Wright Center series trains next generation of community-engaged researchers

How would you react if someone started a conversation by saying what was wrong with you and your family?

Probably not well. And that’s exactly what health researchers often do, when they try to talk to community members, said Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D, an associate professor at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy.

“We go into communities and we tell them what the data says: ‘The county health rankings say that you have the worst health outcomes in this county,’” she said. “Well, they likely know that things are bad, and some things are good, too. They live in that neighborhood.”

Mosavel shared her experience in December in the first of the Wright Center’s Community Engaged Research Seminar Series. The inaugural three-part series was geared toward early career faculty at VCU whose research seeks to study and improve community health, as well as work in partnership with community groups and outside institutions. More than 75 researchers from across multiple disciplines attended the series, which is now available for all to view online.

Mosavel kicked things off with an introductory session: What is community engagement and why does it matter? Among other things, she said, “it’s a major social justice issue when we’re talking about marginalized, disenfranchised communities that, as researchers, we want to ‘study’ but we have never truly engaged with them in a meaningful way.

“And communities have not seen the benefit of the research that they have participated in.”

Her presentation gave examples of how to rectify that gap between research and results.

Amanda Hall, Ph.D., director of community-engaged research and special projects, followed up Mosavel’s introduction with a presentation on how VCU supports community-engaged research.

In January, the second session on developing and sustaining community relationships had Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., and Emily Zimmerman, Ph.D., M.P.H. as presenters. And the third session on ethical and practical considerations in community-engaged research featured Alex Krist, M.D., M.P.H., the Wright Center’s community-engaged research co-lead.

The speakers represented decades of combined experience in clinical and translational research that brings the community into projects in meaningful ways. They offered practical tips and real-world examples of community engagement, in addition to the theory and objectives.

photo of Maghboeba Mosavel
Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D, an associate professor at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, kicked off the Community Engaged Research Seminar Series.

“Community-engaged research is a phrase that’s sometimes thrown around without context or substance,” said Rob DiRenzo, M.S., faculty development manager at the Wright Center and the series co-lead. “The series sought to give real meaning to the phrase, and our speakers were well-positioned to do that.”

A pre-series survey showed that over half of the registrants were already engaged in some form of community-engaged research.

“We saw that researchers at our institution were hungry for more training on this topic,” said Rachel Hunley, M.A., community engagement program manager at the Wright Center and series co-lead. “We hope this series can be a model for future ones here at VCU and other institutions.”

“I really like this series,” said one participant in a post-session survey. “Even though I’ve done [community engaged research] before, it really helps to get back to the basics and do it right from the beginning as I start a new partnership.”

What community engagement looks like varies by discipline and research question, speakers said. By its nature, community-engaged research is contextual, guided by the reality, the history, the politics of the community. Mosavel emphasized that community-engaged research requires not only collaboration, but flexibility and a willingness to change course, when community feedback requires it.

“Research has a clearly specified process: step one, step two,” Mosavel said. “But when you add community engagement, it becomes fluid, dynamic, and requires a completely different approach and commitment. Be prepared to change course.”

Mosavel urged the attendees to recognize their position and privilege and how it impacts perception.

“If you go out into the community and do community-engaged research, you’re always representing your academic institution,” she said. “And not only are you representing the academic institution, you have to be mindful of the context and historical relationships. Community-engaged researchers must recognize the larger context and do work that is mutually beneficial.”

You can watch the Wright Center’s Community Engaged Research Seminar Series on its Kaltura page.

Contact Rob DiRenzo and Rachel Hunley for questions about the series.

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