The role of a social worker is to identify and support people and communities that need their assistance. This can be a challenging yet rewarding job for those willing to serve their communities. As a social worker, identifying those in need of your support can be your biggest challenge, but there are ways to help with this.
Social workers use many different tools to evaluate community and individual needs and to determine the best approach to provide assistance. These tools often include the use of different types of research to develop programs for outreach and assistance. One such research tool is community-based participatory research.
According to an article published in 2018 by BMC Public Health: “Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is an approach to research that involves collective, reflective and systematic inquiry in which researchers and community stakeholders engage as equal partners in all steps of the research process with the goals of educating, improving practice or bringing about social change.”
CBPR pairs together the research of scientists with feedback from the community at large to help better understand disproportionate health issues that affect certain communities. This is extremely valuable to understanding the needs, resources and further research areas of a given community population.
The Encyclopedia of Social Work states: “Community–researcher partnerships allow for a blending and aligning of values and expertise, promoting co-learning and capacity-building among all partners, and integrating and achieving a balance between research and action for the mutual benefit of all partners.” This alternate explanation of CBPR helps illustrate the expansion of the research method and the goal-based outcome of this method.
Although this work is primarily health-based in nature, there are many other uses for this type of research. It is especially important for social workers to help understand why a community is facing challenges. This research combination assesses not only the needs of the community but also the reason behind those needs, which can allow social workers to address the problems more effectively.
Another expansion of this research method is to determine why some communities do not have the same needs. Comparing and contrasting research from both areas can help determine what is working and what isn’t in solving a health issue. Things such as ease of access to healthcare or even education can play a major role in the difference between the health of two neighboring communities.
Often what is found is that there are opportunities to improve things such as early detection when it comes to health issues. Early detection includes regular health check-ups and better symptom recognition along with decreased expenses for the individual.
Examples of CBPR in social work
There are several reasons why CBPR may be used in social work. While this research method has many applications, below are just a few of the ways that a social worker would apply it and also work to build on it.
Many low-income communities experience significant health disparities, including higher rates of chronic illness, limited access to healthcare and inadequate nutrition. Social workers using CBPR can work with community members to identify the root causes of these disparities and to develop interventions that are culturally appropriate and effective.
A social worker would work with a community organization to conduct a needs assessment to identify the health concerns of community members. The social worker would then collaborate with community members to design an intervention, such as a health fair, a cooking class, or a community garden. Throughout the process, the social worker would engage community members in every stage of the research process, from data collection to evaluation.
Youth violence and anti-social behavior is a significant problem in many urban neighborhoods, particularly among those with high levels of poverty and limited access to resources. Social workers who use CBPR can work with community members to identify the root causes of youth violence and to develop interventions that address these causes.
Social workers work with a community-based organization to conduct a focus group with young people in the community. The focus group might explore the factors that contribute to violence, such as poverty, lack of opportunity and exposure to trauma. Based on this information, the social worker could collaborate with community members to design an intervention, such as a mentorship program, an after-school program, or a restorative justice program.
Another use would be with refugees and immigrants. This population often faces significant challenges in adapting to their new communities, including language barriers, cultural differences, and limited access to resources. With the use of CBPR, social workers can work with refugee and immigrant communities to identify the mental health concerns of community members and to develop interventions that are culturally appropriate and effective.
A social worker could work with a refugee community to conduct a focus group to identify the mental health concerns of community members. Based on the findings of the focus group, the social worker could collaborate with community members to design an intervention, such as a support group, a mental health education program or a culturally specific therapy program.
Homelessness is another significant problem in many urban communities, with many individuals and families struggling to find stable housing. Through the use of CBPR, social workers can work with community members to identify the causes of homelessness in their community and to develop interventions that address these causes.
Working with a community-based organization, social workers would conduct a survey of community members to identify the causes of homelessness. Based on the findings of this survey, the social worker could collaborate with community members to design an intervention, such as a housing assistance program, a job training program, or a community-based support program.
Rural communities often face unique challenges in addressing the social determinants of health, including limited access to healthcare, poverty, and social isolation. Social workers can use CBPR to work with community members to identify the social determinants of health in their community and to develop mitigation plans to move forward and assist with this issue to help the community.
Social workers work with a rural community to conduct a community health assessment to identify the social determinants of health that are affecting community members. Based on the findings of the assessment, the social worker could collaborate with community members to design an intervention, such as a transportation program to improve access to healthcare, a community garden to improve access to fresh produce or a social support program to address social isolation.
Many people in urban areas are disproportionately affected by health issues ranging from heart disease and diabetes to HIV/AIDS. Often people with these issues do not visit the doctor to be diagnosed early and instead are diagnosed only after a major event. The concerns within the communities include a lack of health insurance and increasing costs of healthcare. This means the community has a higher rate of mortality for health issues that are better managed in communities without the same concerns.
These skewed health statistics tell social workers about the needs that are present in their community. They can then work on a plan to create more awareness of programs that are available to community members.
As a social worker, it is important to understand your role within CBPR. This includes understanding it, how to apply it and how to provide assistance. It is also important to understand that communities also vary within themselves. Different socioeconomic statuses, ages, cultures and more all play a role as part of CBPR.
For instance, a community with a high HIV/AIDS rate can be traced back to a lack of education on how the disease is spread and a lack of use of safety measures to prevent the spread. Social workers could develop a campaign to spread awareness of programs and prevention methods, such as safe sex and not sharing needles. Through this campaign, members of the community would be better prepared to deal with the risks and potentially more likely to get tested.
This same type of campaign could be used for other diseases, such as hepatitis, and could be delivered to the community in many different but equally effective ways. Modeling approaches after other communities that have experienced a decline in mortality due to these diseases would be a good approach to using community-based research.
In each of these examples, social workers are using CBPR to work collaboratively with community members to identify and address social problems. By involving community members in every stage of the research process, social workers can develop interventions that are more effective, sustainable and culturally appropriate. By empowering community members to take an active role in the research process, social workers can foster greater trust and respect between themselves and the communities they serve.
There are many different roles within the community as well. These various roles include school social workers, child and family social workers, mental health social workers, substance abuse social workers and many more. Choosing a specialty area will be an important part of your education and help you to better understand the role you will play in CBPR as a social worker.
Education is important to equip you for a number of social worker roles, as most positions require a Master of Social Work degree. Considering your path in advance will help you determine the best school to meet your needs. Schools such as Florida State University offer flexible programs to earn your degree online. Importantly, Florida State University teaches not just how to care for others, but how to put CBPR to use and also how to care for yourself.
Social workers who enter the field are made aware of the potential risks they may encounter in the role and given the knowledge to prepare for these and how to overcome them. At the end of the day, you can only help others if you look after yourself as well. This is something that people can forget in any field. Applying the same level of care and support to yourself that you do in your social work career will help you be the best you can at your role. Working with others can be exhausting and it’s important to choose a school that recognizes that and teaches you ways to help yourself and others.
If you are a compassionate person that is willing and wants to help others, social work may be the role for you. Take the time to research the role and understand more about what is required and how your skills fit the needs of the role. Once that is complete, consider which schools may be right for you and will teach you the skills you need to perform at your best level when helping others.
Research-based problem-solving is a valuable skill that will be useful in your role as a social worker when helping the community. This is a skill that your educational institution should value and help you to put into practice.