Written By: Yolanda Watungwa, Dalhousie Health Promotion Student
Interview with: Rajean Willis, Social Worker
Promoting Leadership in health for African Nova Scotians (PLANS) is writing a regular blog post highlighting “Faces of Black Health”. This post highlights Rajean Willis and her role as a Social Worker. These profiles can also be found on our website in the Faces of Black Health Section.
What do you do?
I am a clinical social worker. I work with the community mental health sector for Correctional Services Canada. My role is to provide mental health support to people who have been in conflict with the law and are now on parole supervision in the community. In addition, my role also includes helping connect people with community resources, providing therapy and other kinds of support for mental health issues people may be living with.
I am also currently a first-year doctoral student doing a PhD in Educational Studies through Mount St. Vincent, St. FX and Acadia Universities. My hope is that my studies in this field will prepare me to further explore and address race-related trauma and anti-black racism in the African Nova Scotian community. Further, as part of my academic work, I am also a Sessional Instructor at Dalhousie University.
What is your role in your Health Profession?
As a Social Worker, I provide services for clients living with mental illness and those that might be experiencing challenges with their mental health stability after having been incarcerated for more than 6 months.
I also have a small private practice for counselling and consulting services. My practice is available within Halifax Region Municipality which makes it convenient for the clients and me. My practice, which is devoted to women and young women and youth, provides mental health support and culturally responsive spaces where women can gather to talk about their experiences and figure out healthier ways of coping.
If you have or feel comfortable sharing, can you share your experience as a Black health professional in your field?
As of right now, I am the only Black person of colour on my team within the community mental health department of correctional services in the Atlantic region (the Maritime Provinces). I feel very fortunate to have had my first professional job as a social worker within a Black organization. I find that it has helped me build a solid foundation for life in the workforce I’ve also developed self-confidence, especially in my skill set. I have had some amazing mentors who have helped me develop and fostered in me a sense of self-belief. I believe that these are critical attributes to career building and even the ability to make it through each day, particularly, when you don’t have people on your team who fully understand the world the same way that you do.
In short, these experiences have helped me build the confidence I needed to explore other roles where there may not be as many people that look like me. So, I often find myself advocating for the Black community and clients that we are working with who are of African descent. I help my teammates understand the cultural differences and ways in which they can attempt to effectively work with our population also.
There are always systemic things that need to be improved. As you work with large systems, there is only so much you can do outside of your role. I do feel that I have a lot of support from my manager, in terms of pursuits of new initiatives. My college are also very respectful in that they do consult me when they have questions about things that they may be unaware of. I most certainly feel valued on the team.
Can you explain your experiences and ability to access health services?
What went well and what could go better?
I feel that I am in a place of privilege. Besides regular checkups and the odd trip to the emergency room (ER), I have not needed to access various types of health services. So, I cannot say that I have experienced negative experiences outside of what most people experience in terms of wait times.
There was an instance where I had an allergic reaction to hair dye. My situation was not taken very seriously but it is hard to say if that was due to the fact that an allergic reaction to hair dye is relatively minor or whether it was because I am a Black woman.
I cannot pinpoint positive or negative experiences accessing health services in my life specifically, but I know that my colleagues have experienced challenges. I am aware that there are inequities within healthcare, for sure. Have I personally experienced such things? I cannot pinpoint any specific situation, but I am aware that systemic issues exist, of course.
How have you found or how have you been finding community in your profession?
I am the Vice President of the Association of Black Social Workers. It is an organization for both social workers and human service workers. I have been connected to this organization since I was a bachelor’s student in the School of Social Work. I attended a meeting in my first year in search of volunteer opportunities, mentorship, and networking. I am also part of various organizations that help women know where various health providers are across the health system. My feelings of solidarity in my field can certainly be attributed to my membership in these organizations.
If you were to give your first-year self advice, what would that be?
Keep connected, beyond HRM and Nova Scotia. Do not be hesitate to pursue professional development opportunities outside of the province, which connects to not being fearful of taking risks and putting yourself in situations outside of your comfort zone.
After I became a social worker, I had an opportunity to go to a National Black Social Workers Conference in Indiana. It was very powerful to be connected to Black social workers across the United States. The Nova Scotia chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers is the only one in Canada. Our long-term goal, right now, is to expand the association to other provinces to support Black social workers across Canada. I began my career at age 24 and even as a young professional, I was exposed to other young social workers, which was not something I had seen much of here in Nova Scotia. To see them pursuing PhDs was inspirational, but at the time, I still did not see this as a serious opportunity for myself. Here in Nova Scotia, Black people in doctoral studies are few and far between. It was not until two years ago that I decided to pursue my doctorate.
Another piece of advice I would give myself is to continue to pursue leadership opportunities. Again, do not be fearful of putting yourself in situations that may feel uncomfortable because often those situations are what help us grow.
Where can we find you?
I have a website! www.rajeanwillis.com. I also have a Youtube channel, called the The Rajean Willis Show. It is a talk show about bringing awareness and having conversations about issues that are important to the Black community. I also made a two-episode talk show series with Eastlink! It is about mental health, substance abuse and problem gambling, so if you have access to Eastlink feel free to check it out!
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @rajeanwillis