Shared goals in community research

I find myself often comparing my GoingPlaces experiences with the experiences of completing my thesis research. My thesis investigates greenspaces and mental health in Addis Ababa; it was a research question I came into the program determined to explore. I was fortunate to find exceptional mentors and supportive team members that afforded me the creative freedom to investigate this question. It was an incredible feeling to have the guidance and resources to explore a topic I cared so deeply about, especially in a country and context that I was directly connected to. However, having collected the data, written up my findings, and defended my work, I am left unsatisfied.

Reflecting on my experiences with GoingPlaces, I am beginning to understand why this might be the case. The opportunity to be involved with GoingPlaces has been an extraordinary experience that has considerably shaped the spaces I see myself being a part of, especially as I move forward in life. I think perhaps the most significant aspect of the project has been the privilege to be in a space where we can come together, across roles and expertise, with the shared goal of fostering healthier communities. I emphasize “shared” because I believe it is this critical component that was missing from my thesis work, which left me with feelings of inadequacy.

Don’t get me wrong: my thesis team was and is beyond supportive of the research, and they have always gone above and beyond to provide me with the resources to successfully answer the questions I had hoped to explore. I think the problem was me.

This was a topic I was passionate about and had found I could start addressing research gaps. Coupled with the pressure of novelty in academia, I selfishly charged forward with this question without considerations of community needs or priorities that are necessary for sustaining the product of this work. At no point in the process did I take the time to cultivate a sense of shared purpose for the questions I was pursuing.

The result, I realize, is feeling very alone (and as I type this out, feeling very self-absorbed).

GoingPlaces demonstrates to me what it is like to pursue a question that everyone is invested in. It is a feeling that trumps even the feeling of pursuing a question with the world at your disposal — if it means you can only do it alone.

This is a lesson that I think comes at an inflection point in my life as I consider the type of researcher I aim to become. I have gained a greater sense of fulfillment, purpose, and happiness, pursuing research questions serving to address community needs rather than ones I have conjured up for the sake of doing so.

I am reminded of environmental justice (EJ) leaders that I deeply admire and recently heard speak at an EJ summit, namely Drs. Danielle Purifoy and Libby McClure. Dr. Purifoy is a lawyer and Dr. McCulre is an epidemiologist. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they both stood under the same roof demonstrating their unequivocal commitment to health and environmental equality. What particularly stood out to me, relevant to both the failures of my thesis and the opportunities in GoingPlaces, was their ability to selflessly integrate their technical training and expertise to move forward local community needs.

Reflecting on Drs. Purifoy and McClure’s seminars, in conjunction with my experiences throughout this fellowship, I am reminded of the individual I hope to embody. I am beyond grateful for this experience to critically consider both the social issue at hand, and how I, as a student, professional, and individual, can fit into these spaces.

I look forward to continuing my involvement with communities as we work to improve neighborhood health.

Theory-driven models in community-engaged work

Spring cleaning is to thank for today’s post: while cleaning out an old binder, I found notes I took in a research methods course outlining the components of theory of change diagrams. It brought back vague memories of the instructor emphasizing the importance of these types of conceptual frameworks to situate a given intervention in a change-driven system. This led me to think about how aspects of our work with Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) fit into this framework. Theory of change diagrams consist of six primary components: context of the problem, needs-assessment, processes/strategies to facilitate change, expected outcomes given the previously outlined process, factors that influence this change, and the assumptions that underly the framework. I have considered each of these aspects independently in the context of our work with DPR, but never concurrently in a structured framework.

With that in mind, for today’s post I developed a theory of change diagram situating how I believe the delivery of an active transport curriculum could serve to promote youth health. In brief, I’ve identified the problem of interest (low physical activity) and the relevant background information to contextualize significance (population health outcomes). I continue with a description of community assets and challenges to highlight our “system as it exists”. These are meant to be illustrative not exhaustive, as Durham has several strengths not listed here. Based on the problem identified and our current community strengths and needs, I highlight our strategies to facilitate change (i.e. promote active transport, and consequently, youth health). The expected outcomes are detailed in the desired outcomes section, followed by influential factors that may serve to positively or negatively influence whether our approach is successful in achieving our desired outcomes. I conclude with the assumptions that underlie both this framework and our overall work in this space.

Measuring Place

These days it’s rare to look forward to a zoom call, but monthly check-ins with the GoingPlaces team are ones that I’ve come to eagerly await. On the calls, we typically have staff from Durham Parks and Recreation, faculty from NC State University, a colleague from the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, and staff, students, and faculty across various departments at Duke. There is nothing particularly significant that happens at these meetings, mostly updates on administrative items related to our pilot work with the MyDurham program, but the meeting has become the closest thing to community that I’ve experienced in a while. The diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives that come together for these monthly meetings is something I’ve come to particularly appreciate, and I find it inspirational as I carve my role in promoting youth health.

During the last team meeting, I shared findings from neighborhood audits that a student and I had recently completed. The purpose of these audits is to evaluate whether the areas surrounding the select recreation centers have the infrastructure to potentially promote active transport. In other words, prior to delivering the transportation curriculum, we wanted to ensure that that these spaces could, in fact, be accessible by pedestrians, bikers, transit users, so that youth provided with the training could apply lessons from the curriculum to access these recreational spaces.

