The socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have left record numbers of U.S. families food insecure, homeless, and uninsured. These health-related social needs are major barriers to engaging in the behaviors we know are key to chronic disease prevention and management (e.g., healthy eating, physical activity, medication adherence). In this time of medical mistrust, health inequities, and persistent structural racism, the importance of behavioral medicine research has never been clearer. Yet, dissemination and implementation will continue to be a challenge unless we foster key partnerships.
Community and faith-based organizations (CFBOs) have always been at the forefront of addressing community member needs through advocacy and delivery of social services. During the pandemic, CFBOs have played a pivotal role in communicating accurate information about the coronavirus and vaccines, increasing access to testing and vaccinations, contact tracing, and providing wraparound services. This effort has especially been imperative to addressing health inequities among vulnerable communities of color, low-income, older adults, and LGBTQ+. As suggested by a recent review,1 CFBOs are ideal partners to disseminate evidence-based behavioral interventions to have a larger impact on public health and health policy.
The goal of this article is to provide some actionable steps grounded in community based participatory research (CBPR) to help early career and even senior behavioral medicine researchers foster successful partnerships.
Be ready to invest some time. Engaging CFBOs and building trust takes time and does not always align with project or grant submission timelines or tenure track schedule. Be mindful of the pace in which the CFBO works, which may be determined by capacity, resources, and culture.
Your authenticity and transparency often matters more than your degree. When initiating communication with CFBOs, figure out why engaging with this CFBO and the community they serve is important to you and be ready to share this story. Be honest and transparent in terms of your ultimate goals, including if they change over time.
Meet with CFBOs on their turf. This approach helps to address the power dynamics that often make partnerships challenging to establish and sustain. Although in-person meetings are less likely these days, ask the CFBO which communication platform they prefer to use. It is important to create a safe space, even virtually, that fosters shared power and decision-making.
The relationship has to be reciprocal. You need this partnership to engage hard to reach communities and disseminate your science, but also be willing to give back to support efforts to build social and community capital.
Don’t come to meetings with only your own agenda in mind. The CFBOs are trying to address the current needs of the community while maintaining limited staff and resources. Listen during meetings (including meetings that don’t involve discussing your project) to better understand their needs to build a partnership around common goals.
Allow the CFBO to co-own the program and/or related products to enhance sustainability. CFBOs are also experts and know the community and the best strategies to disseminate and implement programs. Present research findings to the CFBO partners and give them a chance to provide feedback to ensure the community voice is heard.
Please refer to these resources2-4 for additional literature on principles and application of CBPR.
The author would like to acknowledge Akiko L. Betcher, MAEd (Community Clinic Integrator at Kaiser Permanente Northwest) as well as Katherine Hoerster, PhD, MPH, Barbara Baquero, PhD, MPH, and Evalynn Romano, MPH/MSW candidate (University of Washington) for their wisdom and important contributions in this space.