Building community leadership in health research with under-served communities

  • 21 June 2022

A new project to build community leadership among communities that are often under-represented in health research has been given a £10k boost. The community Health Ambassador programme is led by public involvement network People in Health West of England (PHWE). It has been awarded funding by the National Institute for Health and Care Research Centre for Engagement and Dissemination (NIHR CED) and matched funding from NIHR Bristol Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

Under-served communities frequently carry the heaviest health burden. There is lower inclusion of people from these communities in health research. There are important differences in how different groups respond to or engage with health interventions. Outcomes may not be generalizable to all communities. It is therefore important to develop meaningful ways to work with these communities. In the past they have all too often been overlooked or been subject to one off approaches.

The team includes Associate Professor Andy Gibson, Dr Shoba Dawson, Carmel McGrath, Holly Ayres and three alumni Black and Green Ambassadors Olivia Sweeney, Roy Kareem and Asia Mohyeldeen. The project aims to explore using the Health Ambassador approach to working with these communities to promote participation, involvement and engagement.

The new project builds on the successful Black and Green Ambassador scheme set up by Ujima Radio and Bristol Green Capital Partnership. The scheme connects and empowers diverse leadership and community action on environmental issues in Bristol. The team will adapt and develop the Black and Green Ambassador role and apply it to the context of health research.

The first stage of the project is to identify, adapt and deliver training that the Ambassadors consider important for their new role. This includes an introduction to public involvement, co-production, enhanced facilitation, and research evidence and methods.

The ambassadors have planned a series of workshops with migrant communities to explore mental health priorities and ways to address these priorities within these communities. The workshops will centre around food and crafts. They will include cooking meals, during which the ambassadors will facilitate a discussion about the participants’ health priorities and concerns, and how they as a community would want to deal with them.

The team also hopes to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the ambassador approach. It will show the management and support needed to succeed, and the potential for the approach to be tried with other under-served communities.

Olivia Sweeney, who is one of the Health Ambassadors, said:

“I am a chemical engineer by education, but my passion has always been all things green. I currently work as a sustainable waste consultant, where I work to make it easier for people and businesses to reduce, reuse and recycle, whilst supporting projects that help to build the circular economy. Ever since graduating the role that humanity, people and justice plays in tackling climate change has become more and more interesting and important to me.

“I was excited and privileged to spend a year as a Black and Green Ambassador, exploring the intersection of climate and racial justice. As part of this project, I undertook community action research, exploring community solutions for clean air. Talking to people about where they go to breathe, re-enforced the link between health, both mental and physical and nature and the environment.

“This is why I am excited to be part of the PHWE Health Ambassador project to talk to more communities about this subject, expand on the skills and learning from my time as an ambassador, and learn something new in a new sector for me. I spend a lot of time talking to people, in a professional and personal context about taking intersectional approaches to environmental issues. Because of all this talking I have been trusted with a Breakfast Radio Show on Ujima 98fm, so my free time is dominated by music, rest and joy.”

Roy Kareem, another Health Ambassador, said:

“After a year of being a Black and Green Ambassador for Bristol, I’m delighted to see how a similar model can be used in other areas, with questions of health inequality being of particular interest for me. During my time as an Ambassador, I researched how people from Bristol’s communities of colour used urban green spaces to improve their mental health and wellbeing. I’m now excited to see if the ‘ambassador’ model can become a replicable method to tackle intersectional inequalities and am honoured to be part of this research programme.”

Carmel McGrath, Research Fellow in Public Involvement, and member of the Health Ambassador project said:

“It’s crucial that we work with our local communities to explore what they consider as important health priorities and identify ways in which we can advocate and ensure these are addressed within our wider organisations. By sharing the learnings and experiences from this project we will build on existing work and contribute towards solving these problems and supporting our communities in a uniquely personal way.

“I hope this project will result in shared learning and development for everyone involved.”