Alumni, Philanthropy

Bringing equity into the health promotion space

March 01, 2024

When Ilhan Abdullahi joined the RADIUS Health Promotion Lab as program manager in 2019, she had already gone through her own journey of reconciling what equity looks like in the context of health promotion work. 

At the time, the Lab—housed within SFU’s Beedie School of Business—primarily addressed chronic disease prevention through the promotion of healthy eating and physical activity. Working alongside migrant communities she's a part of and recognizing the disproportionate health disparities experienced by underserved communities, it was clear to Ilhan that addressing health inequities required a more grounded and equity-centered lens.

“When you’re in survival mode, there are so many barriers to attaining the kind of ‘healthy’ lifestyle we were pushing forward. That led us to rethink how we can centre access, equity and equity principles in our programming,” says Ilhan

With the generous support and partnership of RBC Future Launch, the Lab shifted its focus and launched a new cohort-based program called Reimagine Health, a health equity ideation and leadership initiative for budding social entrepreneurs and community changemakers. Ventures that graduated out of that program could then move on to Trampoline, a business model validation program for very early-stage ventures working to address health inequities in their communities. 

While the Lab’s prior offerings looked to later-stage ventures—where founders already have a big idea and business model—Reimagine Health was centred on supporting community leaders and members in exploring the social determinants of health and critiquing complex systems of access. This enabled the Lab to reorient its processes to be grounded in community, and to be driven by the belief that the best and most relevant solutions come from the community itself. 

“Instead of tapping into the same demographic of business students, folks with an entrepreneurship background and those with pre-existing capital, we really wanted to unravel that expert-driven model and what innovation looks like,” says Ilhan. “Now we are going into communities and bringing in people who have lived experiences and are deeply invested in the places they want to serve, and giving them the resources to make change.”

To date, the Lab has trained more than 80 community leaders in health promotion and venture incubation including Upkar Tatlay, an alumnus of both the Reimagine Health and Trampoline programs. Upkar developed an overdose intervention app tailored to underserved, vulnerable Surrey communities and factors in language, cultural relevance, stigma and the cost to prevent overdose. Katia Sanon, another Trampoline alumnus, created FLEKSYON to offer in-house rehabilitation services for people who suffer from musculoskeletal injuries that can lead to lack of physical activity and movement. 

This past May, RADIUS also piloted a free six-month program called Build for ventures looking to refine their model and grow their impact. The initiative was designed by, for and with input from people of colour and members of the Indigenous and Black community—and, to reduce barriers to participation, the Lab provided stipends and subsidized childcare for individuals who wished to take part.

“At RADIUS, it’s all about learning and unlearning. Every time we run a program, we’re looking at things from a new angle because of the different folks who come into this space,” says Ilhan. “None of us are experts here. We’re just curious beings with a deep commitment for systems change and equity, and it’s the community we learn from.”