Listening, Learning & Doing Better

2020/2021 IOG Report
Insights from the IOG's Newest Assistant Professor
Dr. Leach in a WSU post-commencement
selfie with family and friends.

Dr. Carrie Leach is a little uncomfortable talking about her personal path to getting a PhD. "Can't we just concentrate on the programs I help to run and the services and resources they provide?" she asked. The work is certainly important (more on that later), but the story of Dr. Leach's rise from an uncertain high school graduate to an expert in health communication and community engagement is too unique and inspiring to skip.

In addition to her role as an assistant professor at Wayne State, Dr. Leach is the program manager of the Community Engagement Core of CURES, aka the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors, and adjunct faculty with WSU's Public Health Department. She has also been named co-director of Community Inclusion for WSU's new Center for Health Equity and Community Knowledge for Urban Populations (CHECK-UP) starting this fall. Dr. Leach has contributed to six publication and is first author of her most recent article on engaged communication in environmental health science in Applied Environmental Education & Communication.

Dr. Leach is passionate about the dissemination of science so people can use that information to make better informed decisions.  Detroiters are faced with a myriad of barriers to accessing information to protect their health including lack of devices to connect to information and one of the lowest internet connection rates in the nation. Her work aims to help residents and stakeholders advocate for a cleaner environment and better health.  "I want my work to address communication inequities that put disadvantaged people at an even greater disadvantage, because they can't get information they need to make informed decisions about how to cope with their environments," she said.

Winding Path to the PhD

How did this dynamo of hard work and engagement become a scientist?

From the time she graduated from high school in 1992, Dr. Leach has worked full-time.  "I didn't know anyone who went to college, my older sister didn't graduate from high school.  So when I achieved that, I didn't really know what was next." She enrolled at Schoolcraft College and finished an AA in liberal arts and then, thought, "Well, Madonna University, was right down the street and I moved so much as a child I hated the idea of being transient. By the time I got to high school I had already attended six different schools." Her night school "hobby" was funded by working full-time as a waitress, "I was always paying tuition as I went."

She successfully earned her BA in communication in 2004. A few years later, an older family member lost their job and enrolled in community college in the hopes that it would help improve their opportunities for finding work. "I realized if I was going to work another thirty years, I'd better find something that provided more security. And since I also wanted to sleep well at night, I had to feel good about what I was doing."

Dr. Leach enrolled in the Master of Public Administration program at WSU. She wanted to work in non-profit and help people connect with services, programs, and resources that her family had benefitted from growing up. Her work history became a series of "accidental jobs and unplanned for opportunities."  Five years later in 2009 remember she's working full-time Dr. Leach earned her MPA and learned about a new research position at the IOG.

Her first big project was a collaboration between the IOG and the United Way of Southeastern Michigan to assess the needs of older adults in southeastern Michigan. Dr. Leach spent time transcribing the focus group interviews.  "What surprised me and I can still remember transcribing," Dr. Leach said, "was how frequently people said that they just needed someone to talk to. I would hear and type, 'I feel so alone.'" Here was the communication gap. The oldest old, outlived neighbors, friends and family. "No one said they wanted fewer interactions or connections, especially from age 75 up."

Late in life, many people no longer have the connections, skills or resources to access the people and information they need to stay healthy. Dr. Leach's dream of a PhD in health communication was born. The problem, Dr. Leach later learned while completing her dissertation, springs from "communication infrastructure disintegration" in late old age.

Applying to a doctorate program is serious business. If she committed, she had to be ready to see it through.  She talked with her husband, colleagues and doctoral students some tried to dissuade her before applying to only one program: WSU's Department of Communication.  Dr. Leach was accepted. She was able to build on her research experience while working with community stakeholders to complete a needs assessment in Monroe County led by the IOG's Dr. Thomas Jankowski. Ten years later, in 2019, Dr. Leach's dissertation, "Understanding the utilization of community-based services in late old age: A participatory approach for connecting through the communication ecology," earned her a doctorate.

Helping to Make Science Accessible for Others

The Community Engagement Core of CURES, that Dr. Leach manages, is dedicated to just that: engaging about 500 Detroit residents each year in face-to-face events (and thousands more in taped follow-ons and print materials) to discuss issues about and disseminate environmental health science.  The Core's Environmental Health Chats have tackled lead in the water, asthma and air pollution, garden soil contaminants and more. When COIVD-19 forced a pivot from in-person meetings, the team shifted to filling needs for masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectant, stress reduction, health information and digital exclusion. Dr. Leach has been at the forefront of that work.

The Core's current focal point is digital equity. Internet access is a "super-determinant" of health. It is the portal to health, economic and social resources, but Detroit has one of the nation's lowest internet connection rates. Are internet providers going to install wi-fi on a block with only one person? Can the rates ever be made affordable to low-income households? In the meantime, people park outside various sites throughout Detroit to take advantage of the free hotspot.  

"We have yet to appreciate the role that communication inequities play in health disparities," Dr. Leach said. "Addressing digital exclusion is one way to bridge the gap with Detroit residents so we can continue our work in environmental health literacy." The 1,700 laptops Dr. Leach's team provided recently to older adults in need came with simple help manuals and low-cost internet options.  She hopes to secure grant money for a second distribution of devices.

A Bright Future

The world is beginning to see what Dr. Leach realized years ago:

To change hearts and minds, to truly educate and improve health,
   we must engage people in research and science dissemination.

And we must listen, not lecture. Her expertise in community engagement and bi-directional communication to inform older adults is a major asset; most research centers now incorporate a community-engagement component. "Research is democratizing," she said. "I've been lucky to work at the IOG because I've had the experience of conducting research without silos and through partnerships. We're always asking how research can impact and benefit people, to help improve their lives. Grant applications are increasingly asking for community inclusion."

As a highly trained listener, Dr. Leach often cites the need for more dialogue with community organizations, advocacy and advisory boards, and to include the voices of older adults. She evaluates, follows-up with personal conversations, connects resources to recipients, all in the service of honing communication and improving outcomes. "I want to insure we're providing the information people need when they need it and in the format that works best for them." Dr. Leach worked for decades to reach this position of responsibility; she's not about to slow down now.

"Without health knowledge, it's hard to improve people's health," she said. "I know we can do better. We can do more to involve people in research, and their involvement is the only way research is going to solve health disparities. We can also do better to involve older people in research, who are our wisdom keepers and deserve to be heard."

2020/2021 IOG Report