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  • Writer's pictureSophia Webber and Taylor Gray

Success Story Engaging Underserved Communities : Healthier Black Elders Center

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Bio photos of guest speakers and hosts of the Aging PCOR Learning Collaborative podcast
Left to Right: Sarah Whitney, Vanessa Rorai, Sophia Webber, Taylor Gray, Henry Swift, Patricia Mullen


Join Sophia and Taylor, two aspiring researchers, as they interview leaders and members of the Healthier Black Elders Center (HBEC). The HBEC is an organization in Detroit, Michigan that utilizes many successful engagement strategies in their goal to reduce health disparities for older Black people. Sophia and Taylor are lucky enough to sit down with two coordinators (Sarah Whitney & Vanessa Rorai) and two members (Patricia Mullen and Henry Swift) and focus on a successful telephone outreach program conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sophia’s Reflections

“Don’t be afraid to have human experiences.”

My name is Sophia. I am a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and a co-host for the Aging PCOR Learning Collaborative podcast series. My co-host Taylor and I are student advisors for the Learning Collaborative. We bring our experiences as students to inform the design and implementation of this project which focuses on promoting engagement of older adults in aging research.

“Don’t be afraid to have human experiences” is advice that Healthier Black Elders Center (HBEC) Community Outreach Specialist, Sarah Whitney, exhorts us near the end of Podcast 5. Afterwards, older adult and Community Advisory Board member, Henry Swift, also offered some parting wisdom “treat [older adults] with patience, respect, and compassion […] we have logged many miles– physically, chronologically, and mentally.” Ultimately, this advice and the success stories discussed in the podcast lead me to believe that courage is a critical ingredient in successful engagement.

As a student of engagement, I have spent much time reviewing engagement principles and best practices, including the PAE Attention Framework. The PAE Attention framework, developed by Dr. Erin McGaffigan in 2011, highlights not only the environmental and approach factors that influence engagement, but also the people factors. The framework emphasizes that the characteristics of the people being engaged as well as those of the people conducting the engagement contribute directly to how well engagement works and how impactful it is. Meaningful engagement often requires opening oneself up to disagreement and critique, to admitting that we may not always be the smartest person in the room, to speaking up about what is important to us. To do so, and to support others to also do so in the process, certainly requires courage.

Patient, respectful, and compassionate interactions with others cultivate and renew our courage, especially when we share those moments with folks who have bravely logged the many miles Henry describes. When we take time to really hear where people are coming from, as our podcast guests implore us to, we can implement our research findings and benefit other communities. In fact, our findings may be just a small part of the opportunities we are creating to effect change through engaged research. As researchers, this can be both exhilarating and scary. Fortunately, there’s nothing a little courage can’t overcome.

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