Building Equitable Partnerships

Article by CEC Staff

June 28th, 2017 marked this year’s first bi-annual meeting of the Environmental Health Sciences Center’s Community Stakeholder’s Advisory Committee (CSTAC). Attendees, which included both CSTAC members and EHSC researchers, traveled from throughout the Central Valley to UC Merced where they spent the day exchanging updates, welcoming new members, and discussing the dimensions of equitable community-university research partnerships.

Members of the Environmental Health Sciences Center’s CSTAC represent a range of community organizations and agencies that work to promote environmental health and justice. Their expertise covers a wide range of environmental issues including air, water, food, and agriculture, and they work with the EHSCC’s Community Engagement Core (CEC) to align the activities of the EHSC to the needs and interests of communities facing high burdens of environmental hazards and social vulnerability. At the June 12th meeting, the CSTAC welcomed four new members: Isabel Arrollo of El Quinto Sol de America; Nayamin Martinez of the Central California Environmental Justice Network; Amrith Gunasekara of the California Department of Food and Agriculture; and Veronica Eady of the California Air Resources Board.

One of the goals of the meeting was to give the CEC an opportunity to get CSTAC members’ feedback on some of their recent community engagement activities. One of these activities was an Environmental Justice and Health Equity Training that the UC Davis CEC held in collaboration with the University of Michigan’s Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease Center (M-LEEAD) Community Outreach and Engagement Core. Nayamin Martinez, a new CSTAC member, helped coordinate the event, which took place in Fresno in March of this year. “There were a variety of levels [represented at the training], from people who have a lot of experience doing advocacy and organizing to […] people who are new to this area,” she reflected at the meeting. “At the end I think it was good to have those two levels together.”

The CSTAC additionally reflected on their experience with the UC Davis EHSCC’s Academy Day, which also took place in March of this year. Overall, the feedback was very positive; they particularly liked the presentation by Dr. Sam Sandoval, which included a model demonstrating the movement of groundwater and water contamination. Ryan Jensen of the Community Water Center commented that he liked how the Academy Day was “that next step in the process,” and that the images of abnormal fish embryos provided by the Teh Lab “was very real.”

Dr. Laura Van Winkle, co-director of the EHSCC’s pilot projects program, provided an update on Pilot Project proposals submitted to the center. The Pilot Projects grants are designed for investigators who (a) are early stage investigators in environmental health sciences, (b) are established investigators new to environmental health sciences, or (c) are established environmental health sciences investigators exploring substantially new research directions in a field relevant to environmental health sciences. The CEC is particularly concerned with funding projects that engage with the community and utilize partnerships with CSTAC members, and has also made an effort to increase the number of social science project proposals that the center receives. To this end, Van Winkle expressed satisfaction with their efforts. “Whatever you’re doing is working,” she said at the meeting. “Keep doing it.”

After business and updates, it was time to begin a major highlight of the meeting:  a workshop titled “Design Thinking for Social Justice and Equitable Partnerships”. The two-part workshop began before lunch and continued afterward. While participants enjoyed a lunch catered by UC Merced, they had the opportunity to hear from a panel of individuals with extensive experience working in the realm of policy. Panel members, who included Adrian Lopez, Nayamin Martinez, Veronica Eady, and Laura Van Winkle, answered questions regarding their experiences translating science to policy and shared their insights with the other participants. Following lunch, it was time for Part 2 of the Design Thinking for Social Justice and Equitable Partnerships workshop.

One of the ways that the CSTAC enhances the work of EHSC researchers is by acting as community partners in community-based participatory research projects. Communities suffering from adverse health effects of environmental contamination often feel distrust for the researchers and agencies whose work aims to remediate those effects. As a result, partnerships with community-based organizations that are already seen as trustworthy can be extremely advantageous for university researchers. Importantly, input from community partners also helps to ensure that research better reflect the needs and desires of the affected communities. Community-university research partnerships can therefore not only enhance the relevance and rigor of health science, but also lead to community empowerment and health equity.

Community-university partnerships, however, are not always easy to develop or maintain. Differences in priorities, control over available funds, ownership of the study’s results, and many other factors can give rise to tensions within these partnerships. One of the goals of the CEC, therefore, is to help facilitate the development of strong research partnerships in spite of these challenges. To this end, the June 12th meeting featured a workshop by the Reflex Design Collective, “a group of creative problem solvers who look at the roots of wicked problems.” Using a framework called  “Design Thinking,” they engage participants in creative activities that facilitate self-reflection, accountability, and critical awareness.

The three-hour workshop, which was led by UC Berkeley graduate students Brooke Staton and Pierce Gordon, guided CSTAC members and their university research partners through a series of discussions and activities aimed at building their partnership capacity. “Design Thinking,” according to the Reflex Design Collective, “is uniquely suited to solving complex, difficult to define problems. It is a process that combines empathy, out of the box thinking, and good old trial and error to get at the heart of issues that must be addressed in order to be fully understood.”

What does this “out of the box thinking” entail? Throughout the course of the workshop, partnerships were asked to write, discuss, draw, and build. Using an eclectic array of objects ranging from feathers, sticks, and playdough to googly-eyes, balloons, and stickers, participants expressed their concerns and desires, shared their thoughts, and envisioned their goals. The workshop was, at times, marked by a deep and reflective silence. At others, the room bubbled with energy as participants laughed, talked, and created together.

Dr. Karen Andrade, Project Manager for the CEC, was very pleased with the outcome of the workshop. “I think we found a missing piece today,” she said afterward. “Creativity has this way of evening the playing field – no one has any more expertise than anyone else. I heard conversations between partners that were incredibly constructive.”

Building from the success of the Design Thinking workshop, Dr. Andrade plans to give more time at the next CSTAC meeting for participants to workshop the specifics of their projects. “This is an important foundation for successful community-engaged research,” said Krista Haapanen, a graduate student working with the CEC. “As eager as our researchers and CSTAC members might be to get going on their projects, we first need to establish strong partnerships.” Ultimately, Dr. Andrade and Ms. Haapanen feel that the meeting went very well, and look forward to building from what was learned during the workshop. “And now… we plan the next one!”