Our People in Profile: African Nova Scotian Health Strategy lead Rhonda Atwell says still 'a lot of work to do' to address racial inequity

Rhonda Atwell is project coordinator for the African Nova Scotian Health Strategy.
Rhonda Atwell is project coordinator for the African Nova Scotian Health Strategy.

As project coordinator for the African Nova Scotian Health Strategy, Rhonda Atwell works to uncover why health disparities of the community are so high.

Being of African Nova Scotian descent herself, this work holds special meaning for her.

“I’m extremely proud of my background and my community,” Atwell said. “There’s so much brilliance, beauty, strength and talent.”

Atwell’s pride in her heritage is evident in her work. A seventh generation resident of East Preston, Atwell feels blessed to be able to bring a personal connection to her role every day.

“This strategy and this work, it not only affects me, but it affects my family and my community,” Atwell said.

Originally requested by leaders of African Nova Scotian communities, the strategy brings together many organizations to better understand the problems members of these communities face. Then, the goal is to come up with an action plan to address them.

“The hope is that it will impact generations,” Atwell said. “This is something that can make real and lasting change.”

Working hard to achieve this, Atwell’s days are filled with committee meetings, advocacy work and stakeholder engagement through community validation sessions.

This important work is taking place at an equally important time, during the United Nation’s Decade for People of African Descent.

During this time, the international community is coming together to “(recognize) that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected.

In line with this, the African Nova Scotian Health Strategy explores the unique challenges faced by these communities that lead to significant health disparities.

One contributing factor is racism, both systemic and by prejudice and discrimination.

“The impacts of racism have created and continue to create great inequalities and disparities,” Atwell said.

But today, there seems to be a paradigm shift happening that has Atwell hopeful for a better future.

“There’s a lot of unveiling of disparities and oppression and racism,” she said. “It’s not hidden, and not to say that it ever was. I feel that we’re at a time where it’s being talked about and it’s being addressed.”

“It’s a time for addressing imposed barriers that impact us,” she said. “I think this is a big part of why I do what I do as a health promoter and a community advocate.”

While the health strategy is a good first step, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“We have to keep following those steps until we see the change. For as much as I see progress, whether it’s in society or in the organization, I also see the lack of it,” Atwell said. “We have progressed yes, but we have a lot of work to do.”

An important part of that work is being intentional with employment equity and cultural competency.

“We must open doors, close gaps and eliminate barriers.”

To better understand how racism is a public health issue, read the latest report from Canadian Public Health.
You can also learn more by reading findings from the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.