Community Engagement and Dialogue With the Puerto Rican Cultural Center
At the end of spring semester 2017, a community engagement event was co-sponsored by the UIC School of Public Health (SPH) and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. “The purpose of the event was to create a forum for faculty, and incoming students and graduating students, to have a critical dialogue about the role of appreciating and utilizing community culture and assets in university teaching and in collaborative research for health equity,” said Dr. Michele Kelley, Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences
Leading the discussion was José E. López, PRCC Executive Director. Professor López, who also teaches at area universities, provided rich examples of how well-intended programs designed to benefit the community fail to achieve long term sustainable goals, in part because capacity-building (for community change) is all too often framed as a narrow one-way process, with limited funding-driven timelines. Instead, he argued for an ongoing process of critical dialogue and reflection that is built into student practica and university teaching and research, where community history and assets are discovered and utilized to shape learning experiences for students as well as to inform any research agenda.
For instance, projects that engage youth in the community, as well as intergenerational dialogue and oral histories, can inform the intervention process and uncover new knowledge and more effective ways of developing longer term strategies for change. Further, the engagement of faculty and students with the community can be part of a more deliberate process to recruit community youth into higher education health professions. Dr. Karen D’Angelo, Assistant Professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work, highlighted, “Ongoing, mutually negotiated community partnerships are essential to understanding health inequities and developing innovative, pragmatic strategies for social change; community based organizations, such as the PRCC provide invaluable access to the community, indigenous expertise, and leadership for both students and faculty alike.”
Participants in this dialogue included faculty from the School of Public Health, Jane Addams College of Social Work (JACSW), and incoming as well as recent Master’s level graduates from both colleges. Community residents and activists associated with the work of the PRCC also participated. A dinner prepared by Nellie’s Restaurant featuring Puerto Rican cuisine, was enjoyed by all. Drs. Kelley and D’Angelo helped to organize the event with the community because they are engaged in ongoing dialogue regarding collaborative health promotion action research and student practica projects with the community. “This event underscored the fact that mutual learning and dialogue with community partners, when conducted in a relationship that values cultural humility and appreciation, is a foundation for sustainable change that improves health equity,” Dr. Kelley said.