I am very pleased to announce that I have been asked to serve as the inaugural Executive Director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College & State University. This position will allow me the wonderful opportunity to serve rural people and communities in a full-time capacity. While growing up in rural Alabama, I had the great fortune of encountering life experiences that made me intellectually curious about the life circumstances and relationships that I observed. During this time, fundamental questions about rural people and places were formed and I have spent both my personal and professional life trying to answer them. My early career was focused on documenting and highlighting the lives of rural people, particularly those in the Black Belt region of the South. Not only was this region’s culture my own cultural heritage, it was also critical in the development of our country’s socioeconomic and political systems. So, while often overlooked, what happens in the Black Belt region matters, historically and today.
My Road to Becoming a Research Leader
My development into a Black Belt scholar was shaped by the rich cultural displays of food, music and art experienced as a child. By observing the close relationships and extended family care systems of my community and family, a rich and structured community safety net was highlighted. Particularly influential for me and my outlook on health and well-being was my mother and grandparents and my great grandfather who gave me first-hand knowledge of complicated familial and community networks that sustained my family and our community’s social, economic and physical health. Weekly visits to the local nursing home and the homes of elderly community members and family allowed me to witness family and community-based approaches to healthcare and elder care that was often a part of most rural communities at the time. I was also influenced on the importance of spiritual health, the significance of land and self- sufficiency through growing your own food, sharing your harvest, and serving as earth keeper and caretaker to other animals. My family and community taught me cultural pride and the significance of our heritage through stories. All of these life lessons and experiences and the interesting people I met along my journeys fascinated me as a child. While most people in my community were not wealthy with material things, there was a very strong sense of community and an understanding of the importance of history and traditions. This phase of my life was instrumental in formulating questions early on about life in rural places, particularly the Black Belt.
My next steps toward becoming a rural scholar occurred while attending college. After high school, I attended the University of Alabama (UA) where it became increasingly apparent to me that there were very few people at the institution with my background. It was there that I first noted the misconceptions about rural people, particularly rural Black people. Students and even a few professors had little knowledge of rural life, particularly within the Black Belt region of the state. One conversation, in particular, with a professor served as the catalyst for my dedication to highlighting the history, politics and cultural heritage of the Black Belt region and for my social science career. This particular professor was a social scientist who stated that there was nothing in the Black Belt during a class discussion and I was deeply offended. I decided right there that there was a need to counter these misconceptions about my homeplace and the people there. The encounter made me realize that there were few courses that truly reflected my community or other rural places and very little research outside of agriculture that represented our experiences. I decided to focus on an interdisciplinary graduate experience that included American Studies, political science and public administration to impact the region through research, knowledge sharing, information power and exploration with a focus on public policy.
However, my introduction to the power and impact of research on community and public policy occurred while in graduate school. I had the pleasure to work with tough community advocate and organizer Steve Wilson, who was known for advocating for the Black Belt region of Alabama and the people there. Hired by him as a researcher for his Department of Labor demonstration project in the West Alabama Black Belt, I was afforded the opportunity to partner with researchers from Tuskegee University (along with the University of Georgia) to do a feasibility study of a federal Southern regional commission. The proposed commission would address underdevelopment in the rural South, primarily in the Black Belt region. I traveled throughout the South and worked with people from Black Belt counties in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia. I witnessed heated debates between the community experts and university and governmental experts on what the commission should accomplish and the goals of the entity. I learned a great deal from these exchanges with a primary lesson being the need for data and information that could be used to tell the story of Black Belt people in decision making spaces where they may not be invited to speak on their own behalf. In fact, one representative summed up this sentiment by saying that you can have all the passion for an issue that you want but if you do not have data to back up the passion, it’s just that, passion. This experience highlighted the power of research and data for me and the uniqueness of the Black Belt region, the similar histories within and the underdevelopment that was negatively impacting the lives of the people there. Our research efforts resulted in two pieces of federal legislation that were unsuccessful. Yet, this experience taught me the importance of the community voice in policy development, the resistance to their voice being present, and the disconnect of community experts from the public policy process.
After finishing my doctoral degree, I landed in the heart of the Black Belt of Georgia at Georgia College & State University, where I gained another opportunity to live in the Black Belt region and work there. I taught classes on Black Belt politics and development and created opportunities for my students to partner with community people and learn from community experts. During this time, I began developing a body of research on the Black Belt region, with particular focus on public policy and political participation. In studying agricultural policy, I identified a funding opportunity to study the farm bill, African American farmers and the Black Belt region and was awarded funding to do so. As a result of this experience, I launched the Black Farmers Network, as a way to introduce the region’s people, the diversity of African American farmers and their experiences in the Black Belt, with the hopes that a new generation of potential black farmers would be attracted through social media. An additional goal of this effort was black land acquisition and retention. In addition, I wanted to share the research beyond the academic community. Soon after, I was also given the opportunity to participate in the Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL) program with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a project in the Alabama Black Belt. This program has meant unprecedented growth for me as a research leader and I am certainly fortunate to have been selected to participate. I have learned a great deal from my team mates Tracy Lloyd McCurty and Marcus Bernard, our community partners: Mary Jones-Fitz, Anthony Paul, Andrew Williams, Darrell Mcguire, Annye Braxton, Aliquippa Allen, Freddie Davis, Freda Randall, Estelle Jackson and Lindsey Lunsford, our graduate scholar. This group of outstanding individuals have taught me so much about self-direction, leadership, respect and trust.
