SC CTSI Community Engagement Core creates a comprehensive model for academic-community trust and collaboration

Academic health centers around the country want to build more trusting relationships with diverse, under-resourced neighborhoods to improve health equity and outcomes. But many minority communities have historically regarded university health investigators with skepticism and even suspicion.

by John Tibbetts — August 31, 2023

To bridge this gap in trust, academics and healthcare providers should pay closer attention to the voices of the people who live in these communities, learn about their lives and health needs and work to build trusting, long-term partnerships.

Those are aims of a major new effort of the community engagement core group at the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute (SC CTSI) in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Development. This is the largest housing development in Los Angeles, housing over 3,000 residents.

“We are taking a place-based approach in Nickerson Gardens, holding listening sessions with both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking residents,” said Nicole Wolfe, PhD, associate director of the Community Engagement core group at the SC CTSI. “We want to engage in bidirectional communication to build a close relationship with the community. We don’t come in as the experts. Community members, instead, are the experts. We’re here to learn from them.”

The rest of the Community Engagement team have also been working at Nickerson Gardens to improve residents’ access to health services and bolster health education efforts, which they hope will positively influence health outcomes.

Rosalba Cain, Community Outreach Coordinator
Rosalba Cain, Community Outreach Coordinator, assisting with a workshop about obesity at Nickerson Gardens on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Andrea Diaz)

“We have learned that community members of Nickerson Gardens would love to have more consistent outside support from healthcare providers and others,” said Tyrone Nance, MA, Lead Community Outreach Specialist, who has been overseeing this effort. He, along with Mayra Rubio-Diaz, Special Project Manager, have been holding a series of listening session in both English and Spanish to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what is happening in Nickerson Gardens from the residents’ perspective.

Tyrone Nance at Nickerson Gardens
Tyrone Nance, Lead Community Outreach Specialist, shares his educational journey with youth at Nickerson Gardens on July 12, 2023. (Photo by Andrea Diaz)

“Working with other academics, I have seen that it is difficult for them to reach out to underserved communities,” Rubio-Diaz said. “I think academics often take a wrong approach. Many academics come in and they don’t understand the culture, and they don’t represent the people they are trying to reach. Having someone from within their community who speaks their language and looks like them helps them build that trust.”

The Community Engagement core has developed a comprehensive model for academic-community engagement, embracing several core values.

“Our model is bi-directional, coequal, co-created, inclusive, culturally centered, culturally tailored to the community and focused on trust-building,” said Wolfe.

SC CTSI has extensive experience building relationships and engaging in research efforts in Latino and Black communities in South, Central, and the Eastside of Los Angeles near the two campuses of the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. These experiences have shown the importance of having trusted staff members living and working in these targeted communities.

In Nickerson Gardens, promotoras de salud and community health workers also deliver a series of educational workshops based on the needs of the community. The topics of these workshops, which are delivered in English and Spanish, include the topics mental health, child development and autism, diabetes, obesity, and nutrition.

Adriana Argaiz, CHLA
Adriana Argaiz, Associate Director of the Southern California Center for Latino Health at CHLA, conducts a workshop on obesity for residents of Nickerson Gardens on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Andrea Diaz)

“If community residents can be informed about their options, they can understand where to go for treatment or help for problems,” says Rubio-Diaz.

Nance is also working on developing a new Nickerson Gardens Coordinating Council to be unveiled in 2024, consisting of resident leaders, healthcare providers from USC and other institutions, government, clergy, educators, law enforcement, and various business and community groups.

“We hope to include anyone on the council who wants to help uplift this community with the resources and tools they have available. This is our message: ‘Meet with us and support the people of Nickerson Gardens and we will introduce you to community leaders so you can build a relationship with them.’ We hope we can get the council to a place where we can effect systemic change.” Nance said.

The listening sessions made clear that a major effort of a new council should be organizing more frequent healthcare support.

“With the council’s help, we hope to create a more consistent presence of health providers onsite, on a weekly or biweekly basis, allowing community members to have direct access to healthcare.”

An important part of the bidirectional model involves longevity.

“We don’t just come in and do this work, and then we're gone,” Wolfe added. “The relationships and partnerships created in this process are ongoing. What makes our efforts unique is that our two Community Engagement team leads—Tyrone and Mayra—are from the communities they’re working in. They’re embedded in their communities, and they are connected and committed, with a deep understanding of the importance of this work.”

NIH Funding Acknowledgment: Important - All publications resulting from the utilization of SC CTSI resources are required to credit the SC CTSI grant by including the NIH funding acknowledgment and must comply with the NIH Public Access Policy.