Episode 147 – Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest

On this episode our correspondent, Aubrianna Snow, learns about the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest (BEAR) initiative and how the philosophy of Ubuntu (meaning: I am because we are) can help us better understand their approach to health equity.

BEAR was founded by the Ribbon Rouge Foundation to strengthen health equity in African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) communities. ECF has been honoured to provide funding to help with the first three years of the initiative.

BEAR takes an intersectional approach to securing the health, wealth and wellbeing of the ACB community. They engage with community members, conduct research and mobilize data to create change in health equity.

Find out more about the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest (BEAR) initiative.
Learn more about Ribbon Rouge Foundation.
Learn more about HIV Edmonton.
Read the article you heard about: What Is the Spirit of Ubuntu? How Can We Have It in Our Lives? (globalcitizen.org)
Check out our blog story about BEAR: Build a Bear – Edmonton Community Foundation (ecfoundation.org)

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The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation.

Music for the BEAR segment is “Somewhere” by Daniel Musto.

Image for this episode was supplied.

Transcripts by Karli Drew.


[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays]

Shereen [00:00:24] Hello everyone and welcome to ECF’s Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Shereen Zink—

Graeme [00:00:28] And I’m Graeme Lummer.


[00:00:30] Edmonton is full of generous donors who have created endowment funds at Edmonton Community Foundation.

Graeme [00:00:35] These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.

Shereen [00:00:39] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.

On this episode, we learn about the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest Initiative, or B.E.A.R for short.

Graeme [00:00:52] B.E.A.R was founded by the Ribbon Rouge Foundation. The goal of B.E.A.R is to strengthen health equity in African, Caribbean, and Black communities.

Shereen [00:00:59] B.E.A.R takes an intersectional lens to securing the health, wealth, and well-being of the ACB community. Their approach is to listen to community members, conduct research, and mobilize data to create change in health equity.

Graeme [00:01:09] The image of a rainforest captures the complexity of equity. Ribbon Rouge is working with an ecosystem to create community partners and resources that impact a variety of systemic issues.

Shereen [00:01:19] ECF has been honoured to provide funding to help with the first three years of this initiative.

[segue music plays in background]

Our correspondent, Aubrianna Snow, finds out more about the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest Initiative and how the philosophy of Ubuntu, meaning “I am because we are,” can help us better understand their approach to health equity.

Graeme [00:01:35] Just a quick note before we dive in: this episode touches on the taboo nature of discussing sexual health.

Shereen [00:01:40] Okay, we’re ready. Let’s take a listen.

Aubrianna Snow [00:01:42] Racialized people in Alberta are prone to experiencing negative health outcomes as a result of systemic racism and inequities. Addressing these issues presents a significant challenge because health outcomes are tied to so many aspects of our lives. That’s where the Ribbon Rouge Foundation comes in. Ribbon Rouge seeks to address health equity for the African, Caribbean, Black, or ACB, population in Alberta. They do this in several ways. Through community building, the arts, research, and policy. And their flagship project is called Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest, or B.E.A.R for short.

The B.E.A.R Initiative consists of nine sub-projects that include research initiatives on health outcomes and experiences with the justice system, an artspace, community asset mapping, and a theory of change to name just a few. According to Ribbon Rouge, the aim of the initiative is to create a collaborative environment where knowledge, resources, and connections are shared to close racial gaps.

[00:02:36] Ribbon Rouge and the B.E.A.R Initiative at its core are rooted in community values, one of which is the African philosophy of Ubuntu, a phrase from the Zulu language, meaning “I am because you are” or “I am because we are.” In an article for the Global Citizen, Hlumelo Siphe Williams says Ubuntu is “a reminder that no one is an island — every single thing that you do, good or bad, has an effect on your family, friends, and society. It also reminds us that we need to think twice about the choices we want to make and the kind of impact that they might have on others.” Ubuntu is also about justice and particularly justice for all people. As much as we must look after each other, it’s also just as important that we exercise fairness and equality for all people regardless of race, gender, or social status.

