Blog Global Health Center

Down the Road or Across the Pond: Ensuring Successful Work in Communities

Written by Samantha Grounds, BSPH Nutrition candidate at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and SPRIGHT Scholar in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Tawnya Brown, MSW, Sonia Deal, RN, LNHA, Ericka Hayes, MD, George Kyei, MBChB, PhD, and Krista Milich, PhD, shared their knowledge and experiences surrounding working in communities—both locally and globally—with the 2020 IPH Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Abbreviated Track cohort. From their overall advice and examples of both successful and ineffective approaches, three main themes stood out: relationships, communication, and time. Whether designing an intervention for a local city or proposing a research project among an overseas population, prioritizing relationships, communication, and time will help ensure successful community engagement.

Relationships. The importance of relationships for successful work in communities was evident throughout the discussion. Ms. Tawnya Brown, the Vice President of Operations at Vivent Health who does HIV work in local communities, described how whether an initiative is successful is often determined by relationships. She described that relationships allow you to gain information that might be crucial to the success of your work, such as insight into obstacles faced by the community. Similarly, Dr. Ericka Hayes, MD and Associate Professor in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, emphasized how establishing relationships allows you to realize the perspectives of others, an understanding crucial to successful collaboration. Ms. Sonia Deal, Director of Practice Transformation and Health Home Director at Affinia Healthcare who has developed programs benefitting underprivileged communities, described how intentionally cultivating relationships with community partners and members has allowed her team success in their work.

Communication. Communication arose as another critical component of successful local and global work. Dr. Krista Milich, Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology who has worked with communities in Uganda for over a decade, emphasized the importance of learning how to effectively communicate when working in a new community and recognizing the possibility of miscommunication. Additionally, Dr. Milich highlighted the significance of approaching a community with a humble, unassuming mindset and interacting with locals to really understand the community’s concerns. According to Dr. George Kyei, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Senior Research Fellow performing research in Ghana, it is important to ask what the actual needs are when working in a community rather than to make assumptions.

Time. Ms. Brown underscored the importance of time by describing how not spending enough time understanding a community and its challenges can result in unsuccessful collaboration. Dr. Milich further emphasized how the length of time spent in a community influences how you view your work as you become familiarized with the community and its people. Further supporting the significance of time, as voiced by Dr. Hayes and Ms. Deal, being consistent and present are essential to establishing necessary trust among communities, which may take a considerable amount of time.

The importance of relationships, communication, and time for successful local and global community work was clearly emphasized throughout the discussion. Prioritizing these components will help to develop work that is effective and beneficial to the community, whether that community is a neighborhood down the road or a population on the other side of the world.