Community Explorers

Students use research training to boost healthy literacy in North Philadelphia. 

Author: 
Anonymous

For extra credit in her Intellectual Heritage class, Robin Hibbard, Class of 2016, conducted exploratory conversations surrounding attitudes about receiving free food with patrons at the Advocate Cafe, a soup kitchen housed in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. Hibbard—who is majoring in management information systems—found a way to draw on her background to help those patrons. Though the Advocate Café offers access to a computer with internet service, she found that many of the patrons were computer-illiterate and thus could not take advantage of the valuable resource.

Now Hibbard is working to change that with fellow Class of 2016 students David Pruszynski, Damien Bower and Mike Dimmig. Together, they are planning to create an onsite computer-training program at the cafe.

“Though Temple students are aware that there are people in need around us, it can be difficult to understand what that need is like until you really get to know these people,” Hibbard says.

Hibbard’s project is only one of many ways students are engaging with issues in the surrounding community through a hands-on learning initiative called the Academic-Community Partnerships to Address Obesity and Health Literacy. The program—housed in the Department of Public Health in the College of Health Professions and Social Work and funded by a three-year, $90,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—was designed with the aim of crafting a longterm research agenda examining health literacy and obesity prevention. It also provides undergraduate students rare opportunities to conduct their own, original investigations in real-world settings by collaborating with community organizations.

Now in its first phase, the program was launched by Alice Hausman, chair of the Public Health Department. Her goal is to elucidate the contexts surrounding obesity and health literacy for those living in Temple’s immediate geographic area.

There is myriad existing research at the national level about the effectiveness of obesity prevention and health-literacy programs. However, there is little extant data on the effectiveness of such programs at the local level. “You don’t just go into a room and tell people what to eat,” Hausman says. “If you want to make an immediate impact, you need to understand the whole picture.”

Hausman hopes the benefits of this collaboration between students and community organizations are threefold. “These are small and contained projects that will be directly useful for the organizations; the students can do qualitative work they wouldn’t normally have a chance to do as undergraduates; and the professors can guide students through this process and help them pursue their research interests.”

In order to identify appropriate projects, Hausman drew on pre-existing relationships with community partners, such as the Norris Square Community Alliance (a community development corporation serving the Latino community around Norris Square

Park in North Philadelphia) and Sunday Suppers (an organization that provides nutritious family meals), which were named as partners in the NIH grant.

Three participating faculty members—recruited because of their previous connections to the now-defunct Community Learning Network, a committee devoted to creating community-based learning, research and development opportunities for students—came from disciplines not always traditionally associated with public health, including the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Department of Geography and Urban Studies, and the Intellectual Heritage program. “Public health is by definition multidisciplinary, but our intent here was to broaden the definition to get a wider angle on the issues,” Hausman says.

ATTACKING STIGMAS

Carol Harris-Shapiro, assistant professor of intellectual heritage, collaborated on the grant with Hausman and says she has long been dedicated to the idea of giving her students practical experience through service- or community-based learning. Harris-Shapiro reached out to Renee McKenzie, pastor of the Church of the Advocate on West Diamond Street in North Philadelphia, with whom she had worked before. “I learned that she was looking to improve the efficiency of the Advocate Cafe, but she lacked the resources to learn more about patrons and their interests,” Harris- Shapiro says.

Harris-Shapiro offered the project as extra credit to the students in her three classes. Participating students were divided into two groups. The first gathered data about other area soup kitchens, including operating hours and menus, in order to help the café avoid redundancy and provide the best service. The second group was tasked with interviewing patrons to determine their levels of satisfaction.

Hibbard was one of Harris-Shapiro’s students. She says that though the majority of patrons she spoke to were happy with the existing service, there was a difference in attitude between men and women. Male patrons of the kitchen were more comfortable seeking a free meal, while women seemed more reluctant because of a perceived stigma of receiving assistance.

That was exactly the kind of practical information McKenzie was seeking.“Knowing that gender difference is very helpful to us in terms of figuring out how we can better reach out to women and break down some of these barriers,” McKenzie says.

Hibbard says her experience became more personal as she engaged with the patrons, including a young mother about her age. “Over time, I got to know this woman, and I came to understand her challenges in trying to feed her child,” Hibbard says. “It’s easy to volunteer, but people don’t always have the chance to connect.”

Harris-Shapiro says the project is designed to benefit both students and the organizations with which they work.

“Sometimes when students go into a community organization, it’s not structured in a way that allows them to actually be helpful— they might not have a volunteer coordinator, for instance— and the student’s presence becomes a burden,” Harris-Shapiro says. “By the same token, we helped prepare the students, so they were aware of what was expected of them in an unfamiliar setting— discussing, for instance, appropriate dress and behavior.”

