Rodlescia Sneed is Assistant Professor in the Public Health Division of the College of Human Medicine at MSU. She is a social and health psychologist interested in how older people age successfully in economically vulnerable communities. The voice of the next faculty is edited and reused. The original content is available on the College of Human Medicine website.
As an undergraduate student, I have always been interested in doing work related to health disparities and improving 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 held a position in a social service agency, and this work cemented my interest in public health.
There, I worked in a range of community programs dedicated to issues such as maternal and child health, youth violence prevention and employment in low income communities. Through this work, I began to understand how social factors influence health beyond what happens in the clinical setting.
Young people who lacked effective conflict resolution skills would end up ending up in the ER with gunshot wounds. Without a decent job, community members would be more vulnerable to chronic disease because they could not afford healthy diets. I realized that we need to think about health more broadly and improve the lives of people to ultimately improve the health of the public. I knew then that I wanted to get involved in work that focused on the social determinants of health.
Since that time, I have been involved in projects related to health equity in participatory research, with an emphasis on community engagement, both as a researcher and as an instructor.
What is community engagement?
For me, community involvement means developing reliable and lasting partnerships with community organizations and individuals. In these partnerships, everyone has a say in how public health projects are planned, implemented and evaluated.
Community engagement is a science. Some people might not traditionally think of it in these terms, but we use methods that have been tried and tested, and we learn from the challenges and successes of people who have done similar work before.
Don’t be a “helicopter researcher”
Partnerships are crucial for public health professionals who wish to have an impact on community health. As public health professionals, we are often not members of the communities where we work. This means that we cannot understand the history of the community, the public health issues that exist, the approaches that have already been tried, and the past successes or failures. We need people on the ground who can give us insight into these areas.
In addition, communities do not trust people they do not know. Underserved communities typically have a long history of exploitation by those with selfish interests, so they are rightly wary of new faces and organizations. To gain trust, you need partnerships with community organizations and recognized individuals like those who care about the community. This is to ensure that outsiders do not exploit the community for their own ends.
Researchers interested in community work should be careful not to become “helicopter researchers”. This is what we call researchers who go out there, collect the data they need to move their projects forward and then rush in without making a real investment in the community. Community members have seen a lot of it, and they don’t like it. They don’t want to participate in research if it doesn’t offer any real benefit to the community.
How to develop partnerships
In the course Community Engagement in Public Health Practice that I teach, we discuss how to develop partnerships with community members. Those interested in community work need to learn where the power is held in a particular community – and it is not necessarily with elected officials. I teach my students that they must learn to identify 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 invited to develop their own community project focused on a community and public health topic of their choice. Students learn to engage with people who know this community, live in it, and have a vested interest. This increases the students’ knowledge about the functioning of the community and the needs of the community. Students also learn how to train community members to be directly involved in public health work, so that community programming activities can be sustained over time.
“So what is it that really makes community engagement successful? “I asked a colleague this question not too long ago, and she told me something that I now share with my students:” For community engagement to work, you need to have people of trusted, in trusted places, which deliver trusted content. “