By Kate Rogers

When Dr. Leah Jones (BSc’13, MD’18) was completing her medical degree and residency training, she recalls she was often one of the only Black people in the room.

The recently appointed Academic Director, Black Health, and family physician is hoping to change that for future students by creating a supportive, welcoming environment to work and learn.

“I want to make sure that, as we recruit and support Black learners into medical school, they continue to feel that support during their training and want to stay in the Maritimes to practice.”

Dr. Jones, who began her new position on September 1, will lead in co-developing and overseeing the direction for the Faculty of Medicine to engage African Nova Scotian and Black populations in the Maritimes.

A 2018 graduate of Dalhousie Medical School, Dr. Jones hopes she will be able to connect with students and understand what they are experiencing.

“Very recently I was in their shoes, so I know how challenging it can be,” she says. “So, if there’s anything that I can do to help, even one person, it will be worth it.”

Inequities in health

A native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, with roots to the historic Black community of Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, Dr. Jones knew from a young age she wanted to be a physician, despite a lack of Black physician role models. She enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Biology at Dalhousie University where she further cultivated her dream. She was accepted into Dalhousie Medical School and went on to complete her family medicine residency training at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. And though she made her dream come true, she admits it wasn’t an easy road.

“Along the way I ran into different challenges that disproportionately affected the Black community, as well as Black medical learners, that has left me restless” she says. “This is a direct result of how anti-Black racism infiltrates all systems in our society.”

Following her residency, Dr. Jones moved to Ottawa where she worked in addictions medicine. When the opportunity to return to Dalhousie and work as the Academic Director, Black Health, became available, Dr. Jones jumped at the chance.

“I was definitely feeling like there was a void in in what I was doing, because though I was doing rewarding clinical work I loved, I wasn’t working for my community,” she says. “I did this type of EDIA work in medical school, and so the opportunity to make change at this level brought me home sooner than expected.”

When Dr. Jones was a student, she spent time working with Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, working to improve academic success in STEM for Grades 6-12 students of African heritage in Nova Scotia. She also cofounded the Health Association of African Canadian Student Organization, whose goal is to bring students together from across Dalhousie faculties and beyond to create a community of learning centered on Black health issues, career development and community engagement. Perhaps most notably was her work with PLANS, who aim to increase the representation of African Nova Scotians in the health professions.

“I worked alongside PLANS throughout my medical school training,” says Dr. Jones. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them, however, having a dedicated role within the Faculty of Medicine such as this one, would have been incredibly valuable for me as a medical learner.”

Increasing representation

As Academic Director, Dr. Jones will lead the new Black Learners Admissions Pathway, currently under development by the Black Learner’s Admissions Subcommittee, which she chairs. Similar to the Indigenous Admissions Pathway and aligning with Dalhousie’s Third Century Promise, as well as recommendations from the African Nova Scotian Strategy, this formalized equitable pathway aims to increase representation of African Nova Scotian and Black learners into Dalhousie Medical School, and in turn, the healthcare system.

“It is known that Black people are underrepresented in medicine due to systemic barriers,” says Dr. Jones. “This pathway is so important in bridging this gap. Representation within health care matters and will in turn improve the health outcomes for our community.”

Dr. Jones is advising on undergraduate curriculum related to African Nova Scotian and Black health and will co-lead both the Sofia B. Jones Mentorship Program for Black medical students, and PLANS. She also provides advice to the Dean of Dalhousie Medical School, Dr. David Anderson, and the Associate Dean of Serving and Engaging Society, Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, on matters related to the health and wellbeing of African Nova Scotian and Black communities.

“Dr. Jones is a perfect fit for a much-needed role in the Faculty of Medicine,” says Dr. Watson-Creed. “As a Dal grad, she understands our systems, and their pros and cons, very well, and as a faculty member she is an excellent role model for Black learners, and indeed for all of us, in compassion, thoughtfulness, and excellence. We are thrilled to have her join the team.”

Dr. Jones shares in that excitement and is energized to collaborate with the Serving and Engaging Society group who are challenging systems with a social accountability lens.

A sense of community

Clinically, Dr. Jones will continue her work in addictions and harm reduction, and working with the Nova Scotia Sisterhood, she will provide primary care specifically for Black women and gender diverse individuals in Nova Scotia.

Returning home has brought Dr. Jones closer to family and friends, but also to a sense of community here at Dalhousie. It’s that sense of community, and support, that she hopes Black students, and other physicians will recognize.

“I want our Black graduates to want to stay and work in the Maritimes. That’s one of the biggest things we need to accomplish as a university and as a province. With this role, I hope to begin cultivating that change.”