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Community-Based Participatory Research for Public Health: Challenges, Opportunities, and Approaches

Dr. Karen Andes, Director of the MPH Program, Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, joined us to explain the principles of community-based participatory research (CBPR), and provide a brief overview of participatory approaches to public health research, particularly as related to working with special or under-resourced populations. She discussed the challenges in applying CBPR and the unique opportunities that participatory research presents as compared to traditional research approaches in prioritizing participants’ lived experience. In addition, she highlighted the advantages of engaging with communities using arts-based approaches and provided examples of effective empirical applications. Here are some of her thoughts on:

Community-based participatory research for public health:

“Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is more than a [research] method, it’s really an approach. Methodologically, it can be qualitative or quantitative, or, as I’ll suggest a little bit later, it can be based on the arts. What’s really key about CBPR is that it needs to be community-based from start to finish. What that means is that community members are involved in every step of the project, starting with research design, including setting your objectives and aims, your data collection methods, data analysis, and dissemination of findings. So, participants are really protagonists in this process. It’s a deeply collaborative process, where we as researchers really work to involve and integrate community members into every aspect of the project.”

Arts-based approached for social change:

“In Patricia Leavy’s book Method Meets Art, she says the arts can uniquely educate, inspire, illuminate, resist, heal, and persuade; [art] can also connect us with those who are similar and dissimilar, open new ways of seeing and experiencing and illuminate that which otherwise remains in darkness. There are a number of approaches that we might call arts-based approaches. Digital stories are a method that combines autobiographical storytelling with photography, or images, and often background music. I’ve had participants do this in about a three-minute video, typically, where they write a story about their life or about a theme in their lives and then combine that with images and music to make a brief video. Body mapping is another method. You would trace around the body of a person and then they would draw on the body aspects of whatever experience that you’re exploring. This has been both therapeutic and research-oriented, and often looks at experiences of trauma. PhotoVoice combines photography and group discussion. Taking photos around a theme or an experience. It’s also action-oriented in that it seeks to develop an exhibition, or an exhibit that engages a broader audience.”

Building relationships with marginalized communities for CBPR:

“[The CBPR] approach really does shift the way that researchers and communities work together. One of the most important aspects of this process is building trust so that community members can retain control over various aspects of the research process. This is especially important in populations with histories of abuse or mistrust. We want the research process to not be extractive. We want ongoing involvement through the analysis and dissemination periods so that the data and the methods are never very far from the population of interest. This process also democratizes the production of knowledge and engages community members in that very process. It can be beneficial to take a CBPR approach with these [less visible] populations. In large part because the approach itself helps to build trust, to create empowerment, to underline and highlight voices that may be marginalized. So, all those processes really make this a great method to use with populations that may be disenfranchised and marginalized. Community members should really be seen as protagonists in the CBPR approach, so they’re at the center of the process. This helps to disrupt power differentials that may be present in the research process. It will allow us to privilege unheard or unamplified voices, enhance participant control over research outcomes, and ultimately, we’re developing skills among community members that is capacity building for them over time.”

Watch the full discussion here.