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Sept. 14, 2021

Faculty voice: Teaching the science of community engagement

Rodlescia Sneed is an assistant professor in the Division of Public Health in MSU’s College of Human Medicine. She is a social and health psychologist interested in how older adults age successfully in economically vulnerable communities. The following faculty voice is edited and repurposed. The original content is available on the College of Human Medicine website.

As an undergraduate, I was always interested in doing work related to health disparities and increasing health equity. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I decided to take a few years off before going to graduate school. During this time, I took a position with a social service organization, and that work cemented my interest in public health.

While there, I worked across a range of community programs dedicated to issues like maternal and child health, youth violence prevention and employment in low-income communities. Through this work, I began to understand how social factors impact health beyond what happens in the clinical setting.

Young people lacking effective conflict resolution skills would eventually land in the emergency department with gunshot wounds. Without decent employment, community members would be more susceptible to chronic disease, as they wouldn’t be able to afford healthy food. I came to realize that we had to think about health more broadly and improve the conditions that people live in to ultimately improve the health of the public. I knew then that I wanted to be involved with work that addressed the social determinants of health.

Since that time, I have been involved in projects related to health equity in participatory research, with a focus on community engagement — both as a researcher and an instructor.

What is community engagement?

For me, community engagement is about developing trusted and long-lasting partnerships with community agencies and individuals. In these partnerships, all have a voice in how public health projects are planned, implemented and evaluated.

Community engagement is a science. Some people may not traditionally think of it in those terms, but we use methods that have been tried and tested, and we learn from the challenges and the successes of people who have done similar work before.

Don’t be a “helicopter researcher”

Partnerships are crucial for public health professionals interested in impacting community health. As public health professionals, we are often not members of the communities where we work. This means that we may not understand the history of the community, the public health issues that exist, the approaches that have already been tried and past successes or failures. We need people on the ground who can give us insight into these areas.

Further, communities don’t trust people that they don’t know. Underserved communities typically have a long history of being exploited by those with self-serving interests, so they are rightfully suspicious of new faces and organizations. To earn trust, you need partnerships with community agencies and individuals who are recognized as those who care about the community. This helps to ensure that outsiders do not exploit the community for their own purposes.

Researchers interested in community-based work must be careful not to become “helicopter researchers.” That’s what we call researchers who swoop in, collect the data they need to advance their projects and then swoop out without making a real investment in the community. Community members have seen plenty of it, and they don’t like it. They don’t want to participate in research if it offers no real community benefit.

How to develop partnerships

In the Community Engagement in Public Health Practice course that I teach, we discuss how to develop partnerships with community members. Those interested in community-engaged work must learn where power is held in a particular community — and that’s not necessarily with the elected officials. I teach my students that they must learn to identify the trusted, often unofficial, leaders, in the community. Who has a voice in the community? Who does the community respect and listen to?

At the end of the semester, students are asked to develop their own community-engaged project focused on a community and public health topic of their choice. The students learn how to engage with people who know that community, live in it and have a vested interest. This increases the students’ knowledge about how the community works, and what the community needs. Students also learn how to train community members to be directly involved in the public health work as well, so the community programming activities can be sustained over time.

“So, what truly makes community engagement successful?” I asked this question of a colleague not too long ago, and she told me something that I now share with my students: “For community engagement to work, you must have trusted people, in trusted places, delivering trusted content.”

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