“My heritage gives me hope": Meet Kyiaisha Benton, Community Outreach Worker

Photo of Kyiaisha Benton, Community Outreach Worker, Community Mental Health.
Photo of Kyiaisha Benton, Community Outreach Worker, Community Mental Health.

Social worker Kyiaisha Benton draws on the mentorship and guidance of her 94-year-old grandmother, her parents and many influential members of the African Nova Scotian community for inspiration and strength daily. Benton followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a social worker with the goal of helping others facing systemic and anti-Black racism – something she has personally experienced far too often.

In her role as a community outreach worker at the Cole Harbour Community Mental Health and Addictions Clinic, she connects clients to community resources, facilitates addiction groups and collaborates with other community groups to support clients’ various needs. Benton is particularly passionate about helping marginalized groups who don’t traditionally access services outside their own community and who may mistrust the system that has harmed them.

“Part of my role is to try to bridge existing gaps in service and repair the relationships that have been severed,” said Benton. “Because of different historical pieces and oppression, folks from these communities aren’t as aware of what’s available to them and that needs to change. We have a critically important role that needs to be supported and recognized more broadly.”

Benton witnesses the pain that systemic anti-Black racism has caused and advocates for her clients.

“This is a major problem that is causing a lot of negative consequences [for clients] and it needs to be prioritized,” said Benton. “I mean in a way that is not just checking a box, but as an ongoing priority, understanding that it is a continuum and that it's going to take time, not just a couple of months or a year, but ongoing. We need a united front.”

Benton feels strongly that more diversity in the workforce will allow for different, more inclusive perspectives in decision making and patient care. Benton notes that the need for this change is urgent, to prevent ongoing harm to staff and patients.

“It’s 2023, yet there are different layers of oppression that we face when working in mostly white institutions,” said Benton. “There needs to be an understanding that racism is a traumatic experience that can impact our overall health and well-being.”

Benton’s and the community’s lived experience became much more poignant following a trip to Ghana, where she visited “slave castles” (fortresses that held enslaved people before their journey across the Atlantic Ocean) and witnessed the conditions her ancestors endured.

“I don't have words to explain the horrors our people went through,” said Benton. “They overcame a lot. To see and even smell this place allowed me to physically feel the pain of my ancestors. They paved the way for so much, through the civil rights movement, the Underground Railroad – all of it. I’m extremely proud of my heritage.”

Benton says it’s the strength, courage and resilience of her ancestors, including her grandparents, that propel her forward.

“That's what really gives me that drive, even though there are many times when I want to give up,” said Benton. “To be here today, as a result of the path that my ancestors paved is an honour and a privilege and something I do not take for granted.” Benton would like others to understand this history and how systemic racism is deeply rooted in all aspects of our society. “I’m always encouraging folks to do the research and to really reflect upon the negative experiences that individuals of African descent have, in hopes they educate themselves and understand the privilege that they hold. White people have so much power; I want them to understand how much.”

As an example, Benton would like to see a focused effort on acknowledging racism year-round, not just during African Heritage Month. She sees some positive equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives underway, but reinforces that the Black community wants and needs to see tangible action and results.

“The community is so tired of saying the same things they've already said, over and over, for many years, without real change,” said Benton. “And you know, Black burnout is a real thing.” Benton notes that in addition to the deep impact of Black burnout on individuals, it also impacts recruitment and retention in organizations, including Nova Scotia Health.

In the meantime, Benton continues to advocate for her clients, despite the challenges she and others face, with great hope.

“My heritage gives me hope. I know I'm only one person, but I’m working to help minimize or dismantle the gaps that exist, and my goal is to touch one, or as many people as I can.”

Additional resources:

Culturally safe and equitable care
An Anti-Racism Reading List from Penguin Random House Canada
A mostly Canadian Anti-Racism Reading List and How to Support Anti-Black racism work
NPR: ‘Not Racist’ Is Not Enough: Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist
Chatelaine: What Is Systemic Racism?
There’s No Racism in Canada — A timeline

Professor David Divine submitted his recommendations to Nova Scotia Health CEO, Karen Oldfield and Vice President of People, Culture and Belonging, Anna Marenick, in February. His report, “A Detailed Analysis of Equity and Inclusion within Nova Scotia Health”, will form the basis of a forthcoming Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Reconciliation and Accessibility policy at Nova Scotia Health.