'I am striving to help contribute to safe and supportive communities where all our young people are able to thrive'

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Jomella Watson-Thompson, associate professor of applied behavioral science and director of the Youth Violence Prevention Center – Kansas City, a project affiliated with the KU Life Span Institute

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

I identify as a community-engaged scholar and a researcher, which means that it's important to think about how we can contribute to problem solving, not just nationally, but also within our own local communities.

Community-engaged research provides an opportunity to think about how do we support research through campus and community collaborations and partnerships. And really, there's a continuum of community-engaged research all the way from place-based research, where we want to ensure that we're contributing to communities of place, all the way to oftentimes what people refer to as community-based participatory research, where we are actively engaged with our partners in communities to contribute to problem solving as identified by the community to address issues that matter most. In the strongest form, community-engaged scholarship, or community-engaged research, it's informed first by the community, as identified by what's important as a value. Secondly, the community is involved in helping to identify and develop the intervention and what gets done, how it gets supported, and the ways it gets implemented. There are reciprocal feedback loops, so that the research or the effort is not just of value in informing the researcher perspective, but it's also of as much value to the community, which is necessary to ensure the sustainability and the adoption of community interventions over time. 

What does your research look like? What methods do you use? 

For over a decade, I've had the opportunity to engage in violence prevention research, through evaluative research on community-level violence prevention, to now youth violence prevention, where we're both supporting evaluation research, but also direct intervention work.

From a public health perspective, how do we think about addressing the issue of violence as we would a contagion? And so in that regard, it's thinking about how do we gather data from oftentimes an epidemiological perspective. How do we think about how we're partnering with our health department, and others who are looking at leading causes of death, and taking the same approach for what we then do to intervene? It means we're focused on outcomes at the level of the population. We want every young person to stay alive, but are we seeing the impacts at the level of a community or a neighborhood? And so we're looking at it, broadly speaking, but more than that, we're also thinking about what are the contributing factors that are related to this population-level health problem. 

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work? 

Currently, I'm a resident of Kansas City, Kansas. Kansas City is the community in which I'm presently raising my children. A couple of decades ago, now, the Center for Community Health & Development made a commitment to ensure that we're having impact, nationally and globally, and most importantly also at the local level. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas and the world? 

One example is I currently lead the Youth Violence Prevention Center – Kansas City (YVPC-KC), which is one of five National Centers of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. ThrYve (Together Helping to Reduce Youth Violence for Equity) is a comprehensive model that is really based upon what we know, in regard to a multidisciplinary approach to youth violence prevention. It integrates approaches from behavioral community psychology, from prevention science and from public health, in order to really think about how do we contribute to addressing risk and protective factors that might contribute to, in this case, youth violence prevention.

We work through what we call a Systems Advisory Board, as well as in partnership with the Youth Advisory Board. The Systems Advisory Board is a coalition that convenes over 40 partners across 13 sectors or areas of our community that have come together for over five years to think about how we contribute to positive change and improvement. They're moving what we call change levers, which are those programs, policy and practice changes that can help to strengthen the environment, our community. 

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

There are two components that are salient to our comprehensive approach —and that's thinking about supporting youth violence prevention and intervention programming, both in the schools and in the hospital, which are two settings where young people may be, particularly if they have elevated risk for violence perpetration or victimization. So let's start with our school-based components. When we first started in the schools, about five years ago, it was very important both to the school district as well as to the partner schools at that time that we worked with them to develop an intervention or a program that could be sustained and maintained within the context of serving the students and youth.

For instance, at Wyandotte high school, we become integrated within their Human Public Service Academy, which is one of the career pathways and academies. And we work very closely with the teachers and the instructors to support peer mediation approaches. Our staff train both teachers and students to effectively mediate at the peer level. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

My background prior to behavioral science was urban planning and neighborhood development. I remember as an undergrad reading in a textbook, making real improvements in people's lives. Ultimately, at that moment, I wanted to be able to contribute to doing that in whatever career pathway I took. After coming to the University of Kansas for graduate school, I found community-engaged scholarship — through the integration of research, teaching and service — was a way to be able to contribute to improvements in neighborhoods and communities through a behavioral community perspective, based upon work at that time with the Center for Community Health & Development. And so for me, when we think about neighborhood or community development, our best indicator is the development and trajectory of our youth. So what became pretty salient in my research, and the approach I take to neighborhood and community development, has been youth development, which includes adolescent substance abuse prevention, and youth and community violence prevention. 

I found my way to youth violence prevention as the underlying conditions for problems and the goals to be addressed for neighborhood development, such as education, employment, access to resource are often pretty interrelated. And so If we want to be able to assure conditions in which all people, including youth, are able to thrive and succeed into adulthood, that means we have to also look at the factors or the barriers, at times, that may prevent that. And so in that regard, what led to “why” youth violence prevention is because if we want to prevent youth violence, we have to consider not just the individual factors, but also the environmental factors in which our young people live, work, play and congregate.