Montana-Based Investigators Reflect on what Community Engagement brings to Research
Former INBRE and Current CAIRHE Investigator
"My research absolutely would not be possible without involvement of the CEC. They open doors that I would not be able to open as an academic and as a non-Native researcher. My research is better for having their guidance and support. I value their input very much and feel very grateful for my relationship with the CEC!"
I have worked with the Community Engagement Core (CEC) on a few different projects. My most recent work involved gathering letters of support from reservation schools for a project proposal relating to safe driving.
Working with the CEC has been crucial for developing this grant proposal. CEC members, Sara Young and Emily Salois, went above and beyond to help me get numerous letters of support from high school principals and superintendents at several reservations. This type of support is invaluable when applying for NIH funding because NIH reviewers want to know that we really are able to fulfill the aims of the grant. Having these letters of support went a long way to demonstrate that we have the support of the communities, which makes it more likely that the project will be successful.
The CEC did much more than just help get letters of support – they are more like interpreters. They helped communities understand what the goals of the research grant are, and they helped me understand what the community’s concerns were. The CEC helped us identify and navigate potential problems ahead of time, which allowed us achieve our aims while saving a ton of time.
Insight and Guidance
In particular, Sara helped me understand key differences in laws and procedures on the reservation. That is, as tribes are sovereign nations, they set their own laws, and it is not always mandatory to have a driver’s license to drive on the reservation. Many kids under the age of 16 drive cars, and sometimes they haven’t had the drivers’ training course that is mandatory off the reservation before getting a driver’s license. Because of this, our proposal included younger children in the project and talks with junior high school administrators in addition to high schools. That was something I didn’t know and would have never considered on my own.
The CEC provided valuable insight and guidance into working with community members. On their advice, I learned to share more about myself and my personal life with participants and collaborators, and this went a long way toward building trust and making my project successful.
Advice for Investigators
Take your time, slow down and really think through the aims of the project before diving in. Is the topic something that is important to the community? Can answering the research question help make life better for people? How will the research be beneficial to the community and how will resources be shared equitably? Do you understand the history of the community you are entering, and are you moving forward with humility? It is important to examine your own culture and beliefs about the topic you’re studying and to be aware of your assumptions at the outset. Having a conversation with the CEC can definitely help with this process.
"The Community Engagement Core was an essential member of our research team. Their expertise and guidance is essential for sustained, effective and meaningful research with American Indian community partners."
When I moved to Montana, I was interested in working with American Indian Tribes on research projects. I did not have previous experience in working with community engagement, and I was interested to learn what it meant. The Community Engagement Core (CEC) taught me the appropriate way to work with communities using CBPR principles as opposed to going to the community with a ready-made project without member input.
I was fortunate to have met with Sara Young before going to the community, and I felt well prepared and supported – not only by Sara but also by the community. Trust is essential, and the community trusts her judgment and holds her in high regard.
Advice for Investigators
Drop the “I am a researcher and I know what is best for you attitude.” If you have not lived in a rural community, go to rural communities, have a cup of coffee in a local gathering place and recognize that place makes a difference in perspective. Learn from the community. When working with American Indian communities, recognize the uniqueness of each Tribe, learn about historical trauma and include the community in you discussions. Integrity and trust are essential components of conducting research.