Friday, June 21, 2024

Season 3, Episode 12:

Research with Dignity – Putting People First Through Community Engagement

In this episode, we’re talking with Dr. Rodney Washington about how we conduct research with dignity by putting people first through community-engagement.

Season 3, Episode 12: Research with Dignity-Putting People First Through Community Engagement

by Dr. Joyee Washington and Dr. Rodney Washington


Welcome to the Public Health Joy Podcast — the safe space for real and honest conversations about what it takes to transform public health research into life-changing solutions for our communities. 

I’m your host, Dr. Joyee, a public health researcher, PhD survivor, and entrepreneur. In today’s episode, we’re talking with Dr. Rodney Washington about how we conduct research with dignity by putting people first through community-engagement.

This is the joy ride you’ve been waiting for. Join us as we revolutionize public health through research done … with … for … and BY our communities. Together, let’s create our Public Health Joy!


Researchers can often be disconnected from reality, but preserving the dignity of your community members is paramount to a people-first research process.

Dr. Rodney Washington is a retired Associate Professor of Early Education and Population Health Science and currently owns Consulting Plus, a health and educational consulting foundation improving health and educational outcomes for communities experiencing high-poverty.

During this episode, he joins us to share his insights on building relationships by applying cultural sensitivity and serving the community while conducting research. More specifically, we speak about his experiences in Mississippi and why he chooses to stay in his hometown and conduct research with the folks who live there. Join us as Dr. Washington shares key insights on how to honor and respect communities when conducting research, and more. Thanks for listening!

To connect with Guest:

Dr. Rodney Washington on LinkedIn

Dr. Rodney Washington on X

Dr. Rodney Washington on Instagram

Dr. Rodney Washington on Email

Links mentioned in this episode: 

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more information on transforming public health research into positive community impact, visit

Key Points

  • Hello and welcome to Dr. Rodney Washington, public health academic and owner of Consulting Plus. [01:24]
  • What he enjoys about the work in Mississippi and how he approaches mentoring others. [03:28]
  • Structuring research in a way that gives dignity to the subjects in question. [07:26]
  • Building relationships during the research process. [11:03]
  • Dr. Washington’s experience of the Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Leadership Program. [12:34]
  • The mindset shift required to prioritize what communities need over what is necessary for the research. [16:22]
  • Countering misinformation in real-time during the COVID-19 pandemic. [19:41]
  • Why this work is important and what it can really do for the community. [22:33]
  • What brings joy to Dr. Washington’s work. [28:54]

How to Rate and Leave a Review:

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate and, leave a review! Just follow the steps below:

To rate and leave a review on Apple Podcasts:

  1. Visit the show page at
  2. Hit the “+” sign in the top right hand corner to follow the show.
  3. Scroll down to the “Ratings & Reviews” section.
  4. Tap the 5th star to rate.
  5. Hit “write a review” to share your thoughts and click send to submit!

To rate and leave a review on Spotify:

  1. Visit the show page at
  2. Press the “follow” button right under the image and click the bell icon.
  3. Tap the rating immediately underneath the podcast’s description or tap the More (…) icon, then choose Rate show.
  4. Drag your finger or tap on one of the five stars to leave a rating.
  5. After you listen to an episode, answer the Q&A: What did you think about this episode?


[0:00:57] JW: Welcome to another great episode of The Public Health Joy Podcast. Today, we have with us Dr. Rodney Washington who is first and foremost a native Mississippian like myself. But, before I formally introduce Dr. Washington, we are not related, that we know of.


[0:01:21] RW: That we know of.


[0:01:24] JW: Well, we do need to confirm that information. Dr. Washington is a retired associate professor of early childhood education and population health science, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health leader. And is currently the owner of Consulting Plus, where he supports initiatives that improve health and educational outcomes for high-poverty communities. I met Dr. Washington working on another project with a mutual colleague and friend of ours. I am going to turn it over to you, Dr. Washington, the floor is yours. You can tell the people who you are, what you do, and everything else, then we’re going to get into this conversation.


