cultural relevance is something that is often missing from entities that aim to serve multicultural demographics, or something that is offered on a very superficial level. WHIWH finds unique and meaningful ways to provide services in an authentic way to their clients.
“We as service providers are also from the cultural communities that we serve with 90 percent of staff, and 100 percent of managers and board members, being from racialized communities,” Massaquoi says. “We’re also highly professionally-trained healthcare providers.”
As the first community health center in North America of its kind, challenges abound.
“We have no blueprint,” Massaquoi explains. “We are trailblazers in this area.”
Systemic inequities have provided obstacles as well.
“There is very little societal concern about the lives of racialized women or their health, so we are often asked to prove that we need this health center or to prove that these women are deserving of this healthcare. We are very grateful to our founders for having the foresight to seek the original funding for a community health center for women that is fully funded by the provincial government, so we are not burdened with searching for funding like other ethnocultural organizations.”
“What we struggle with however, is proving the need for growth and for additional resources to address healthcare for racialized women in an equitable manner,” she adds.
Equity and intersectionality are at the heart of everything WHIWH does for its clients. As Audre Lorde once said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” WHIWH’s anti-oppression framework seeks to ensure that women of all kinds are cared for thoroughly and sensitively.
“It is really important to work with women as whole people and understand that no one has just one identity, but many identities that live with them at all times; and they enter the healthcare setting with them,” Massaquoi says. “We specialize in healthcare for racialized women, but also need to be able to address all forms of oppression that impact someone’s wellbeing, such as homophobia, racism, sexism and Islamophobia.”
How is WHIWH working to be even more intersectional in their approach? Massaquoi explains:
“We are going to be putting more emphasis in the coming year on youth and seniors who experience ageism and address the lack of health services for those populations; women with disabilities and women who have or are experiencing violence and trauma.”
WHIWH is made up of a team of inspired and devoted healthcare professionals, administration staff and volunteers who keep the center running. So, what has Massaquoi learned about working with a team of powerful women?
“I have learned what incredible things can be accomplished by the work of 40 dedicated women. I have learned that, in order to be in true service to others, humility needs to be your key strategy. And I have learned that nothing is impossible.”
“Don’t believe the myth that women cannot work together. It’s a very sexist fallacy that was constructed to distract us from the power women possess as individuals that only becomes amplified when we are working together. The belief that we cannot work well together without men present is quite misogynistic.”
The future is bright for WHIWH and the women that the center serves. Clients have described it as “life-saving and life-changing,” and that kind of motivation keeps staff coming to work and clients coming for care and support.
“Twenty-five years ago, when the center was just getting starting, I was a client who was so grateful to find a doctor and service providers who could understand my experience as a Black woman and how it was important to acknowledge this in my healthcare journey,” shares Massaquoi, adding:
“Being able to eventually walk through those doors as an employee was the most exhilarating feeling. To know that I would be giving back to a center that had given me so much was a gift. I still feel that same way every morning when I walk through those doors 18 years later. Not many people get to do the thing they dreamed of every day.”
Bee Quammie is a writer and communications specialist based in Toronto. Her writing has been featured in publications like VICE, The Establishment, The Globe & Mail, and Revolt. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading a good book, plotting her next Carnival vacation, and raising her toddler daughter to be as fierce and fabulous as she can be. Learn more about Bee and her work on her website and follow her on Twitter.