Why Won’t They Show Up?: Authentic Community Engagement for Researchers

We know research has been used against us. It is not merely a problem of perception, it is historical fact.

Roberto Vargas, Associate Director

UCSF Center for Community Engagement

Watch the full event recording on our Facebook Page!

"Why won't they show up?" is a question all too familiar to many researchers. From recruiting participants to disseminating findings, a large challenge for many researchers is building authentic and lasting relationships with the communities they hope to impact. This challenge can often be compounded by racial dynamics as people of color are disproportionately impacted by adverse health outcomes and research has historically been a white institution.

For our December Collaboratory, we heard from community engagement experts on best practices when building authentic relationships in research with communities of color in the United States. The event began with Shanell Williams, PTBi's Director of Community Engagement, as she introduced the research justice framework, where mainstream knowledge is given equal importance as cultural and spiritual and experiential knowledge. She also provided the audience with a brief synopsis of how PTBi has implemented this framework into many aspects of the initiative, beginning with our research prioritization process in our planning year which led to the development of our community advisory board.

Roberto Vargas, the Associate Director or UCSF's Center for Community Engagement followed Williams and shared the historical context for the deep distrust communities of color have towards research. In one memorable story, Roberto shared an image of a group of Black women protesting in front of a J. Mirion Sims statue, who is noted as the father of gynecology, in New York City wearing patient gowns that were splattered with blood on their lower torsos. The women were protested the idolization of a man who regularly experimented on Black slave women without their consent. He explained, "You have to pay attention to how science has been used to harm and oppressed people throughout history to be successful." Vargas also described the Center for Community Engagement's principles of partnerships for Equity, noting they are still a work in progress. 

protesting J. Marion Sims statue

Principles of Partnership for Equity

  • Partners agree on mission, values, goals, measurable outcomes and accountability for the partnership
  • Partners work toward mutual trust and respect by practicing genuineness, transparency and commitment
  • Partners build upon identified strengths and assets, but also work to address needs and increase capacity of all partners
  • Partners work toward a balance of power among partners and enable resources among partners to be shared
  • Partners make clear and open communication an ongoing priority & strive to communicate and understand each other's needs and self-interests, and develop a common language
  • Principles and processes for the partnership are established with input and agreement of all partners, especially for decision-making and conflict resolution
  • Partners give & receive feedback, toward improving the partnership and its outcomes
  • Partners should commit to overcoming racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and other barriers to equity, including by leveraging privilege to defend and assist
  • Partners are responsible for learning how they are privileged, and how they contribute to, benefit from, or suffer from oppression


tweet of quote from daphina melbourne


participants in a breakout group

Daphina Melbourne, PTBi's Community Engagement Specialist led the audience in learning how to identify the who, what, where, when and why of community engagement. Melbourne explained that due to the lack of trust, the most effective way to engage with community members is to build paid partnerships with local community-based organizations (CBOs) who can facilitate and provide validation to a researcher's work. She also explained that appropriate compensation is a major part of any community engagement strategy. "You can’t just fund the Principal Investigators and the Investigators, you have to fund community to get this work done.” To reinforce this message, she facilitated breakout activities where groups were tasked with creating their own community engagement strategies and budgets. 

To close the event, Williams conducted a question and answer session with Schyneida Williams, a member of PTBi's community advisory board, and Alexis Cobbins, a previous member of the community advisory board and PTBi's current Associate Director on their advice for researchers when engaging community.