Brittany Bingham successfully defended her PhD last month, becoming FHS’s first Indigenous PhD graduate.

FHS’s first Indigenous PhD graduate awarded MSFHR COVID-19 grant

July 24, 2020

By: Geron Malbas

Fearlessly passionate about Indigenous health, Brittany Bingham not only successfully defended her PhD last month, but was also awarded an MSFHR award as the Principal Investigator on a project entitled “Informing The COVID-19 Response For Vancouver’s Urban Indigenous Population Using Community-Driven Methods And Big Data Analytics.”  She emphasizes that the unique needs and diversity of Indigenous communities are essential to consider when informing the COVID-19 response for Indigenous peoples.

“We need to work with the Indigenous experts in the community to inform our use of data that will help us mitigate COVID-19 risk in these populations, creating responses that are led by and for Indigenous peoples,” she explains. “Many Indigenous people face barriers in accessing health services both in urban and more remote areas. We need to examine how to break down some of these barriers within the context of COVID-19, and consider the broader health inequities that will have an impact during this pandemic. The most marginalized populations in Vancouver are also disproportionately Indigenous, so it is essential that we consider innovative and Indigenous-led approaches to support these groups in staying safe during COVID-19.”

Bingham began her health research journey at SFU completing an Honours BA degree in Psychology, with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist to work in Indigenous communities. She explored broader ideas of health and wellness after taking classes in Health Psychology and Health Inequities, leading to a deeper understanding of how Indigenous people see wellness in a holistic manner, as well as how mental wellness cannot be considered in isolation from other aspects of health.

“As I completed my Honours thesis working with an Indigenous alcohol and drug treatment centre in BC, I learned that their programs didn’t just focus on substance use but also on addressing historical trauma for their clients as well,” she explains. “This was when I started to more fully understand the role that trauma plays in health equity. I noticed that the Faculty of Health Sciences had a multidisciplinary and global health focus, and that excited me to learn from experts with these diverse perspectives.”

Over the last several years, Bingham has worked devotedly to help the Indigenous community. She worked as an instructor for the Aboriginal Pre-Health Bridge program, with FHS professor John O’Neil as a Project Manager on a CIHR grant jointly led by FNHA that examined co-decision making among key partners in the transformation of First Nations governance in BC, and with Julian Somers’ lab on the At Home/Chez Soi project. For her dissertation, “Indigenous and Gender Informed Approaches to Understanding Health, Social, and Mental Wellness Among Indigenous People Experiencing Homelessness and Mental Illness in Two Canadian Cities”, she examined data for Indigenous people from the At Home Study and engaged with community members using Indigenous, culturally-driven methods to facilitate rich, emotional, powerful dialogue.

“I conducted an Indigenous-led community sharing circle to conduct an analysis of Indigenous homeless narratives from community perspectives,” she explains. “Arts-based analysis was used in the form of graphic facilitation to summarize the key themes of the narratives and also to document the sharing circle discussion. Graphic facilitation allows the participants to see their words represented in art form as the discussion happens in real-time, enhancing trust in the research process and ultimately, the participants create the final research product. It is then the researcher’s job to use this to inform action and change.”

While working on her PhD, she also worked at both Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), conducting research on cultural safety and primary care, and with the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) on Indigenous women’s health research projects. On top of her busy work schedule, she was also raising two children. For Bingham, balancing her work, PhD, and family was an immense challenge and she is grateful to have had constant support.

“Taking the time over the years to work on other community-based projects with Indigenous communities provided me with invaluable experiences and perspectives that ultimately informed my PhD work,” she explains. “Family support with my children helped me to have the time to work on my dissertation, as well as breaking up the writing time into weekend retreats and smaller manageable chunks of time. My husband and I make a great team managing all these responsibilities of two busy jobs, busy children and schooling. Completing a PhD truly takes a village.”

Currently, Bingham is working as both the Lead of Research for VCH Aboriginal Health, and as an Indigenous advisor for CGSHE. With VCH Aboriginal Health, her team has established that Indigenous women are a priority, and that healthy Indigenous women leads to improved health and wellness in communities with community-driven approaches central to all research. With CGSHE, she has been researching with vulnerable groups of Indigenous women, women in sex work and women living with HIV in Vancouver to create discussions that will lead to policy change.

“Indigenous women’s roles in communities were dismantled by colonialism, and returning to a focus on women’s leadership roles is key to decolonizing and reconciliation efforts,” she says. “These women have such resiliency and wisdom to inform research that has an impact on their health, wellness, and the policies that affect them. The research at CGSHE is closely linked with policy change and recommendations, which presents an amazing opportunity to engage Indigenous women in the research and elevate their voices to impact action and change.”

As FHS’s first Indigenous PhD graduate, Bingham hopes that her future research and work contribute to decolonizing health research by filling some of the large glaring gaps in data that is by and for Indigenous peoples and used to inform system-wide transformational change. She hopes to centre all of her work around the importance of elevating Indigenous community voices in research and keeping these perspectives central to findings and interpretations.

“I specifically hope to work on projects and research that directly address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Calls to Justice. Most importantly, I plan to create a supportive and culturally safe research structure that will support training and building capacity for the next generation of Indigenous community-based researchers.”