[0:02:08] RW: Okay. A little bit about me. Again, I grew up in the Mississippi, Delta, Lexington, Mississippi at Holmes County. I spent a great deal of time at Jackson State University, where I was an assistant associate professor. I actually taught in liberal arts and criminology in that department for about four and a half years before I went over to the College of Ed, where I eventually ended up being the department chair, stayed there over 20 years, and then went to the Mississippi Medical Center to close out those years in their Department of Population Health Science.


It’s really interesting to make that full circle, because that work in population health science, of course, deals with your social determinants and all the things that I was interested in, that was affecting mostly high-poverty, marginalized communities. Now, I support with my company, my consulting firm. I work with a lot of nonprofits and organizations who are out there, like-minded, trying to do this work in the community. 


[0:03:11] JW: I think one of the things that I would like to ask because it’s a question that I think people ask me all the time, why stay in Mississippi? I want to know your thoughts, because we could go anywhere.


[0:03:25] RW: Yes. That’s a great question. I’m like, my friends, most of my network is out of state. A lot of my friends who are out of state always say, “Why do you stay there? Why are you still in Mississippi? Why don’t you leave Mississippi?” But I actually enjoy the work here. I think that I thought early on in my career that, my mindset that somebody has to stay first. But secondly, I had great mentorship early on and I wanted to do that same, sort of pay it back, pay it forward to students that I came in contact with. And be a professional that they could come to and sort things out, whether they want to stay here or go somewhere else. I think the work is really meaningful here, that is very impactful, and really necessary. It has to be, for me, folk that look like me better in some of these spaces to kind of shift how this conversation goes and how the work looks.


[0:04:25] JW: I think you brought several points, but the work here. I tell people all the time, when it comes to the Mississippi, this is my family, these are my friends, this is home for me. This is the place where I am most connected. If I don’t stay, if I don’t do work here to give back, to help move things forward. We know how Mississippi can be. Definitely got some work. some major work to do especially in the public health field in education across all dimensions, all areas, all social determinants of health. If the people who are born here, who love it here, who love our communities, we are the best people. We are the best people to work towards change.


[0:05:17] RW: Absolutely. I think that you can have those opportunities in other states and all that. But I think, that also comes with a price. Because, to be quite honestly, some of those places have some of the same issues, they’re just in a different setting. If I’m going to do this work, I know that I’m familiar with and grew up in a rural community. I know what that means for families. I would rather come out of that situation, understanding how to best support communities, than to migrate somewhere else and assume that I understand. I’m not fond of making decisions over opportunities, when it affects and impacts a lot of children and families.


[0:06:01] JW: It really speaks to our lived experience. I think one of the things as a researcher, and something that I’ve had other conversations with, with others about as well is, traditionally we’re taught in science research that you need to be disconnected. Very disconnected from their research and what you are doing, so that you can have an unbiased opinion, essentially. But when it comes to this type of work, our lived experiences are often a benefit to what we’re doing, because we understand. We come from the same world, we come from the same community, so we’re able to see things a lot differently than somebody from California, or Texas, or Florida trying to come into Mississippi, make change or to do things.


[0:06:48] RW: It’s about recruit, and that’s an important point. Because how many times have we been on research team, with larger universities, who have a study that’s happening in Mississippi. Their approach to engagement, their approach to recruitment, the way that the survey is structured, you have to be the one in the room to say, “Y’all can say this. You’re not going to come down here and think that a $50 gift card to Walmart is going to make these folk disclose all their personal business without any value added to their lives.”


I think, being the person in the room, to sort of help structure those things, and guide that conversations. So that these families aren’t harmed in participating in something like that, that they are protected as well. Not to say that anyone would intentionally do so. But I like to do research while maintaining the dignity of those participants who are giving up their time. I think those things are super important; an approach that fits how folks are living here. You can’t necessarily say, “Hey, do this survey on this app on your phones,” when you may have families on a prepaid plan, and they are cautious of their data usage. This is going to cause them to eat into their data use to do several surveys in the name of this study, and you’re not compensating them adequately for that.


