Photo credit: Kofi Frempong/Black Creek CHC

By Jason Rehel, story producer and editor, AOHC

Kofi Frempong is a Community Health Worker at Black Creek Community Health Centre (CHC) in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Frempong creates programs, like Freedom Fridayz and Dads Doing Hair, that aim to break down barriers for people who face anti-Black racism. Like all AOHC members, Black Creek’s staff are guided in their work by the Health Equity Charter, which helps them achieve results for people facing barriers to health and wellbeing. In light of the new provincial legislation that directs Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) to reduce health disparities and combat all forms of systemic racism and discrimination, we asked Frempong about the programs he designs, how he engages with and finds inspiration in the community, and the role of Black History Month in combatting racism.

Kofi, you’re an artist and someone who takes pride in nurturing creative spaces. How does art and its capacity to bring people together underpin your work at Black Creek CHC?

It just fits with the model of care that Black Creek promotes. When it comes to promoting access to all people in the community, I think that creating positive spaces is definitely a key part of that. But it’s also just being sure that we address the issues people face; that’s how we break down barriers.

Can you speak to some of the things you do at Black Creek CHC to engage the community and identify people’s needs?

I know it’s very popular to have town hall meetings and formal focus groups, but I think our job becomes a whole lot easier when the relationships are already there. What I mean by that is, the better your relationships are with the community, the more access you’ll have to information around their needs, interests and what kinds of things will engage them.

Because then people will come to you?

Exactly. It really starts when they walk in the door of the centre, and then encounter certain staff, and how they’re received. Black Creek CHC isn’t a cold machine; it’s a warm environment where someone will take a few extra minutes to see how your day is going, and hear your story while you’re waiting to see a doctor.

When it comes to engaging with youth in your community, what’s been your strategy?

The biggest thing is building up confidence in youth because it’s easier to help people when they are empowered to help themselves. So that’s about education on the one hand, but it’s also about creating opportunities to take leadership roles, opportunities to improve their own quality of life. I think a big piece of this is that we aim to meet people where they are.

Can you give us an example of how you plan programs to meet people where they are?

It’s about designing different platforms for people to share their experience, but then allowing them to evolve according to people’s needs. For example, at one point, we had a BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) youth group. People would post their assignments and they would ask the staff or other students for assistance with their work. The magic thing is that the group transitioned from being just about homework to being about life in general. People disclosed mental health challenges they were dealing with, self-esteem issues and were able to talk about racism and its effects on them. The conversation got really deep with this group, and things that normally wouldn’t come out during a youth program – no matter how great the program is – were able to come out through BBM.

Black History Month just came to a close and plays an important role in building community. How can we all work to ensure Black History Month messages of strength and empowerment resonate throughout the year?

It’s good that there’s a month dedicated to Black history. But it also sends the message that it’s only a small part of history, when the truth is that throughout history, Black people have contributed in every sector, in many different ways. So it’s about asking, “What’s going on in your community that’s impactful? Or in the city you live? In the country as a whole? Around the world?”

The truth is that Black history is a part of everything that we study, it just seems like a lot of it is erased or not mentioned. Addressing that would do a lot in terms of representation and creating positive images and role models.

Can you describe one of your newest programs, Dads Doing Hair?

It’s interesting how Dads Doing Hair got started. I was on Facebook, and I just posed a question: “Are there any programs out there that teach Black dads how to do their kids’ hair?” And I got a HUGE response, both from other fathers who were interested in learning, as well as from people who were interested in teaching.

The power of social media!

I’m telling you! So then I took the idea back to Cheryl Prescod, our Executive Director, and told her there was a huge response. And she moved on the idea right away. The sessions are held directly at the centre.

How was the response to the first session?

It went well. First, a lot of fathers came out. Second, because we were open on a Saturday, it created a beautiful environment. A lot of people who were just doing their shopping and had lived in the community for years were saying things like, “Wow, I didn’t know you guys existed.” So not only were people out learning about how to do hair, they were also learning about the services that Black Creek CHC provides. I thought that was really amazing.

And enjoying the great vibe, too.

Exactly. And that for me was the most important thing. Leaving aside the hair care stuff for a minute, it’s the fact that people could walk into the centre and feel free enough to ask questions and get excited about discovering Black Creek.

Staff from Black Creek CHC will present a workshop on building health equity programs such as Freedom Fridayz at this year’s Shift the Conversation: Community Health and Wellbeing conference, June 7 and 8 in Richmond Hill, ON. Here’s a rundown of all the learning sessions happening at the conference.