CommNS Threads: Shannon Sparks, Civil Society and Community Studies

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The aim of CommNS Threads is to introduce the community to our affiliates, thus broadening their understanding of community engaged work. Welcome to our first installment featuring Shannon Sparks, Assistant Professor in Civil Society & Community Studies in the School of Human Ecology and in the American Indian Studies Program.

Shannon recently was awarded one of the 2017 UW–Madison Community–University Partnership Awards to recognize her longstanding community-academic partnership with the Milwaukee Consortium for Hmong Health. Here we talk with Shannon about her experiences partnering with this organization to address health disparities affecting the Hmong population and her overall thoughts on advancing social change as a university-based scholar.

Interview Questions

In the CommNS, we talk about “inquiry and action for social change.” How does inquiry and action in your work help you realize the changes you hope to see in the world?

I can’t imagine doing one without the other, because if we’re going to achieve change, we have to know what’s already going on in a community. We need to have a good sense of what that community’s priorities are, what they want to see happen. We find that out through inquiry; we ask what happened before we got there. For me, it’s never enough just to get to that point – we must also make change. It can be very cyclical, so it’s not just a period of one and then the other, but rather a cycle of one informing the other.


What is a misconception about the field you work in that you’d like to address? Or what do you wish people knew about your field of work?

I’m a very strong believer that when you’re working with populations where there are disparities — minorities, underserved communities, immigrants, refugees — going back to that sustainable change point, we need to be very sensitive to the local culture and beliefs to that community. Just because something worked with one population doesn’t mean it will work with the next. Instead, we might take what has worked and see if it’s a good fit, and likely still adapt it to that new local community. The best work that we do is culturally relevant and in some ways, community-specific. That’s not to say that ideas and approaches can’t go across different communities, but it’s never going to look exactly the same.

Particularly in the health world, there’s a large emphasis on evidence based approaches, but sometimes it can lead to trying to take such an approach, not at all customized, to a community and assuming it will work. For example, I do a lot of work in the realm of cancer, so part of what we do a is cancer education, such as screening tests. But in some communities, there’s a lot of concern, perhaps with more traditional individuals, that talking about cancer may invite it into existence. So you may have this wonderful intervention around educating a community about breast cancer, but if you don’t know that about the community and you just bring this intervention in without considering specific beliefs, it’ll fail because people might not want to listen to your presentation. From their perspective, they may be putting themselves at greater risk rather than arming themselves with education.


What do you do in this situation?

One thing we’ve done is use people from the local community, maybe in a health educator position. You also might not directly use the word, but talk around the topic, where you’re not saying the word “cancer” but you’re talking about this type of disease and about screenings in a less threatening way. It can also be successful to have survivors in the community to come in and talk about their experiences. In some cases, it might be community leaders or spiritual leaders — people who have a respected role — saying that this is something really important even if it’s frightening to discuss. There are many avenues to take, and the way to discover them is by engaging with the community, and having them engage in problem solving.


What do you wish Wisconsinites knew about the Hmong community in our state, specifically in the healthcare realm?

One thing that often surprises a lot of people is that Wisconsin is the only state where the Hmong population is the largest subgroup of Asian-Pacific Islanders in the state. In every other state, it’s a different racial subgroup. We’re unique from that perspective. We also have nationally the third largest Hmong population, and it’s also the most spread out. Something I wish more people knew is that when we’re looking at health disparities, there’s this belief that everyone that’s not white have worse health outcomes, except for Asians. They have this reputation as being healthy, and in some ways healthier than whites at some level. And if you look at overall statistics, that pans out. But if you look at some of these smaller ethnic populations that get lumped in, like the Hmong, they have much worse health outcomes. Populations like the Hmong, their health disparities get masked in this ethnic minority subgrouping within the “Asian” group. So when we say that African Americans need health resources, but Asian don’t, then the Hmong don’t get the necessary resources.


What do you see as the most important change nationwide in order to stop injustice in health?

Well that’s the 24 million dollar question, isn’t it! I would make the argument that if we want to see health injustices eliminated, we need to go very far back, and look at injustices in health, in community, and in education. Health is a downstream outcome, but the routes are way upstream – we’re talking about economic disparities, and investment in community more broadly. Investment in education for everyone. I would say that, if we want to address health inequity, we need to look at those upstream roots cause.


What is the social change you want to see in the world?

I want our society and its citizens to view every person as having an equal value and being worth equal investment. I believe if we could do that, many of these problems that we have would eventually disappear. 

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