As a public health coordinator, Lindsay Nelson understands there’s more to improving a community’s physical health than just encouraging nutritious eating and exercise—you also have to take down the barriers that get in the way of these healthy behaviors.
“I believe it’s our priority to make sure that everyone throughout our county has equitable opportunities to better their health,” said Nelson, coordinator of the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership with Scott County Public Health. “If we can break down these barriers in our community related to healthy food access and access to physical activity opportunities, we can make the healthy choice the easy choice for residents.”
Over this past semester, a group of University of Minnesota graduate students joined Nelson in devising community-driven ways to improve health equity for Scott County’s Latinx and Somali communities. The effort was one of several recent collaborations made possible through the Resilient Communities Project (RCP), a program that connects local government agencies in Minnesota with teams of graduate and professional students to bolster communities’ abilities to adapt and thrive in the face of social, economic, and environmental change.
RCP, part of the U’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, helps local government staff and community stakeholders choose a project that addresses issues in their community. The program then matches courses at the U to these projects, giving students an opportunity to conduct research, spark discussions, and bring innovative ideas and solutions to the table—whether around wastewater management, housing stability, public transit, or any number of other areas where a community might face challenges.
“Often these are projects the local community has really been struggling with for a while, or they have a lot of options, and they’re really not sure where to start,” said Mike Greco, cofounder and director of RCP. “It can be very valuable to the community to have a fresh perspective on the issue.”
Faculty who have provided experiential learning and research opportunities for their students in the past know that developing relationships with community partners can be a time-consuming process. RCP aims to streamline the effort by establishing the relationships in advance and helping match courses to community projects based on the needs and goals of each.
Breaking Down Barriers to Health Equity
The students working with Nelson and her team at Scott County Public Health were part of a course taught by Greta Friedemann-Sánchez, PhD, associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
To address the barriers to healthy behaviors Nelson had identified, they began by reviewing past data and reports from Scott County. They then conducted an in-depth, qualitative analysis of the factors that facilitate and impede physical activity for young women in the Latinx and Somali communities, as well as a literature review to assess the current status of the issue. Next, they developed a semi-structured interview and, with Nelson’s help, recruited members of the community to participate.
Katie Lawler, who served as the student lead on project, said the experience helped her and her fellow students understand some of the challenges that come with addressing community issues.
“We did not anticipate how difficult it might be to connect with people and to gain their trust, nor did we anticipate that physical activity might be perceived as a sensitive topic for some participants,” said Lawler, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse and second-year Master of Human Rights student. “However, we were also surprised by how much fun we had meeting community members and conducting the interviews, and how much we learned about them and ourselves.”
After the interviews, the students coded and analyzed their research data to create a final report, which they then delivered to Nelson and the Scott County team.
“Our group was really grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with Scott County,” Lawler said. “It was a privilege to be able to utilize our colleagues’ experience and resources to help drive our project.”
From the county’s perspective, Nelson said she is excited by the ways the collaboration with RCP has helped set the stage for future progress in removing barriers to healthy behaviors. A new food pantry at a local church and more healthy food options at a local Somali grocery store are two examples of changes already in the works.
“We will be creating community advisory groups to move the work forward within their own communities while utilizing the feedback gained from the interviews the students conducted,” she said.
Part of Something Larger
Since it was launched in 2012, RCP has connected hundreds of students from more than 50 academic disciplines to hands-on research and learning experiences. Like Lawler and her classmates, many students in RCP are excited to be part of something larger and apply their knowledge and skills to real community problems.
“The opportunity to have their work actually realized or implemented is a big motivating factor for students,” said Sarah Tschida, RCP’s program coordinator.
Through their participation, students not only research a problem and propose solutions to it, but advocate for their recommendations in front of decision makers, answering their questions directly. Students learn lessons that are hard to teach in classroom settings, such as how even the best ideas must work within financial constraints, staffing limitations, and the political structures of an office or department.
“We have students participate who are in fields that don’t typically think about policy or practice as an outcome,” Greco said. “These kinds of projects give them an opportunity to start thinking in those ways.”
Experience in RCP can also go a long way in preparing students for their future careers by helping to build students’ professional networks and providing portfolio material that sets students apart during a job or internship interview. It can also provide students with key career skills, Tschida said, such as communicating recommendations or results that might not line up with what decision makers expect to hear.
“They need to find a way to navigate sharing what might be some difficult information with the project lead or the government partner,” she said. “There’s a certain level of diplomacy and strategy that goes into communicating things that may be difficult for others to hear, but are really important to say.”
Participate in RCP
RCP encourages faculty in any academic discipline looking to incorporate an experiential learning opportunity in their course to contact email@example.com.
Students interested in participating in RCP can register for one of several courses already connected to an RCP project or connect their individual thesis, capstone, field experience, internship, or similar opportunity to an RCP project by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
RCP is now accepting proposals from cities, counties, tribal governments, special districts, and regional government agencies in Minnesota for future collaboration. Apply for participation or contact Mike Greco at email@example.com with questions.