Talk Will Explore Successful Research Partnership Grounded in Milwaukee’s Latino Community

By Jennifer A. Smith

Founded over 50 years ago, Milwaukee’s United Community Center/Centro de la Comunidad Unida (UCC) is a busy hub for the city’s Latino community, with programs and activities for everyone from babies to senior citizens. It is also home to a robust health research department, part of a decade-plus partnership between UCC and UW-Madison’s Collaborative Center for Health Equity (CCHE). CCHE is housed within the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, part of the School of Medicine and Public Health.

While research collaborations between universities and community organizations are often a “one and done”—or at least sporadic—effort, the partnership between UCC and CCHE has endured and flourished for a number of reasons. A key one is the presence of dedicated research ambassadors at UCC, who serve as important connectors between researchers and community members.

Those research ambassadors will talk about the partnership in a Zoom talk on Wednesday, Feb. 15 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Shary Pérez Torres, MPH, and Al Castro will present “Building a Successful Research Partnership with Community: Important Lessons from a Decade of Experience.” The talk is free and open to the public. (Find more details and register here.)

Headshot of Shary Perez Torres
Shary Pérez Torres, MPH

As Pérez Torres and Castro explained, the arrangement between UW-Madison and UCC began under the leadership of former UCC executive director Ricardo Diaz, who saw the benefits of research in terms of learning about the health of the community, offering programs to improve it and building organizational capacity. An official partnership was born in 2010.

Headshot of Al Castro
Al Castro

Says Pérez Torres, “The most important part (of the collaboration) is that the community has a voice, and the researchers learn how to communicate and work with the community respectfully, taking into consideration the cultural aspects of the relationship.”

Part of her and Castro’s work as research ambassadors involves guiding researchers who seek to engage with the Latino community, preferably as early in the process as possible. Pérez Torres, who has a master’s degree in public health, and Castro, who has been with UCC since 1994 and has a background in social work, can help them account for possible barriers while designing studies and understand nuances within the community, which includes people of different national origins, languages and educational backgrounds.

Their guidance includes big-picture thinking as well as individual details that can help or hinder a project’s success, like flyers to recruit research participants. The kinds of images and language used, where and when the research is taking place—all make a difference. “That’s feedback that we can give that will give researchers a better chance of having a successful kickoff” to their project, said Castro.

Castro and Pérez Torres can also connect researchers to organizations other than UCC, since not every project is a fit for them. Both are highly involved with the Milwaukee Latino Health Coalition, where they started a research committee.

In addition to helping researchers understand the community, Castro and Pérez Torres help the community understand the research process. Said Pérez Torres, “We explain the science behind the research and make them feel safe to ask questions. They may have questions and don’t know how to ask them. Being a part of the community ourselves allows us to build trust.”

Involvement in health research has brought a range of benefits for members of the local community, researchers and UCC as an organization, helping to grow its capacity, especially in areas like measuring outcomes and attracting additional funding. Since 2010, via UCC’s research ambassadors and its Health Research Program, UCC has been able to leverage about $2.4 million in new research or program development funding.

“The reason why they’ve been so successful is they’re very well organized,” said Susan Passmore, CCHE Senior Associate Director and Senior Scientist. “UCC has been very smart about growing their organization… they understand what research can do for them, and they have a lot of experience.”

Adaptation, not just translation

One success story is Pisando Fuerte, an adaptation of the evidence-based fall prevention program Stepping On. Pisando Fuerte is much more than a Spanish-language translation of an existing program. It is a culturally appropriate version for older Latino adults. On the University of Wisconsin side, this work was begun by Dr. Jane Mahoney; more recently, Dr. Maria Mora Pinzon has been leading the last stages of the research. The UCC team has been part of the adaptation process from the very beginning, serving on the advisory board tasked with identifying the elements needed to make the program culturally appropriate and feasible for organizations that serve Latino communities.

Making the program culturally appropriate involved creating a safe and welcoming environment for participants through music and other aspects. “There were a lot of things that were needed to make sure (seniors) felt like it was a program for them, for Latinos, and not like this is an English program that was just translated,” said Pérez Torres.

At the course’s end, a party with music, food and certificates of completion took place. Participants invited their families to the celebration. Follow-up evaluation revealed that most participants continued doing the exercises they learned, incorporating the balance and strength moves into their daily routines.

Moving community health forward

Critical to the partnership between CCHE and UCC is that it is respectful and mutually beneficial. For Castro, the research program has led to a deeper understanding of health issues in the community and the “upstream factors” that influence health disparities—which, in turn, leads to different kinds of planning. “We can use science to break some of those barriers”—disparities caused by structural racism—“and involve the community as participants or advisory board members or as research leaders,” said Castro.

As Pérez Torres noted, “If we’re not part of research, all the knowledge that we’re getting is not actually representative of what the community needs and what could actually affect—or not—the community. Little by little, people are starting to see the value of not just the research, but the systems change. We don’t want to stay in the same circle, we want to move forward.”


Register for the Feb. 15 talk by Al Castro and Shary Pérez Torres.

Learn more

You can also learn more in a journal article from Progress in Community Health Partnerships. Learn more about Pisando Fuerte here, in an article from BMC Geriatrics.