Seeing Beyond the Words: An Interview with Derek Jennings

A person, Derek Jennings, is smiling and looking into the camera.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

According to Aristotle, “The soul never thinks without a picture.” So perhaps the image-based research Dr. Derek Jennings does could be defined as a way to ‘discover what the soul is thinking’…

Jennings is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Pharmaceutical Sciences on the Duluth Campus and the Outreach Director for Research for Indigenous Community Health (RICH). He has a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction (with an emphasis in Communications and Technology), a degree in Philosophical and Social Foundations of Education, with a minor in Film/Photography. He has also been a freelance photographer who has taught photography for ten years at a summer arts institute.

He has become very skilled in using the qualitative research methodology called PhotoVoice. PhotoVoice allows Jennings to combine his wide areas of knowledge and skill to develop health research projects with American Indian communities.

PhotoVoice enables people to tell their own stories, expressing their thoughts, ideas, culture, and values through photographic representations. It works like this: the community or the researcher picks a topic to explore. The participants make photographs that explore and represent the topic and tell their own story through images. The information is deep and rich, containing multiple layers of meaning.

The participants then talk about what they chose to photograph. It’s an important part of the narrative to understand why these images where created, what they mean to the participant. Jennings knows, “Meaning that is attached by the person who took the picture, is the most powerful.” So he listens carefully to their descriptions and analyzes the story they provide.

“I always talk about photographs as being just a file marker of abstract thoughts.” Jennings explains. “If you handed me your family’s photo album, I might not be able to know what’s going on with the pictures. You would have to sit there and tell me what you remember… ‘Oh, that was 2008, my grandmother’s birthday . . . We were celebrating my graduation on this day with my family’ – and you would tell me all these stories. But they really are just symbols that are file markers for your brain to attach meaning to.”

He tells about a group of American Indian women who have become known for running trail races and exercising. At first the group was 3-4 women who were wanting to get healthier. They started walking. Soon others joined. What began with a just few women walking grew into a group of 20–30, running marathons. And they got healthier. “A couple of them lost around 100 pounds.”

Jennings explains what drew him to this group for a PhotoVoice project. “I like to find those things that are working, attach research to them to figure out why and how they are working.” He then shares that information back to the community. The run-group is ‘a thing that’s working’.

The women have created a community of support for themselves: from the reservation, from family and from the run-group (friends). How? How were the women using social media to meet up to run? Most importantly, Jennings asked, “How do you make a community within a community, that will be supportive?”

He provided the women with cameras for about a week, to document their experiences and show what it means to them to run and to live healthier lives. “And so they photographed and told stories about their individual lives.”

“A lot of them had compelling stories about past relationships, their families, wanting to be good ancestors for their children.” He learned that when they run, the women talk about their ancestors. Some who have been adopted out are trying to learn about their culture and rebuild their roots to their ancestors. “They talk about trauma, they talk about things that have happened and how it has affected their lives. So it’s kind of a therapy situation also.”

“These women have done it [changed their lives] and I’m just trying to figure out how they did it and how it worked. With their encouragement, I was able to.”

Currently Jennings is working on a project called Food Medicine. “It’s a model about food and behavior, history and connection to culture.” He is drawn to this type of research because, “It’s image-based so there is so much information, not just focusing on one little area.”

Collaborative research is attractive to Jennings because it allows for multiple approaches from multiple perspectives. He prefers to explore issues this way. He works with American Indian communities, learning from collective wisdom. He also enjoys working collaboratively at RICH, as part of a larger team of researchers with differing expertise, “bringing many people around the same table, to solve health problems.”

Dr. Michelle Johnson-Jennings is Jennings’ wife and one of his collaborators at RICH. Both conduct research around tribal health issues, particularly obesity research, and both have said that combining their different approaches enhances the success of their projects.

Dr. Derek Jennings brings deep understanding and expertise of qualitative methods, especially image-based research. With a background in clinical psychology, Dr. Johnson-Jennings applies more quantitative approaches. Together they are able to examine a problem more fully than either approach can offer alone.

“This is the way of the future. I think this is how the academy will be ready to make changes in society – these more collaborative approaches to research.”

