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Health equity for all

Professor Josephine Pui-Hing Wong works with people affected by HIV and mental illness stigma to build empowering programs
By: Robert Liwanag
January 19, 2017
Photo: Community-based action research leads to transformative programming, says researcher Josephine Pui-Hing Wong, pictured here at the AIDS Memorial in Barbara Hall Park in Toronto. Photo: Nation Wong

Community-based action research leads to transformative programming, says researcher Josephine Pui-Hing Wong, pictured here at the AIDS Memorial in Barbara Hall Park in Toronto. Photo: Nation Wong

Josephine Pui-Hing Wong wants to work with marginalized people to build strong communities. Her aim is to reduce health disparities that are not only unfair but also avoidable. For this nursing professor, that means setting her sights on studies that lead to transformative programming.

“I want to dispel the myth that marginalized people have no strength,” says Wong. “When I worked with them, time and time again I was inspired by their collective strengths, and their resilience despite the forces that work against them.”

Community-based action research is key to achieving her goal. For example, external,Strength-In-Unity is a national project, funded by the Movember Foundation, to mobilize men in Asian communities to reduce mental illness stigma. Wong and her team in Toronto have partnered with more than 20 different community agencies and trained over 500 Asian men, half of whom are living with or affected by mental illness, to become mental health ambassadors. They have engaged men aged 17 to 85, including gay and bisexual men to open up dialogues about homophobia and mental health.

Born in Hong Kong, Wong moved to Canada in 1973. A Ryerson nursing graduate, she was a public health planning and policy consultant before joining the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing.

“I chose to become a nurse because I wanted to work in a field where I could interact with people, and interact in meaningful ways,” she recalls.

Wong emphasizes capacity building as a path to resilience. “I’ve spoken to youth in low-income neighbourhoods, and they’ve told me, ‘we don’t want people to hand us things; we want to be mentored so that we can make our community stronger ourselves.’”

Wong’s earlier projects showed that psychological and empowerment interventions worked in tandem to change people’s attitudes and actions individually and collectively.

In the Community Champions HIV/ AIDS Advocates Mobilization Project (CHAMP), people living with HIV reported less self-stigma after they took part in the interventions. Community leaders had reduced stigma against and felt more empathy toward people living with HIV.

“Some people who had never disclosed their HIV status to their families told their families. Community leaders who didn’t know much about HIV started volunteering and speaking out against HIV-related stigma and discrimination,” says Wong.

Her emphasis on health promotion is also evident in another project, We Speak, a five-year research program to reduce HIV vulnerabilities and promote resilience among self-identified heterosexual black men in Ontario.

“In my experience as a public health practitioner, research and practice are one and the same. We don’t stop until we have translated the results into effective programs and services.”