Jacqueline Silvera
Jacqueline Silvera says during her 20 years at UHN “a policy that ensures accountability and action against acts of racism, is something this organization will be proud to stand behind. I know I am." (Photo: Alexis Silvera) 

In 2019, UHN announced its vision of A Healthier World and committed to "Empower and invest in a diverse TeamUHN" as a Strategic Priority. While the plan marks a new era for Canada's largest research hospital, Jacqueline Silvera has been advancing and building the foundation for decades at UHN.

What started in 2001 as an inclusion, diversity and equity learning series, has since evolved into several areas, including Anti-Racism and Anti-Black Racism Policy, which is set to launch in the new year. The policy will be overseen by UHN's Board of Trustees.

Jacqueline sat down with UHN News to discuss why this policy needs to roll out now – and remind us that the road ahead will require growth, space and understanding from all.   

Q: Congratulations on this recent honour as a UHN Local Impact Award winner, how does it feel to be recognized by your peers for the IMPACT you make on their lives?

A: I was humbled, and of course, honoured, but truly surprised! This validates my decision to choose healthcare over becoming a fashion designer. (she laughs)

Q:  In your position as lead of the Anti-Racism, Anti-Black Racism Advisory Group, you have some exciting news coming in the new year. What can we look forward to?

A: I've been with UHN for 20 years. You can imagine in that time we have made many attempts to wrestle down this thing called racism. Back when I first started here, we were practically allergic to the word "race." However, that word was understood by those whose lives were impacted by systemic discrimination and racism. They courageously continued to do the work to keep the conversations going. That work is finally finding itself in a foundational policy that is a first step towards understanding microagression, everyday racism, and dismantling the structural barriers that limit, diminish, and lethally harm team members, patients and the communities at large. This policy is about moving out of the realm of conversation and into the world of action. I am very excited by the commitment this organization is making to Anti-racism and Anti-Black racism and I look forward to engaging TeamUHN when we reveal the work in the new year.

Q: What are the challenges to leading this kind of change in such a massive organization, and one as complicated as a healthcare organization naturally is?

A: The scope of this need is immense. The work in question is decades in the making. But call me naïve, I am optimistic about where we're headed when I focus on my core belief in human decency. The WHY of all of this. A few years ago, I was leaving my office at the Toronto Western when I came upon a man, sitting on a bench. He had a basket of tomatoes in his lap and he was sobbing. I had a meeting to get to but I just couldn't walk past him. So I sat down. He told me his wife worked at the hospital. She was sick and a patient there. He had brought the tomatoes to show her what their garden was producing, but she had just died. I don't know what happened that led to him being there all by himself but I knew I couldn't leave him. Small acts of decency are essential to our humanity and without it, we can't evolve, we can't grow, we refuse to see, or we erase perspectives that are different from our own and racism becomes the norm. So, I continue to have faith in our basic decency and that gets me through the more challenging times. I would see him from time to time, in the atrium. After the funeral, he visited the hospital and wanted to share some of his tomatoes with me and I didn't have the heart to tell him I'm allergic. I don't know if his race or age would have made a difference when he was left alone, and unattended, but the fact it is a question is the real issue.

Q: The timing of this policy work has coincided with a year of very public reckoning of the violence against members of the BIPOC community, has it increased your sense of urgency?

A: Listen, it is long past time to match our words with actions, long past time. Very recently I learned of a young black UHN staff member was pulled over by the police, on the way in to work. He was pulled out of his car, thrown to the ground and handcuffed. It was a case of mistaken identity and he was let go. He came in for his shift and didn't say a word to anyone. He knows there are so few people who look like him in leadership, who endure these kinds of experiences, that he didn't think anyone would understand or care. He stayed silent until he couldn't be silent any longer. I also think of the Black physician who went on a unit and was directed to move a stretcher – no apology was offered. The physician did not want to speak out about it and was concerned that it would bring negative attention. A policy that ensures accountability and action against acts of racism, is something this organization will be proud to stand behind. I know I am.

We are in the business of healthcare. We save lives and limbs, and in that context it could seem that issues like racism are outside the scope of our work. But we know that isn't true. This pandemic has shown us, with gut-wrenching consequences, how racism affects a person's health. The limited or blocked access to it, and how treatment varies once you are within the healthcare system. UHN must be a safe place for everyone who interacts with it and this policy is one step towards addressing that fundamental need. I don't want to miss the opportunity to thank the many, many people who have engaged with this work, who continue to fight for a better environment for all the rest of us. When the policy rolls out in the new year we will publicly celebrate those who kept our collective feet to the fire.   

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