“I want to help the community I come from”

As a longtime frontline worker, Zoë Dodd knows about life on the street. Now, she’s using that experience to battle the effects of social inequality on health.

I want to help the community I come from

Zoë Dodd went through some hard years early in her life. She spent her early years in Edmonton and moved to Whitehorse as a teen and then to Vancouver as a young adult. It was a time of drugs, alcohol, street living, friends lost to overdose and tough lessons learned.

In many ways, those years made her what she is today. Zoë is the inaugural Community Scholar for MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital, a position that was funded in part by donors. At MAP, dozens of scientists study our most complex community health problems, many of which are rooted in social inequality. They tackle issues such as homelessness, affordability of medication, drug overdose and infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. Zoë grew up in a world defined by those issues, and she spent nearly 20 years as a frontline worker on the streets of Toronto helping people living with them.

“I’d say it’s a good reciprocal arrangement,” she says of her Community Scholar position. “At MAP, they study the complex issues, and I bring the first-hand knowledge other researchers wouldn't have. And I get support for my research.”

Back in the early 2000s, she began turning her life around. She got into the music scene, playing in bands and hanging around the punk community. She went to George Brown College for a year, then got a placement with Street Health, a community-based non-profit working to improve the health of people who are experiencing homelessness or who are underhoused in Toronto.

“I couldn’t believe that if you had experience with drugs and homelessness, they wanted you to work there because you had those experiences. I started on the HIV outreach team and then moved on to the Hep C team, where I helped to start the first Hep C treatment program for people who used drugs.”

Zoë ran Hep C support groups for many years, helping develop a model of treatment and support for people who use substances living with Hep C, called the Toronto Community Hep C Program. This model has been adopted around the province.

She spent 14 years working at South Riverdale in this role, during which time she also focused on harm reduction, overdose response and safe injection sites, largely as a response to Hep C and HIV prevention and to the growing overdose crisis. In 2017, she was part of a group, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, that opened an unsanctioned supervised injection site in Toronto’s Moss Park, a neighbourhood with the highest concentration of overdoses, when governments had no plans for opening sites. One city councillor described the site as following “a tradition of civil disobedience for public good.” A year later, the site had approval from the federal government and was funded by the Ontario government.

During this period, Zoë attended York University and earned a master's degree in environmental studies focused on people’s experiences with mandated drug treatment.

After she graduated, two MAP scientists–Drs. Michelle Firestone and Ahmed Bayoumi, who holds the Baxter and Alma Ricard Chair in Inner-City Health–talked to her about a new position that might be created at MAP. The Community Scholar role would take Zoë’s street-level learning, know-how and experience, and meld it with an environment of scientific research.

She said yes.

“Honestly, I was so burnt out from responding to overdoses and watching people die that I had become really traumatized,” Zoë recalls. “So I jumped at the chance to get a break from the front lines and make a difference through research, advocacy and policy. Because I want to help the communities I am connected to.”

You can find Zoë on the MAP website, in the Our Scientists section.

If you’d like to support health equity research and programs at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, contact Kara Spence, VP Principal, Major and Planned Gifts, at

Donate to St. Michael's Foundation.

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