[Header Image Credit: Brett Groehler, University of Minnesota Duluth]

On The Trail From Hope to Healing: An Interview with Michelle Johnson-Jennings

A person, Dr. Michelle Johnson-Jennings, stands against a brick wall, with her arms crossed and looks into the camera.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Dr. Michelle Johnson-Jennings is a trained clinical psychologist, a health researcher and advocate for tribal communities and a member of the Choctaw Nation. Johnson-Jennings has been with the College of Pharmacy on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus since 2011 and has been director of the Research for Indigenous Community Health (RICH) Center since 2013.

An expert on cultural differences between westernized medicine and indigenous populations, Johnson-Jennings first became interested in the psychology and cultural differences around pain management, during her residency. “There are a lot of cultural barriers around what pain means to the patient, as opposed to the health care provider.”

She found patients would sometimes tell the doctor their pain level was ‘fine’ only to claim later that their pain was severe. Often they had been managing the pain when asked, so they didn’t mention it. But to the physician it would seem like they were lying, so they might not be offered appropriate pain medications.

There was clearly a need for her skills and understanding in this area. Many indigenous people suffer from addictions. Johnson-Jennings was aware that addictions are related to trauma. “Genetic research has shown that if you have a grandparent that was subjected to some kind of trauma, that future generations may experience higher levels of addiction and other illnesses.”

Obesity is one of these illnesses. “We have such a high rate of childhood obesity, as well as adult obesity. And our rates are rising, actually, while other races are stabilizing or lowering.” Chronic diseases among indigenous people have also increased. However a positive environment can lower the risks of chronic disease.

Along with mentor and friend, Dr. Karina Walters with the University of Washington, Johnson -Jennings spent about 3 years developing a pilot project with interventions to correct some of these health issues. They learned from the Chief of the Choctaw Nation, the health director, and other tribal leaders that the community is in a state of crisis due to high rates of diabetes, obesity and other health concerns.

“For the first time in years, especially among the Choctaw Nation, they are very concerned because they think parents will outlive their children.”

Johnson-Jennings and Walters worked with the Choctaw leaders who encouraged them to look to the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was a very traumatic event for the Choctaw Nation, when they were removed from their homelands through a forced march, losing thousands of lives in the journey. “Each year the Choctaw Nation has health walks and remembers those ancestors who made the walk for us.”

The intervention program they designed combines therapy and interview sessions among tribal women and is centered on the walk. They’re asked to remember what their ancestors went through, focusing on the love the ancestors had for these future generations and their vision for health and wellness. This helps them to reframe the trauma of the walk, to see the sacrifices the ancestors made for them to be well.

Why focus on women? “We decided to focus on women because the Choctaw Nation is matrilineal. Traditionally the women control the household.” Johnson-Jennings and Walters began with women and are adding children and men as interest increases.

Women are also cultural leaders in the tribal community and their excitement about health has motivated others. Tribal leadership has begun taking the walks “in mini versions” to get back in touch with the ancestral vision of health and well-being.

The curriculum for the leaders is a little different than the women experience. Jennings explains it includes more historical information, especially about the Choctaw leaders at the time, what they said and what was recorded about them.

“The Choctaw moved with the hope that they could be free and remain Choctaw, as well as that future generations would be healthy.” Johnson-Jennings has heard reports that the leaders could see “some of the resilience that was there, is still present in the community.”

The success of this project has produced several spinoffs, not only among members of the Choctaw Nation, but other tribes as well. The United Houma Nation is related to the Choctaw Nation. They heard about the work being done with the Choctaw women and were interested in doing a similar intervention. They contacted Johnson-Jennings and Walters about a year ago.

The United Houma Nation is facing their own health crisis through the loss of a great many acres of land. The oil company has damaged the ecosystem, killing trees, making the land unusable for growing vegetables, and creating high rates of contamination that has increased health issues among the people.

When she walked with the Choctaw women, Johnson-Jennings had already created the intervention model she would use. However for the walk with the Houma Nation, she has been working with them to determine their framework for health, after concluding the walk. The leaders wanted to do something that focused not just on obesity and addiction but that also created excitement about overall health.