[00:03:19] In exploring how this concept relates to the B.E.A.R Initiative, I spoke with Funke Olokude, the Executive Director of the Ribbon Rouge Foundation, as well as with Catherine Broomfield, Executive Director of HIV Edmonton, about the relationship between their organizations and the collective work for racial health equity in Alberta.

First I wanted to get a sense of exactly what the B.E.A.R Project does. Here’s Funke.

Funke Olokude [00:03:39] So the B.E.A.R Project is— I guess we call it an initiative now ‘cause it’s a huge project looking at collecting data as it relates to African, Caribbean, and Black people in Alberta specifically. So Ribbon Rouge is really about achieving, uh, health equity and social justice for African, Caribbean, and Black people. So one of the ways we know that has been proven from evidence to achieve equity is to collect the right information. If the information is not there, how do we know where the gaps exist? How do we know where these inequities are? For some people they’ll say it exists everywhere, but where do we start, right?

Sometimes when we look at a problem like, “Oops, this is too complex and too complicated” and then we get overwhelmed and then we get immobilized. So, technically, what we’re really trying to do with the B.E.A.R Project is to help us identify where those gaps exist and how best to tackle them. So it’s not just a deficit-based, uh, research project or initiative. It’s also looking at the strengths and the protective factors that also exist within the community.

[00:04:40] Despite everything that has been thrown at us, you know, when we look at anti-Black racism, the ACB community tends to thrive, right? And we still find ways to thrive. So, what are the protective factors that exist and the cultural wealth within the community that we can leverage on?

It’s nine sub-projects. That’s why we call it an initiative. We start with an environmental scan and a literature review, looking at what exists. What does the literature say? What does the policy say? What are some best practices that exist within systems and outside systems and within the community that we could learn from? What is the story of the African, Caribbean, and Black population in Alberta? From every level. From literature, research that exists from Stats Canada, to the Government of Alberta, to the City of Edmonton, and also to people such as ECF. ECF is a funder that has been collecting information for many, many years, right?

[00:05:33] And so, you’re also a wealth of knowledge in this space. How can we harness all of that information and then get a true picture of the ACB landscape in Alberta. But also— we’re also looking at stakeholder mapping. What is stakeholders in this space? So speaking about coming together as a collective to work together to harness strength as a unit. Who are the players in this space across Alberta? Who are the people doing the work within the ACB community and outside the community who are supporting us?

But like every amazing grassroots organization, this is action-based research. It’s participatory. So we also have a sub-project that is helping us animate through the arts. It’s called our artspace. So we just don’t wanna collect all of this information. Yes, we wanna influence policy and change some policies and change how systems work for ACB people. But we also want it to be in a way that is grassroots, action-oriented, participatory. So we have our artspace that helps us do all of that as well and translate and transcribe and transform some of this very high-level information we’re collecting into simple, incremental information that people can understand.

Aubrianna [00:06:38] B.E.A.R Initiative began with listening, learning, and gathering information, which identified two main areas of focus. Health equity for those living with sexually transmitted bloodborne infections, or STBBIs, and experiences with the justice system.

Funke [00:06:52] And I’m sure it’s not a surprise for everyone because we often remember what happened in 2020 that gave rise to the wave of anti-Black racism that we know today. You know, wi-with George Floyd and everything else that happened in the states that seeped into Canada. So, we had to pay attention. Community members said we need to pay attention in the justice space. And the second space that also popped up was the HIV and STBBI space and where there’s a huge disparity in that space as well. But not looking at these two issues… on their own, looking at them from an intersectional lens. So when we talk about justice, we’re also talking about mental health, also talking about immigration status. Right?

So, looking at these issues specifically, and it bears a whole from a social determinants of health lens, looking at those intersections of the complex realities of people’s lives every day. Not just the systems in which they’re interacting, but also how they bring everything around the identity to those systems as well. And of course, we’re hoping to prototype some amazing solutions and also to produce, uh, some policies along the way.

