Abstract: Sustainability in Community Engaged Research: A Case Study through the Lens of Communication Infrastructure Theory

◆ Annis Golden, University at Albany
◆ Matthew Matsaganis, Rutgers University

Sustainability is increasingly acknowledged as a central issue in the conduct of community engaged research (CER) (Hacker, et al., 2012; Mikesell, Bromley, & Khodyakov, 2013). Academic researchers are exhorted – by funders, the research community, and community-based organizations (CBOs) – to shun helicopter-style research engagements that advance academic careers but have only short-term benefit to host communities. Rather, researchers are encouraged to design for sustainability. We report here, through the lens of communication infrastructure theory (CIT) (Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Matei, 2001), on a 10 year health communication initiative’s evolution from “academic research project” to “CBO-sponsored program,” and the tensions and tradeoffs that were emergent in the process. We propose a CIT-informed model for sustainability in CER.

Initiated in 2009 as a federally funded CER project in a small, racially and ethnically diverse urban population center in New York State, the purpose of the Women’s Health Project (WHP) was to identify effective strategies for encouraging underserved, minority women to obtain recommended reproductive health screenings. To that end, the WHP focused on overcoming an acknowledged communication disjuncture between residents and CBOs (Author, 2014). A key feature of the project was its team of peer health advocates – community residents who encouraged their friends and neighbors to connect with the outreach efforts of the WHP’s research team and its local partner organizations. The WHP functioned as an interstitial actor, and the peers as liminal project members with characteristics of both micro- and meso-level community actors; thus, in CIT terms, enhancing the integration of the story-telling network (STN) of residents and CBOs (Authors, 2014).

Upon the expiration of the initial 5-year grant, the first author secured private foundation funding to sustain the project’s activities, but also sought to negotiate a more permanent “home” for the project as an initiative of an established CBO. To sustain the project’s mission of promoting ongoing integration of the network of residents and organizations would require leadership, resources, and participation (of interstitial liminal actors, residents, and CBOs). With foundation support, and thanks in part to the foundation’s preexisting relationship with a CBO, a transition was effected whereby the peer health advocates became employees of a partner CBO, and the WHP was rebranded as a new initiative of the CBO with a somewhat broader mission.

While the transition sustained the core mission of the project to connect residents with services, at the same time, this model has raised some questions. Are the peers still seen by fellow community residents as “bridgers” between their community and the CBOs when they are employed by a CBO? How is the transition viewed by other CBOs? Drawing upon ethnographic observations; interviews with CBO staff involved with the rebranded WHP, the peer health advocates, staff members of other organizations in the community; and focus groups with community residents, we present stories of the reconfigured STN one year post-transition. We identify tensions and tradeoffs emergent in transitioning the project’s status; and we offer lessons learned and a model for sustainability to community engaged researchers.