‘A window has opened for a real push forward'
Dr Roiyah Saltus is a sociologist and researcher-activist. She is a Principal Research Fellow at the University of South Wales and a member of the Centre for Social Policy.
“In a short digital story produced for one of my studies, my mother Solange talks about the racial segregation she experienced, the legacy of which I was born into. She talks about the community and the role it played in fostering a sense of self for Black children, and she talks about knowing your worth. Her story is my story.
I was born in Bermuda, the youngest of three children in a family of educationalists. My mom was the first Black female Vice-President of the Bermuda College. Her sister and brother were both mathematicians. My father worked as a teacher for a short time, as did my sister. As the saying goes, the apple does not fall too far from the tree.
As a young woman, I was deeply interested in Afrocentrism, in Black spirituality, and in social justice. My father was into amateur dramatics and my childhood was also shaped by the imprint of the plays he directed, that were written by many African-American playwrights depicting the struggles and strength of people and communities.
Perhaps of equal importance during those formative years was my reading the work of Marcus Garvey, Alice Walker, Angela Davies, and Audre Lorde, and my foray into the Rastafari Movement. In college I started to read the work of W.E.B DuBois and Zora Neale Huston. At was at this point that I decided to follow their path and turned my attention to becoming a social scientist.
Bermuda is a small Island - 21 miles long, 1.75 miles at its widest point – with approximately 63,000 inhabitants. Suffice to say that there is only one college and if you want to go to university you have to leave the Island! As we are still a British colony (which is another story), many people travel to the UK to study. I came to the UK in 1990 to study at the University of Kent where I majored in Sociology, together with English literature (of course taking all the Black British, Caribbean and African literature options) and then completed my Masters in Sociology and Women’s Studies at Lancaster University. I was successful in securing a Bermuda UK Differential Scholarship that covered my undergraduate degree and a Commonwealth Scholarship that covered my PhD studies at the University of Essex.
My PhD - Colonial Bermuda: hierarchies of difference, articulations of power – allowed me to examine three pivotal moments in Bermuda’s history - the period of slave emancipation, the women suffrage movement and the civil rights movement of the 1960s – to explore the ways in which race, gender and class intersect to shape people’s lives and societal changes. Oh, those days were blissful! I loved this period of my life when I could eat and breathe research. In many ways much of my academic life remains rooted in these foundational societal concerns and my belief in the role research can play in helping to transform society.
Much of my work is dedicated to varying health and social inequalities facing people from marginalised, migrant, and minority ethnic population groups. So why is this? Firstly, I trained as a feminist sociologist and my abiding research interest is rooted in intersectionality; in particular, the interplay and impact of gender, age, and social class as experienced by racialised, migrant, and marginalised population groups.
Secondly, based on my early life experiences, there is a strong thread of social justice in my work which is placed up-front. As a researcher-activist, I understand that research findings can be a form of activism. I’ve been conducting research in this field for decades, battling on many fronts with funders, colleagues and others to really meaningfully engage with these issues. It has not always been easy - that’s for sure.
Health and wellbeing are not just about our bodies and physiology, but about the webs we weave and that are woven around us: our relationships, home, community, economy, and culture. Community-focussed, place-based approaches to research, and ‘ways of knowing’ that include nuanced and diverse understandings of everyday health and wellbeing are crucial in policy and practice developments seeking to address the low health and wellbeing outcomes that continue to impact poorer, marginalised populations. For nearly twenty years, I have conducted studies based on the priorities of third sector and community-anchored organisations, and on the needs of service and stakeholder groups. I seek to do their bidding, amplifying their experiences, mapping service and delivery challenges and innovations, drawing out community assets and local knowledge and ultimately, using my expertise to transform this knowledge and the research findings into viable forms of policy evidence.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement with the killing of George Floyd has led to a global re-think of systemic intersecting oppressions. A window has opened for a real push forward. My hope is that this push - in the field of research at least – becomes a movement and not a moment or ‘flash in the pan’. What the pandemic has shown is that systems can change and transform very quickly when they must.
My research impact is the type of impact that emerges slowly, is often enmeshed with the work of others, and thus non-linear. For example, a mental health study undertaken in 2002 has led to a 19-year research partnership with Diverse Cymru, an equalities organisation. Over this period, we have conducted studies, published articles and reports and developed BME mental health and more recently BME dementia research strategies and priorities. One milestone that has some links to this partnership is a BAME Cultural Competency Workplace Good Practice Certification Scheme, supported by the Welsh Government and currently being rolled out across the NHS in Wales. My involvement with the Wales RCBC programme that University of South Wales manages has led to recent innovation in the recruitment process to ensure we capture equality data. My long involvement in promoting USW’s equality agenda has led to me playing a key role in our work on the race equality charter mark. These are not causal links but attest to the beauty of accumulated impact fostered via engagement across a range of sectors and stakeholder over a long period of time.
Despite the challenges and changes over the years I still love my academic life. I would love if just some of the work I have done with participants, with research partners and with communities, as well as with policy and practice stakeholder groups is used to inform new ways of improving the lives of everyday people.”
- Study to improve opportunities for primary care and advocacy for family violence, bringing together over 35 countries (ongoing)
- Leave No-one Behind – improving pathways to dementia information - dementia priorities of older BME people in Wales (2021)
- The impact of COVID-19 on BME communities in Wales (2020)
- Praisesongs From Wales - a creative space and research resource dedicated to the celebration of older men and women of colour living in Wales, and to the development of a digital story archive of their lives, captured also in a Wales Review article.
- Sitting in the Twilight: Wellbeing, Aloneness and Leisure- capturing the stories of Caribbean migrants, 80 years+ (2018)
- Representing communities: developing the creative power of people to improve health and well-being: A UK-wide, multi-site large AHRC-funded study exploring how community representations produced through creative arts practices (e.g. storytelling, performance, visual art) can be used as forms of evidence to inform health-related policy and service developments (2016)
- "Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns (2015)
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