In this Spotlight, we are excited to feature Dr. Alison Gerlach, The newest addition to the RHSRNbc Advisory Committee as the UVic Representative. Join us as Alison shares with us her engagement with community-based research exploring early childhood interventions with a health equity lens.
Thank you Alison for participating in this interview, we are really excited to have you on and learn more about the work you do. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Alison and I identify as a white settler of British ancestry with a strong practice background in occupational therapy which influences the research and teaching I am privileged to undertake in my relatively new position as an Assistant Professor in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria. For the past 20 years, I have worked primarily with First Nations communities and in partnership with Indigenous colleagues and early year’s organizations – initially as a community-based children’s occupational therapist and later as a community-engaged researcher. More information on Alison’s work: https://alisongerlachphdmsc.academia.edu/
A major premise of my research is that young children in BC, Canada and beyond are not getting an equal start in life and that early life experiences and relationships have a profound influence on children’s health and life trajectory. The broad focus of my research is to inform equity-oriented pediatric and early childhood intervention programs and systems for families and children who experience various forms of social and structural marginalization. My work tends to involve working closely with community-based programs and organizations that are interested in doing things differently and advancing the priorities and needs of families and children who experience challenges, including racism and stigma, in navigating our complex systems of care.
What are some current research projects you are working on?
One of the initiatives I am engaged with is a province-wide mixed methods study, funded by the Ministry of Children & Family Development and undertaken in partnership with the BC Association for Child Development and Intervention and the Aboriginal Infant Development Program of BC. The overarching question guiding this project is:
How can the structure and organization of early intervention services with Indigenous families and children in BC support and enhance trauma- and violence-informed practices across different regions of the province in both urban and rural settings?
This is an exciting project in that it appears to be one of the few studies internationally, that is focusing on understanding how professional and host organizations and funders can support or constrain the capacity of frontline early intervention providers to practice in ways that are trauma- and violence-informed with Indigenous families who are raising young children with differing abilities.
What has been interesting in this project, is the high level of participation from the North – the region with the highest percentage of First Nations peoples in this province. I think this speaks to the fact that often what we have done in our early intervention services in BC is export a model of service delivery that works in the more urban south to the rest of the province. The North is a very distinct and diverse region which brings about considerations around providing services when there are very different geographical distances, climates, and way of life that are region-specific.
The two other projects I am currently doing are urban-focused, but similarly oriented towards equity in ways that I think have implications and relevancy for rural settings. These projects are looking in different contexts at how to support the health and wellbeing of families who experience discrimination, stigma, racism, various forms of marginalization, and disadvantage in their daily lives.
‘Building a strong start’: Trauma- and violence informed child care in Greater Victoria
This project was initiated by the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Society http://www.vircs.bc.ca/ and Family Services of Greater Victoria https://www.fsgv.org/ and we have been fortunate to have received funding from the Victoria Foundation. This project, which is just getting underway is going to be informing and supporting the design and start-up of a trauma and violence-informed child care program. So currently we are looking at environmental factors, staff training and organizational policies from a trauma- and violence-informed lens. We are hoping that this is a preliminary project that will lead to future research that can evaluate the impact of this program on families and children’s health and wellbeing.
‘Exploring being well together’: Maternal and infant health equity in the context of HIV
I am a co-Lead on this project along with Dr. Laura Sauve at the BC Women’s Hospital. This community engagement and knowledge mobilization projects is funded by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and aims to generate a dialogue and increased awareness of how early intervention and pediatric services in the Greater Vancouver area can be further engaging with and supportive of the health and development of infants and young children growing up in families affected by HIV. Currently, there is a real gap in our knowledge of how to support infants and young children that are HIV effected through community-based forms of early intervention, and we hope that this preliminary project will lead to us undertaking further research together in this area.
I think a lot of the issues and concerns raised by my research ties into rural research projects. I have recently joined the RHSRNbc Advisory Committee as a Representative for the University of Victoria. My motive for engaging in this Network is my belief that we need to do a better job in this province in tailoring our policies and practices for different geographical areas. In addition, we need to consider how policies can be contextually tailored to respond to specific regional, community, or neighborhood dimensions in health services planning.
What do you think is important to consider as a researcher who is new to conducting community-based research/participatory study?
Being mindful that community-based research takes time because it’s really about investing time into building relationships in an authentic way. This involves de-centering yourself as any form of expert and positioning yourself as a learner. Doing this work involves learning with and from community members and leaders who have lived experiences that are relevant to your project. My research would not be possible without the support and engagement of community partners that I have developed relationships often over a very long period of time. My relationships also extend beyond the life of any one project and continue to providing support, and exploring other ways to collaborate, or to stay connected.
Another significant thing to consider as a community-based researcher is to continuously be mindful of your own values and assumptions that you are bringing to a project. What I have learned in this work is to be continually reflective and reflexive on my position of power, and the taken for granted privileges I have in my daily life and attending to those throughout the research process. What I am interested in doing is de-centering the dominant ways of being, knowing, and doing in this field that I broadly frame as early intervention with families. It is really about making space for thinking and doing differently. Unless we do that, we risk that our early interventions programs are only relevant and impactful for a fairly small percentage of our population.
What are some examples of KT projects/activities that exist within your research that ensures equity and bringing knowledge transfer and exchange back to communities and intended stakeholders?
That is definitely an area that I really want to strengthen in my work. There is a process of integrated knowledge exchange that is embedded in my projects which ties into the desire to have reciprocal learning with communities. I would love to hear more from other people who have expertise in mobilizing knowledge to inform organizational and systems change.
Plug: RHSRNbc Team Building Awards
I am still trying to figure out my relationship with the network so this is great.
What is one fun fact about yourself that you would like to share?
I met my husband on a safari in East Africa! I live in Canada because he is Canadian and I am originally from the UK.