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Innovators, Changemakers and Arc Benders: Community-Based Participatory Research

The UC Berkeley School of Public Health has always been ahead of the curve. A school that has long stood for social justice and innovation, Berkeley Public Health researchers have been on the forefront of research that has changed the field. Our 2022 Dean’s Speakers Series, Innovators, Changemakers and Arc-Benders, happening monthly through May, spotlights the School’s most illustrious faculty, alumni, and friends whose work has transformed the fields of medicine and public health.

On January 27, the inaugural event in the series featured a lineup of experts who originated—and refined—Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), a research approach steeped in social justice that equitably involves community members, organizations, and researchers.

“It’s the idea that when we do research in a community, we do it with the community and not on the community,” said Dean Michael C. Lu in his introductory statements. After years of researchers “parachuting” into communities to get the research they needed and then leaving them no better off than before, “CBPR transformed how medical and public health research is designed, conducted, and funded.”

Berkeley Public Health was privileged to host Dr. Bonnie Duran, DrPH ’97, MPH ’89, professor in the schools of Social Work and Public Health at the University of Washington; Dr. Lawrence Green, DrPH ’68, MPH ’66, professor emeritus of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at UCSF; Ella Greene-Moton, of Community Based Organization Partners, Flint, Michigan; Dr. Meredith Minkler,  DrPH ’75, MPH ’70, professor emerita, Health and Social Behavior, Berkeley Public Health; Dr. Emily J. Ozer, professor, Community Health Sciences, Berkeley Public Health; and Dr. Nina Wallerstein, director of the Center for Participatory Research at the University of New Mexico.

Dean Lu kicked off the program by explaining why the series includes the phrase “arc benders.” “Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. The problem is, that arc can’t bend by itself,”  said Dean Lu, adding that all six panelists are arc-benders who’ve spent their life bending that arc toward justice; and that part of that has been their roles in bringing the practice of CBPR to the mainstream.

The conversation circled around what CBPR should be and how to navigate challenges in the field, such as providing equitable access to COVID-19 resources and how to use funding to help communities work on their own public health concerns and objectives.

“It’s important for research universities like Berkeley, to recognize that the value of research beyond the contribution to the literature and our evaluation systems also recognize and value the public impact contribution that we make, and also understand what it takes to do this kind of partner research, how that partnership strengthens the excellence of the research,” said Dr. Ozer.

“It’s not a trade off between excellence and participation, but that we have better, more valid research and more impactful research because of that intentional, committed work that we’re doing,” she continued.

Dr. Minkler pointed out that as CBPR has matured, researchers have leaned into “cultural humility.”

“What’s new is the attitude of researchers, which in turn, determines for whom and by whom the research is conceptualized and conducted,” said Dr. Minkler. “It begins with a topic of importance to the community, with the aim of combining knowledge and action for social change, to improve community health, and eliminate health disparities … and I would only add to that today also, in keeping with the much more serious efforts to finally address racism in all its forms, we need to articulate that CBPR should always be conducted with cultural humility and using the lenses of antiracism and equity throughout the world.”

Panelists looked forward, imagining what power communities could have over their members’ health if they could take control of their own health outcomes.

“CBPR allows the space for people to understand what’s happening to them from their direct experience, instead of looking at a social epidemiology paper or the DSM five or something like that,” said Dr. Duran, who predominantly works with Native American populations, “It allows space for people to come up with their own theories of etiology, and what interventions would be useful for them, and to have it be much more meaningful and self directed.”

Greene-Moton, who is a CBPR community practitioner, saw potential in the ways CBPR can help researchers examine structural inequities more closely. “We would be in a position to really look at institutional racism, look at structural racism, and start to identify what those systems are, identify where those areas are, and start to peel back the layers and figure out what we need to dismantle it,” she said. “For me, it’s recognizing that it isn’t just one thing we can point to, but to understand how interconnected it is to other things that happen in a community.”