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  • Be Careful What You Wish for: A Community–Academic Student Partnership Story
  • Trina C. Salm Ward, Mary C. Mazul, Martha L. Barry, and Amy E. Harley


Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a unique Midwestern city. Situated on the western shore of Lake Michigan and the southeast corner of the state, it is Wisconsin’s largest city. Milwaukee has a reputation for a diverse culture, cuisine, music, higher education, and an incredible park system. These attributes make it a desirable city for over a half a million people in the Midwest. However, while steeped in rich history and culture, the city has some significant issues. While many urban cities in the United States suffer with racial tension and disparities, Milwaukee is considered one of the most segregated US cities and unfortunately has the largest racial disparities in some major health outcomes. One of the most significant disparities is in our infant mortality rate with African American babies dying at a rate nearly three times that of White babies.

In the fall of 2009, two doctoral students, Salm Ward and Mazul, enrolled in a newly formed public health course entitled Social and Environmental Justice in Public Health at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee taught by a public health professor, Dr. Harley. One student, a Master–prepared social worker and the other a Certified Nurse Midwife, joined together to complete a project assignment. The project consisted of designing a research proposal and presenting it to a community partner for feedback. The aim of this project was to provide students with the experience of engaging community partners in research. At the time, both students were involved in the Milwaukee Fetal/Infant Mortality Review (FIMR) committee and were vested in improving birth outcomes for African American babies. The FIMR data indicated that a much larger percentage of African American mothers received less than adequate prenatal care. The students were interested in understanding African American women’s perceptions of prenatal care, including perceptions of racial discrimination, with the long–term goal of informing prenatal care providers.

The students created a proposal to undertake a qualitative study that would investigate the prenatal care experiences of low–income African–American women in Milwaukee with special interest in experiences of discrimination. They chose the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin (the YWCA) because of its mission to eliminate racism and the services the agency provided in the community with African American families and childbearing women, [End Page 24] predominantly from lower income neighborhoods. The students contacted the YWCA and were invited to meet and present the proposal. Proud of their well–thought out PowerPoint presentation, they entered a small room and presented to three people, none of whom they had really met before and oblivious to the fact that they were addressing the highest–level leaders of the organization—the COO, the Racial Justice Director (Dr. Barry), and a program coordinator—the students proceeded to accomplish their exercise of ‘presenting’ the study and asking for feedback.

YWCA leadership provided excellent and thorough feedback and facilitated an open and transparent conversation about the importance of trying to understand African American women’s experiences and yet not behave as if they were ‘studying’ them. At the end of the presentation, both students felt relieved that they completed their assignment and had received valuable feedback. The only thing left to do was to ‘write up’ the project for their professor. Quite proud of themselves, they left the YWCA feeling exhilarated! On a late Friday afternoon, Dr. Barry called one of the students and said, “we want you to do the project.” There was a moment of terror as both students wondered where they went wrong and how they did not convey that this was only an exercise. Dr. Barry clarified, “we know this was only a proposed project, but we really think it is meaningful, and we’re willing to do whatever we can to support you in carrying it out.” Obviously, there was no budget, no concrete research proposal, and neither student had ever conducted qualitative research. Moreover, both students were working professionals pursuing PhD programs and had little time to carry out an extraneous project. In addition, the students were keenly aware of the...


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