Aubrianna [00:07:58] Like Funke mentioned, the artspace sub-project helps convey the important results of the B.E.A.R Initiative to the community and policymakers, and helps generate greater connections for folks approaching this work from different areas. That kind of diverse engagement contributes to a richer community for Albertans of all backgrounds.

Funke [00:08:14] In March of this year, we were able to action, again, our sub-project for our artspace. We were able to action some of that at city halls. So, one of the things we did was we got a sub-grant from the City of Edmonton with our artspace within the B.E.A.R to action some of the information that we were getting in the other sub-projects. And we… turned this equity in motion and to racism in motion. And what it came to was a performance at City Hall. A lot of government officials were in attendance and a lot of stakeholders and policymakers were there and were able to see some of the research and information that we’ve been gathering in live— in real-time action by our artspace through an interactive theatre performance. It was so amazing. We’ve gotten another grant, uh, through the City of Edmonton’s community safety project to now work with Bent Arrow, Sisters Dialogue, Edmonton’s Multicultural Coalition, as well as Ribbon Rouge.

The four organizations in the fall have been given this opportunity to do some equity, diversity, and inclusion training, again, with our artspace. They specifically asked for our artspace team under the B.E.A.R to do some EDI work with the Edmonton Federation for Community Leagues. We’re gonna be doing this work with four community leagues across the city to showcase some of the— again, get some of the information that we’ve been collecting and the data that we’ve been collecting and action it through an anti-Black racism lens as well.

[00:09:45] And all of this information is coming from one. We’ve collected from the B.E.A.R and best principles, best practices now in action, working with four other amazing organizations, bringing sort of, like, even an-an Indigenous lens to the project as well, which we’re so grateful for. And the four organizations, we’re not just gonna be working together, but we’re also gonna be learning together and sharing together as well. And that makes th-the work of the B.E.A.R even more profound as well and impactful.

Aubrianna [00:10:11] It makes sense that such a massive undertaking toward achieving health equity would require a lot of stakeholder engagement, consultation, and community building. I asked Funke how the philosophy of Ubuntu influences that work.

Funke [00:10:23] So thinking about working together, Ubuntu is about working together and it’s about the collaboration. Yes, we’re trying to do this as Ribbon Rouge, but we are also very, very cognizant of the fact that we need to work together. We need to collaborate in order to make the greatest impact as well. I’ll give you an example. One of the things we’re trying to do right now is to create a curriculum. A curriculum that ends up being an online training of maybe five or six models that service providers can access and have information about when you’re trying to support ACB individuals. Specifically those who support ACB individuals who are youth, but also identify as 2SLGBTQ+. So what we’re doing is we’re t— we’re working together with several organizations and individuals. So we know we can’t do this on our own. We need to collaborate, right?

[00:11:13] We’re working with individuals who bring different lenses to the table. So for example, we’re in talks with Edmonton Police Services, we’re in talks with YESS, we’re in talks with the Pride Center, with the Queer Trans Health Collective. So you can begin to see different lenses that are already coming to the table. We’re in talks with Alberta Black Therapists Network, also in touch with, of course, academics. It’s a curriculum, right? We’re in touch with social workers who all will come to the table and create this amazing tool all from information that we’re collecting.

And… at the end of the day, we’re hoping that this curriculum, you know, given everything wi-with timelines we have right now, will be ready in the fall. And we’re hoping to partner with organizations beyond just helping us create the curriculum, also organizations that can help us action it an-and pilot it and see what this looks like and give us feedback to be able to ensure that this is helping those who have contributed to it.

Aubrianna [00:12:07] The first ever Ribbon Rouge event in 2006 was hosted as a fun fashion art and music event to raise funds for HIV relief in African countries. And building community in these ways is deeply tied up in cultivating joy. I wanted to know which of the sub-projects gives Funke the most happiness and excitement.

