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Graphic recording of the Co-Lab(orative) Learning Workshop showing clusters for each of four groups.
Graphic recording by Reilly Dow


by Melissa Marcus

The UNC Center for Health Equity Research (CHER) hosted its third Health Equity Research Intensive (HERI) on August 29 and 30. A new, third day, was scheduled for August 31.

That day’s event had to be rescheduled to late September and the HERI planning team was challenged to maintain momentum for nearly a month. Here’s how they planned – and extended – the intensive.

HERI 2022 focused on increasing community involvement. Planners asked themselves: what’s in it for the community member, especially when many returning participants were academics or researchers? This question became more pressing when they needed to reschedule the Co-Lab(orative) Learning Workshop (Co-Lab) intended to center community members.

“We wanted everyone to be involved in something, and that it would feel welcoming and interesting to non-UNC people and non-academics,” said Rachel Berthiaume, one of the HERI organizers. So the offered sessions were a mix of “applied knowledge and skill-building.”

Berthiaume explained that HERI “developed so that we touched on something at each stage of the research process: the initial stages of meeting and development, the conducting research and analysis, and then discussion and distribution at the end.”

Luckily, their emphasis on community engagement was shared by others in the HERI community. Jada Brooks co-presented Data is More than Numbers: It’s the People that Count with Kim Pevia.

Brooks said, “I was encouraged to include my community partner as a co-speaker.” She added that she wanted to “have a space” to discuss issues she’s seen in her previous and current work. Central to her approach was making sure her  community partner had a space to share what she does.

Foundations and Application at HERI 2022

For the first two days, HERI programming followed two tracks: foundation building and application.

Foundation building was geared towards the general public, researchers new to health equity research and community partners.

The application track was directed towards researchers, hoping to introduce them to new skills or techniques applicable in their work. Of course, participants were encouraged to attend as many sessions as they desired, from either track.

The third day was planned as a Co-Lab(orative) Learning Workshop meant to unite all the knowledge gained from the first two days of panels. The Co-Lab had to be postponed for three weeks and a new facilitator was invited.

Organizers were faced with the daunting task of keeping the momentum rolling and keeping participants engaged for nearly a month. Their solution: pop-up sessions.

Pop-up Sessions

According to Rachel Berthiaume,

The pop up sessions were developed to create a bridge between the original intensive sessions and the rescheduled day 3. But they were also a great opportunity to explore options for creating a continued community that stems from HERI. HERI is a one-off per year [event], but folks are working on this all the time. And there’s constantly educational offerings by CHER. We really have an opportunity to generate a community of practice from the HERI program.

The HERI planning committee organized two pop-up sessions. The first session invited participants to reflect on their experiences and ask questions. Two committee members facilitated the session and a small and lively group shared what struck them most.

The second session was planned as the start of a community of practice as defined by participants.

While the first pop-up session attracted more participants and engagement, both sessions offered the planning committee exactly what Berthiaume described. By using a necessary rescheduling to try something new, the committee learned more about HERI participants and what they look for in sessions during and after HERI itself.

The Co-Lab(orative) Learning Workshop (Day 3)

When the rescheduled Co-Lab finally brought HERI participants together again, it was a success. It was scheduled as a collaborative learning workshop, where participants could ask questions and hear directly back about ideas of leadership. The goal was to provide practice using 3-4 interactive tools, showing how to apply them in thoughtful and valuable ways. Then, participants were encouraged to apply the practiced tools in their own work to increase inclusivity.

The Co-Lab concluded with a collective definition of inclusivity, created after discussing strategies to realize inclusive research in better ways and barriers that keep people from realizing it.

Community Participation

For community member Angella Dunston, HERI was “[a]n opportunity for community people to engage with researchers to address health disparities. [HERI organizers and panelists were] people who want to hear the community’s perspective.”

For her, HERI’s focus on community engagement was a highlight, since many researchers often don’t realize that their approaches to community research and attempts at communicating may be alienating or place a burden on the community they are hoping to work with.

“With HERI,” Dunston said, “you have people who understand the importance of context when engaging with the community and allow accommodations and understanding [so that the community] can be authentic partners in research.”

Other participants agreed with Dunston. In the first pop-up session and in overall evaluations, participants were excited that they were able to hear from, and share with, community members and researchers. One participant said that the most surprising thing to them was “that researchers are just as excited about engagement of the community as [the communities] are with the researchers!”

As planning for HERI 2023 starts, nurturing that excitement will be an important focus.

What’s Next for HERI?

Both organizers and participants hope to see the continued growth of community involvement, as well as continue to innovate in the field of health equity research.

Rachel Berthiaume hopes that future HERIs will have community responsive sessions, designed so that HERI is seen as valuable to the community as well as researchers.

Angella Dunston said, “I found HERI on a fluke, so I would love to talk with leadership about how to engage more with the community.” She added, “I’d also love to see more community members doing sessions, or even working with some of the researchers to give their perspective on the panel. “

Jada Brooks, for whom HERI 2022 was her first time working with the research intensive, said she liked how she was able to shift the focus from the traditional issues that researchers tend to discuss around collecting data with partners and identify more nuanced issues. Additionally, it helped her see some of the ways that she had been able to partner together to make sure that the process is equitable.

Brooks said, “It gave me more insight into the many ways that I rely on my community partners to assist with collecting data. It’s not just about the collection, but also about how data is treated, the value of data, how it’s disseminated to the community.”

For Brooks, the whole process, from planning through dissemination of information, matters. She hopes that HERI planners will keep thinking about how to “push the envelope” in terms of more traditional community engaged work and try to identify communities and researchers who are really advancing the field when it comes to health equity.

To see how HERI evolves for 2023, subscribe to the CHER newsletter for updates.


About the Health Equity Research Intensive

HERI started in 2020 as the Health Equity Summer Intensive (HESI). Now in its third year, the name was changed to HERI, the Health Equity Research Intensive.

HESI, and now HERI, was always planned as a virtual event. The COVID-19 pandemic would have made in-person endeavors dangerous, and since CHER embraced the spirit of using virtual processes to connect researchers and community members, a virtual format was used by the planners from the start and continued in 2022.