SPH in Detroit: On the Ground

SPH in Detroit: On the Ground

The Detroit URC celebrates 20 years of equitable partnership

Launched in 1995 with core funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Detroit Community–Academic Urban Research Center (Detroit URC) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. An equitable partnership among community-based organizations, public health and health care institutions, and academic researchers from U-M, the Detroit URC initially focused on child and family health issues, identifying several priority areas. The center has since expanded its mission, says director Barbara Israel, professor of health behavior and health education at U-M SPH, and now aims, above all, to foster and support collaborative research partnerships that examine and address the social and physical-environmental determinants of health, with the goal of eliminating health inequities in Detroit.

Key to that effort is the prevention and management of chronic disease, particularly cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and childhood asthma. "That means a lot of emphasis on, for example, air pollution, the built environment, social support, social cohesion, and access to food and places to be physically active," says Israel, noting that three of the center's oldest and best-known affiliated partnerships are Community Action Against Asthma, REACH Detroit, and the Healthy Environments Partnership. "We're always asking ourselves, 'What in the community facilitates health?'"


At the outset, Israel and her partners in the Detroit URC spent the better part of two years hammering out the community-based participatory research principles and operating norms that would underlie their collaboration. After a year and a half of dialogue, she says, "I felt the Detroit URC would work. I didn't know that it would work for 20 years!"

As noted by its Detroit-based partners, the Detroit URC has deepened bonds and strengthened communication among the city's diverse communities—especially between African Americans and Latinos—and between Detroiters and U-M. And the center has been associated with such new initiatives as Detroit Future City, a strategic citywide initiative aimed at stabilizing and improving Detroit, and the Detroit Environmental Agenda, which identifies and addresses environmental issues in the city.

Going forward, Israel and her colleagues hope to expand the Detroit URC's collaborative research, in part by fostering and mentoring new partnerships and by engaging additional researchers from Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and U-M, as well as new community organizations. In the last year, the center has received funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to help support these efforts. The center has also received grants from the National Institute on Health Care Reform.

Israel is quick to credit the center's success to its community partners and their "incredible commitment and dedication in the face of multiple challenges. What's been really powerful, and what has enabled us to move through the 20 years of all these other contextual issues happening in the city, is their steadfastness to keep pushing on and making change."

Watch a video on the Healthy Environments Partnership "Walk Your Heart to Health" program.


 Major Detroit URC achievements during the past two decades

Policy-advocacy training for over 500 Detroit residents, many of whom have gone on to engage successfully in policy-change efforts.
Employment, both part- and full-time, as well as training for over 400 Detroit residents.
The establishment of over ten community-based participatory research partnerships that have been funded for over 35 etiologic research and intervention projects.
$40 million in research grants, including funding for the Healthy Environments Partnership, REACH Detroit, and Community Action Against Asthma.
Significant contributions to the scientific understanding of social determinants of health and health inequities, including the publication of over 185 peer-reviewed articles and over 350 presentations at national meetings.
Training for more than 600 public health master's and doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows.
Global recognition as the "gold standard" for conducting community-based participatory research.
The development and implementation of interventions benefiting more than 3,000 Detroit residents, including a community-health worker intervention that reduced asthma symptoms among children and depressive symptoms among parents of children with asthma, and a walking-group intervention that reduced a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease.