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Diabetes Canada believes that that equity in health is an important value that has implications for health care professionals, patients and the society in which we live. The barriers to diversity in the health care system are broad and systemic. As part of our commitment to highlighting issues of racism and inequity, we asked Juliet Opoku, a nurse and diabetes educator, to describe her experience. She kindly accepted, we thank her for her honesty and courage. This is what she said.

My name is Juliet Opoku. I am a registered nurse and certified diabetic educator (CDE) at Unison Health and Community Services, and a health promoter and educator at Living a Balance Life Inc. I go above and beyond to provide compassion-centred care to my clients and patients because health care should not have colour boundaries.

My family moved from Ghana to Canada when I was 14 years old. I started high school at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto, which was considered an all-academic school. My parents were discouraged by school board members who recommended sending me to an applied arts school, stating that I wouldn’t do well at Jarvis. My excitement turned into disappointment and with that I had my first taste of we now know as systemic racism in this country.

I knew I had a lot to prove so I refused to take no for an answer and enrolled at the school and took all academic courses. I always wanted a career in health care, so I worked extra hard to achieve that goal. I maintained a 4.0 GPA for three years straight and transferred to Central Commerce for OAC grade 13. During my last year of high school, I met with my guidance counselor to go over my choices for post-secondary schools. I had already done my research and wanted to get into the best nursing schools.

The meeting turned into another disappointment when my guidance counselor strongly suggested that I should apply to all colleges and no universities. I explained to her that I had my heart set on Queen’s University, McMaster and University of Toronto. She did everything to discourage me from applying, even though I had the grades. I took the college applications she laid out for me and threw them in the garbage as soon as I left her office.

I didn’t understand why my classmates were being encouraged to go to top universities even though they did not have the grades I had. I applied to all three universities with no help or guidance from my teachers or school. I ended up getting in to all three, with scholarships. If I had listened to people who were part of a system that was designed for people like me to fail, I would’ve given up and went with the career my guidance counselor had chosen for me: hairdresser.

I studied at Queen’s University where I got my Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSCN) and became a certified RN. I moved to Napa Valley, California, and worked at Queen of the Valley Hospital where I gained experience in diabetic education. I then worked at Windsor Regional Hospital for five years before moving back to Toronto to further my career at Unison Community Health Services as a diabetes educator. With hard work and compassion for my clients, I won the 2018 Diabetes Educator of the Year award and 2019 Canadian Diabetes Education Board Award of Excellence and Dedication.

Despite all the success in my professional career, as a Black woman, I am still asked to prove that I deserve a seat at the table. I have seen racism in the way certain patients are treated compared to others. I also see it in unconscious bias and “polite racism.” Although it left me feeling disappointed, I always took the opportunity to educate my patients, clients, or co-workers. There were those who would welcome my perspective and others who were committed to their ignorance.

They say that being Black is like wearing the truth even when it’s undesirable. I can’t imagine all the dreams that are being destroyed by biased guidance counselors and school administrators by limiting children’s potential and destroying their dreams simply based on the colour of their skin.

I have four kids, three of them girls and although I love to do their hair, but  I would have missed out on my life calling in the healthcare field to been unable to fulfill my passion advocate educator on health promotion, and diseases prevention had I become a professional hairdresser.

I am a strong advocate in the community as a mentor, working with parents and stakeholders to help them make informed choices for educational and career paths—and be the mentor that I looked for when I was trying to navigate the education system as a newcomer.

I connect newcomers without Canadian status to resources and healthcare support services. I provide support in the Ghanaian community with mentorship to inspire and encourage young students to work hard to better themselves and achieve greatness. I am working with the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario to help build a community centre for people of all ages in the Greater Toronto Area. The goal is to provide inclusive programs to inspire learning and a sense of belonging where people are not judged by their race and ethnicity.

I do my best to share my experiences, both positive and negative. I see potential in every single person I meet. There are people who will work hard to stop you from achieving your dreams and aspirations in life, simply based on race, gender, religion etc. It is important to channel that negative energy into positive results so others can be inspired to be the change they want to see. 

Author: Juliet Opoku

Category Tags: Impact Stories;

Region: National

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