Dr. Ayanda Chakawa, PhD, entered into the first cohort of ASF Alabama Fellows in 2016-17 as a PhD student in Auburn University’s department of Psychology. She partnered with the Macon County Ministers’ Association to train lay community members in strategies to promote mental health education for children among their congregations. She is currently Assistant Professor and Chair of the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine (UMKC SOM) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council.
ASF: What does your day-to-day look like?
AC: My day to day is often ever evolving and varies across the week. I’m a clinician and a researcher. My clinical work in pediatric integrated primary care is the consistent pillar of scheduled time in my week. Across the week, my research time involves developing and implementing community-engaged and data-driven approaches to equitably increasing access to behavioral health care for traditionally underserved youth, as well as preparing research dissemination materials such as manuscripts and conference presentations; grant writing; and training research assistants. As an Assistant Professor and the Chair of the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine (UMKC SOM) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council, I also spend my day-to-day leading and supporting several service initiatives, including clinical and curriculum- related program development, workgroups, community engagement meetings; and sometimes working with clinical trainees.
ASF: Is there an area of research that you are currently engaged in that you are particularly excited about?
AC: Yes! I’m very excited about equitably increasing access to behavioral health services. I also have a particular interest in DEI initiatives that is represented in all of my work, including my research. I’m currently piloting a research study I designed called the “Promoting Access To Healthy Well-Being Across Youth (PATHWAY) Behavioral Health Program. This study is supported through internal grants called the Katherine B. Richardson Award and the DEI Scholar Award sponsored by the hospital I work at (Children’s Mercy). The long-term goal for the PATHWAY program is implementation of a culturally and community grounded behavioral health family care navigation model to reduce gaps in behavioral health service access, and in particular address disparities for youth from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.
ASF: What type of impact did your Fellowship experience have on your current work? How have you been able to utilize the skills and lessons learned in your current work?
AC: My ASF experience has a profound impact on my current work because it increased my knowledge on conducting community-engaged projects. In particular, it normalized the humility, challenges, and perseverance that come with doing this work, especially in doing it well. I distinctly remember visiting a community organization at one of the ASF monthly meetings and hearing one of the members of the organization say that the words and perspectives project developers come in with matter. He gave an example of how a word may have a positive connotation in some communities, but for cultural reasons may resonate negatively for other communities and adversely impact perceptions of the work being done. The word that their organization had to pivot from using was “revitalization.” They learned that it was offensive for the community they were working with because the vitality of the community had always been there for the members. The organization shared that including community members in the design of their work helped ensure a culturally grounded project, which is a perspective I have carried into my equity based research to date.
ASF: What is a piece of advice you have for our outgoing Fellow class and/or our incoming class about completing their Fellowship?
AC: Design a project that aligns with your area of passion and the community need, and then be open to making adjustments to continue achieving this along the way. This will fuel you to keep going and to invest the needed time to maximize the benefits and reach of the project, even when challenges may (or likely will!) arise. I’m fortunate to have been able to present on my project at several conferences and to also publish some of the data through a recent article (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2022-30378-001). This project is probably the highlight of my graduate school experience.