Putting community first, in a new social justice initiative

The Community Collaboratory for Co-Creation, led by Penn Nursing and Penn Engineering, will focus on research, education, and community engagement and outreach.

illustrated bubbles of five people exchanging questions and ideas

About a year ago, George Demiris and Mark Yim began a conversation that included many of their colleagues from Penn’s School of Nursing and School of Engineering and Applied Science

A logo with the outlines of four people. The initiative's name is "Community Collaboratory for Co-Creation: Designing Technology for Social Justice & Health"

Beyond the challenges wrought by the pandemic, that moment had also highlighted the health equity and social justice struggles faced by many. “Structural racism was affecting health outcomes. So was climate change,” says Demiris, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments in Penn Nursing and the Perelman School of Medicine. “It became pretty clear that we needed to rethink how we innovate, problem-solve, and engage people who are immediately affected by the processes we design.” 

From those initial discussions came the Community Collaboratory for Co-Creation, which Demiris will co-lead with Yim, a Penn Engineering professor and director of the GRASP Lab. The first three years of the new initiative, which officially began in October, will focus on research, education, and community engagement and outreach. 

Penn Today spoke with Demiris and Yim about the collaboratory’s goals and what they see for its future.

Why is now the right time for this initiative?

Yim: COVID has made it very apparent that there are communities getting hit harder than everybody else. This is an area that we can really make an impact by having the Nursing School make connections with the community—they really understand the health needs. Then Engineering can help by developing technical solutions. 

Demiris: To that end, we often design for populations that are not at the table with us. We want to create a paradigm shift that allows us to get vulnerable populations, marginalized communities at the table. None of the problems they face are new problems, but the current situation, exacerbated by the pandemic, made it clear that we have significant societal challenges that can be addressed only by doing things differently than we’ve done before. 

What does it mean to ‘do things differently’?

Demiris: For one, we want to make an impact on research. The collaboratory will be funding pilot grants as seed money for investigators on the Penn campus and community members to work together. We are planning to fund about three to four projects each year. The first round will come in early 2022. 

We also want to be a connector for investigators. Many people at Penn do innovative research, but they don’t necessarily have community partners or the right connections to get into communities. We hope to have an active community engagement board who can help us identify needs and people from the larger Philadelphia community who can be actively involved.

Yim: Another priority for us is education. The curricula for the two schools look very different, so we’re trying to figure out how to get Nursing and Engineering students to work together more. We were able to start this semester. We have a couple senior design teams in Engineering who have connected with Nursing students on projects like an idea for an autonomous toilet, which could help people who would be better off with a bathroom on the first floor.

What has the reaction to this initiative been so far?

Yim: Enthusiasm. I’ve been shocked at the level of enthusiasm. Everyone is super excited, including the students, particularly when they learn that health equity and justice are the underlying priorities. 

What does success look like to each of you?

Demiris: Successful projects where we could demonstrate the power of community engagement, really learning from the communities we serve. They are the experts on their conditions and their problems. With education, it would be great to see a cohort of Nursing and Engineering students who have been exposed to co-creating with the community. Finally, as we increase awareness, it would be great if this collaboratory could be seen as the place researchers and community could come together to think of innovative solutions. 

Yim: I can imagine a success story would be if we can point to something that’s an inspiration for other people. For example, a project with engineers and nurses working together for the community to solve a real problem. Often, getting out of the classroom to help even just one person can be a powerful inspiration. Another vision of success would be people talking to each other more: Engineers talking to nurses. Nurses talking to the community. Engineers talking to the community. The social aspect of people interacting, that will be invaluable. 

George Demiris is a Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor who holds joint faculty appointments in the Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences in the School of Nursing and the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mark Yim is the Asa Whitney Professor of Mechanical Engineering, director of the GRASP Laboratory, and faculty director for the Design Studio in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.