I just think there are just minor things from being in community, or assuming that everybody can jump on a Zoom call and participate in a focus group, or they can get this link, and take Survey Monkey without having access in rural spaces particularly to broadband. There are just considerations that people have to take. I’ve had focus groups where one participant knew that the neighbors were good to have a focus group with. Just call them over to their house, and she had a breakfast for them, and put the camera on all of them, or we had a focus group with seven of her neighbors in rural Georgia. So folks do what they must, but they have to feel respected, and that you’re meeting them in a space that doesn’t make them feel some kind of way about their living situation. 


[0:09:13] JW: It’s one of those things where you have to be cognizant of reality, and that’s the thing that I know so much about. Especially academic researchers, they’re so disconnected from the reality of what’s happening with communities, with families. with parents who have children. You have to make all of those considerations when you are doing research. I know I had a project where we had several focus groups, discussions that we were doing, and we were trying to do them with the parents, and then, also, adolescents. We were like, “Okay. Well, it doesn’t make sense to have them at two separate times or in two different spaces.”


What can we do in order to have both groups meet at the same time, but also had it where each group feels like they have a safe space to share what they want to share. We had to find a space where we have two separate rooms, the parents, and the kids could come at one time, have it at dinner time, so the parents don’t have to worry about dinner. We provide dinner with the parents and the kids in two separate rooms, so that they can feel that they have a safe space. Also provide a facilitator who’s going to be comfortable with the kids, and the kids will be comfortable with them. Then also, putting up a facilitator with the parents. where the parents will be comfortable with that facilitator, and that facilitator is comfortable with them. You have to understand personalities, you have to understand group dynamics, you have to understand the realities that these families are facing when you’re doing research. Because at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing to do. Are you going to feed them? Are you going to compensate them for their time? Are you going to make it easy for them to what needs to be done?


[0:11:03] RW: Also, if it’s going to be a one and done, how are you building relationships? Because sometimes, you have to double back and do follow up kinds of things in that community. If you drop the ball on that initial point of contact, then, that word of mouth spreads around that community, they’re not coming to anything else. It’s not like universities have the best reputation for conducting research in some of these areas. They find it intrusive. These questions are sometimes hardly personal. Half the time, these folks have already been asked to do these things, and other studies, and you sometimes don’t know that. How many community readiness studies can a community participate in, before they started saying, “We just answered those questions for this other group that came in and did this community needs assessment and so on? Why can’t y’all look at that?” You have to sort of do your homework until you come across informed, and you’re not just finding out in real time, how that community moves.


[0:12:13] JW: I want to ask about your experience, because you are a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Cultural Health leader. When we’re talking about what does the culture of health look like, what does this research look like, community engagement looks like, what was your experience being a culture of health leader?


[0:12:33] RW: Yes. That was a great experience. They don’t like to call it a fellowship, but that’s basically what it is. But it’s a three-year training, where they really speak to how you build relationships. So. you get these 40-some odd fellows, leaders from across the country that you’re in a cohort with, and you learn from each other. You get like-minded folks, I’ve done projects with some of my cohort members, and things like that. Still do have relationships with most of them. But my project is centered on at the time, and when I was exiting, getting nonprofits to do a better job of data collection, and information sharing.


But as I was getting ready to start my project, it ended up being, COVID hit. It was really impacting rural communities, particularly in the Delta. I shifted my project to COVID health messaging in rural communities, and focus on the Mississippi Delta. Something I have some supplemental funds for from the CDC to conduct this health messaging, because as you know, there’s a lot of misinformation going on when it first landed. There was a lot of mistrust that landed for black folk when it first happened. So, my work talked about brokering centered on using residents, building their capacity, giving them the information, and letting them disseminate in their own communities. We didn’t need to be the base as health professionals, or epidemiologists, or all the state officials. We couldn’t be the base in that moment, to me. 


