“You have to have the right people asking the questions,” said Eric Moore of the Center for African American Health (CAA Health). This is one of the central tenets of the BeHeard Mile High survey panel, an initiative that highlights the importance of trust to successful community-engaged research in ways that amplify the voices of metro-Denver’s African American community. BeHeard Mile High is part of the larger BeHeard Colorado, which was created based on BeHeard Philly, an initiative in Pennsylvania developed by Heidi Grunwald of Temple University and her colleagues. BeHeard Colorado is one of six state-based initiatives in Community Voices for Health.
BeHeard Mile High creates easy-to-take surveys aimed at collecting the perspectives of the local African American community on topics like education, transit access, racism, and of course, health. CAA Health, directed by Deidre Johnson, then uses this data to spark dialogue between residents, nonprofit and government partners with the ultimate goal of uplifting the needs of its African American residents through metro-Denver policy priorities.
CAA Health also works with state-level partners to broaden the impact of its work. The Colorado Consumer Health Initiative is one of those partners. In the BeHeard Colorado Initiative, CAA Health and the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative go beyond surveying residents to engaging, training, and empowering them to become health policy advocates, so that policy changes affecting African Americans are community-driven and culturally relevant.
BeHeard Mile High was originally inspired by a conventional survey conducted by the Center for African American Health in 2011. The Center surveyed members of the African American community on their health needs and concerns and received over 2,000 responses. A survey on the same topics conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment yielded only approximately 200, a much lower response rate among people of color. The Center realized at that time that having a trusted community-based organization asking the questions was critical to the success of the effort. “This is particularly true for people who feel over-researched and under-served,” says Moore.
The BeHeard MileHigh process now operates as a regular feedback channel producing what Moore and Johnson call “community-informed data.” For example, the Children’s Hospital in Aurora Colorado and the Denver chapter of the American Heart Association recruited the Center to survey African Americans’ opinions on potential changes to kids’ menus in Aurora and Denver restaurants to more prominently display healthy drink choices over those with added sugar. The Center’s data collection and analysis gave insight at the precinct level into what African Americans in Aurora believed about sugary drinks, gave voice to their opinions on how policy should impact their diet choices, and showed general support for the ordinance in the community. The data was used to help the ordinance pass the first round in the Aurora City Council. Though the second round has been stalled because of COVID-19, the team used the data to get pledges from over 70 restaurants to voluntarily make changes to their menus.
In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, a BeHeard survey in May asked residents where they’ve been getting their information about the virus, about their fear of infection, barriers they’ve faced such as income interruptions, and impact on medical needs. Once again, researchers recognized the value of trust: the State of Colorado had initiated a COVID-19 survey and less than 1% of the respondents were African American. In response, the state requested that the Center help engage the African American community.
As part of BeHeard Colorado, the Center looks to expand the BeHeard panel by developing post-survey collaboration with participants. The project will recruit community members into structured learning about community needs based on polling results and offer further opportunities to engage with the data, prioritize, and strategize together with the BeHeard Colorado project team. The goal is to empower participants to become health advocates in their own right and leaders on issues directly impacting their community.
Throughout their work, Johnson, Moore, and their BeHeard Colorado colleagues will complete the feedback loop by not only informing community members of data but helping them to use it effectively. This reflects a core value of the Community Voices for Health Initiative: creating sustainable ways for people to engage and have their voices heard in health policy. This happens when research organizations like CAA Health don’t see communities as merely living laboratories, but partners worth empowering.