When Carmenlita Chief is involved in a research project, you can be sure that it will involve listening and connecting to the community in all aspects of the work—from the initial community consultation, throughout the evaluative research study and especially in reporting the findings back to them.
Chief, who holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Arizona, is a senior research coordinator with the Center for Health Equity Research and works primarily on projects in the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative’s Community Engagement Core.
In SHERC, she supports NAU researchers in improving their communication with local communities, and she assists SHERC investigators in cultivating their understanding of community-engaged research.
Chief and the CEC team do that primarily through a campaign called Fairness First, which offers researchers an opportunity to educate themselves about Indigenous and other underrepresented communities through two types of workshops—Health Justice Futures and Fairness FirstX Talks. They also offer Fairness First podcasts and blogs as an opportunity for researchers to discuss their projects and how they benefit the communities in which they work.
“Like with any relationship-building endeavor, it is super vital for researchers to take meaningful time, in the beginning, to get to know the community,” Chief said. “And to do this well, researchers have to share more than just who they are on the surface, but who are they at their core as relational human beings. In my Diné (Navajo) culture, this sharing facilitates how we connect relationally to people, before even discussing a topic at hand. We have kinship principles that guide this process—letting others know who you are, where you’re coming from, who your people are, how you connect to the land, and what social identities you hold.”
“This builds a structure for respectful communication protocols and trust-building,” she continued. “For me, all of this is intrinsic and second nature, because of the culture that I’ve been raised in. It does require some vulnerabilities to share who are you, but this transparency is essential, especially for communities that have experienced harm as a result of past misconduct by researchers.”
Transparency is a pillar in the framework for accountability, Chief said.
In a recent publication, Chief and other researchers examined the impacts of the Gold King Mine Spill that occurred in 2015, when the Environmental Protection Agency was conducting an investigation of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, and released three million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River, a tributary of the San Juan River that flows across the Navajo Nation.
The research team used community-engaged research to develop a culturally anchored approach to conduct focus groups in the Navajo Nation and analyzed narratives collected in three Diné (Navajo) communities along the San Juan River within nine months of the spill.
Chief said that many of the community members affected by the spill were farmers and ranchers, and the way that they sustain themselves economically is raising and selling crops and livestock and making different traditional foods.
“So just taking that into account,” she said, “it’s just unquestionably ethical, I think, to report regular updates and research findings back to a community that has experienced this type of traumatic event, one that has affected their sense of security, their cultural identity, their livelihood, their holistic wellbeing. I often apply an Indigenous lens to my role as a researcher, and so this communication is simply an exercise of reciprocity and human obligation to contribute to restoration and healing.”
Chief said she grew up in a traditional household in Kayenta that had strong ties to Diné language and cultural philosophies and teachings. Her cheii, or maternal grandfather, was a medicine person. During long drives, her mother would talk to her about what her grandfather used to say about the importance of taking care of one another.
“From that, I understand also that my role is similar to my grandfather’s in that I act in a way that I’m also trying to restore a sense of harmony or contribute to healing through the work that we’re doing,” she said, “You can’t use research as a means to elevate your own interests while leaving the community members you’re supposed to be in partnership with in a continuing state of disharmony, wanting or longing. The gifts and qualities we’re given as human beings should always be used to help the community thrive.”
Chief’s work also focuses on cancer research on the Navajo Nation. She recently completed a publication on “Helicobacter pylori Prevalence and Risk Factors in Three Rural Indigenous Communities of Northern Arizona,” with researchers from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and San Diego State University where they explored the results of a study on H. pylori they conducted from June to August 2018.
She is now part of a newly funded Center for Native American Cancer Health Equity (C-NACHE) with Nicolette Teufel-Shone, associate director of the Center for Health Equity Research (CHER) and a professor in the Department of Health Science.
One of Chief’s interest areas is communication, and she works to broaden her understanding of cross-cultural communications and other ways to better engage diverse communities.
“I like that I get to combine my love for artistic creativity with public health to explore what media, language, framing, and visuals most resonate with different populations about issues of health equity,” she said. “Throughout my life, I have been a community educator, a journalist, a public information officer, and an artist. And I have learned across these experiences that people are more likely to engage when the messenger is humanized.”
On Jan. 31, Chief will be leading a workshop for NAU researchers on “Research Positionality and Human-Connected Communication” with Teufel-Shone.
The workshop will cover positionality in research and how group identities (social, cultural, ethnic, educational, economic, etc.), experiences, values, and lived realities can influence the ways in which researchers meaningfully engage with communities about research and their roles as researchers.
Participants will have the opportunity to reflect on their positionality and develop a positionality statement that can be used to shape or reshape their community-engaged research practices in health equity advancement.
“In a lot of communities in our region, people who want to know, with all of your titles stripped away, who are you? How were you raised? Whom are you raised by? Where are your people from? How does this positioning influence how you see and interact with the world?” she said. “Once these are shared, they will have a better understanding of who you are, why the issue matters to you on a human level and how they might want to engage with you.”
For more on information on the workshop or to register, go to the “Research Positionality and Human-Connected Communication” page.