You have to have a passion and in this case it’s about health and social justice and responding to racism.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Winston Husbands was living in southern Africa. He recalls that during the time he was there people were starting to talk about HIV and AIDS, but “it was a really muted conversation.” Often, it was rumours about “such and such a person had died from AIDS.”
“After I came back to Canada, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which HIV was a problem for Black people in Canada,” he said. “Friends that I had told me about the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention and that’s how I got involved. Just through real personal interest.”
Husbands’ HIV work began in the early 1990s as a volunteer and member of the Board of directors at the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention.
“It was just a personal interest in wanting to make a contribution – whatever that may be – to the response against HIV in Black communities in Toronto.”
Husbands said that ‘health’ was never something he studied during his undergraduate or graduate school years.
“Being a volunteer and so on I was learning on the job, so to speak. I guess that’s what it means to be a volunteer. You don’t have to have the advanced know-how in something,” said Dr. Husbands. “You have to have a passion and in this case it’s about health and social justice and responding to racism.”
As for the specifics of HIV, he learned about them in the organization through a learning environment that allows volunteers to learn-as-they-go.
“That’s what it was for me.”
Since 2001, Dr. Husbands has focused his work on HIV-related research, community development and activism as the Director of Research at the AIDS Committee of Toronto, as a founding co-chair of the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario (ACCHO), and most recently as a Senior Scientist at the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN).
Husbands credits the late Charles Roy, who became Executive Director of AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) in 1996, for shaping his approach to community-based research.
“He had a passion for the work. He had a way of thinking about how communities should be involved in this work. How communities should be driving this work, so I was very grateful to start when Charles Roy was still around.”
Roy died from complications of HIV at the Toronto Hospital on Aug 24, 2002, but not before connecting husbands with a network of people and agencies who were dedicated to tackling HIV and AIDS.
Dr. Husbands has been at the forefront of helping Ontario understand how structural inequalities impact African Canadians’ vulnerability to HIV and advocating for more culturally appropriate, effective and creative responses.
“Dr. Husbands is as an exemplary and inspiring HIV champion, community leader, researcher and mentor,” said Dr. Josephine P. Wong, Associate Professor at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, and Adjunct Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “He has made unparalleled contributions to HIV responses in Black communities through his research.”
Dr. Husbands has also been instrumental in the creation of a research platform to inform the HIV response in African, Caribbean and Black communities locally, nationally and internationally.
Wangari Tharao is Director of Research and Programs with Women’s Health in Women’s Hands CHC, Co-Chair of the ACCHO Research Committee and Chair of the African and Black Diaspora Global Network on HIV and AIDS.
She says Husbands’ work is “providing leadership, linking stakeholders across Ontario, and translating research findings into interventions” that are having important health impacts.
Husbands has been the lead or co-investigator on several funded Community Based Research (CBR) projects; mentored colleagues, trainees and community members on the nuances of CBR and led scholarship or capacity building in this area..
“He is also passionate about building the critical mass to ensure more ACB researchers enter the field through mentoring and building community capacity to engage in HIV and health research.”
Husbands believes communities “have interests” and that HIV is a vital interest to communities that are most affected by it and that’s why they should be involved in the research.
“Communities shouldn’t be just people that you go to fill out a survey or answer a set of questions.”
“There has been a real resurgence of activism and that resurgence really is taking us places that maybe we had forgotten we could go,” said Dr. Husbands. I think that it has added a new sort of urgency, but also a new sort of hopefulness to the work that we do.”
Recently, Husbands was looking at a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada about what they refer to as “health disparities.” He said he was struck by what was missing.
There’s nothing that I could see in this very long report about race or racism (and it didn’t) mention ‘blackness’ at all.
Dr. Husbands says he’s not sure that the experts and the structures that manage and have a big role in ‘Health’ in Canada understand these issues or what the issues mean to them.
“We have a long way to go before talking about ‘Intersectionality’ and so on because I’m not sure that some of the people who really make decisions about what happens in health and healthcare and the health system understand this concept or that they have any particular regard (for it).”
Husbands stressed he was only using ‘Intersectionality’ as an example because there are others that could also be mentioned – like critical health literacy, for example.
“Certainly in the context of racism,” he said reflecting on the earlier discussion of intersectionality. “Certainly these are issues for researchers and not all researchers in HIV are comfortable with these ideas and concepts.”
He suggests some people may not have figured out how to apply these concepts and ideas or with different types of people for that matter.
“Sometimes, really, it’s the policy makers that appear to be impervious to what we’re trying to say about health, about racism.” said Dr. Husbands.
When asked if there was anything else he wanted to touch on, Dr. Husbands drew in a quick breath and paused before responding.
“It has been a struggle for some of us to be here and to be at a certain kind of table. It didn’t come easy you know and I have had my own challenges with CAHR over race and representation.”
Through collective action Dr. Husbands says Black communities are now starting to see breakthroughs.
“I hope we have a certain momentum to move us forward, to move the agendas even more
than we’ve been able to in the last couple of years or so,” said Husbands.
“For most of the time I’ve been doing this work CAHR just sort of didn’t pay the kind of attention that it needed to pay about who was doing research, who could be a researcher, why the category of researchers was a certain kind of people and not others.”
Husbands says he hopes they’ve all “turned a corner” on that and that moving forward CAHR will become a strong ally that will, when called upon or when required, “help us achieve some of the things that we need to achieve.”
“And when I say ‘us’ I mean ‘Black researchers,’ or Black people related to research.”