Neighborhood audits are comprehensive evaluations of the built and natural environments of a given area. They are completed for the roads that directly connect to the facility of interest, in addition to road segments that intersect them. Typically, these audits are done with a street team that physically travels to the area and spends a few hours at each site to complete an evaluation. However, due to COVID-19 precautions, in-person audits were not an option. We had to get a little creative and instead use GoogleStreet View (see below)

For each segement numbered on the figure, we collected information on the built environment factors relevant to active transport, such as sidewalks and their conditions, speed bump, crosswalks, transit stops, bike lanes, and other related characteristics. This was completed for all six recreation facilities that host the MyDurham teen program.

After completing the audits, we found that most of the built environment characteristics surrounding each recreation center was conducive to active transit across all sites.  Eager to hear the thoughts from our community partners, I compiled these findings to present to the GoingPlaces team. Following my presentation, a DPR staff member asked a question to the effect of “what are the implications of these findings”. Fully prepped for technical and methodological questions, I was not quite sure what to say in response. Our work with this project focuses on empowering youth to navigate their environment, but not necessarily changing the environment they live in. For example, we can help youth navigate safely to the park on a route without a sidewalk, but ultimately, we are not changing the fact that there is no sidewalk to begin with.

There really is no happy ending to this post; I did not have an epiphany to solve the root issues that are the likely culprits to health disparities in physical activity. But it is something that I have acknowledged as a limitation to this work and something that I am actively working towards addressing.

I’ve identified entities throughout Durham, such as the Durham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) and BikeDurham that advocate for equitable access to active transit. Throughout my involvement with this work, I aim to connect with these organizations to identify areas of overlap and to share our findings in spaces that I hope will supplement ongoing work in this area.

The Significance of Place

Hiwot is part of team working with Durham Parks and Recreation to deliver a transportation curriculum that promotes active transit among local youth. 

If you had asked me at 5 years old what I thought I’d be doing at this point in my life I probably would’ve told you I was going to be a spy (for my CIA agent reading this, I’m flexible and open to new opportunities!). Not sure what happened between then and now but that is clearly not where I ended up. Instead, I am living out Leslie Knope’s dreams, yes that Leslie Knope, expending every effort towards ensuring equitable access to parks. A lot less action-oriented than being a spy, but a cause that I have found to become my “why” in life.

So how did we get here? I used to tell everyone this great “park-awakening” started while taking a class as an undergraduate, but my mother recently sent me a baby picture that suggests otherwise. Unsolicited baby picture below:

My childhood home was directly across the street from a neighborhood park. I mean walk-20-steps-from-my-front-door-and-we-are-on-the-slide kind of proximity to the park. I have a lot of childhood memories associated with this place. It’s where I first learned to ride a bike. Where I first learned to jump off a swing (and then quickly learn why we don’t jump off swings). Where I faceplanted off a curb and got a rock lodged in my forehead, earning myself a lifelong scar. Where I created my first friendships. But most relevant to piece, it’s my earliest memory of attaching significance to a place that was not home.

Fast forward to this undergrad class I alluded to, l found myself revisiting this idea of place. The class was a systems-thinking course that centered on wholistic approaches to confronting “wicked” problems, ones without seemingly straightforward solutions. We were tasked with “solving” Tampa’s bus system. Yes, I know, a lot to unpack there, but nonetheless, we failed. Spectacularly. I mean no kidding, people dedicate their careers streamlining transportation systems, who were we to think in 15 weeks we could even gather sufficient knowledge to identify gaps, let alone solve the whole thing. The big pickle about Tampa’s transit system, or I guess fundamentally any public good, is that you need to demonstrate demand to justify spending money to improve it. Unfortunately, Tampa’s transit system as it stands is not the greatest; therefore. it’s difficult to create demand if people have adapted to ways to live without it. Not the answer I was hoping for as a high-strung, overachieving junior in need of instant gratification.

So, naturally, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about ways we could increase demand. It was while sitting in standstill rush hour-traffic on Bruce B Downs blvd, 30 minutes into what should’ve been an 8-minute trip, when it occurred to me the health implications of this period of chronic stress we underwent daily. A few thought digressions later, I landed to the fundamental question of how place is related to health. More specifically, how can we leverage population health as the fundamental driver of how public goods are allocated and the practical application of this to eliminate health disparities across groups that have been economically/socially marginalized. This notion is realistically more reflective of the ultimate question that underlies the entirety of my personal and professional endeavors, and one that I chose to apply to parks — where I first found solace in place.

Studies across the United States have demonstrated equity to parks and other greenspaces as an issue of environmental injustice. To borrow language from Dr. Sharelle Barber, “insidious” polices, such as redlining, have left race and ethnic minority communities – communities in which I belong in – systemically deprived from health promoting spaces, such as parks. This is compounded by disparities we know to exist in healthcare quality and access that serve to disadvantage these same groups. As a public good, parks, in my opinion, have the potential to disrupt these cycles of deprivation among our communities. However, in line with systems approaches, these processes are more complex than they appear. It is not just a matter of providing parks as provisions to communities, it’s the considerations about whether these spaces are accessible that are equally, if not more so, important.

To that end, I bring you the project that will be the subject of my subsequent blog posts: Going Places. This is a project led by Dr. Emily D’Agostino here at Duke University, in collaboration with community partner, Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR), with the overall aim of reducing transportation barriers related to access and usage of recreational spaces among youth here in Durham. We are working with DPR staff, youth, and parents to deliver a transportation toolkit that will promote transportation efficacy among youth so that they can safely navigate to health-promoting spaces, such as parks. I am humbled to be involved with a truly experienced and passionate team on a cause that I believe is critical if we as a nation are to achieve health equity.

To my 5-year-old self: I may not be a spy, but still a public servant. Here’s to affording more generations the opportunity to find their place.