Community Partners

Someone You Trust

A legend in her adopted city, Flint, Michigan, Mrs. E. Hill De Loney has spent nearly 60 years working to change the lives of the city's African Americans—especially its young people. "My parents told us that we always had to give back," she says. "Regardless of what we accomplished, we had to give back to our community. It did become very ingrained in me."

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, De Loney was particularly aware of the debt she owed her enslaved forebears—"because of the hardships they went through, the psychological trauma. I was taught that we were all connected."

Aware, too, of the persistent legacy of racism in the United States, De Loney hesitated when members of the U-M SPH faculty approached her about becoming a community partner in the early 1990s. Tuskegee—the infamous 20th-century study in which the U.S. Public Health Service withheld treatment from poor African-American men in order to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis—"was on us," she remembers. "Research was a dirty word to our community."

But something drove De Loney to say yes to SPH, and she has since become one of the school's most loyal partners—a key player in collaborative, community-based initiatives to improve adolescent health, lower infant mortality, strengthen parent-child ties, and prevent youth violence in Flint.

De Loney believes a successful academic-community partnership depends above all on three factors:

Trust

"The African-American community is not going to accept a partnership unless it's someone you trust. Until I know you, observe you, see what kinds of feedback you offer, what kinds of words come out of your mouth, how you look at me, how you approach me—trust can't happen. Trust is difficult to come by, and it can dissipate quickly."

Communication

"Communication is one of the hardest skills in a partnership. It's very, very important to be clear. You have to ask questions. If I explain something to you, but our definition of the same word is different, then we'll fail to communicate. So if you're in a meeting, find out what each partner heard, and make sure the interpretation is accurate."

Listening

"Hand in hand with clear communication is listening—mindful listening, active listening, positive listening. When you're truly listening to a person, you're not just hearing words, you're comprehending, and you know what questions you need to ask. But if you're halfway listening, you're not even in the conversation."

Community Partners: A Level Playing Field

Twenty years ago, Ricardo Guzman, MPH '97, and his colleagues in Detroit's Hispanic community and the city's predominantly African-American east side community were worried. They'd seen researchers come into the city before and conduct what one community member called "drive-by research."

"They'd essentially shoot in, take information, and leave," says Guzman, the CEO of southwest Detroit's Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS). On one occasion, Guzman didn't know he and his fellow Detroiters were part of a research study until he stumbled on findings from the study in a peer-reviewed journal.

So when SPH faculty members Barbara Israel, Rich Lichtenstein, and their colleagues asked Guzman and other community organizations in Detroit to partner with U-M researchers in a new venture focused on health equity, the Detroit Community–Academic Urban Research Center (URC), "there was a lot of apprehension," Guzman remembers. But he'd met Israel and several SPH faculty members, and sensed "that at the heart of it there was something that probably would be worthwhile." So he and his peers decided to give it a try.

Trust was critical. So was an 18-month period when all of the partners—faculty from throughout U-M and more than eight community organizations in Detroit—met to "set down a level playing field that we all understood and agreed to and talked about," says Guzman. Among the principles they agreed on:

  • Equal data-sharing
  • Collective action
  • Mutual respect
  • Equal participation

"One of the really critical things about a collaborative research process is the recognition and understanding that community partners have a knowledge and experience base that we as outside researchers just don't have," says Israel. "As a consequence, the research itself, and the nature of the questions we ask, are much more relevant and valid to the community context."

Since its inception in 1995, the Detroit URC and its affiliated partnerships have launched over 30 community-based participatory research projects in Detroit—including air-quality assessments, walking groups, and a domestic violence–prevention project. The partnership has also helped bring more Latinos into SPH, among them Guzman himself, who earned an MPH in 1997 through the school's executive master's program.

"Twenty to 25 years ago, U-M was not welcomed in Detroit," Guzman says. "That has significantly changed. I believe the Detroit URC helped pave the way for the larger U-M involvement you see today in Detroit."


Corporate Partnerships

Corporations team up with SPH researchers for a variety of reasons. Some, for example, hope the collaboration will result in a profitable consumer product, and others seek SPH expertise in conducting risk assessments.

While every research project is individual, certain basics apply to all such partnerships, says SPH Associate Dean for Research John Meeker. Academic integrity is a given, and projects are ideally investigator-initiated and maintain intellectual property within U-M. Meeker knows firsthand what he's talking about—he's partnering with NSF International on a study of the reproductive and childhood-development impacts of exposures to everyday chemicals.

"One of the main reasons we embrace these partnerships is that we want to get our research out into communities," Meeker adds. "If an SPH researcher has discovered something that can improve public health, we want to get that out there in the form of a product or as information. Many times it's much more effective to do that in a strategic partnership than on our own."