Linda Silka Delivers Lecture on Evaluating Community-Engaged Research

In March, the department co-sponsored Linda Silka’s visit to campus, to deliver the Doris Slesinger Annual Lecture. This event honors the career of Doris Slesinger, professor of Rural Sociology from 1974 to 1998 and chair from 1987-1991. A social demographer, Doris’s research focused on the plight of marginalized populations. She is especially well known for her work on the health status of migrant farmworkers in Wisconsin. This lecture series honors Doris’s legacy of research in health and social justice, and aims to stimulate campus-wide discussion of the principles of community engagement that are enshrined in the Wisconsin Idea and institutionalized at the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.

silkaDr. Silka is the director of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine at Orono. A social and community psychologist by training, Silka has decades of experience leading community-university research partnerships on economic development and environmental health issues, with funding from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her approach treats community residents, students, and faculty as equal partners in the research, and uses techniques such as community mapping to address community concerns about environmental health, water quality, and community economic development. She teaches graduate courses in research ethics with underserved groups, applied research, program evaluation, geographic information systems, and grant writing, and consults with partnerships around the country on capacity building strategies in program evaluation and community-based research.

Silka is best known for her work in Lowell, Massachusetts, with the Southeast Asian Environmental Justice Partnership. Lying on the banks of the Merrimac River, north and west of Boston, the city of Lowell was one of the nation’s first hubs of industrial activity, and, not surprisingly, today bears a legacy of industrial contamination and decay. It is also home to the second largest community of Cambodian refugees in the United States. With NIH funding, Silka and her community partners brought people together to design an annual water festival. This became a forum to both express their common concerns about environmental health and water quality and an opportunity to heal long-standing patterns of discrimination and mistrust. The challenges in bridging these diverse communities were formidable. Organizers needed to reconcile the community to both the ugly history of the mills and to the stark history of the killing fields; the history of discrimination against immigrants by people who were once immigrants themselves; and the history of industrial contamination that grew out of the very innovations that placed the city on the map. By engaging communities patiently, deliberately, and respectfully, Dr. Silka’s team built a long-lasting coalition that has harkened to the shared importance of water in their cultural histories.

Dr. Silka also made time during her visit to host a workshop on how to evaluate community-engaged research. This half-day session was designed to give faculty members, graduate students, and academic staff investigators an opportunity to share their experiences working with community-based organizations throughout Wisconsin. Participants had a chance to discuss the barriers they have encountered in their campus-community partnerships and to share strategies for success. Margaret Nellis, who coordinates academic-community partnerships for the UW’s University Health Services, said, “I benefited so much from Linda Silka’s visit to our campus! Her work in assisting community members in Lawrence, MA to exercise control over what research would be conducted in their city was inspirational, and an important reminder that one size does not fit all, and there is no single best approach to designing a campus-community partnership. Linda was especially inspirational in encouraging the young scholars who attended the workshop to accept the challenge of developing this important work into the future.” We are grateful to Dr. Silka for visiting Madison and for sharing her expertise and passion for social justice and community health with us.

This event was co-sponsored by the Doris P. Slesinger Fund in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology, the Department of Family Medicine, the University Lectures Fund, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and the Collaborative Center for Health Equity.

Miss the lecture? Watch it on the SMPH’s IME video library website at:

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