I did a training with community residents. We call them communications leaders. I replicated this study from Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. They did well with their population there, and they guided me through how I could do it here. There was an evaluation component to say, “Hey, that flyer that we sent out last week, it was too wordy. It should be more pictures.” Or it would be, the jargon was too heavy and things like that. But it ended up, we did three counties, and was very successful and getting a lot of useful information out that can be trusted. We didn’t assume that they got their information from the news. We did a lot of planning, a couple of months of planning to say, “What is your trusted source of information?” 


I had to get faith-based people, I had to get churches, had to get a pastor. I got a teacher, I got a salon owner, a barber, and arm them with the information. And let them be the communications leader in their own community to disseminate information, and truthful information about what was happening with COVID. Vaccination was another thing, but the virus itself in terms of precautions, Black folks wanted to know how – they were talking about isolation, for example. If you got a multi-generational home and it’s small space, and you got eight people there, they couldn’t isolate, and say, “You take that half of the house and that bathroom, and stay clear of everybody.” They want to know, “How can we protect ourselves in this mobile home?” Those kinds of things were really important, and that’s what my project anchored on.


[0:15:50] JW: There are so many powerful things in that story, and in that project. The first thing I heard was, shifting toward what’s the need of the community. You would have this kind of the project that you were going to do, but then, there was something else that happened, and there was a new, immediate need that needed to be addressed. I think that that’s super important. We have to be, especially when we’re engaging communities, we have to be ready to shift towards what they need, not what we need. That takes a different type of mindset shift.


[0:16:30] RW: Yes. I did three or four months of listening sessions, across all of those counties, weekly. Talking to residents about who they trust, who they gain trust, how do they get information. Older folks, how do they get information, with younger folks thought they were planting some 5G towers out there in the community, and so on, and so forth. They’re going to put a chip into something, take your bank account, empty your bank account, and all of that.


It was interesting about hearing all of those perspectives, because even when they started talking about vaccination, for example. It was because of focus groups like that, and we were able to tell the state because they started with it, registering for it online. But throughout focus groups and things like that, we had to tell them, “Hey, these folks are saying the population,” But the kick was the population that they were actually qualified to get the vaccine was 65 and older at the time. But you’re saying, you want the 65 and older folks to get online and register for the vaccine. One, they don’t have access, and two, they didn’t understand how to do that, in large part. So, they were telling us, well, unless my grandbaby comes over here and registers me, I don’t know how to get on there and do it. After we had the conversation, because we had a team with the State Department, they then added a 1-800 number for folk to call in and register. It’s the power of listening, because you’re thinking you’re doing this service, was not aligning with the population that you were actually tailoring this intervention for.


[0:18:10] JW: I remember that, because I was here. My parents are older, and I remember kind of walking them through kind of what’s going on, what’s happening, how can you get the vaccine, and doing all of that. All of that from the onset of COVID, through the vaccine, all that that. It was a scary time, and a confusing time. Nobody knew what was going on, what was happening. The information was changing every five minutes.


[0:18:40] RW: That was the beauty of our thing too, about getting real-time evaluation. Because every time we circulated some print material to our messengers like, this will counter that disinformation, a new thing would come up that’s now trending about something that you shouldn’t do. Or, that this whole thing is happening intentionally, and all of that.


[0:19:05] JW: The other thing that I loved about what you’re saying was arming the community members, arming the community members with the knowledge, and the information so that they could go out and be communication leaders. Because even if you and I are from Mississippi. If we’re not from that specific community, they’re still not going to trust them. It’s not going to matter. So, making sure that those community members have the knowledge that they need, and that they can communicate the information that needs to be said, and be able to do it in a way that that translates into action.


[0:19:41] RW: Yes. That was an important part, because we need that information countered in real time. The beauty of it was, I had put on – I brought a graphic designer onto the project, because a lot of the things we were getting in print material, they had all of these different things in it. It was so confusing to follow, until people were just looking at it, but not paying attention. The graphic designer would take something, and if it was just hand washing, or something like that, and it was based on CDC’s CERC model, the Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication model. That you should only have two pieces of information on a correspondence, but it can’t be masking, hand washing, and all these other things on one particular flyer. 


