Supporting students to create positive social change

Mobilizing knowledge to promote positive social change for marginalized newcomer populations: A student placement experience

By Stephanie Thevarajah, Placement Student in Knowledge Mobilization & Social Action
photo Stephanie
Stephanie Thevarajah, MSc. in Global Health at McMaster University.

While working with Access Alliance, I had the opportunity to learn new skills in knowledge mobilization as well as around the importance of translating research findings to wider audiences, encouraging meaningful discussion, and building awareness of health inequities faced by marginalized and newcomer populations.

Access Alliance’s dedication to reinforcing the importance of considering local contexts, systemic determinants of health (e.g. policies, historical contexts, post-colonialism) and cultural sensitivity within the work they do coincides with my values and has equipped me with new knowledge for my career in global and migrant health.

The organization dedicated its work to the social determinants of health which allowed me to continue to actively utilize my knowledge and experiences from my undergraduate and graduate education. Most importantly, I learned from the experiences of actual community members about their newcomer journeys, the barriers to health for LGBTQ+ newcomers and the barriers to cervical cancer screening among newcomer women.


Promoting awareness of the impacts of systemic and service level oppression on LGBTQ+ newcomers     

While working on knowledge mobilization products for the findings of the ‘Beyond Positive Intentions’ study by Access Alliance, I gained a wider understanding of some of the localized challenges for LGBTQ+ newcomer women, trans and gender non-conforming newcomers in Toronto. I had learned about LGBTQ+ newcomers in my refugee health policy course in my graduate studies. This drove my interest to understand more about the unique experiences and forces of oppression that exist within different cultures and countries that lead to disproportionate health outcomes for LGBTQ+ newcomers.

Upon reading this research report and working closely with summarizing the findings, this further reinforced my critical lens of viewing health issues and migration experiences through an intersectionality approach. It is imperative to consider the impact of the multiple social identities one holds and the compounding effects of each identity that can exacerbate marginalization.

The study provided key findings of participant experiences in Toronto.

As I have only learned about LGBTQ+ newcomers outside of Canada, it was quite eye-opening and disheartening to learn about the myriad of barriers and unique experiences that arise within the local context of Toronto and the historic forces that also contribute to these systemic barriers within our context in Canada.

The impact of cultural values and public policies based on heteronormativity in various countries can be dangerous and oppressive forces that push LGBTQ+ people to migrate or flee.


Revealing barriers to equitable cervical cancer screening for newcomer women       

I learned about the importance of culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate health education and provision of care, especially for newcomer populations, while working on the research summary report for the barriers to cervical cancer screening.

While conducting the environmental scan, it was apparent that many of the existing or completed initiatives and projects addressing the inequities in cervical cancer screening among newcomer women were specifically involving the reduction of language, health literacy and transportation barriers by creating pop-up clinics, group trips, culturally sensitive training among health care providers and culturally-relevant outreach and health promotion materials.

However, one of the gaps among the current initiatives is the promotion of HPV self-sampling. Based on the research findings, self-sampling is an ideal modality among newcomer women as it mitigates the costs and transportation of attending a clinic to receive a pap test and the discomfort of seeking medical treatment from a provider who may not speak the same language, provide culturally sensitive care, or is not female. 

The current absence of promotion or awareness campaigns of HPV self-sampling may be an indication that the research findings can be of great value to relevant stakeholders as per our knowledge mobilization plan.

I was able to gain new knowledge about these unique barriers and the current cervical cancer screening initiatives in Ontario targeted towards under/never-screened women. I also learned how to utilize the research findings and implement meaningful knowledge mobilization products and deliverables to address these inequities.


Building and sharing community capacity for social action

Lastly, the Community Reference Group (CRG) initiative allowed me to actively be a part of a community capacity-sharing initiative, and learn and hear from community members. The stories and experiences that were shared amongst the attendees allowed the group to feel comfortable and find common thematic areas for social action.

It was impactful to hear that some members were happy to have a space to express their settlement experiences, challenges and felt heard.

As a public health/global health student, I have always learned in academic settings that allowing for individuals who experienced challenges and barriers that affect their health and wellbeing need to be at the centre of community-based health/social action programs and initiatives.

It is important that community members are collectively addressing systemic, structural and social determinants of health in a way that is empowering them, allowing them to take control of the conversation, define their experiences and lead meaningful action that can sustain positive change within their communities.

I have been able to link what I have learned in my studies to these experiences at Access Alliance by supporting the knowledge mobilization team in their various efforts. Ultimately, I learned how initiatives like the CRG can be a productive and sustainable way for newcomers and other community members who are in vulnerable situations to build on their strengths, redistribute power structures, become local change leaders and create longstanding improvements of health inequities, challenges and barriers faced by newcomers.


Stephanie completed her practicum placement with Access Alliance in summer of 2021. We are incredibly grateful for the valuable contributions she made during her time with the Knowledge Mobilization & Social Action team. 

For more information on the projects mentioned above, please click below: