Grad student takes sex ed exhibit on the road

a large cross on a building

Research by York PhD student Ciann Wilson (MES ’11) in the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) has led to more than a major dissertation. While completing her master’s degree at York, Wilson pushed past cultural resistances and brought sexual health discourse to the forefront of discussion among a key local demographic.

In collaboration with the Northwood Community Centre and Black Creek Community Health Centre, Wilson facilitated a nine-week workshop for young black females in the Jane-Finch community, to discuss their beliefs and attitudes towards sexual health. Each volunteer participant was given access to a camera, to take photographs representing the barriers and supports they faced in healthy sexual decision-making. Participants also shared their thoughts on the photos in writing, producing a collaborative “photovoice” art exhibit. Wilson described the photovoice project, titled Let’s Talk About Sex, as, “a really cool way of gathering narratives… There are specific nuances and qualitatively rich information you can get from photos photo of someone holding a condomand narratives that you can’t get from statistics.”

Safety First – The narrative behind this photo discusses the broad accessibility of condoms in schools, juxtaposed with the barrier of social judgment cast on those seen taking them

The Let’s Talk About Sex exhibit, which was on display at York University this year, is now being exhibited in communities elsewhere. On June 30, from 3 to 6pm, it will be at the TAIBU Community Health Centre, 27 Tapscott Rd., Scarborough, where Wilson and York psychology Professor Sarah Flicker will be two of several panellists talking about positive sexual health conversations between parents and youth.

In the project, the young women discussed their frustration and resistance to the stereotype that young black women from Jane and Finch are promiscuous. Wilson’s research found that the young women felt pressured to remain silent about their sexuality and sexual lives, which often resulted in their avoidance in accessing sexual health information and resources. She explained, “We live in a very sexually saturated culture. In the media, everywhere. a large cross on a buildingSex is in your face. Yet we also have this religious and morally driven silencing of discourse about sex, especially with our young people.”

Purity – This photovoice considers the author’s experience in considering religion with every choice she makes concerning her sexual health

Toronto’s Jane-Finch community is home to one of the largest populations of African, Caribbean and black Canadians. Wilson focused on this group in her research, citing that youth from this community have some of the highest rates of specific STIs in Toronto. Further, she was frustrated by the epidemiological statistics categorizing the sexualities of black Canadians. Wilson cautioned that statistics are merely a cursory way of understanding a community’s sexual health, saying, “I’m tired of reading about the statistics of the health disparities of people of colour. I feel that with health research, you can list off every health indicator imaginable, but there is often no push to understand the context beyond that. As a member of the black community, it’s very frustrating.”

According to Wilson, these statistics reinforce the very stereotypes the young women from the project resisted. “There is an assumption made that young black women generally, and specifically those in the Jane-Finch community, are promiscuous or baby-mothers. The young black female empty hallsbody is  stereotyped as being sexually deviant, with an almost animalized promiscuity,” she said, “I wanted to find out what was going on from the people in the community, people [who were] living the reality.”

Alone – Reflects on the need for people who can inspire girls and make them feel comfortable

Wilson began exploring sexual health advocacy in her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. After taking a course on the sociology of HIV/AIDS, she became interested in how sexual health issues follow lines of social inequality. She developed a workshop which she presented to inner-city youth throughout Toronto, addressing HIV/AIDS as a social justice issue.

After completing her BSc in 2009, Wilson came to the Master in Environmental Studies (MES) program at York University, drawn to what she describes as an “organic and intellectually liberating learning process.” Under the supervision of well-known sexual health advocate and FES professor Sarah Flicker, Wilson continued her focus on the intersection of critical race theory and human health studies in urban environments.

The photovoice project has resulted in a compelling exhibit that has toured throughout the Greater Toronto Area, reaching many audiences. Wilson feels that the exhibit has forced the audience to confront their own internal biases and assumptions about black youth and sexuality, while engaging with the images esthetically. “Art is a great medium for generating conversation,” Wilson said.

It looks like the conversation will continue, as Wilson continues to develop new ways to disseminate the findings of the project through e-media, such as a digital story and electronic gallery. Summer events in the Jane-Finch and Malvern communities will feature the photo exhibit, digital stories and Wilson’s presentation on the findings of the project.

The MES alumna is currently pursuing a PhD in Environmental Studies, continuing her work with Flicker, focusing on the health and social mobilization of racialized and Indigenous groups. To date, Wilson is the recipient of numerous awards and honours, including a University Without Walls Fellowship and a doctoral research award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, as well as a Studentship Award from the Ontario HIV/AIDS Treatment Network. Yet she is modest, noting that “it feels odd to be on the other end of [an interview].” One might assume, it won’t feel odd for long.

Submitted to YFile by Michael Young, FES communications graduate assistant