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October 27, 2011

Senate Matters

Community collaborations: A strategy for future research

Community collaborations: A strategy for future research

by Martha Ann Terry, Michael Yonas, Adrienne Walnoha and Tracy Soska

This fall’s University Senate plenary session, “Community and Campus Partnerships for Health and Well-Being,” will be held Nov. 10 in the William Pitt Union and is open to the public. The plenary session will focus on innovative and sustainable efforts to promote community-engaged teaching, service and research.

Kevin Jenkins, senior program officer and director of community initiatives at the Pittsburgh Foundation, will be the keynote speaker. A panel discussion will highlight ongoing community/campus partnerships in the region, and a poster session/marketplace will provide an opportunity for University and community members to network and share ideas about potential collaborations.

The theme is particularly appropriate as the Pittsburgh campus’s community, Oakland, completes its long-term strategic planning project, Oakland 2025. University members have participated in the planning process and will benefit from the initiatives that come out of it — initiatives that already have and will continue to emerge from concerns that the community itself has voiced and prioritized in numerous meetings and work sessions.

Successful community and academic partnerships are based on the recognition that experts come in all shapes and sizes and include many people who live, work and play outside the academy. When we pool our resources — intelligence, material goods, money, ideas, creative energy — we are much more likely to identify and develop effective, sustainable solutions to the problems that both educational institutions and communities face.

Traditionally, researchers in the academy have conducted studies and implemented interventions in communities with very little input from residents. In many instances, this approach has resulted in populations that mistrust researchers and research. This mistrust then can present challenges for those who want to do participatory work in communities and can, unfortunately, prevent the introduction of projects that actually might benefit those communities.

Over the last decade, a different approach has gained acceptance. Community engagement research (CeR) and community-based participatory research (CBPR) both are pieces of an approach guided by the philosophy that interested communities should be equal partners at the table when identifying, planning, implementing, evaluating and reporting on studies and interventions to be conducted within their boundaries. Teaching, research and service projects that grow out of this kind of collaboration take advantage of skills and expertise from many sources, perhaps most especially those of community members, while at the same time building the capacity of communities to address issues on their own.

One such successful initiative is Oakland Neighborhoods Engaged (ONE) Pittsburgh, which is one aspect of the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s larger community partnership. Designed to cultivate collaborations and apply the principles of partnered research between community sites and the academy, ONE Pittsburgh began with a series of interdisciplinary workshops on key elements of CBPR, followed by primary data collection with groups of community members in the Oakland area. Issues of health and safety emerged as concerns, and findings to date have been used to develop numerous partnerships for research and service such as the Oakland Arts event held in August. This event was organized by student interns at Community Health Services Corp. to create an opportunity for Pitt students and community members to meet each other in a neutral, non-combative space.

Another example is a project involving Pittsburgh Early Head Start (EHS) families and Pitt researchers using a technique called Photovoice. EHS families used disposable cameras to capture the process of preparing their kindergarten-aged children to attend school for the first time, then told their stories to the researchers as they reviewed the photographs together. This work revealed the importance of understanding both that underserved families have their own perspectives on school readiness and that school readiness is a community public health issue.

The University is the largest institution of higher learning in southwestern Pennsylvania and a leader in the region. As such, it is fitting for Pitt to showcase exciting and successful local community-campus partnerships projects that have grown out of mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s strengths. The plenary session will help participants understand how this kind of research can directly and sometimes immediately have a positive impact on the community.

The authors are members of the plenary session planning committee co-chaired by Martha Ann Terry, assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences in the Graduate School of Public Health and co-chair of the University Senate community relations committee. Michael Yonas is assistant professor of family medicine. Adrienne Walnoha is chief executive officer of Community Health Services Corp. Tracy Soska is assistant professor, director of continuing education and director of the community organization and social administration concentration in the School of Social Work and a member of the University Senate community relations committee.

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