Residents, researchers study health disparities in East End

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Getting community members involved in all aspects of the research process was an important facet of a study that sought to rank locally important social and environmental contributors to health outcomes and disparities in Richmond.

The Engaging Richmond project brought together faculty and staff from the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Human Needs (CHN), the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research (CCTR) and the George Mason University Center for Social Science Research (CSSR) as well as community residents, services providers and community partners. The team began working together on the project in December 2011.

“Through partnerships between academic institutions, community organizations and residents, the goal of community-based participatory research is to address community needs, improve health outcomes and eliminate disparities,” said Emily Zimmerman, senior researcher with the VCU CHN and member of the project team. “This project has been a great example of how involved residents can make a difference in the community, and we would like to see further efforts to involve residents in research and community action.”

Funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote community-engaged research, the Engaging Richmond project also was supported by Richmond Promise Neighborhood (RPN), a grass roots organization inspired by the Promise Neighborhood initiative of the U.S. Department of Education that offers children and their families a “cradle to career pipeline” of support while strengthening community bonds.

“The Engaging Richmond project provided an assessment report that has significantly enhanced and strengthened the RPN,” said Chanel Bea, a member of the Engaging Richmond project team who is also involved with other community initiatives, including RPN. “The project team was able to get community members involved and helped to establish more of a community voice in the research.

“It has taken a lot of hard work, respect and cooperation from team members to get to where we are, and I am very proud of our team and the work we’ve done,” said Bea. “I see us moving forward and making positive changes within our community based on our work and research.”

The project team conducted focus groups with residents and service providers in Richmond’s East End neighborhoods that include Peter Paul, Eastview, Brauers and Woodville, which has a population of about 10,500 with 2,500 families. Proportionately, there are twice as many children aged 14 and under in this area compared to Richmond City. Ninety-five percent of households are African American and the majority of families with children (83 percent) is headed by women. More than half (56 percent) of residents live below the poverty level, with 76 percent of children living below the poverty level.

Objectives of the study included establishing priority issues of importance to the East End community, building trusting relationships with community partners, promoting community capacity to assess and address health priorities and building avenues of two-way communication between the university and the community.

“Residents and faculty/staff shared many responsibilities throughout the project,” said Andrea Robles, community-based participatory research specialist at George Mason’s CSSR. “We also worked with community-based organizations that helped to recruit team members and service provider participants for the focus groups.”

Based on focus group information gathered from approximately 195 participants, including men, women, parents, caregivers, elderly, homeless, employed and unemployed, several themes surfaced. These themes included barriers to using services, child care, children’s programs, diet and exercise, crime, substance abuse, education, mental health, neighborhood assets and needs, perceptions of the neighborhood, role models, transportation, jobs and job skills, housing, safety and unity.

From these themes, the team identified three community priority areas: parental involvement, workforce development, and mental health and well-being.

“Good mental health, workforce development and parental engagement are three important priorities that can increase individual opportunities, strengthen families and the community, and give children a stable environment in which they can thrive,” said Albert Walker, community engagement liaison with the VCU CCTR.

Valerie Burrell Muhammad is a project team member. She is a family involvement consultant in mental health and has worked with children and families for the past 20 years.

“This project is crucial and vitally important to our community,” said Muhammad, who is also an East End resident. “It is so important to not only talk about what is needed in the community, but to implement it. We can help shape policy and, in time, shape the practice. I’m excited about that.”

After identifying the three priority areas, the team developed action models to address each of the areas. Preliminary action plans address the need to increase knowledge about programs, services and resources currently available to the community and to create new opportunities through community/university/policy maker partnerships.

“I actually thought I knew my community, but working on this project and being a team member has given me a completely different view. This was a learning experience, it taught me to dig deeper into a person and not to classify an entire community,” said Marco Thomas, who grew up in and around Richmond’s East End. “I’ve learned that what’s on the surface is just the beginning, there’s something behind it that drives it.

“There were a lot of ‘wow’ moments. We actually talked to residents and providers in the community and realized there were gaps between what was needed and what was being provided, and other services that were being provided but not needed, wasting money and effort,” said Thomas.

Next steps for the research project include continuing to make presentations and share findings and ideas for action to residents, service providers, university researchers and policy-level decision makers. The team also will continue to develop action plans around the three priorities and build relationships between residents, service providers and university partners to implement plans for action.

“An additional next step would be to continue to conduct research with the residents on community conditions and change,” said Amber Haley, research epidemiologist at VCU CHN. “We have submitted a federal grant application for continued funding of this ongoing project within the community.”

For more information about the Engaging Richmond project, go to