Abstract: Community Cafes: An Innovative Approach to Engaging Parents and Providers in Co-Decision Making (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Community Cafes: An Innovative Approach to Engaging Parents and Providers in Co-Decision Making

Friday, January 13, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Helen Robinson, PhD student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Yolanda West, Program Director, Vision for Children at Risk
Sanaria Sulaiman, MBA, Executive Director, Vision for Children at Risk, MO
Patricia Kohl, PhD, Associate Professor, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Background and Purpose: The overrepresentation of African American children in aspects of the child welfare system (CWS) is an ongoing dilemma for policy advocates, practitioners, and researchers. While the identified causes are varied (high need linked to poverty, surveillance bias, and systemic bias), they are connected by legacies of racism, discrimination, and oppression that undergird health and social inequities for African Americans. Participatory research methods provide means to collaborate with marginalized communities, and center their lived-experience as contextual expertise to generate meaningful solutions. PACT-STL uses Community Cafés, one such method, to engage African Americans with lived experience towards identifying issues and co-designing solutions to challenges with child welfare and safety net services. The café model is intentionally structured to create conversational processes that foster constructive dialogue, emergence of collective intelligence, and innovative possibilities for action. Towards this end, we evaluated café (and subsequent working group) participation experience of African American community members.

Methods: Four in-person cafés and two virtual cafés were held with 101 participants. The in-person cafés were held at a community center; the others were held virtually in order to accommodate COVID-19 public health measures. For both café types, most participants were African American, female, and between the ages of 35 and 44 years. VCR staff recruited participants via personal outreach, flyers and word of mouth. Café participants (parents, organizational staff) were invited to participate in two working groups aimed at identifying solutions to core topics arising from the cafés. Participant engagement was evaluated using a survey, with closed and open-ended questions, administered at the end of each café session. Using core tenets of participatory research methods (i.e., sensitizing concepts), thematic content analyses were performed to explore the ways in which the café process related to power, voice, and safe space. Content analysis was also conducted on meeting minutes and field notes.

Findings: Results indicated participants felt the cafes provided a safe space for open communication. They felt listened to throughout the process, and appreciated the opportunity to meet, share information, and contribute to a common goal of strengthening their community. Participants expressed the need to focus discussions and improve café processes related to logistical execution and organization. Observational findings of cafés included community-initiated culturally relevant/grounded/reflective processes (i.e., poem reading, testimonials, prayer offerings) as well as noted power imbalances (i.e., organizational staff’s actions that silenced/restricted community voice/input). Initial working group meetings also introduced challenges including participation withdrawal of community members and the need to designate intentional space for processing triggered traumatic CWS experiences.

Conclusions/Implications: Findings highlight the utility of cafés as a promising method for engaging African American families in co-decision making related to system transformation. While cafés worked to create a safe space whereby African American participants felt heard and listened to, the dynamics of the working groups were more challenging. Subsequent working groups must intentionally attend to power imbalances. The ways in which the information gleaned from the cafés was used to inform the direction, implementation and evaluation of family and system-focused strategies will be discussed.