Funke [00:12:24] I think the one that is most active, aside that I can talk all day about our artspace, but I also wanted to talk about the sub-project five, which is HIV-related equity. That’s another space where we’ve gained a lot of traction. Over the course of COVID, we saw the infection rates in the ACB community come up around 25%. So the HIV-related equity thought project is helping us gather data and information around health equity as it relates to HIVs and STBBIs across Alberta.

We started a campaign in the spring called Safety Over Stigma because of the impacts that some of the research that we’re getting and we’re beginning to animate, we’re beginning to see some of that stigma around HIVs and STBBIs and beginning to educate in that space. And slowly but surely, we’re getting into the space and we’re collecting a lot of information that is gonna help transform how we do the work in Alberta as well.

[00:13:19] So looking at the testing, for example, in fall last year we got into this partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada to distribute self-test kits, which most people were not even aware existed. Now you can test in the comfort of your home and then either connects you to the— depends on what happens or if it’s not just for you, if it’s for your family members, um, connects you to your family doctor or circles back to, uh, Ribbon Rouge. We have a social worker who can guide you through the process or if people just have questions about HIV and STBBIs in general, they can circle back to us. Sexual health is something that, in the ACB community, we haven’t been quite comfortable talking about. Especially now some of the research from our sub-project one is showing us that a lot of the ACB people in Alberta are first-generation immigrants. So a lot of us come pre-migration with certain notions about sex and sexuality and gender. And we have some stigma and stereotypes that has come across with us that we’re hoping and helping people to shape and… I guess reimagine what that could look like living in a country like Canada and all the access to, I guess, supports that we could have in terms of education, in terms of resources and support.

[00:14:31] So I’m really excited about that sort of project because it’s also helping us gain grounds and traction and… and break barriers in terms of breaking stigma, right? And sometimes stigma is intersectional. Stigma around HIV could also be around mental health and the mental wellness that comes with having HIV or STBBIs. So stigma is not just one thing. Um, so working— And in that project, we’ve been working very closely with HIV Edmonton. It’s amazing. We have this— We’re trying to set up a working group across Alberta within some of the work we’re doing as well. Working very closely with HIV Edmonton and Safelink in Calgary. Uh. We’re working with settlement organizations across six cities beyond Edmonton or Calgary. Brooks, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie, Fort Mac, and Medicine Hat as well. So, looking at those cities beyond just Edmonton and collaborating with other organizations there as well.

Aubrianna [00:15:24] The partnership between Ribbon Rouge and HIV Edmonton is a great example of the community connections that make work like this possible. I wanted to know the history of that relationship. Here’s a bit of my interview with Catherine.

So Catherine, can you tell me where the relationship between Ribbon Rouge and HIV Edmonton began?

Catherine Broomfield [00:15:40] So… the partnership with Ribbon Rouge pre-dates my joining the organization. So I joined as Executive Director in October 2020. And prior to that, the founder of Ribbon Rouge, Moréniké, had been a volunteer and enthusiastic supporter of HIV Edmonton’s work. Her passion to advance people’s knowledge was— is very critical to the health and wellbeing of the community. Really drove her interest in partnering with HIV Edmonton and then her branching out to create this entity with a very focused effort to cover the health equity needs of African, Caribbean, Black people across the province, not just that localized perspective of Edmonton.

So we have been Ribbon Rouge’s fiscal agent for… about two and a half years, then, for a number of grants that they’ve received from the ECF, from other sources. We’ve supported them in nurturing or building their capacity to meet those requirements to get their own charitable status so that the need to have a fiscal agent and be coming through another organization, it would transition to them. Really, it comes down to a real shared value around wanting to ensure that Ribbon Rouge as an organization for and led and by African, Caribbean, Black community that they get the support where they needed it. And however HIV Edmonton can nurture and complement that work is part of the partnership that we’ve been working on.

Aubrianna [00:17:34] What does that partnership look like now?