So Jennings and Walters chose a historical migration route and walked with the women of the Houma Nation. Along the way they talked about health and healthier eating. The women were encouraged to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and to eliminate soda, not just during the journey, but ongoing. They were also asked to continue meeting so they can support each other and help encourage their communities.

When facing these issues, tribal communities already know what works well. “Our ancestors were highly skilled scientists and they know so much about the natural environment . . . [even] at a genetic level where they would tell stories about how trauma can affect subsequent generations. But how do we access that information? How do we talk about that and reinvigorate our community to be working towards health?” Johnson-Jennings hopes her work can help by including a different perspective.

What actually happens on these walks? Johnson-Jennings describes how she accompanies the women, walking along with them and sharing the experience over a 10-day wilderness experience. “People are very tired. We’re camping out during the summer, so it’s very hot and [there are] lot’s of bugs.” In order to gather data she interviews participants before and after, but not during the walk.

Instead, during the walk they think about different themes. For the Houma Nation they focused on mindfulness, fulfilling their ancestor’s vision for their people and the tribe’s vision for future generations. Johnson-Jennings asks them to think about, “How do you want to be perceived as an ancestor?”

Community engaged research is typically slow. It can take a long time to achieve publication. The tribal community owns the data so the researcher must receive approval in order to submit anything for publication. This further slows the process and can add other challenges. Historically the tribal communities have had a lot of distrust about research due to ethical violations around research procedures.

Sensitive to these concerns, Johnson-Jennings takes the time to engage more fully in the tribal community. “It’s a lifestyle approach that you are constantly thinking not only about the research, but about the partnership and the relationship and maintaining that relationship.”

It’s encouraging that the process of doing this research has had immediate rewards for the community. Jennings describes that some of the women involved had never tried fresh fruits and vegetables before. “Because of their isolation and lack of access, that wasn’t part of their life.” Johnson-Jennings has seen them not only change their own habits but they’ve shared this in the community.

“The women are excited to tell their stories, and discussing what keeps them motivated to stay healthy, motivates them further.” Johnson-Jennings adds, “Tribal leadership is also taking notice. Health interventions are seen as exciting and thinking about policy changes could support that.”

What is Johnson-Jennings looking forward to next? “I would definitely like to look more into food addiction.” She hopes to learn if addiction to food is truly an addiction or an indicator of addictive tendencies, and how it’s related to trauma.

Her research around food addiction intersects with the work being done by UMN Professor Derek Jennings with the College of Pharmacy. Professor Derek Jennings is the Community Outreach Director for RICH, Johnson-Jennings’ husband, and her research collaborator.

“He is more of a qualitative researcher”, says Johnson-Jennings, “very skilled in doing Photo Voice visual stories, and working with communities.” She feels they work well together, he using a qualitative method approach while she designs health interventions and more quantitative surveys.

“It’s his job [with RICH] to be in the community and work on tribal relationships, discussing the research more broadly, which is part of his health education background. He is aware of what it’s like to do research from an indigenous perspective.”
(We will explore Professor Derek Jennings research more fully in an upcoming publication.)

Johnson-Jennings hopes her work will help break down a few barriers within the academy around community engaged research. “Research often centers on disease and what’s not working. But the lesson we learned is that we can focus on the positive and prevention and still obtain the grants we need.”

“I feel really honored to work with my tribal community, that they would partner with myself and our team conducting this research. I have a lot of respect for them and a shared hope that as we work together we will increase our health and be well.”

[Header Image Credit: Derek Jennings, Ph.D.]

 

Sharing A Great IDEA

Drs. Michael Goh and Priscilla Gibson

A Conversation with Dr. Michael Goh & Dr. Priscilla Gibson

“The idea around IDEA – pun intended – is that we can grow a community of scholars who care about equity, diversity and social justice issues.”

That’s how Associate Vice Provost Michael Goh answered the question, “What is the Institute for Diversity, Equity and Advocacy, (IDEA) and what does it do?”