The IRL program’s focus on developing individual leadership skills, along with the opportunity to explore new methods of research has been an enormous complement to my research journey. I was fortunate, along with my teammates, to participate in a workshop on community-based participatory research led by Nina Wallerstein and her team. It was an amazing opportunity and I learned a great deal, particularly about the benefits and challenges of this research approach. Participation in the Op-Ed project sponsored by the RWJ Foundation was another wonderful opportunity for me to develop as a research leader. It provided me with insight on the importance of developing a compelling story in order to successfully articulate the narrative of your research. All of these experiences, along with the targeted curriculum will be very important as we build the Rural Studies Institute (RSI). The expansive curriculum of the IRL program will certainly prove essential in my future efforts. Particularly exciting for me is the opportunity to share community-based research approaches, the concept of decolonizing knowledge, and training other scholars on strategies of community engagement and partnership.
Research Leadership in Action: Three lessons I will take with me into the role of ED for the Rural Studies Institute
The RSI will focus on four pillars of rural disparity: Health, Education, Economic opportunity and the Environment. Serving as a hub of rural innovation, the RSI will work to identify solutions through four approaches:
- Increasing the body of knowledge around rural communities and best practices through research and scholarship.
- Providing and fostering technical assistance opportunities for rural communities, particularly working with community experts and community-based organizations.
- Developing student leaders with the knowledge and skills to impact effective change for rural communities.
- Strategically planning and facilitating regional approaches to rural innovation practices.
I am particularly fortunate to begin the next phase of my academic journey prepared for this leadership role with the targeted experiences provided through the IRL program. The IRL program supported both professional skills and essential life lessons that have strengthened my research and leadership capabilities and my resolve to do this work. Here are three lessons that I will take with me into the role of Executive Director for the new Rural Studies Institute (RSI).
Lesson 1: The power of community experts in transforming local communities
First, I am more knowledgeable about community-based participatory research (CBPR) approaches; both benefits and challenges. The IRL program has provided me several CBPR “ah ha” moments. However, the most important one for me is the power of community experts in transforming local communities. The IRL experience has reinforced my understanding of the importance of community leaders in changing local communities and the role of research leaders as technical assistance partners. Our best role in transformation is to provide the community experts with the resources they need in order to achieve their goals. I also came to the realization that CBPR is most effective when time has been given to develop a trusting relationship that is essential in collaborative work. It is very important to build that time into a new project. In my opinion, successful prior relationships and collaborative efforts with the community in which you are introducing CBPR approaches is the most effective. I have worked on both traditional research projects within communities and research projects that have varying degrees of community participation. Previously, those projects were in communities or with groups that I had established relationships. The IRL program has definitely assisted in my understanding of the importance of building trust and the significance of prior relationships in establishing productive CBPR projects. Moving forward I will ensure that I have developed trust with a group of people before trying to engage in a CBPR project because of the nature of the work. This is a lesson that I will take with me on my next journey and in how I approach my work with the RSI. In addition, there must be a mutual understanding and agreement of what all project participants define as research and what the ultimate goal of the effort should be. Nina’s experience highlighted the use of MOU’s between community members and researchers and that is definitely something I will use in the future and discuss with researchers who work with the RSI. The initial groundwork of making sure that all parties are in agreement about what the goals of the work are and what individuals and the collective hope to take away from the work is very important. In the future, I will walk into collaborations with added wisdom on the importance of shared vision and goals thanks to the IRL program. Realizing that there is certainly additional trust building approaches that I need to facilitate as a research leader with any community before applying for grant funding is another takeaway from this wonderful experience. These are important lessons that I learned from the program.
