Michelle Hill has worked as a Grants and Contracts Specialist at MIMH for 13 years ensuring that researchers are in legal compliance. This summer, Hill completed the Community Research Fellows Training at Washington University, a 15 week course modeled after the Masters of Public Health Curriculum that is intended to help community organizations and researchers work better to identify and rectify health concerns and disparities in underserved communities. The project was organized by Dr. Melody Goodman and Jewel Stafford, MSW, and each session was taught by a different Wash. U. professor specializing in topics including community research, policy, diversity, and cultural competency. Hill was referred to the program by MIMH researchers and was one of only 50 chosen for the fellowship out of hundreds of applicants.
One of the primary goals of the fellowship was to give researchers and community members a chance to work together, learn how to communicate, and understand each other’s perspectives and problem-solving methods. “A community person just knows they need money to fix a problem,” explains Hill. “They don’t realize that they need data, they need statistics. Researchers are already used to automatically asking, ‘Well, how are you going to measure that?’ A community person is like, ‘What do you mean “measure?” Can’t you see the people who are sick?’”
One way the course encouraged understanding was through group problem-solving assignments where participants were strategically assigned roles as a community member or a researcher to make students look at a problem from a new point of view. Having worked closely with researchers for over a decade, Hill already had some idea of where both sides were coming from. “For the first few classes, I was wondering why they’d put these community people with these arrogant researchers,” she says. “That’s how I was feeling, and I know that the researchers were feeling annoyed. But that was the design of the program – for us to value one another.”
The final group project was a Request for Proposal, a chance for participants to apply their knowledge in the real world. Each group consisted of four team members and an advising Washington University professor. Hill’s group focused on HIV and AIDS in the African American church with a goal of discovering the best way to raise awareness and reduce stigma in church communities.
Although Hill has no plans for a career change, she found the course extremely enlightening and useful and recommends it to anyone considering a career in research. “It should be a prerequisite,” she says. “When I first started working at MIMH, I wondered if I’d taken the wrong path, if I should have continued on to get a Ph.D. to become a researcher. But after I took this class, I’m glad I’m not a PI because it’s not what I would have wanted to do.”
Instead, Hill will use her greater understanding of what research entails to expand on her current duties. Before completing the fellowship, she mostly examined grant proposals in terms of legal compliance. “Now I can be more involved in the design and methodology, rather than just the legalities,” says Hill.
Overall, the course gave both community members and researchers a better understanding of and appreciation for the work the other group does and the challenges they face, which will help them to be more effective as they continue to work together to reduce disparities in racial and ethnic minority communities. Community members who completed the course will have the opportunity to apply their research knowledge by serving on institutional review boards and community research advisory boards. “We need the researchers, and we need the community people,” concludes Hill. “We can do a better thing if we work together.”