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Carmen R. Valdez: Leading Community-Focused Research

Oct. 5, 2020

This news feature is part of Dell Med’s Voices, a series of profiles that highlight the people of Dell Med as they work to improve health with a unique focus on our community.

Baby pictures, family portraits and graduation memories hung from the walls of the household, commemorating life’s joys. School backpacks and weekend-projects-turned-furniture lay scattered throughout the home.

For Carmen R. Valdez, Ph.D., associate professor in the Dell Medical School Department of Population Health, these weren’t just household objects: They were key components of research.

“As a health equity researcher, I was trained to assess community barriers to health,” Valdez says. “I initially came prepared with instruments and protocols to ask them questions about adversity and stress.”

Upon entering the research participant’s home, Valdez says she instead encountered “hope, pride, joy and achievement” in the mementos she saw and conversations she facilitated.

“None of that could have been discovered by instruments and protocols, only by human encounter and a genuine stance of curiosity and engagement,” Valdez says.

Breaking Down Barriers

At Dell Med, Valdez works to better understand how researchers can address the impact of social inequities on health outcomes. For her, this means honoring the local knowledge of communities to help create programs, and ultimately inform policies, that address health outside of traditional health care.

“Too often, the questions asked or the methods used by researchers do not align with the worldview or lived experiences of community members,” Valdez says. “I’ve seen how highly complex social and historical conditions surrounding people’s lives are not accounted for in the research enterprise. Valuable community knowledge is untapped.”

Partnership-building strategies and community-focused initiatives are necessary to increase the validity and rigor of research efforts, she says.

“Researchers need to incorporate community-based participatory methods in their projects,” Valdez says. “This means seeking mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations, collaborating with community members in research processes and disseminating research so community partners can utilize our data to improve community health.”

Building Partnerships

As associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and the leader of the Division of Community Engagement and Health Equity in the Department of Population Health, Valdez is involved in research and programs such as the department’s Community Strategy Team and Community-Driven Initiatives.

“We support and train scholars interested in community engagement by co-teaching with community members and organizational partners in Austin,” Valdez says. “We also co-conduct community-engaged research and forge sustained partnerships for health.”

The collaboration between the researchers and Austin stakeholders — like governmental institutions, nonprofit organizations, clinics and local residents — is key to these programs’ success.

“The most fruitful partnerships have been the ones that are sustained by a joint mission, vision and values rather than by a particular project,” Valdez says.