Why Research is Personal
LINNEA EITMANN, PHD, MPH | RESEARCH MANAGER
In the world of public health, research is often thought of as a distant and impersonal part of the work: community outreach workers, health educators, and social workers are out building relationships in the community, and researchers are at their desks crunching numbers. Truth be told, I spend my share of time writing and analyzing data. However, in my experience, research is a deeply personal part of the work we do in public health. As a researcher, I have asked strangers questions that I wouldn’t ask some of my closest friends. Research requires trust and understanding.
One of the things that initially drew me to the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES) was how central community is to how IWES approaches research. When implemented with a lens of fairness and justice, research is a great equalizing force; it is one space where everyone’s truths carry equal weight. It also creates a space for people to voice their opinions and needs in ways, and to audiences, that they may not otherwise have an opportunity to reach. Accurately representing that voice is the most important part of my job.
My first project with IWES was a collaboration with the Louisiana Public Health Institute to do a statewide survey of parents on their attitudes towards sex education in schools. We included a battery of questions from similar surveys that had been administered in other states: did parents want sex education in schools, what topics did they want covered in sex education programs, and what issues were they most concerned about for their youth? I conducted phone interviews with parents to test an early version of the survey. In each interview, after I completed the survey questions, I asked parents more general questions about what issues related to sex and relationships were coming up with their young people: what did they know as parents that we needed to know as researchers?
I was surprised by how open parents were about their experiences navigating sexual health issues with their children. Concern about young people’s access to technology and social media was almost universal. Even the most conscientious and tech savvy parents felt like they couldn’t fully control what their children saw and sent over their phones and the internet. The survey later found that three out of four parents think access to pornography on computers, tablets and cell phones is a major problem facing Louisiana youth, but parents felt alone in tackling this issue, and expressed shame for not being better able to shield their children. In Louisiana, there can be such a taboo around sex, especially around issues related to young people. In parts of the state, those opposed to sex education have been very vocal to schools and lawmakers. Parents who support sex education in schools can feel like they are in the minority and feel powerless to express their opinions. The findings from our study can lend a voice to parents who may otherwise not speak up, so their perspective can be a part of the conversation about the sex education their children receive.
Our study found that 84% of Louisiana parents think sex education is an important part of school curricula, and 74% think that it should be required. For an individual it can be powerful to know you’re not alone, and for a community data can be a powerful voice for change. For me, this work provides a meaningful connection to my neighbors. After all, what is more personal than holding someone’s secrets, or being responsible for communicating a community’s voice?