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PhD candidate in the School of Social Work, Renata Hall

Get to know YWCA Women of Distinction Award winner, Renata Hall

Renata is a McMaster star student, YWCA Women of Distinction Award winner, co-founder of the Learning in Colour platform and the heart and soul of StreetEatzHamOnt. Learn more about her journey in this Q&A.

Mar 15, 2022

 

  1. What inspired you to move from psychology and biology into social work?

I have always had a passion for mental health. I grew up with mental health concerns and for a long time, I thought being a psychiatrist was the best route for me. However, as I completed my studies and in preparation for the horror of the medical school application process, I thought about the populations of people I wanted to work with. These populations were racialized, gendered, and along the intersections of marginalized populations and social isolation. I thought to myself that while these individuals would rarely seek psychiatrists, they would seek or be aligned with SOCIAL WORKERS along their journeys for “help”.

I researched more about social work and what it entailed, including its roots in social justice, anti-oppressive practice, and equity, and I felt my calling was finally pronounced and clear. So, I applied to McMaster University just to take the Introduction to Social Work course, but after that, I was hooked and applied to the School of Social Work! It has paved the way for me to do clinical and community mental health work at The YWCA and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. I’ve worked with women experiencing homelessness, folks living with schizophrenia, and predominantly Black folks and folks of colour living with racial trauma.

 

  1. You’ve worked a lot with homeless populations in Hamilton, tell us about your initiative StreetEatzHamOnt.

My initiative StreetEatzHamOnt is directly informed by the work I was doing when I worked in housing and homelessness, particularly the Transitional Living Program at The YWCA, where I was a women’s advocate. Seeing the disparities, not only in housing, but in basic needs such as food, water, income, and other provisions was disappointing. It often felt like the responsibility for community care fell to grassroots organizations or small groups and they were under-funded. I wanted to contribute to the community and ease some pressures felt by organizations such as Keeping 6ix, Meals on Wheels and St. Patrick’s Church (to name a few) and I thought about what I could do as an individual.

I started aside some money from my paycheques to buy seasonal items like winter blankets, gift cards for food, water, summer tents, mittens, and hats. I knew from working in the shelters that these were items most needed by folks living rough. Eventually, I started using my social media platforms to ask for donations from local markets, grocery stores, community members, and venues. Now, a few times a season, I will do an open call where many members within and outside Hamilton will donate foodstuff, clothing, or even money to the initiative. Then I go on the streets of Hamilton and hand out the items. When I am extra lucky, I have some great people who volunteer to help me distribute the items.

 

  1. You also worked on the Learning in Colour project. What inspired this project?

Learning in Colour is a project and a multimedia website close to my heart. My and my peers’ experiences of racism, isolation, and harm in the classroom inspired this project.

I was a co-facilitator of a caucus group for students of colour in the School of Social Work, called United in Colour. It was a position I held within the School of Social Work to facilitate discussions about racism and harm in the classroom. My co-facilitator, Fatemah Shamski, and I noticed the common experiences shared by students of colour at McMaster. We also realized that, although having a place to vent and receive peer support was beneficial, it simply was not enough. As racialized students, we decided we could not allow this to continue.

We connected with Madison Brockbank, another amazing colleague within the School of Social Work, who collaborated with United in Colour to help launch a research project which collected data to show that harmful experiences in the classroom are pervasive across McMaster, particularly for students of colour. We also used data from former students of colour who had attempted to address these issues with reporting and art-based initiatives. Once we finished our study, we considered how we could ensure that the data was widely recognized and mobilized. We solicited help from the School of Social Work and funding from the MacPherson Institute to create Learning in Colour, a multimedia platform for students of colour, white students, allies, instructors, and administrative staff. The resource featured tips, tricks, reflective points and information about how we can make spaces anti-racist and inclusive. I am excited to see how our work develops. So far, it has given me and Madison opportunities to consult with students and professors about curriculum development, ongoing concerns, and engaging in inclusive and meaningful conversations.

 

  1. How did it feel to receive the YWCA Hamilton’s Women of Distinction Award (Education) for 2022?

Phenomenal would be too light of a word but it is the only one I can find to describe this experience.

As mentioned above, a lot of the community and advocacy work I engage in is a) informed by my own painful experiences and experiences of those who have similar identities to me but also, b) has largely been “unpaid” and sometimes unrecognized without gatekeepers and stakeholders.

To acquire such a prestigious award is more than any payment I could have received and let me know I am on the right path. It also showed me that this path has a tangible impact and significant people in the community have recognized its merit. I’m still quite early in my career and a woman of colour, so the Woman of Distinction Award is monumental. I do not just accept it for myself but on the behalf of the Black-Afro-Caribbean diaspora and all the work/collectivizing our community has done to create avenues for me to get an award like this.

It is absolutely a “Wakanda Forever” moment for me. I hope to use this distinction to continue to push anti-racist and anti-oppressive teaching and service practices!

 

  1. What’s next for you?

Like most people, gosh, who knows! I am comfortably situated at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and hope to continue my work as a clinician here. However, I am also a PhD candidate at McMaster’s School of Social Work with a STRONG passion for teaching and mentoring. I think my ultimate “next” is to finish my PhD journey with the ultimate hope that it affords me a tenure position as a professor.

My goals are to teach courses in theory, particularly Black feminist theory, critical race theory, and critical social theories, and serve my community through research. I also hope to expand Learning in Colour to another website, alongside Madison, that allows thorough consultation services for professors and administration on learning spaces. And of course, to further adapt StreetEatzHamOnt. I think, when I have a bit of room to breathe, I may apply for a permit from the city and social grants to have a small space where folks experiencing homeliness can consistently come for items like food, water, provisions, blankets.

 

  1. Bonus question: what’s your favourite movie and why?

This is a forever-changing question for me, but right now I have re-watched The Photograph with Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae like 100 times. I think I love this movie as it highlights the complexities but ultimately the beauty, curiosity, wonder, and strength that is Black Art, Black History and Black Love.