Reflections on Community Engaged Research: Interview with Aarabhi Rajendiran

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

Written by Varsha Jayasankar & Aarabhi Rajendiran

Photo shows Aarabhi Rajendiran; woman with long dark hair wearing a black sweater.

Aarabhi Rajendiran is a PhD Candidate in Public Health and is working on evaluating a population health intervention that aims to help bridge the gap in access to health and social services amongst children and families in Guelph, Ontario. At the Research Shop, Aarabhi is a Project Manager who has worked with community organizations in Guelph and the surrounding Wellington Region to conduct evaluations of programs and youth need assessments in rural communities. In her free time, Aarabhi can be found either at the library or the museum as she loves learning about the stories of people and places all over the world.

Tell us a little bit about your educational background?

I did my undergraduate degree in Health Studies at the University of Waterloo, where I learned about the social determinants of health, and how these are important factors to consider when understanding disease and illness. To explore population health further, I completed a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at the University of Guelph. Wanting to dive deeper into how research was applied in improving community health, I decided to pursue a PhD in Public Health with a focus on evaluating a population health intervention.

What is your experience conducting community engaged research prior to CESI?

As a part of my graduate studies in public health, I often need to contact people in the community for their expertise, as well as to collaborate. I work with my community partners from the start of the research process including developing the research questions together. I am in constant communication with these partners to understand the evolving nature of their program so I can adapt my research to these changes. Through my graduate studies and my community partners, I’ve been able to complete a key informant interview study, a scoping review, and hopefully a focus group to develop an evaluation framework that they can implement.

Describe some of the projects you’ve been involved with at CESI?

I first joined CESI as a Research Assistant in January of 2018. The first project I worked on was a Cannabis Youth Strategy with the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy. This was before cannabis legalization, so the community partners wanted to understand how to best create an awareness campaign specifically for youth. We looked into how other jurisdictions ran their awareness campaigns and what takeaways they got from it, and how we could apply those to the Guelph community.

One of the bigger projects I worked on with CESI was with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) for their Targeted Walk-In program where CMHA collaborated with other community organizations to fill a need for mental health resources in Guelph. We conducted an evaluation highlighting the strengths and challenges of the program. As researchers, there were particular obstacles such as not being able to gain the client perspective because of the ethics and challenges around conducting research with vulnerable populations.

Other projects that I have worked on include an evaluation for Focus on Nature, where we conducted focus groups with both executive members and program volunteers to understand their perspectives on the program. I’ve also worked on projects with youth organizations in rural Ontario to gain an understanding of local youth’s needs in the community, as well as with the Wellington Guelph Hoarding Response to highlight hoarding strategies across Ontario.  

What motivated you to become involved in community engaged research (CER)?

During my MPH I completed a practicum at Public Health Ontario (PHO). While there, Dr. Peter Donnelly, the President and CEO, once mentioned he’d written many peer-reviewed articles anti-gang strategies. However, the most impact his work has had was when he collaborated directly with community leaders who worked with reformed ex-gang members to help them re-integrate into society. It struck a chord with me to hear him explain the importance of making research accessible beyond academia, especially for the people it aims to help.

What has been your most valuable experience while working on a CER project?

The CMHA project helped me understand how high the stakes can be when working with vulnerable populations and service providers. The research that we do for community organizations is often to help prepare for funding applications. As such, the information that we gather and produce for them correlates to the future of their programs. The project on hoarding in Ontario really showed me how much service providers truly care about their clients by being their strongest advocate and showing great compassion.

Overall, working with CESI and in CER has shown me the areas of society beyond public health that require and benefit from community collaboration. Additionally, it has shown it me how to transition from the academic world to the real world. Outside academia there are no rubrics or grades to signify “success” in the real world. Instead, we must collaborate with community partners and other stakeholders, so our research will identify program needs, fill gaps in knowledge, and ultimately help with evidence informed decision-making and action.

What do you find the most challenging about CER?

Across all projects in CER, a common challenge has been delays in the research process. Community partners often have extremely busy schedules and can be called at anytime to deal with a crisis. Funding is often stretched, and staff cannot always contribute to the research. Sometimes getting in contact with people from community organizations is difficult, especially when there are staff turnovers.

In addition, many of the challenges faced by the people served by our community partners are sensitive in nature. For instance, the CMHA and hoarding projects opened our eyes to the challenges faced by clients with mental health challenges such as lack of peer support, risk of eviction, and poverty. These challenges can be difficult to discuss in research.

Reflecting on the challenges that students face when first encountering this field, what advice would you have for someone thinking about conducting community engaged research?

It’s important for any student considering community engaged research to be patient, because it’s a long road. Karen Nelson (Research Shop Coordinator) advised us to make a work plan and timeline for any project right at the start. This includes identifying our capabilities as students and discussing the needs of our community partners.  Additionally, you should communicate what you need from the community partners ahead of time, such as meetings, writing (feedback & collaboration), and other resources you’ll need to mitigate delays in the future . Providing the partners with content (e.g. the interview questions you’ll be asking them) ahead of time and booking more time than needed for a meeting, in case you run over or to allow time for debriefing and reflecting especially when the subject matter is sensitive.

Having compassion for the community partners you collaborate with and the populations they serve is important when conducting community engaged research. Not only will it help you to understand the challenges they face, it enables you to identify research questions, develop methods that better gain perspectives of stakeholders, and ultimately become a better researcher.

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