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  • We Really Do Have the Same Goals: The Push and Pull of One Community–Academic Partnership to Support Congolese Refugee Women
  • Jyotika Saksena and Shannon McMorrow

We never expected a mundane conversation about university curriculum to blossom into a community based participatory research endeavor. However, looking back, it seems natural that an international relations faculty member who had worked with a refugee organization for years and a public health faculty member who used Photovoice research with vulnerable populations found common ground. The main purpose of our project was to assess the needs of Congolese refugees coming into Indianapolis in order to improve the ability of refugee resettlement agencies and public policy makers to provide effective and, culturally appropriate services. Photovoice methodology was intentionally selected to give the women voice through the photographs and subsequent storytelling sessions, thus making them active participants in the study and providing a firsthand view of needs in their immediate environments through photos. Our initial conversation led to envisioning a Photovoice project with refugees, acquiring internal funding, securing an external grant associated with state public health funds, and utilizing Photovoice to understand perceptions and experiences of health and integration among Congolese refugee women living in Indianapolis.

Our community partner was a non–profit organization dedicated to refugee resettlement. From the outset, we strived to engage them in all facets of the project including choosing the specific refugee subpopulation, formulating research questions, recruitment, and implementation. We approached our partner with the idea of using Photovoice to better understand integration and health of refugees and asked two questions: 1) Is this something of interest and utility to you? 2) If so, which population of refugees do you feel would be most helpful to conduct Photovoice with? Their answer was yes and people fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo, [End Page 9] Iraq and Syria were prioritized by the resettlement agency due to those being new refugee groups in the state.

We agreed the focus would be on women primarily due to alignment with an existing women’s program at the agency.

Our partner was particularly excited about the use of Photovoice methodology to engage and give voice to refugee women, particularly the newer groups like the Syrians, Iraqi and Congolese that they had limited experience in serving. One curve ball that occurred was restriction of the study population to Congolese refugees only due to the funding agency’s application of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) definition of ethnic and racial groups. The OMB considers Iraqi and Syrian women as Caucasian and therefore do not count as minorities and had to be excluded from the study. This is a case where the OMB definitions were not helpful in serving the greater needs of refugees or refugee resettlement agency and all parties involved were dismayed about the shift in our project.

Initially, external funding was secured in close collaboration with the former executive director. During the course of the project, that initial executive director left the agency, so it was inherited by the next executive director. Later, we worked closely with two assigned personnel to flesh out the details of the project including working with our university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Since we applied for the funding together, the amount was split between us, with the majority going to our community partner. The funding was limited in that it did not pay for our time as researchers, but simply for materials and supplies to conduct the project. This becomes relevant because we engaged in conducting the research in addition to our regular teaching and service responsibilities as opposed to buying out any time for the project.

One of several positive aspects of this partnership was generous investment of the community partner in terms of human resources, space, and transportation resources. They assigned their sole medical case manager to work as an interpreter for the Photovoice project. This was written into the budget, but in the end she invested more time than she was compensated for. She was an invaluable resource as an insider of the community, ability to speak several languages and as a critical bridge in helping us recruit and retain the participants. It...


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pp. 9-12
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