The enormity of community experts in the success of CBPR research processes was also highlighted for me. Picking community partners who are established leaders within the community has benefited my work before the IRL program and as a participant. They are instrumental in successfully understanding the community and in community engagement strategies. Our community partners proved extremely necessary in all facets of our project and have been vital to our project moving forward. They are sincerely interested in moving their community forward and have shown me a great deal about leadership and commitment to change. Their obligation to the community has resulted in their continued growth as a Council, including their pursuit of formal recognition as a 501(c) 3 organization. Long after our project concludes, this Council will continue their work in the community. This is indeed a testament to the possibilities of the IRL experience and CBPR approaches. I have been very fortunate to learn from them and I will cherish those lessons. This experience has made me more determined to use the RSI to promote CBPR approaches. Shifting the paradigm within the academic setting on the importance of CBPR work in rural communities will definitely be a challenge but it is certainly one that I am interested in pursuing. My journey of growth within the IRL program has also provided me with an understanding that sometimes research definitions and approaches, vision and objectives are different for those involved and may not coalesce, but that’s ok. The beauty of being a research leader is at the core of your work is curiosity and inquiry, growth and building on prior experiences for greater success in the future. I will take all of these lessons into my future work.
Lesson 2: The extraordinary opportunity of bridging community-university knowledge gaps
The second lesson for me is that research leaders can play an important role in assisting community transformation by bridging the knowledge gap that exists on both sides. As a researcher within a university setting, I have data gathering capabilities and a broad network of traditional experts and contacts that can all be a resource to community experts. Simultaneously, community experts have resources that can be used to benefit their community and positively impact any research effort within. Community experts typically are well aware of the history of their community and prior research projects. They also can identify community assets and challenges and have ideas about possible solutions or may have crafted solutions. So, the possible exchange of resources between the research leader and the community experts provide an extraordinary opportunity for research to be developed that encompasses diverse perspectives and a research design and process that is reflective of the community and enriched with the expertise of community experts. In addition, research leaders can also assist community experts in highlighting their work as an evidence-based practice. While I am certainly no expert in implementation science I am so excited to build my knowledge about it as part of the IRL program. As a researcher, my support of implementation science can certainly assist community experts and rural community development practitioners in transforming their communities by documenting their voices and perspectives and the progress of their work within the research. It also strengthens the capacity of research leaders to assist in community transformation. This allows for the important role of the community expert in the community’s transformation to be well documented through the research process. The acknowledgement that community transformation is actually led by those within the community with documented evidence from research leaders can certainly shift how universities and funders interact with community experts and how community experts assess their own power.
In the past, I have witnessed predisposed assessments of the work of community experts and/or community-based organizations by decision makers because these groups were unable to adequately document the progress of their work, the impact of the work or develop a theoretical framework on which to discuss the work. The need for a better way of documenting their work or providing examples of evidence-based approaches of their work was evident. A successful partnership between research leaders and community experts can deliver needed data and information on these evidence- based practices from the community expert with more enriched and thoughtful research design and outcomes for the research leader. Together, the research leader and community experts can successfully complement each other’s goals. After participating in the IRL program, I am more dedicated than ever to being more intentional about my relationships with community experts and finding ways to support their work through research while strengthening my own approaches. This is another important lesson I will take with me from the IRL program.
Lesson 3: The necessity of redefining expertise
The final lesson I will take with me is that we certainly need to expand the definition of expert not only in the academic world but also within the policy arena. Who has better knowledge of the community than those who live there? In many rural communities, residents and their families may have been there for many generations and know first-hand where the gaps and barriers to change rest. Yet, many community people and community-based organizations have been left out of the decision-making process so long that it is often difficult for them to know where and when to weigh in on the process of change. The RSI will assist community experts and CBOs in understanding the process of community development, whether documenting their work as evidence-based practices, creating an education and outreach strategy for issues they are working on or developing white papers or short policy briefs for decision makers or in strategic planning opportunities. The Rural Studies Institute will also develop new leaders with a broadened perspective by finding ways to engage our students with community experts in a more systematic way. I have really benefited from the IRL approach in learning about the importance of not only the research itself but the broad strategy of education and outreach that should also take place. The IRL program has provided me with tools that I can pass on to students, other researchers and community experts, as well as revealing a more thoughtful approach on how I engage with and receive expertise from community experts. I can be a tool, through my work, in expanding the definition of expert and how they navigate the public and policy spaces. This is an important lesson and I will take it with me into future projects.
Moving forward and utilizing the resources and experiences provided to me as an IRL participant, I hope to tap into the amazing RWJ foundation network to assist our efforts. Continuing my work in rural communities in a capacity that has the potential to create real change on how we look at rural problems and how we find solutions to those challenges is a dream come true. I am particularly fortunate to begin this next phase of my academic journey more knowledgeable about community-based participatory approaches, the important role that research leaders can play in assisting in community transformation, and the need to expand the definition of expert to include community people. Thanks to RWJ and the IRL program I am better equipped to meet the challenges of my new role.
Veronica Womack is an IRL fellow from Cohort 2017-2020 of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL). To learn more about Veronica and Team Black Belt, Alabama, read about their research project: Resilience and Food Security in Black Belt Alabama Through Land-Based Cooperative Economics and Communal Landholdings.
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.