Blog Global Health Center

The ‘North Star’ of community engagement

Written by Amaris Hairston, MD candidate at The University of Missouri – Columbia and participant in the 2023 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Photo: John Cameron, on Unsplash

During my time as a RADIANCE scholar, many seminars and program experiences have anabled me to gain a better understanding of the elements that make up the pillars of public health. While it was very interesting to learn about hematologic disorders, environmental research, epidemiology, and much more, a seminar about community engagement truly enlightened me.

Assistant Dean for Community Partnerships Cynthia Williams, MSW, LCSW, ACSW, began her presentation by explaining what her ‘North star’ qualities are, which intrigued me because I had never heard the phrase before. Your north star is your mission statement which contains the values and characteristics with which you choose to navigate your work and life. Along with that thought, she explained ideals and values that lead to purposeful and harmless research within communities. As a researcher, it’s important to learn the community’s story, which became apparent when she spoke of a past, first-hand experience which highlighted how community engagement can be intentionally or unintentionally harmful. The experience she spoke of hit home because I was born and raised just miles away from the community in which this unfortunate event took place. Community stories are important because they not only help determine how we communicate with one another, but also how we understand each other. This leads to my last big takeaway from this presentation.

When doing community work, it is essential that members of the community, as well as the researchers, each have a net benefit. To be more specific, if researchers identify an issue within a community, there should be action put in place to mitigate that issue. Overall, community engagement is a key factor when studying and uplifting communities, but it must be done in a proper way to ensure eradication of harm within communities.