Community Engaged Research: A Potent Strategy for Promoting Health Public Policy

I attended a lecture recently by Meredith Minkler, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. This event was sponsored by Northwestern University’s Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities (ARCC) and the Community Engaged Research Center. Professor Minkler spoke of her experience in community engaged research and its affects on promoting healthy public policy. Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR), her specialty, encompasses several principles, one being asset based community development (ABCD). This principle involves building on pre-existing strengths and assets of a community. Other principles include co-learning between partners to begin the power sharing process, creating a balance between research and action and a commitment to sustainability. With her background in policy, Professor Minkler also took us through the stages of the policy process. The first step she explained is defining the problem, second is setting the agenda, third is constructing policy alternatives, fourth is deciding on the policy to pursue, fifth is implementing the policy and fifth is evaluation. By creating policy hand in hand with CBPR principles, you not only empower the community with co-learning and creating opportunities for partners to learn skills in leadership, strategic planning, management and negotiation but also create sustainable change in the community.

This concept is demonstrated in the example Meredith Minkler gives on the food desert in San Francisco’s  Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood. Professor Minkler and her policy team defined the problem as the lack of access to healthy food for the residents of the Bayview/Hunter’s Point. Nearly 25% of the residents ate fast food daily and in order to get to the closest supermarket, residents had to take 3 buses.  However, they noted there were neighborhood stores already in existence but their shelves were mostly stocked with tobacco and alcohol. This is an example of asset based community development. When constructing policy alternatives, Minkler and her team reviewed municipal ordinances but decided on creating the Good Neighbor Program. This policy program gave local stores store branding, free marketing, city recognition, discounts on energy efficient appliances if they agreed to devote 10%+ of shelf space to healthy foods and to reduce outdoor tobacco advertisements. By giving them the tools to succeed, the Bayview/Hunter’s point neighborhood had tremendous success. All Good Neighborhood Program stores had an increase in produce sales, decrease in tobacco and alcohol and an increase in overall profits.

With capacity focused partnering, policy makers will see the community as possessing assets on which to build resources and as a result, a high level of mutual respect and trust in the community will be gained. Minkler interpreted Community Based Participatory Research as a kind of street science necessary for policy making. She ended her presentation with a quote from colleague, Jason Corburn,. “When CBPR identifies hazards, highlights previously ignored questions, provides hard to gather data, involves difficult to reach populations, and expands the possibilities for intervention alternatives and success, science and democracy are improved.”

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