He was sort of breaking our information down, so that we could give our communications leaders things that they could disseminate. They made their own group page on WhatsApp, and Messenger, and GroupMe, and they would communicate during the week say, “Hey, I found this. Y’all can circulate that out.” Eventually, we got to the place, we had our Facebook page, where they all had access, and they could just get things from there. We were constantly loading things for that. But they also, we bought all these masks and hand sanitizer. We gave them to schools, we gave them the families, and all that, in some pre-Ziploc bags, and just disseminated them out in the community. Now, some folks didn’t want to take them. We did get some pushback, of course, but the majority of residents were really glad because their kids were going to school, they couldn’t afford to continue to just keep buying masks, and all of that. We ordered like a ton of masks, and just put them out there.


[0:21:30] JW: One of the things that I love about the people of Mississippi is that, we always gonna come together. Like in times of trouble, in times of need, we always gonna come together for one another. There have been several instances that I can think of where there was something that was happening. For some places, it may have been something catastrophic, like something weather-related, a storm, a hurricane, a tornado, whatever the case may be. In other situations, it may be something that happened, it might be gun violence, it might be an accident that happened, whatever the case may be. But it’s in those times that we really come together as community, because we understand one another. I think that really shows up in our work in public health and education, to be able to relate to those people that we know and love, even if we haven’t met them. Even if we haven’t met them, we feel we know and love them, because these are our people.


[0:22:33] RW: Yes. I think that’s why this work is super important. I mean, we do this work, like I do this work, because I understand coming from – I’m the youngest of eight, my mom died from breast cancer. I know that even with her diagnosis – she died when I was 19. However, I understand now that a lot of her hesitance on even dealing with her diagnosis was her weighing out and making calculations on the financial burden of that diagnosis and what it would mean for all of us as a family, which didn’t have the best access to care, to start with, because this is in the nineties, and not having adequate health care insurance.


But in rural spaces, what we understand is, when we talk about proximity to health care, and what does access actually look like. Even when she started treatment, that was an hour and a half drive for us to get her to treatment. You know what I mean? So, understanding what that means in some of the work that I’m doing now, you know that families are making life or death decisions, on calculations, on financial burden. They’re hoping, they’re waiting and seeing, they’re praying, and their whole spiritual side, they’re hoping that something’s got to shift in this. These are all health issues. When we talk about what access looks like to parents, to families, that’s why I focused on rural communities. Because sometimes, the access is not access. I could have a hospital with an emergency room, like five miles from me, but the service is so horrible that nobody goes unless it’s a life-or-death situation. Because they know that all they’re going to do is transport them if it’s something serious to another hospital or to Jackson, no matter where they are. Jackson is the hub here.


[0:24:33] JW: We don’t have time to get into the hospital closures. All the hospital closures around.


[0:24:40] RW: Right, which has a lot of implications, anyway. When I did a focus group with a mom, a pregnant mom in Leflore, that says, she would not have our baby at that hospital. She would rather – if she went to labor, she would rather drive to Jackson, than risk her child being birthed in that hospital. That’s not access, that’s not access. So, those voices have to be heard and conversations.


[0:25:06] JW: One of the things I think about all the time is, people don’t often understand the difference between public health and health care. Health care is when you get sick. In public health, we try to prevent you from getting sick.


[0:25:21] RW: Absolutely.


[0:25:23] JW: When it comes to access, it’s like, we don’t even have the facilities, and the resources where if you get sick, or something happens to you. Which speaks to me, in my mind, that I’m like, that means, we need to be putting more resources and effort into the prevention. That’s why I stay, because I’m like, Mississippi has so much going on. So many things happening. Like we talked about that access, the resources, having the community engaged in the process is all part of what we need to do in order to get to the next step. There is bigger than the individual responsibility, it’s a systems issue.


