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Winning Strategies to Engage Black Women in Research: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

By: Dr. Jovonni Spinner, MPH, CHES

Conducting research at any point in time is challenging. During the pandemic, these challenges are exacerbated beyond belief, and research during such a period can seem like an impossible task. I am here to reassure you that with a little patience and creativity, you can surmount these challenges. In February 2020, I was all set to start collecting data for my dissertation research, which examined the social and cultural factors impacting the waistlines of middle- to high-income Black women living in Prince George’s County, Maryland. By the time March rolled around, everything around me had been overrun by chaos. COVID-19 had arrived, and we had no idea how to deal with it effectively; this essentially put a majority of my daily activities on hold, including my research. I wanted to go on a hiatus until it was all over, but I had an awesome dissertation chair who encouraged me to keep pushing forward. This article will cover some strategies I used to connect with Black women in order to perform qualitative research. Strategies presented here can be continued post-pandemic and should be added to your toolbox of resources as a researcher.

First off, don’t believe the hype; Black women want to be a part of research.

Many have altruistic values and want to contribute to knowledge generation, especially if it helps our community. My research question was straightforward, but my inclusion criteria were very narrow, and this presented some challenges, causing me to ramp up my recruitment efforts to finally secure the magic number of participants needed to conduct my research. I know I was asking for a lot requesting the same group of women to participate in a two-part study (60+ minute interview plus a subsequent 60-minute focus group), but I was able to get all these done by using these winning strategies.

Be flexible You must be agile and ready to pivot; never be so rigid that you miss the bigger picture—completing the research study. This could include adjusting IRB protocols, but I recommend you engage with your IRB committee early on and apprise them of any changes and gain the necessary approvals. In my case, my IRB was approved for in-person data collection, but I had to switch to using technology to host web-based interviews, which ended up being an advantage for both me and the participants.

Next, stay in contact with your participants, but don’t be overbearing or over communicative (in other words, don’t be bothersome).

You should be prepared to increase your number of check-ins to ensure they are still able to partake in the study and be flexible and reschedule as needed. Remember, they are living through the pandemic just like you, and many have multiple competing priorities, so you need to be cognizant of and sensitive to this. At this point, we are probably all “Zoom’ed” out, but at the time video meetings were not as prevalent. For participants who are unfamiliar with the technology, be patient and show them the way. Ask them if they have any questions on how to connect (or stay connected). Send them a few tips ahead of time so they know exactly what to expect. Also, have a backup plan; you might have to resort to using the phone and forgo video.

Be authentic People want to feel valued; be sure you show your participants that you appreciate their time and energy. I made sure to start every interaction by expressing my gratitude for their participation. I respected their time by being prepared, showing up on time, and ending on time (unless they still wanted to chat). Also, make sure you keep them informed throughout the process so they know what to expect and how it will impact their level of participation. Use clear and consistent communication (no lengthy, dissertation-style emails full of jargon) and be honest when changes come up that may impact them (e.g., when you need to reschedule).

Be caring and engaged During the peak of the pandemic, everyone was having a tough time, including myself. There was a lot of uncertainty about COVID-19, and being on “lockdown” brought added stress. I found it helpful to start each interview with a check-in where I gave participants space to express any concerns they were experiencing and showed that I cared about them beyond my research. This helped build a rapport and trust between me and each woman. In addition to these strategies, there are a couple of other best practices to abide by. Don’t be a helicopter researcher— which means you come, get your data, and never communicate with the community again. One of the major complaints I hear from participants is that no one ever tells them the study results. It is critical to close the feedback loop. Participants deserve to know the outcomes and rightfully so because without them, there would be no research. For my study, I prepared a 2-page research brief that summarized the key findings using plain language and culturally tailored graphics (available upon request). You should also offer incentives that are consistent with their level of effort. I offered incentives ($25.00 gift cards for each session), but to my surprise, several of the women declined the gift card and requested for the money to be donated to charity. In the end, I successfully completed my research study and learned quite a few lessons along the way.

A big lesson was the utility of technology, which ended up being a saving grace. It allowed for more flexibility in scheduling, eliminated travel time, and freed up the availability of participants.

Most of them appreciated being able to sit at home on their sofa to do the interviews. However, the biggest lesson (or reminder) was that Black women are powerful, intentional, and supportive of others. Each woman showed up and showed out! I am immensely grateful to each woman who participated in my research study and was so willing to graciously share their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about social and cultural factors that impact their weight.


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