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Engaging, Empowering, Enacting Community in Environmental Health Research: Case Study of the Superfund Research Program

Wed, August 30, 11:00am to 12:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Exeter


Community-engaged research approaches—of which there are many flavours—are increasingly used in the study of environmental contaminants and their impacts on human health and well-being, reflecting a desire to improve the relevance, quality, utility, and emancipatory possibilities of inquiry for communities affected by contaminants. The US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program (SRP) is one example of this shift: since 2011 the SRP, which funds multidisciplinary research centres that investigate methods to detect, assess, and prevent health effects from hazardous substances and contaminated sites, has required that grantees engage communities impacted by hazardous substances through a dedicated core. In this work, I examine the diverse ways in which this mandate for “community engagement” has been realized in research practices, under the different social and material contexts of the 18 currently funded centers and associated hazardous sites. Drawing from a detailed analysis of program and center documents, and semi-structured interviews with center personnel and community partners, I pay particular attention to how “impacted communities” come to be defined, and by whom. In doing so, I explore how “impacts” and “community” are coproduced, and how engagement and research activities can both empower and enact community in different contexts. Through this focus on how engagement is practiced within a single funding program, I hope to better understand how top-down funding requirements and local contexts interact to shape research practice, and implications for research program design.