Catherine [00:17:36] So, even beyond the fiscal agent aspect, which is, really, the boring part [laughs] apart from making sure we get the grants reporting in and that kind of thing, the partnership is a… a shared opportunity. HIV Edmonton is one of the few organizations in the province that is funded to support African, Caribbean, Black targeted HIV/AIDS and STBBI work. We have a couple of key populations that we have a skillset in supporting. And so, the African, Caribbean, Black community is one of those. Recognizing, though, that we are not a led organization, the opportunity to partner with Ribbon Rouge as they formed and as they have established the rainforest, the Black Equity Rainforest, it has really allowed us to honour that we have some expertise based on our mission around HIV/STBBI/AIDS knowledge, but we are not, nor do we claim to be, expert in the ACB community.

[00:18:51] And so, we can partner and use our shared resources, use our shared good intention for that community in a complementary way rather than a competitive way. So we regularly connect with each other an-and say, “Are you applying for this grant? This is perhaps better covered by you versus us.” Issues that come up in the ACB community that Ribbon Rouge hears about that they think are relevant for HIV Edmonton to know then they connect with us. They share that information and it’s a mutual, uh, respect in offering to improve and advance what the community is receiving as service and access to service across both of the missions that our organizations have. We each have different pots of money from the same funder… or funders. And as I said, we collaborate so that we’re not duplicating work, that our respective activities complement or leverage build on each other’s work.

[00:19:59] So HIV Edmonton is currently hosting CHABAC, the acronym is C-H-A-B-A-C, which is a national alliance of Black-led organizations focused on HIV/AIDS. That organization also does not have charitable status. So HIV Edmonton is the fiscal agent for that organization as we support them as we are supporting Ribbon Rouge to elevate and reach those levels that allows them to be their own standalone organization from a fiscal point of view in terms of funding recognition. So there’s a… a really nice dovetailing of a national connection for Ribbon Rouge through the CHABAC Alliance and also for the CHABAC Alliance to learn about the work of Ribbon Rouge and for Ribbon Rouge to be on that alliance.

We have another project that is Black women-focused and HIV that we can, again, collaborate with Ribbon Rouge, use their communications methods an-and their… connection with the community to broach a topic that for many in all communities, but the stigma and discrimination that different communities experience can really marginalize them accessing supports. And within particular communities, the stigma is very ostracizing because there are lots of legacy mistruths and myths about HIV and AIDS and people can be sh-shunned or excluded from the community if it gets out that they’ve been to HIV Edmonton or they’ve been seen attending or talking to somebody. So, there’s a real attentiveness to communicating with people so that information can be shared. That’s a few of the examples of working together.

Aubrianna [00:22:04] And how does building relationships with organizations like Ribbon Rouge impact the folks that HIV Edmonton serves?

Catherine [00:22:10] From my perspective as a cis white female person, you know, in my role as Executive Director, I think the work that we collectively are doing with Ribbon Rouge and the other organizations that we partner with is to place that power in the hands of the community. And we are actively pursuing and inviting that communication, that collaboration, that trust building, that relationship nurturing. And that is not something that can be rushed or treated as trivial in our current societal times. And so, the power comes from the integrity of those that are part of the conversation.

And I think a real wish by those parties to advance conversations of equity, to advance access to services, and to work towards the elimination of stigma, discrimination, and racism. And in being transparent, in being accountable, HIV Edmonton is demonstrating its integrity to do this work. And there’s a genuine wish to be working together, to be working in partnership, and to stumble through some of these conversations and extend each other grace as we are doing the work. Because there is that shared intention that the African, Caribbean, Black community and those identifying in that community are receiving what it is that they need to have a quality of life. And that is joyful, is celebratory and it’s about being together. That’s where we’re aiming for is that joy and celebration for the community to have the space to say what they need and for those of us in service to respond with what they need.

Aubrianna [00:24:16] Joy kept coming up in these conversations about Ribbon Rouge’s work, and I wanted to dive in on what the work means to Funke.

