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March 2022

Mobilizing multidisciplinary research to support health equity

At a glance
The team

A group of researchers from the University of Alberta, NorQuest College, Mount Royal University, King’s University, and the Ribbon Rouge Foundation

The challenge

Due to a history of ongoing structural racism, health inequity disproportionately affects African, Caribbean, and Black (ACB) Canadians, leaving them disadvantaged when it comes to accessing employment, education, healthcare, and more

The solution

Recognizing that the well-being of communities is essential for the well-being of a country, the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest (B.E.A.R.) Initiative is using a “rainforest” approach that focuses on collaboration and multidisciplinary research to achieve health equity for ACB Albertans and Canadians

The outcome

With seven of nine subprojects underway and a forthcoming project launch, the B.E.A.R. project is creating a collaborative environment where knowledge, resources, and connections can be shared to help close racial gaps

A new partnership between U of A, NorQuest College, and the Ribbon Rouge Foundation seeks to understand the root causes of health inequity for African, Caribbean, and Black communities and develop intersectional processes that benefit all Canadians

Many of Canada’s most pressing public health issues are complex and significantly affected by factors such as gender and sexism, systemic racism, economic inequality, and other social determinants. African, Caribbean, and Black (ACB) communities have long been unfairly affected by health inequity due to historic racism and on-going disparities built into governmental, financial, and educational institutions. As a result, members of these communities are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, prisons, are more likely to be unemployed, and face other systemic barriers to success. Finding resources to develop sustainable solutions to these problems can be a challenge and that’s where the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest (B.E.A.R.) project comes in. 

The B.E.A.R. is a project co-developed by a team of researchers and graduate interns from the University of Alberta, NorQuest College, and the Ribbon Rouge Foundation, an Edmonton-based grassroots organization focusing on achieving health equity and social justice for ACB communities through interventions, research, and the arts. With a desire to bring meaningful change in health equity among Black Albertans, the B.E.A.R. began as a response to the lack of public attention towards the increased levels of HIV infections among ACB Canadians.  

“People keep saying ‘show me the data, show me the results,’” explains Funke Olokude, Executive Director of the Ribbon Rouge Foundation. “That’s where the idea for the B.E.A.R. started to grow – to come up with innovative and creative solutions to the problem.” 

Guided and developed in part by the ACB Caucus for Health Equity, a group of sixty ACB leaders from a variety of backgrounds who are committed to closing racialized health gaps, the B.E.A.R. initiative draws on an intersectional analysis of health equity. Because structural determinants of health inequity can have an impact on multiple social contexts at once, a comprehensive approach is essential in developing long-term solutions.  

“That is why the B.E.A.R. is so interdisciplinary,” says Jan Selman, Drama Professor at the University of Alberta and one of the academic researchers on the project. “We’ve brought together people in health with people in sociology, research studies, justice areas, as well as the arts, because everything needs to interweave so that we can get a full picture and start taking informed action on these issues.” 

The power of art  

While the B.E.A.R. and its nine subprojects are working in several areas including addressing the apparent lack of available data on health equity in Alberta’s ACB communities, providing digital literacy training, and developing asset-based community processes for HIV-related equity, they are also tapping into the power of art to help mobilize ACB community participation.  

With the goal of encouraging ACB community members to engage with various aspects of the project, the B.E.A.R. plans to host workshops that will also act as community interventions through which storytelling and lived experiences will be shared, heard, observed, and measured to build social cohesion, a key determinant in shaping the health of a population. 

“Each workshop will engage with a particular art form where people can explore and express and share their stories,” says Selman. “And then we can use those stories to take a look at how those might transform into a more equitable and just circumstance.”  

One such workshop will explore the ability of interactive theatre to advance conversations that are meaningful to ACB teens. In creating a play based on community research in which audience interaction is a key component, the B.E.A.R. aims to develop sustainable solutions to important issues by connecting storytelling with problem-solving. 

“We’ve created a play around the questions of ‘what’s in your way?’ and ‘what’s positive about being Black in Alberta right now?’,” describes Selman. “But we’re interactive as we develop the stories as well as interactive in the way they are performed. It’s always about widening the conversation and thinking about what we can do about it.”  

An inspiring metaphor 

It is no accident that the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest is named as such. Novel in the world of applied research on complex social issues, the B.E.A.R. initiative looks to the “rainforest” approach to conduct its work and effect change. Based on an ecosystem model, the “rainforest” approach considers how all members and aspects of a community must interact with and rely on each other to achieve overall health equity.  

“This is not the easiest research,” explains Olokude. “We may find things we may not like, that can feel overwhelming on certain days. But it’s like building a rainforest. It’s green, everything works together for it to function properly, it’s healthy, and it’s abundant.”  

“Ecosystems are complex, and every element is required for them to flourish. So, to me, that’s an inspiring metaphor,” says Selman.  

Cause for celebration 

As with many projects and organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic caused important delays in the B.E.A.R.’s intended timeline. However, the drive to improve the lives of ACB and all Canadians has remained. The team has been hard at work for several years, but the B.E.A.R and the Ribbon Rouge Foundation are launching their initiative in an official capacity on March 19, 2022, where, among other activities, they plan to try out their interactive theatre performance.  

“There are so many issues that we never thought about going into this project, but Mitacs is right there with us and learning with us. Now that we’re at the launch, the B.E.A.R. is really hitting the ground running,” says Olokude.  

“We’re hoping for it to be like a community celebration, because that’s what it is,” explains Selman. “This project is so tied to the community. It’s not just for the community; it literally would not exist without community engagement.”  


Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: BD@mitacs.ca.