Healthier Living Through Community Psychology and Empowered Youth06/24/2016 01:37PM | 4759 views
Noé Rubén Chávez, Ph.D., is a trained community psychologist with a passion for collaborating with immigrant and communities of color to learn more about the psychosocial and socio-cultural issues affecting their health and well-being. A post-doctoral research fellow at City of Hope’s Center of Community Alliance for Research and Education (CCARE) since the summer of 2014, he works closely with Mayra Serrano, the manager of CCARE and a fellow HHL contributor.
When most people think of psychology, they think in terms of the traditional clinical psychologist, where there is a one-to-one relationship between patient and therapist. Through psychotherapy, which focuses on the mind and psychological disorders, the goal is to make breakthroughs and change behaviors at the individual level.
But Noé Rubén Chávez chose a road less traveled with his studies and career path: community psychology. This discipline arose from a discontent with clinical psychology around the time of the civil rights movement. Where clinical psychology trained its focus squarely on the individual, community psychology takes into account the surrounding environment, social and cultural issues, and how all of these affect the individual in terms of their behavior and thinking.
“There’s a strong focus on social justice issues and empowerment of the community,” explains Dr. Chávez, “so engaging the community to participate in research is critical to make sure we’re moving in a direction that’s truly going to benefit them.”
That’s what attracted him to the opportunity at CCARE, which actively reaches out to the community – largely Hispanic in City of Hope’s catchment area – in the research and development of its programs. With community involvement, programs can be developed that are more culturally appropriate, which makes them both more immediately effective and more sustainable over the long-term.
Currently, through a grant received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, CCARE is working on training and capacity building in the community, especially through its youth programs. These efforts are part of a larger initiative being spearheaded by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) called 100 Million Healthier Lives. This initiative goes beyond the U.S.; the scope is international and the goal is to improve health globally by addressing the growing healthcare disparities that exist in our communities throughout the world.
Here in the U.S., the challenge of achieving health equity is being addressed by 24 coalitions across the country being funded under the IHI initiative. One of them is a multisectoral coalition at CCARE, which is working closely with three other local organizations: Duarte Unified School District, the City of Duarte Parks & Recreation Department, and a grassroots youth organization in the neighboring city of Pasadena.
“Like the other coalitions across the country, we are leveraging the strengths of people in all different types of roles,” says Dr. Chávez, “from the city, the school district, grassroots organizations, and our own research institution – to work together to develop programs for the community, especially where there is a lack of resources; to change the environment in such a way that is conducive to better health behavior; and to have the community be part of the process every step of the way.”
By way of example, Dr. Chávez cites one particular project that CCARE has been working on with high school youth in the local school district. He and his colleagues are helping these students drive a curriculum and develop presentations to teach other youth in the community about issues related to healthier living – from exercising to eating healthier to replacing sugary drinks with water and other less caloric beverage choices. The students are not only involved in the decision-making of what should be taught to their peers, but also in how best to communicate it to them so that they’re more receptive to hearing the message.
Toward that end, the group recently conducted a PhotoVoice project (photography-based grassroots social activism). They were instructed to take photos of examples in their community that they saw as related to health issues. One student took pictures of grocery stores that had been shut down in her neighborhood, which represented the lack of access to fruits, vegetables, and other healthier food choices when you live in a food desert. Each then presented their findings to the other organizations in the coalition, as well as local policy makers. In the process, these youth are developing their own leadership abilities and skills as potential future health educators and advocates who can address some of the systemic issues facing their communities, such as the food deserts that market fast food in the absence of local grocery stores.
“One of our goals is youth empowerment, but we’re also looking to develop community champions,” explains Dr. Chávez, “individuals from within who understand the community, can be their voice and represent their true interests. This helps to ensure that the work we are doing is grounded in what is best for the advancement of the community at large. It keeps you in check so that you’re always focused on the community’s wants and needs, their specific challenges and obstacles – and it also makes sure you’re always doing things in a way that is culturally appropriate and relevant to the communities you serve.”