SPOTLIGHT | May 07, 2021

The Power of Listening

This photo was retrieved from Getty Images.

In Mississippi, CEAL researchers knew something very basic needed to happen before they started creating plans to help residents hardest hit by the pandemic: They needed to hear from the residents themselves.

So they set up listening tours.

“We wanted to be intentional about how we approached communities before we just went in and started collecting data,” said Rodney Washington, Ed.D., an associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “We also wanted to use this as an opportunity to build trust and just listen to how they defined their needs and support.”

This type of community-engaged research and outreach is now happening in 21 regions, and across Mississippi. And it’s happening with the help of trusted messengers such as faith-based leaders, family physicians, and community health workers.

The listening sessions led to focus groups, where many young African American adults shared they would receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but only after their concerns about medical mistrust were addressed. Like many Mississippians, they valued hearing from local, state, and national health figures.

Based on that feedback, CEAL researchers arranged events to increase vaccine confidence. A February forum at Tougaloo College with Mississippi physicians and Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), enabled doctors and participants to talk about historic events that have led to medical distrust. This discussion created space to talk about COVID-19 research.

"It’s not so much about vaccine hesitancy anymore, but about making sure the vaccine is available to those who want to take it."

Sandra Melvin, Dr.PH, M.P.H.

To address vaccine access, which was a concern among many people from Asian American and Vietnamese communities, the CEAL researchers set up mobile vaccination sites at schools in rural areas.

In addition to focus groups, social media platforms like Facebook have been a popular way for CEAL researchers to find out about community questions and concerns. The team meets weekly to discuss feedback from posts by community liaisons, and these guide future messages and outreach. How influential those messages have been are appearing to track with national trends.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in February, six in 10 Black adults said they plan to get or have received a COVID-19 vaccine — up from four in 10 adults in November 2020. Sandra Melvin, Dr.PH, M.P.H., a Mississippi CEAL community partner, said she saw this change in perspective during focus group sessions. First, people said no. Then, they planned to wait and see. Now, they want a vaccine and are curious about access.

“It’s not so much about vaccine hesitancy anymore,” Melvin said, “but about making sure the vaccine is available to those who want to take it.”

Washington, of the University of Mississippi, noted that success like this has depended on trust – and building that trust is a multi-step process. When residents hear from local leaders who not only can take their questions and concerns to researchers, but also translate scientific resources into messages they understand, it can be transformative.

The bottom line, Washington underscored: Listening is everything.

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