Blog Global Health Center Health Equity

Do’s and don’ts of working in local & global communities

Written by Rani Huo, BA candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

One of the major topics mentioned by speakers during the Summer Research ProgramPublic & Global Health Track seminar, Do’s and Don’ts of Working in Local and Global Communities, was the importance of respecting others when we work with individuals.

Krista Milich, PhD, assistant professor in WashU’s Department of Anthropology, mentioned that her time spent abroad  has helped her  see the importance of respecting others. She said, “It’s really important that you acknowledge other people’s experience, and what they bring to each interaction and to your own research ideas.” Dr. Milich discussed the danger of assuming we know what is best for local communities. She mentioned how she witnessed outside organizations launching projects in Uganda without considering the real needs and situations of the communities, which wound up causing negative consequences.

The field camp in the Vohibe Forest, Madagascar (Photo: Krista Milich)

Kateri Chapman-Kramer, MSW, LCSW, project manager of the Institute’s Life Outside Violence program, also shared a similar viewpoint about her work with traumatized communities. She emphasized, “Those we work with are the experts in what they need.” Kateri also suggested that we should not impose on others our perceptions of trauma, but rather listen to how their trauma is expressed.

This brings me to reflect, where is the balance between our expectations and assumptions? It is clearly poisonous to hold assumptions towards others, regardless of whether we are working in a culture different from our own, or in a community with which we are familiar. On the other hand, it is also crucial to have some knowledge of what the situation might be before working with people.

Ozge Sensoy Bahar, PhD, MSW, research assistant professor at the Brown School, uses her volunteer experience in a Turkish community, where migrant families were impacted by poverty. To illustrate this, Dr. Sensoy Bahar said that despite being Turkish herself, there are still religious customs in Turkey she does not employ.

Antoinette Bediako-Bowan, PhD, Department of Surgery, University of Ghana Medical School, also discussed experiencing cultural differences. When asked to share her suggestions for working in global communities, Dr. Bediako-Bowan underscored that we should have some idea of cultural differences so that we can follow their customs. “Just respecting someone’s culture will get you the right answers”, Dr. Bowan said, and explained how to find solutions to health issues by collaborating with the local people.

Matt Kuhlmann, MD, assistant professor in WashU’s Division of Infectious Diseases discussed the importance of respecting local communities from our different angle. Dr. Kuhlmann emphasized the need for ensuring that our projects are sustainable and that local residents are engaged in our research in order to bring long-term benefits to the communities in which we work.

To summarize, I think one of the most important takeaways is that, we need to learn about the communities we would be working with in order to have the appropriate expectations and avoid offending cultures and customs. However, it is also always crucial for us to remember “we are not the experts”. Assumptions can be dangerous, blinding us so we fail to establish healthy, mutual trust and support with others. It is key to acknowledge our differences, and respect one another.