In 2022, the inaugural HEALTH–RCMI Student Cadre was launched, and this group of enterprising, talented UH students began building partnerships in Houston’s Third Ward.
“The way I’ve asked the students to think about their work, from the very beginning—is to listen and hear the needs that come from our community partners,” Woodard said. “It’s important to think about sustainability from the very beginning. When we’re filling a need in the community, we need to be able to continue to fill that need, and not start something that provides benefit and then take that away when funding or other priorities shift. We want to have a sustainable path to continue to meet the needs of the communities that we serve.”
One of the Student Cadre endeavors has been aligned Boynton Methodist Church with the guidance of Pastor Linda Davis. Working with Pastor Davis, the student cadre “listened” to the need expressed in the Third Ward, and developed a project in collaboration with Boynton to deliver healthy food and COVID-19 supplies to community members in need.
To support this effort, Student Cadre members, working with the Community Engagement Core and Pastor Davis, successfully obtained grant funding from the City of Houston Next G.H.E.N. program to bring this effort to fruition. Partnering with the ongoing monthly food pantry and other health-related events through the churches health ministry helped the students identify a mechanism for sustaining their efforts on a long-term basis.
“What was great was that our students presented to the CRAB—which was a brief introduction to how you can share your work with the community,” Woodard said. “Pastor Linda Davis was so proud of the work they were doing on this project, and the students were proud to share the work they were doing. This sort of connection was really important. We allowed them autonomy to work with a community partner and identify a need. We also supported them in thinking about how we might collaboratively solve this problem.”
Being thoughtful about sustainability is something intrinsic within Woodard’s approach as a physician and a University of Houston and Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine professor. Touted as an innovator and trailblazer, Woodard leads the Humana Integrated Health System Sciences Institute at the University of Houston.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle,” Woodard said. “What I have learned throughout my career is about the importance of collaboration, the importance of bringing a variety of voices to the conversation and knowing the work we do is better because we have different perspectives. That has been especially important in my work here at the University of Houston. All the work we're doing not only reflects my efforts, but the efforts of all of the people who were working with us, bringing all their diverse perspectives, and working together to accomplish our goals.”
For Woodard, her passion for community collaboration derives from being deeply rooted in Houston’s Acres Homes neighborhood.
“I grew up in a community that has been historically underserved and so that’s spurred my passion to want to work and give back to similar communities,” Woodard said. “I am super passionate about improving the health of communities that experience significant health disparities and that have not been traditionally well served by our health care system. As I child, I witnessed first-hand my father experience and ultimately pass away from heart disease. So, I was able to see in my own family some of these disparities impacting individuals from different communities who die at a young age from conditions that are treatable. From that perspective, I always knew I had an interest in care for underserved populations.”
“I think the Student Cadre is fortunate to engage with our Community Engagement Core and community members who are a part of the CAB and CRAB,” Woodard said. “The enthusiasm of our team and partners motivates and inspires them as they do this work together. For the upcoming year, our goal is to expand the student experience by adding a professional development series for our Student Cadre where we address not only address issues such as doing community-engaged research, but also provide career guidance to support students as they pursue future careers in the health professions and public health."
According to former HEALTH–RCMI Student Cadre member Hsiang Chi Lin, the experience of being a part of the group provided an invaluable learning journey.
“There is not any other organization like HEALTH–RCMI Student Cadre that has a perfect combination of community involvement and being a part of a research project,” Lin said.
Strengthening community-engaged research is a visionary intention of HEALTH–RCMI's founder, Dr. Ezemenari Obasi, according to Woodard.
“Dr. Obasi is someone who I have tremendous admiration for--to create a vision that we are all very committed to,” Woodard said. “It’s about doing work that is responsive to the community and allowing the community a seat at the table. I really appreciate the way that the HEALTH–RCMI has become a resource for investigators, creating an infrastructure for investigators across campus. I appreciate his leadership because we have the autonomy to be creative, innovative, and thoughtful in a way that benefits the broader RCMI.”
When it comes to helping other early-stage investigators who are excited to launch their career, Woodard candidly offers the wisdom that has become the defining signature of her career.
“When you’re doing work that centers on the community, listening would be my most important piece of advice,” Woodard said. “It’s important to come from a place of curiosity—from a place where you're willing to listen and respect the tremendous work that's already happening in the community. It’s about working together to advance the priorities that are already important in the community.”
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