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"Storytelling is a Key Technique"
To learn more about maternal health care in Robeson County, Kate LeMasters and her colleagues spent months listening to new mothers discuss the challenges they face and the supports they need. LeMasters, a third-year PhD candidate in the School of Public Health, has a deep interest in how women navigate the stresses of motherhood.
“We were trying to understand their day-to-day lives raising children in that community,” LeMasters said. “Learning about the gaps in service and the strengths in terms of community support.”
Now, with funding from Southern Futures, LeMasters and her team are doing something all too rare in academia. They’re taking their findings back to Robeson County for a series of focus groups with those same women and their health care providers, asking whether the team's recommendations make sense and how they might be implemented to improve lives and health outcomes.
“We thought it was important to share what we’re learning with the moms themselves,” LeMasters said. “There’s a lot of research that’s been done in these communities and on these communities without their input. And we really want to share back what we’ve heard and see if it resonates.”
Building long-term relationships with community partners is the best way to ensure real impact for public health work, LeMasters said. Issuing a report and sharing findings within the academic world is worthwhile and necessary, but the true value comes from gaining trust and relying on community guidance to improve conditions on the ground.
“From the start, we worked with the community to come up with research questions and focus on what they’re interested in,” LeMasters said. “Now we’re building space for them to tell us when something is not working, or something is moving too quickly. Making sure they have ownership over the work.”
Storytelling was a key technique of LeMasters’ initial work in Robeson County. A group of new mothers in the region came up with weekly prompts about their experience — “Where do I get my stress and support?”, for instance — and took photographs that captured their reactions. They came together as a group and discussed the different images they assembled, while public health researchers listened in to learn about the health infrastructure in the community.
“We got some really amazing insights from these moms,” LeMasters aid. “And we learned that they really valued the process, liked having a place where they could talk and be heard. It was not meant to be a support group, but it kind of turned into one.”
That became one of the key recommendations from the research — that mothers need a supportive setting where they can talk about their shared experiences and build lasting connections to health providers and to one another.
The project also revealed a pressing need for better mental health infrastructure in the county. Many of the mothers in LeMasters’ study said they were reluctant to speak with doctors or nurses about mental health, for fear that they’d be reported or considered unfit to care for children. “It was a big taboo,” LeMasters aid. “They felt like they couldn’t really share with their nurses because they’d be worried about the ramifications.”
With Southern Futures funding, all of those issues will get discussed in focus groups with mothers and health care professionals in the county, an effort to come up with solutions in partnership with the community.
“It’s not just about outcomes,” LeMasters aid. “Relationship building matters for its own sake.”