5 Ways to Incorporate Authentic Community Engagement in Your Research

Community-based research approaches have gained substantial ground in recent years, with particular momentum in health care and mental health research following the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s often difficult to align the intentions of inclusivity with the pressures and constraints of research plans. 

Involving community stakeholders in a study through meaningful engagement strategies plays a critical role in ensuring that study materials and methods are culturally sensitive and tailored to meet the needs of the community. Including stakeholders from various backgrounds who live, work and have direct experience in the intended catchment area ensures that the research’s compass is pointing true north. 

Here are five ways that you can incorporate authentic community engagement in your research.

1. Identify stakeholders

Think about the topic and goals of your research – who is it meant to serve? Generate connections in the community with people who work, live, play and pray in that area, and who have a genuine interest or passion for the research topic. Remember: the people you are looking to serve are the experts in their lived experiences. Provide opportunities for these experts to review your research objectives and provide feedback to see if your intended research questions and objectives truly reflect the interests and needs of the community.  

2. Pay your stakeholders

It’s important to remember that your community members are experts. There is immense value in the voices of community members – and bringing them to the table is an investment of their time, knowledge and resources. Fair compensation should be included in your research plan and any proposals for funding.  

3. Be present in your research

Remember that being present in this unique research space is an active process, not a passive observation. The goal should be to engage in authentic dialogue, not two monologues. Authentic dialogic engagement can engender novel content and reveal new understandings and relationships. Always prepare materials in advance so stakeholders have something to respond to. It’s often easier for people to share what they like and don’t like, as opposed to starting from scratch. Never expect that what you have created will be the final version.   

4. Prepare to be uncomfortable

When you ask stakeholders to contribute to your study, your content has a heightened acknowledgment of cultural and contextual awareness. These interactions also contribute to a strengthened sense of mutual accountability between community stakeholders and research team members. Always keep the mission of equity at the foundation of the collaboration and remember that research that touches upon historical trauma and cultural difference requires attention to those complexities. Shared end goals do not effortlessly equate to shared understandings of meanings or values. Be flexible and transparent with schedules and agendas, appreciating that change is not always linear or tidy.

5. Think about the future

Keep in mind that your project is not only about today. Think about future research and projects and how to continue engagement and collaboration with community stakeholders. Consider how to expand your networks and connections, since this kind of work can have larger goals and implications than just the project at hand. Working with the community exceeds the boundaries of the current project. Remember that assessing research through a racial equity lens, based on its relevance to daily experiences in real life, points toward an alternative set of standards for rigor. You may need to let go of your old assumptions about how knowledge is valued and shared.  

About the Authors

Danielle Balling, community engagement coordinator at the University at Buffalo Center for Nursing Research (CNR), Courtney Hanny, PhD, project coordinator at the CNR and Kelly Wofford, director of health equity at the Erie County Department of Health, were members of the Mellowing Mind Study. They were tasked with developing authentic community engagement as part of their research. 

About the Mellowing Mind Study

The Mellowing Mind Study, a community-based participatory approach to research, is a randomized controlled trial study using technology- and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques for reducing COVID-related stress within underserved communities. Community-based research differs from traditional approaches in that it includes community input in the design and implementation of study materials, processes, and dissemination. The study is led by Yu-Ping Chang, PhD, RN, FGSA, FAAN, FIAAN, senior associate dean.

 Watch this video to learn more about the Mellowing Mind Study.

Published January 6, 2023