Could you tell me about your project with IRL?
We are working in Hearne, a small, rural community in east central Texas. We originally planned to address substance use health disparities. Through our first year of research we learned from the community that was a symptom, but one of the underlying reasons was lack of opportunities for youth. We reprogrammed our project to look at increasing opportunities. We’re using a process called “human-centered design” or “design thinking” to engage youth to develop their own program, set of products, or whatever the result is. We don’t have the answer at the beginning of the process. We’ll work with youth over the next year and a half to develop their program and then pilot test it.
You said you went into this project planning to focus on substance use, and then you realized that was more of a symptom than the underlying cause of the problem. How did you figure that out?
We knew from the beginning that it was a fully community-based participatory research project, so we were open to changes. We’re not the experts; the community members are. Once we collected preliminary data from interviews and focus groups, we were able to map out a system of substance use in this community. We realized it wasn’t the substance use that was the issue, per se. We decided to approach it more from the opportunities for youth to be engaged, goal set, to have work opportunities, things like that. Once we went back into the community to verify those findings, we heard strong community support.
Could you speak to the role of Alton Burton, the community partner in this project?
Alton is the face and voice of our project. We’re very intentional about that. He conducted our initial interviews to gain trust within the community and introduce everything. Idethia Shevon Harvey, DrPH, MPH and I created the data collection, IRB, and worked on the process. After that, the three of us worked together to do the systems mapping. We were supposed to have more than one focus group but then COVID happened. Alton led the facilitation of that while Idethia and I were co-facilitators and notetakers. Alton has been the main communication contact with the schools. We’ve been attending and meeting as well, but he’s the point of contact. He’s been recruiting youth as well.
That’s interesting what you say about Alton being the face of your project.
That’s important to us for sustainability and buy-in. We want to bring our expertise to the community to help and build capacity. It is our project, but it’s not ours. It’s the community’s.
What spurred this specific project?
Idethia and I had been working with Alton for three years or so before we applied for IRL. Idethia and I are looking at disparities in tobacco use across Texas with our state health department, trying to improve outreach for special populations adversely affected by substance use. Alton runs one of those state coalitions. He became a professional contact and close friend. That work’s still ongoing. We pursued this IRL project to build on that relationship and do something more local versus across the state. Alton came up with the substance use issue.
I was reading an IRL survey you filled out. You said a question you wish people asked you more often is, “Why does this matter?” Could you speak to that?
With research, especially public health research, we’re so focused on the outcomes that we don’t always think about the process. That process in and of itself allows the community to address future issues because they have done the first project successfully. Also thinking more from the people perspective and why that thing — a high rate of substance use, teenage pregnancies, or obesity — is impacting communities. Not all issues we see, we would identify as a problem just because of the numbers associated with it. That local interpretive lens is important. You asked me to describe our project and I said “substance abuse,” but when we took a step back and thought about it from the opportunity perspective, it changed our frame of mind.
What have I not addressed?
With this type of work, it’s important to have diverse roles within our team. Our three partners have distinct skill sets. Talking to me, you’re gonna get this more conceptual, theory-based, ideological perspective. When you talk to Alton, you’re gonna hear straight from the voices of the people. If you talk to Idethia, you’re gonna hear more of a data collection lens. So often we’re trying to see how our shared vision is unified. For this to be successful, you also need that diversity.
Whitney Garney is an IRL fellow from Cohort 2018-2021 of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL). To learn more about Whitney and Team Hearne, TX, read about their research project: Researching Equity and Community Health (REACH) Project.
Interviews conducted, transcribed and condensed by Maria Bertrand, MPH ‘21. Whitney Garney 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.