On August 9, 2018, a community garden in Rochester, Minnesota hosted an unusual gathering: a cook-out and a community conversation on mental illness.
At this meeting, more than a dozen members of the community assembled—grill tongs in hand—along with public health professionals and health researchers from Mayo Clinic, to talk about their experiences living with and managing mental illness. View reporting on this event from KIMT TV.
This gathering was part of an ongoing series, hosted by the Mayo Clinic Community Engagement in Research Program, called “Garden Cafés,” designed to help promote a dialogue between community members, scientists, health care providers, and other service providers. The goal is to help improve health outcomes and to better address the unmet needs of patients, especially for patients with health disparities.
Sowing seeds of collaboration from the beginning
The Mayo Clinic Community Engagement in Research Program developed the Garden Café concept in collaboration with community partners. Consistent with the inclusive philosophy of community engaged research, these community members helped to shape every aspect of the Garden Café program:
- Meetings occur in outdoor spaces suitable for a small gathering or picnic, near the city center, wheel-chair
accessible and close to mass transportation.
- Health topics are drawn from the 2016 Olmsted County Community Health Needs Assessment and focus on mental health, chronic diseases, infectious disease, and preventable diseases such as obesity.
- Conversations are free-flowing and bi-directional, with community members and researchers coming together on equal footing to learn from each other.
“In addition to making connections with their neighbors, community members come away with improved understanding of health issues and the potential role that they can play as research partners and participants to find solutions,” says Rene Halasy, a community leader and executive director of the RNeighbors neighborhood resource center in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Investigators benefit from this collaboration as well,” says Joyce Balls-Berry, Ph.D., Mayo Clinic Office of Community Engagement in Research. “They build relationships and understanding that enable them to maximize the quality and relevance of their research and to disseminate their findings to the community equitably.”
Cultivating research that represents people with health disparities
A key success factor for the Garden Café program is the ability to attract a diverse community of stakeholders, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other subgroups living with health disparities.
A 2014 study of Science Cafés hosted at libraries and other public locations found that, while representation at these events was skewed toward women it was also skewed toward people of higher socio-economic status. That investigation did not collect race or ethnicity data.
Mayo’s Garden Café program, by contrast, is able to attract a more diverse group of participants. A recent pilot study of the Garden Café program showed that the events attracted:
- Approximately 50 percent men and 50 percent women, as well as a nearly even mix of people identifying as male and female.
- Nearly three-quarters of participants who were of low or middle income.
- A broad range of participants from different racial groups. Approximately half of all participants were black; about one-third were white; and the remaining participants were a diverse mix of other Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native.
The study team attributes these differences in participation to their community-engaged approach.
“I credit our ability to recruit a more diverse group of participants to the fact that the community we were trying to engage with at the Garden Cafés was involved in the design of them from the beginning, “says Christi Patten, Ph.D., director of Community Engagement, Mayo Clinic Center for Clinical and Translational Science, senior author on the study.
“We had long-standing relationships of trust with the community groups involved before this café project was even thought of,” agrees Dr. Balls-Berry. “We had worked with them before. So we when we approached them to collaborate on the Garden Cafés, they were ready and willing. They provided their expertise on design, such as location and topics. They also provided funding. And they were instrumental in helping us get the word out to their constituents. We didn’t have to work hard to forge connections to the people we wanted to reach. Those connections were already there, and the people were already listening.”
What’s next for the Garden Café program?
The Community-Engaged Research team plans to build on the success of the Garden Café program. The pilot study sought to demonstrate the feasibility and effectiveness of the approach. In the near future, the team is planning a larger, controlled study, featuring a program design that can be replicated in other community settings.
“I’m excited for what’s next,” says Dr. Patten. “There’s so much more to learn about this promising approach to health education and health research. We’d like to study ways to use social media to engage people in ‘virtual garden cafés.’ I truly believe that when the community and health researchers work together, everyone benefits. And the reward of this collaboration is much more than a sum of its parts.”