[0:26:09] RW: Right. Which is why I’m glad we’re finally getting the equitable language around how we’re even framing that. Because there was a time when we were saying, these vulnerable, poor communities, and all of that kind of stuff, as if they created the community that they live in. If these things are happening, there’s a food desert, and they don’t have a grocery store, and they’re using a dollar general for the grocery store, and they’re using – they got to travel for a specialist, and they got a child with special needs, they may not be able to keep an appointment on every week, whatever that looks like, if you’re traveling one way.


I talked to so many families across so many different counties. The transportation, and the fuel, and gas is not inexpensive. If you got a lady that had her husband on dialysis to go twice a week. Those kinds of things, they matter, when you talk about calculating for a family. I’m hoping that we can move out of this. That’s why I say, doing the research with dignity, because I’m hoping we can get this not just being focused on bias, but being focused on being non-judgmental, as we approach how to shape this, this work and what support looks like.


[0:27:29] JW: You never know what somebody else is going through. You have to be able to keep that in mind. To be honest with yourself on, if you are judging somebody based on some limited information, that you don’t even know what’s going on in their household. We definitely need to be mindful of that, as we’re thinking about, like you said, research with dignity. Honoring people for who they are.


[0:27:53] RW: That’s not just verbal, that’s your energy, your body, how you are approachable. They know when your energy is looking at them sideways, because they’ve gotten sidewise looks. They know what that look, and that energy feels like. When you’re questioning them, or having a conversation, it should be like this conversation. You know what I mean? It shouldn’t be a stressful situation to share.


[0:28:23] JW: We definitely need some more researchers, more people, more public health professionals in general, who carry that energy. Carry that by putting people first and putting communities first.


[0:28:35] RW: Yes. People first approach. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s all people. 


[0:28:41] JW: We are actually going to start wrapping up this conversation. But before we go, I got to ask one last question, which is, what brings you joy in your work?


[0:28:54] RW: There are lots of parts that bring me a lot of joy. I think, understanding that the work that I’m participating in or supporting whether it’s individual work, or collective work, is contributing to actual change. It may not be immediate change, but when we have – when I think of focus group, I’m really in tune to focus groups, because I learn a lot. I think that our folks share better verbally than they would on an instrument. I get so much context, and I can walk out of a building from a location that’s probably taken me 30 minutes to find in a rural space to have a focus group. The energy is so alive, and they tell me, “Nobody’s ever asked us those questions. Nobody ever cared to see how we feel about this or that.”


That’s what gives me joy to understand, that meant something, that they felt seen, they felt valued. Whether I can change that situation or not, they got to give it voice. That part of the work, when I’m writing those documents as a result of those transcripts, I take great pride in that because that is their actual voice. That is oftentimes folks that nobody’s asking, the real question.


[0:30:21] JW: That is extremely powerful and insightful too, because like you said, bringing that, that they feel seen and they feel heard. It goes back to that putting people first type of energy to the work that we do. If people want to get in touch, if they want to learn more about you and what you do, what’s the best way to get in touch?


[0:30:40] RW: I don’t have a webpage or anything like that. I’m not that brother. But my email is I am on social media by the same name, Rodney Washington. They can reach out that way. 


[0:31:00] JW: That sounds good, and we are going to put that information in the show notes for both as well, so you can get that email, and get in touch with Dr. Rodney Washington. I’m so glad and grateful that we got to have this conversation. This is going to wrap up another episode of The Public Health Joy Podcast.



[0:31:21] JW: I am so grateful for this time we get to spend together. If you enjoyed this episode, I need you to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. For more information on transforming public health research into positive community impact, visit This is where research meets relationship. I’ll see you next time on The Public Health Joy Podcast.


 © 2024 Joyee Washington Consulting, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Rate & Leave a Review!

Like the podcast? Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to rate and leave a review! We would love your feedback and thanks for listening to the Public Health Joy podcast!

Contact Us