Funke [00:24:23] For me, it’s been life-changing and it’s been a privilege. I don’t think— I always share with my team. I always say the work is— I am the work and the work is me. Being someone from the ACB community, on one point, I am the Executive Director of the Ribbon Rouge Foundation and on another point I could just easily be a participant in one of these uh projects because th-the work is part of who I am. And I think that’s a-a blessing to be part of such an amazing, I guess, journey because we’re journeying towards equity. We might get closer, but I don’t think in my lifetime we would ever be at equity and say, “We’re there now. Woohoo!” You know? So for me it’s been a personal journey looking at, um, my footprints that I can leave, uh, behind for my kids and for my children and generations unborn to continue this work and know that every day closer and closer. Might be small steps, but we’re getting closer to equity every day.

Aubrianna [00:25:18] Like Funke mentioned earlier, working for equity means thinking of the future. There’s still a long way to go. Here’s what Ribbon Rouge has planned for the year to come.

Funke [00:25:27] We’re gonna be in— more in community in two ways. We have two big events planned to come out and to really get this information out that we’ve been gathering over the last three years and… and we’re gonna be having a policy symposium. So, again, from the event we had on March 17th, a lot of the policymakers who were in the room were really interested. So we’re hoping to have a policy symposium in the fall or in the winter. And also, we have a Kinfest coming up, an arts festival just to put out, it’s gonna be May 3rd and 4th, 2024. We already have a date. So that’s the quote.

[00:26:03] But also, to help people understand and digest all of this information that we’ve collected in a very— in different, various art forms. Words, of course, there’ll be readings which are policy briefs. [laughs] You know, but readings, right, in a poetic way. Easy way for policymakers, you know, grassroots community members, everybody to understand this information. Because one thing that is also important for me is that when we all come together, not insiders, but as policymakers, as community members, that everybody understands this information, able to digest it, and able to act on it based on where they find themselves on the continuum in terms of like how this— the B.E.A.R project impacts them.

Because it impacts all of us, whether you’re part of the ACB community or not, this project has an impact on all Albertans. Irrespective of where you find yourself.

Aubrianna [00:26:54] It’s easy to see how the philosophy of Ubuntu or “I am because we are” is at the core of the B.E.A.R Project’s work and at the core of Ribbon Rouge’s community partnerships, including their relationship with HIV Edmonton. I’d like to finish with another quote from Hlumelo Siphe Williams’ article for the Global Citizen.

[additional segue music plays in background]

“Without the spirit of Ubuntu within us, we cannot implement great change in our society. It’s imperative that we help all people, young and old, to achieve only the best for the future.”

I am because we are.

Funke, Catherine, Aubrianna [00:27:22] I am.

I am.

I am.

Because we are.

Because we are.

Graeme [00:27:27] Thank you to Aubrianna Snow for bringing us this story. And Funke Olokude, Executive Director of Ribbon Rouge, and Catherine Broomfield, Executive Director at HIV Edmonton, for sharing their time with us.

Shereen [00:27:40] If you’d like to learn more about the Black Equity in Alberta Rainforest Initiative, Ribbon Rouge, and HIV Edmonton, visit our show notes to find the links.

Graeme [00:27:47] That’s where you can also find links to ECF’s grants and student awards. And… if you’re like us and can’t get enough good stories about the incredible work happening in Edmonton, visit our blog.

Shereen [00:27:55] This city is so cool.

[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]

That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

Graeme [00:28:01] Yeah, thank you. If you enjoyed it, please share it with everyone you know.

Shereen [00:28:04] And of course, if you have time, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s a super great way to support our show.

Graeme [00:28:10] And come say hi and follow us on Facebook. You can see some pictures and tell us what you think.

Shereen [00:28:14] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Shereen Zink—

Graeme [00:28:18] And Graeme Lummer.

Shereen and Graeme [00:28:19] Until next time!

Andrew Paul [00:28:21] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation—

Lisa Pruden [00:28:27] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Andrew [00:28:31] This episode was edited by Lisa Pruden.

Lisa [00:28:32] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com—

Andrew [00:28:36] Subscribe to us on iTunes—

Lisa [00:28:37] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.

Andrew [00:28:41] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.

Lisa [00:28:42] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.

[theme music continues playing for a few seconds after dialogue ends]

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