Written by Tiffany Xie, undergraduate student, Indiana University-Bloomington and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program
I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Vetta Sanders Thompson, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the Brown School and co-director of the Center for Community Health Partnership & Research at the Institute for Public Health, before her seminar at a community canvassing event in the Walnut Park community of St. Louis.
Despite the threat of thunderstorms and a darkening sky, we all walked door to door chatting with neighbors. Although we were there under the auspices of the St. Louis Gun Violence Prevention Initiative, we talked about everything from family to dogs to housing.
In our research projects this summer, we engage in the daily challenges of scientific inquiry, experimental design, and critical thinking. But public health is built on the belief that our work will impact the public. As researchers, what is not visible in our day to day is the eventual translation of our work into action.
Professor Thompson’s seminar focused on fighting health disparities through community-engaged research. She spoke to us about the intersections between health and education, tax law, and historic segregation. To combat these complex problems first requires understanding of the communities affected. This is why community-engaged research is critical to invoking change. This is why Professor Thompson is out in the rain on a Saturday morning, talking to community members about their lives.
At the canvassing event, I heard this sentence time and time again: “Your voice matters.” For Professor Thompson, community-engaged research is most powerful when researchers play supporting, rather than leading, roles. Translating research to activism is not about empowering others, she said. Rather, “it’s about getting out of the way so that people feel comfortable exercising the power that they inherently have.”