McKenzie would like to see this project continue. “I think it’s important for the university to give back to the community by doing what it does best, and in this case, it’s gathering knowledge,” she says. “That helps organizations like us make a stronger impact, and it helps bridge a gap and create authentic relationships between the students and the folks who live around them.”

“It's not just research for us—it's learning on a human level.”
-- Robin Hibbard, Class of 2016

BILINGUAL BONDING 

When Hausman approached Patricia Moore-Martinez, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese, to create a community research project for her students, Moore-Martinez was delighted. “I’ve been trying to engage students and inspire their interest in the community for at least 10 years, so I quickly jumped on the bandwagon to give them this amazing opportunity,” she says. Three students from her Advanced Composition and Conversation class took her up on the offer and worked with Manuel Portillo, director of leadership development at Norris Square Community Alliance and its bilingual Head Start program, a federal program devoted to improving school readiness for low-income children.

While Portillo was interested in providing nutritional education in the classroom, he felt that too often, outside educators would come in without a baseline level of knowledge about Head Start’s student population and their particular considerations. He and Temple students decided to conduct informal qualitative sessions with parents to identify that baseline. “It was important to me that the students respected the eating traditions of the families and that any lesson plan was mindful of [the families’] cultural backgrounds,” Portillo says.

Students met with Head Start parents to discuss nutrition, access to grocery stores, and each family’s patterns of consumption and typical cooking habits. “They created a poster board with their findings, such as where the families shop, and disseminated the information to Manuel and Alice at the end of the semester, so they can decide what the next phase of the research should be,” Moore-Martinez says.

Spanish major Taylor Kaminsky, Class of 2016, was drawn to the promise of being able to use her language skills on the ground, doing actual qualitative work. “As a sophomore, I felt very lucky to have this kind of research experience,” she says. “Linguistically, it was incredibly valuable for the students,” Moore-Martinez says. “When you’re communicating with people about real needs, any initial hesitation about speaking a second language is overcome quickly.” She adds that the students who participated in the program have since expressed interest in community-based research as a career path.

“I’m developing a project about language choices among people from the different Spanish-speaking communities in Philadelphia,” Kaminsky says. “I also hope to continue on with the Head Start research through next year. I really enjoy this kind of work, and I’d like to do more of it.”

UNDERSTANDING EATING

Given that Professor Allison Hayes-Conroy’s Food Studies course is housed in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies, it is not surprising that she would expect her students to engage with the physical world.

“Most of my own research is on eating and feeding, so while this particular project with a focus on nutrition had a slightly different perspective from my usual work, it allowed my Food Studies students to think about these issues in a practical way, going beyond the classroom, and it’s been really exciting for them,” Hayes-Conroy says. The project was part of the class’s official curriculum. One group of Hayes-Conroy’s students worked with Sunday Suppers, interviewing participants to better understand their notions of healthful eating, helping build a community garden and conducting social-media outreach. “I’m a small organization, with just me and one staff member who works half time, so I really rely on students and volunteers,” says Sunday Suppers Executive Director Linda Samost. “This project was enormously helpful.”

The other group worked with Portillo in Norris Square Head Start, where they conducted one-on-one interviews with parents to find out how food and feeding figured into their families’ daily routines and decision making.

Those interviews created portraits of the parents’ lives, not just about what they were eating, but the underlying economic, social and cultural forces that influence their relationships with food.

“Nobody likes to be ‘researched,’ and this was an approach that made everyone feel comfortable,” Portillo says. “At the same time, it wasn’t a prescription for any one proper way to eat.”

Doing the investigations and synthesizing their work in reports accounted for nearly 50 percent of the students’ grades for the semester. “Doing research in the field can be a bit of challenge when you’re doing it for the first time, but the students rose to the occasion,” Hayes-Conroy says.

Study and research have benefited the students by helping them sharpen their academic skills, but equally important is the fact that they were able to get relevant, lived experience, she adds. “Students are keenly aware of the idea of the ivory tower, and projects like this engender conversation that both parties can learn from,” Hayes-Conroy says. Robin Hibbard, who conducted investigations for Church of the Advocate, agrees. Though she has been volunteering for service projects for some time, this assignment was particularly enriching for its combination of study and outreach. “It’s not just research for us—it’s learning on a human level,” she says.

DATA DRIVEN

With this growing set of findings from the program’s first year, Hausman—along with Sunday Suppers and the Norris Square Community Alliance—will compile the data into a more comprehensive research proposal regarding obesity and health literacy in Philadelphia to submit  to the NIH.

The current NIH grant will fund one more year of preliminary research, with students continuing to conduct research with community organizations, and Hausman is excited to see what lies ahead. “These connections among students, faculty and the community are now much deeper, and we hope to keep them strong as the research evolves. We’re all in this partnership together.”