Would you mind telling me more about your project with IRL?
The name of our project is Improving Health Among Youth in Rural Appalachia: Enhancing School-Based Health Centers. I am the community leader. The two researchers, one is at Penn State University, and the other is at Child Trends.
What we’re studying is the school-based health center model. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of school-based health centers before, but they are nation-wide. Here in West Virginia, they started in the mid-90s. Our state has more school-based health centers per capita than any state in the country, and we have some of the oldest in the country. They’re a great health delivery model to ensure kids have access to comprehensive health care.
We’ve never had anyone study the efficacy of them, the challenges they face, and the opportunities to expand the model and address some of the incredible health inequities that our kids face here in West Virginia, whether that be due to poverty, the rural landscape, or to the ongoing drug crisis.
My interest is to try and promote the model to address some of these inequities. For our IRL project, we’ve done a number of interviews with providers around the state who work in these school-based health centers to hear what works, what doesn’t work, opportunities to do better, and the potential policy reform efforts that I could undertake to help them reach out to the kids who are in need of services.
Can you speak more to that advocacy or policy component?
With IRL, I didn’t realize that there would be professional development around, for example, using social media to get messaging across, not just to share relevant information to try and elevate the public discourse around initiatives you care about but to establish yourself as a leader and authoritative voice in these issues. They ask us what professional development we’re looking for. We talk on webinars almost every Friday, and they ask, “What can we do to help you do better?”
You get to know your fellow cohort members that you probably would never have an opportunity to meet. I just feel talking to them has opened my mind, expanded my vista, to be more empathetic or challenge myself in the way I perceive things. It’s just been an interesting — challenging at times — but a beneficial opportunity as well. They’ll be people who I’ll be friends with hopefully for years.
It sounds like what IRL provides is both affirmation for what you’re doing since the work can be difficult in creating systemic change, but also they push you to look at the world and look at your work from a different lens. Is that what you were saying?
That’s absolutely right. And the role of the researcher and how I can now work with researchers differently to address some of the historic issues that we’ve had here in West Virginia.
What do you view as the role of researchers within the community, or the role that researchers should play in general?
It’s about establishing an equitable space where the community is just as important and has just as much say in the research as the researchers do. If you want community buy-in, that’s one of the dynamics that has to be established.
How do we get those researchers into our communities that have that information and that experience and that expertise? How do we elevate their voices in the public space to where it’s weighted in the way that it should be weighted rather than just competing with the loudest voice or the person who says the quirkiest quip? How can we, collectively as a cohort or program, bring the value of evidence and research to the corners of our own worlds?
The pandemic has unfolded in interesting ways. People have become very questioning of our public health experts. With IRL, we’re facing this whole issue head-on: How can we as a cohort or as a whole program add something to the discourse to discuss the importance of preserving public health at this moment?
Kelli Caseman is an IRL fellow from Cohort 2018-2021 of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL). To learn more about Kelli and Team West Virginia, read about their research project: Improving Health among Youth in Rural Appalachia: Enhancing School-Based Health Centers.
Interviews conducted, transcribed and condensed by Maria Bertrand, MPH ‘21. Kelli Caseman reviewed and approved this blog.
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.