Penn State initiative trains future researchers in community engagement

December 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On Nov. 4, 20 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from Penn State's colleges of Health and Human Development, Liberal Arts and Education participated in a four-hour workshop to learn strategies for engaging diverse communities in their research.

“If we want to create lasting relationships, we need to build trust,” said Natalia Van Doren, a psychology graduate student who participated in the workshop. “Our ultimate goal is to help the communities we are researching.”

The workshop was led by Dawn Witherspoon, McCourtney Family Early Career Professor, associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts, and director of Parents and Children Together (PACT), a community-university partnership between the Harrisburg community and researchers at Penn State University Park; Carmen Henry-Harris, PACT coordinator and community liaison; and Robin-Perry Smith, PACT Community Advisory Board (PACT CAB) member and public health consultant.

The PACT initiative works to promote the health and well-being of children, youth and families from diverse backgrounds through culturally-sensitive and community-engaged research projects implemented by Penn State researchers.

Providing examples from their research projects in Harrisburg and surrounding areas, the presenters underscored the importance of flexibility, humility and active listening.

“We learned that while we may be experts in our chosen fields, we must regularly seek feedback from experts in the community,” said Van Doren.

“We all have biases and varying worldviews, and we need to be aware of them and recognize how they may impact our research,” Witherspoon explained. “For example, in my research, I focus on strengths and assets, rather than focus on deficits. This becomes important when I consider variables for my projects. I acknowledge risks associated with neighborhood poverty, but also explore how positive social relationships may help reduce some of the stressors associated with this type of poverty.”

Henry-Harris added, “Based partly on my experience with caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease and another who is autistic and non-verbal, I continue to meet people where they are and remember that we are all different but not deficient!”

Witherspoon noted that the PACT Community Advisory Board, comprised of Harrisburg community leaders, made it clear that University researchers needed to be present from the start of their research projects and remain committed to the community in order for their research partnerships to succeed.

“We always look for additional ways to demonstrate our commitment to the Harrisburg area,” she said. "We offer workshops, participate in community programming, assist with curriculum development, and prepare and share data from PACT projects with community members.”

“Translating research into practice involves community participation to ensure that the goals of the study are relevant to your target population,” stated Perry-Smith.

Damon Jones, associate research professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and associate training director for the Prevention and Methodology Training (PAMT) program, summed up the importance of the workshop for future researchers.

"We can develop very effective prevention and intervention programs on paper, but these efforts will be limited unless we successfully engage the communities and families we are trying to reach," said Jones.

The workshop was co-sponsored by PAMT, PACT and Penn State's Child Study Center. PAMT provides training for predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers in the integration of prevention science and statistical methodology for the behavioral sciences, through funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. PACT is funded through contributions from Penn State's Psychology Department, Social Science Research Institute, the Child Study Center, the College of Health and Human Development, the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and participating research projects.

Last Updated September 03, 2020