|Leading from the Community|
Al Richmond has won a seat at the table. Richmond will take office as one of three co-chairs of the NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Key Function Committee (KFC) on Community Engagement. The KFC coordinates and facilitates activities of the community engagement cores across all of the 60 medical institutions nationwide that comprise the CTSA consortium. For this community organizer and health advocate, the timing couldn’t be better.
What’s special about Richmond’s appointment is that he is the first community representative to assume such a leadership post. Until now, a chair of a KFC has been an academic researcher from a CTSA institution.
As Richmond explained, the KFC formed a subcommittee to look at the role of the community in leadership. Out of that systematic approach came the decision to have a community member as a co-chair. Through a nationwide nomination and election process, Richmond was chosen.
The mission of both the KFC -- and the CTSAs in general -- is to improve translational research so that discoveries move more quickly from laboratory bench to patient therapies and community interventions. An integral part of the process is engagement between academic research institutions and communities. This is so that the research is relevant to all populations, particularly those historically underserved, and provides opportunities for the public to participate in and drive the research.
The North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute, home to UNCs CTSA, nominated Richmond for the post.
“Through his insight and multiple networks, Mr. Richmond has deepened the exchange of vision and resources necessary to further productive linkages between the Institute and North Carolina communities,” said Community Engagement Core leader Giselle Corbie-Smith, M.D., M.Sc., and NC TraCS Principal Investigator-Extender Tim Carey, M.D., M.P.H., in their letter of nomination.
For the last 12 years, Richmond has been an advocate for prostate health and equity in access to screening and care in African-American communities. His current work is that of director of the Healthy Workplace Initiatives program at the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, based in Durham. All told, he has worked in some manner of social work, public health or community health advocacy for 25 years. He has worked in research partnerships with academic investigators to build coalitions, disseminate health information, develop training modules and develop and guide the formation of collaborative partnerships at the local, regional and national levels.
“I’ve always been drawn to working with grassroots organizations and nonprofits to address issues. They might be poverty, or other topics, but they might be issues of health disparities. So, for me, it became health disparities, specifically prostate cancer,” said Richmond.
He is passionate about his work to prevent the most common cancer and the second most common cause of cancer deaths in all American men. However, new guidelines proposed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommending that healthy men not undergo the PSA blood test screening have made headlines and caused controversy recently.
“What concerns me most is the absence of any mention of the disparities that we see in prostate cancer. These guidelines are all about ‘one size fits all,’ and clearly that should not be the case as it relates to men who have a family history of prostate cancer or are African American,” he said. The overall age-adjusted incidence rate for prostate cancer among African-American men was 60 percent higher than for white men in 2002-2006, according to the American Cancer Society, and the mortality rate was more than double.
His Healthy Workplace Initiatives program is broadening, however, to include cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues as well.
“We want to take our health disparities work and bridge that with the business sector work that we do. And we would design it to improve the health of business owners and their employees,” he explained.
He holds a master’s degree in social work administration from The Ohio State University and has an undergraduate degree in social work from Livingstone College, near his home town of Charlotte. Prior to his current position, he worked in social work administration at the state level, before making the switch into community organizing.
Ironically, he started out majoring in music with an eye toward becoming a choral teacher, before a professor steered him toward social work. However, he keeps his skills sharp by singing in his church choir in Raleigh. His twin sister, who he says most people at first do not recognize as his twin because he towers over her 5-foot, 5-inch frame at 6 feet 6 inches tall, is a community health nurse who just finished her master’s in public health. So, while it was not the original plan, over the past two decades their paths have converged and they share a passion for public health.
Richmond is no stranger to national leadership, however. He was the founding chair of the Community-Based Public Health Caucus and president of the National Community-Based Organizational Network. This organization works to expand the role of community in the American Public Health Association and holds its annual business meeting and workshops in conjunction with the annual meeting of APHA.
A project that excites Richmond as he becomes a leader of the KFC is the development of an inventory of the 60 CTSAs regarding the role each has for community representatives. Once completed, he sees the findings as an effective tool for making recommendations across the CTSA consortium and, perhaps, policy directives for inclusion of community representatives.
“Shepherding this process of taking and using the inventory is something I really want to do,” said Richmond. “This is a great time to come on board, because I have already been involved in developing and refining it.”
His passion as an advocate for community representatives began by helping plan a one-day free community prostate cancer screening event of about 200 hundred men in Raleigh 13 years ago, while at a previous position in public health. He has stayed ever since with the annual project that he estimates has screened a total of 3,000-4,000 men and is one of the largest community-based screenings in the Southeast.
“What it has said to me is that men really do care about their health,” he said. However, that success only raises the bar higher as he continues to advocate for equity in access to other men’s health services.
“I’m now part of the National Men’s Health Network with other groups trying to advance the cause of men’s health beyond just talking about STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). But to talk about other areas of men’s health – PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), the importance of supporting male veterans, substance abuse issues, alcoholism, the psychosocial health issues, mental health issues, all of that.”
As a community organizer and health advocate he is both a consumer of NC TraCS services to engage the community and now is in the national leadership with a platform to say how CTSAs can improve those kinds of services and go a step further.
“The university has been providing training to increase the capacity of community-based organizations [see prior article on NC TraCS workshops]. I think that is absolutely great. I went to the manuscript workshop and now I am writing a manuscript with a colleague.”
Ultimately, he hopes to raise awareness about the need to share resources equitably between the federal government, academia and the community, so that all have a seat at the table and a voice that is heard. In particular, he hopes to see regular compensation for community leaders’ work on national committees and in other leadership roles. These participants often take that work on as volunteers, rather than being able to incorporate time spent on this work into their paid community positions the way government staffers or academics can with their jobs.
|By Elizabeth Witherspoon|