Dr. Goh is a professor in Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development in the College of Education and Human Development and he is just beginning his second year leading the institute within the Office for Equity and Diversity. Dr. Priscilla Gibson in the School of Social Work serves as the IDEA Faculty Development Fellow and is just concluding her third year in that role. They talked about the work being done through IDEA.

As with all units within the Office for Equity and Diversity (OED), Goh tells us his work with IDEA follows the tenet that “at the University of Minnesota, diversity is everyone’s everyday work.”

IDEA works behind the scenes through Bridge Funding and in pre-doc and post-doc programming, towards their mission to recruit and retain a diverse faculty.

But Goh feels these terms are inadequate in defining the goals of IDEA. He prefers the terms “attracting and thriving.”

“Attracting means more than just putting out a job ad and looking at applicants. It’s about actively seeking out diverse candidates through colleagues and national networks and developing relationships with potential leads,” Goh explains. He feels that that faculty candidates need to “feel that there’s a future at this university, in this community, for them to succeed.

Goh adds that he feels the term “retaining” has a survival feel to it. He prefers to be proactive in helping faculty to “thrive” here.

Gibson is helping faculty to thrive through her Faculty of Color writing workshops and through social events to help create a sense of community. “I love this term ‘thriving’”, she declares, “because I feel it is connected to welcoming and belonging.”

Gibson shares that the literature shows that faculty of color don’t always feel they belong. But forming relationships helps. And bringing people together helps form relationships.

“That’s why I think the writing group is so important,” says Gibson. “We are asking them to leave the convenience of their office or their home to come and write as a group.” Research has shown that this kind of activity, routinely gathering to work on their writing, helps writers to be much more productive and successful.

One of the most prominent programs IDEA supports is the Multicultural Research Award (MRA). This award is open to all faculty engaged in research on equity and diversity issues. Since it began in 1996, the MRA has been awarded to more than 180 faculty members. For many junior faculty, this award is often a springboard to larger, external research awards.

The MRA research is presented each spring in the Diversity Through the Disciplines Symposium, scheduled this year for May 5, 2016. These presentations highlight the interdisciplinary breadth of multicultural research and are open to the public. They provide the presenters a forum to share their discoveries with colleagues and engender future research collaborations.

Faculty seeking guidance in adding diversity into teaching methods, find it in the Diversity in the Curriculum workshops. These sessions are offered twice a year and represent a partnership between Gibson (IDEA) and Dr. Anita Gonzalez at the Center for Educational Innovation.

Recently Goh and Gibson have been working with Virajita Singh, Assistant Vice Provost with OED. They are trying to learn more about faculty’s perception of the work of equity and diversity in higher education, how have they been involved, where are we now and – what does this indicate for the future?

Goh is pleased that, “there is a lot more interest from administrators, faculty, staff, and students,” about equity and diversity work. Goh explains that, “student, faculty, and community activism clearly signal different ways in which we all seem to go about this work.”

This research project, says Goh “is not trying to intellectualize the issue but is a genuine attempt to learn about what motivates the different ways we engage in equity and diversity work so that we can potentially coalesce rather than collide in our efforts.”

Their findings from this research will be presented at the upcoming Keeping Our Faculty Symposium VII (April 17-19, 2016). This biennial conference has been held since 1998. So – why is this gathering still so important?

Goh tells us the symposium founders recognized the need to work together to create change. “And they recognized that no one university, no one office, no one group of scholars has the answers. Hence, the need to confer nationally about how to address this issue.”

“Issues continue to be identified,” adds Gibson, “as people become a little more comfortable, a little more empowered to talk about their lived experience as underrepresented faculty”

This makes Gibson especially excited that for this symposium “we have some of the best minds coming here to discuss, to critique and to analyze.”

“We are bringing up the next generation of scholars, and university administrators”, Gibson says. “We still need to develop that cadre.”

Goh feels, “there are a lot of good ideas being generated by higher education scholars locally and around the country that we can learn from. We need to cultivate the wisdom that is already out there and we need to be committed to moving to action.”

“Our goal for this symposium,” Goh says, “is to provide a space for scholars, campus leaders, and students to critically and honestly engage on urgent issues confronting faculty diversity so that we can discover meaningful, practical, and effective solutions for our campus and beyond.”