Convocation Profile: Joy Walcott-Francis, GSWS

October 06, 2016

Ph.D graduate Joy Walcott-Francis lives her assertion that “international (and first-hand) experience is invaluable to academic knowledge.” In addition to successfully defending her doctoral dissertation in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies in July, she holds a BSc in International Relations, and a Diploma (Honours) in Teacher Education, both from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, as well as an M.A. in Gender and Development Studies from the University of Hull, England.

Walcott-Francis’ PhD examines relationships between health research and marginalized/underserved populations, and comes out of a desire to understand the “phenomenon [behind] the inherent gender biases” in cardiovascular health research. Previous studies suggested that Black women were mostly physically inactive and, therefore, more prone to issues with their cardiovascular health. But as a physically active Black woman, Walcott-Francis says that these studies didn’t represent what she knew to be true: “The more I got immersed in cardiovascular health research, the more frustrated I got about the data. I felt that it was not adequately representing Black women’s participation in physical activity [….] I had a problem with that. And I felt that it was time that the research bring to the fore the voices of Black women like me, who are physically active. From a policy perspective, I wanted our voices to be heard.”


She positions her work as “tied to the gradual shift we are experiencing in how we look at cardiovascular health and disease from a gender perspective.” In the past, men were thought of as the ones who would suffer a stroke or a heart attack. As Walcott-Francis explains, “women got left behind in research on heart disease and even in diagnosis. But now, we are at point where we have not only acknowledged that women do suffer heart attacks but that they present with different symptoms.”

Thus, she “questions and puts to test some of the theories that attempt to account for people’s lifestyle behaviour and choices.” She notes, “in this field, it can get quite complex. It is not a simple matter of saying or believing that an individual will change her/his behaviour if they realise that they are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease but there will be several factors at play that will determine the individual’s decision about whether or not to change.”

One factor seems to be a feeling of personal responsibility, and of having a connection to other people’s lives. In her research, for instance, Walcott-Francis reports that “a number of the women saw their involvement in physical activity as much more than ‘just’ keeping healthy. They saw it as an important part of fulfilling their responsibilities of motherhood; being healthy and fit enough to participate in activities alongside their children as well as being around for important events (graduation, marriage etc.) in their children’s and even grandchildren’s lives.” Thus, “when we think about behaviour change, it can never be addressed with a one solution fits all strategy.”

An approach that has worked for Walcott-Francis, personally, is the relationship between her individual interests and her research interests: “I enjoy being physically active but by far being able to do so within a cultural context is particularly rewarding. In order to make things work best for me, I decided to become a certified dance fitness instructor, teaching Caribbean dance fitness classes on a weekly basis, so not only am I forced to keep active but I am able to do it through a genre that I enjoy immensely.”

Joy Walcott-Francis volunteering at Aunt Leah's Christmas Tree Lot. Photo:Tri-CityNews.

She says that “it is hard to not see the interconnectedness” between her academic and community lives. Part of this lies in her desire to be “a change agent.” She says that she “developed a keen sense of civic duty” as an undergraduate, one that translated into “always wanting to help the communities around me thrive and to be a part of the change process.” When she moved to Vancouver in 2007 to study, Walcott-Francis says “it felt natural to get involved in community work.” She has since worked with groups promoting aspects of the Caribbean in Vancouver, she has volunteered with African Canadian societies that try to foster community cohesiveness and promote active living through sport, and she has volunteered with societies that “work to provide assistance to African women living with HIV and AIDS.”

Formally, this community involvement has taken many forms: she has served as an Executive Member for the African & Caribbean Heritage Students’ Association at SFU, as a Volunteer Project Coordinator with the African Canadian Soccer and Cultural Association of BC, and as a Director for the African Women’s Health Services Society of BC.  For the past four years she’s also worked with Aunt Leah’s Place.

“Both the research and the community work that I do help to enrich my academic life. It makes teaching all the more interesting and rewarding when you are able to draw from firsthand experiences and on empirical findings. . . We can’t discount the value of the relationships that we build and maintain in communities in which we engage.”

And with her research, Walcott-Francis also engages internationally. “Much of the focus on health (global and national) is on non-communicable diseases, in particular cardiovascular diseases, which are the leading causes of death globally. The world is trying to figure out how reduce the burden of these diseases. One of the key risk factors is physical inactivity, and what epidemiological research tells us is that there are certain populations that are at risk of developing cardiovascular diseases because they are not sufficiently physically active; one such group is Black people or people of African descent, women in particular.” Thus, she explains, “my research is not only timely but it provides insight into some of the challenges to being physically active that Black women experience. But more importantly, what my dissertation does extensively is highlight some of the factors that motivate physically active Black women to be active. And so, if policies are to be framed to encourage greater physical activity in this population, it is important that we know not just the challenges but how to motivate the women.”