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University research geared toward American Indian health disparities

Over the next five years, University researchers will team up with community partners to combat health disparities prevalent in urban American Indian populations.

The research project received a $1.9 million grant awarded to the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Institute.

The SIRC is located on the Downtown campus and specializes in health disparities research and training.

The funding comes from the National Institutes of Health and will be used to address problems like substance abuse and risky sexual behavior among American Indians living in Arizona cities by developing specific curriculum for parents to educate their youth.

The grant was awarded to the SIRC on Sept. 30.

The SIRC has teamed up with the Phoenix Indian Center, the Valley’s largest community center for urban American Indians, along with related centers in Tucson and Flagstaff.

Arizona has the second largest urban American Indian population, SIRC officials said.

The research methods involved are unique within the University and serve as a departure from what researchers and community leaders call the “ivory tower” approach, where data and information found rarely leads to helping the community.

The method is called community-based participatory research, the notion of directly involving participants of the research with the benefits of the collected information, in this case, the community centers that will develop specialized curriculum based on the data.

Phoenix Indian Center CEO Patti Hibbeler said that without the grant, the research would be slowed immensely and would not have allowed for the number of participants currently involved.

Stephen Kulis, SIRC’s director of research and a professor in the School of Social and Family Dynamics, said there are currently 720 American Indian parents involved.

The center is working directly with researchers comprised of staff drawn from sociology, American Indian studies and social work programs across the University.

The findings will help community leaders “teach parents how to communicate with their youth on drug and alcohol prevention and other unwarranted behaviors,” Hibbeler said.

“Learning how to strengthen urban American Indian families is one of the best ways to help protect their children from substance abuse and risky sexual behavior,” Kulis said, adding that reducing health disparities associated with those problems is at the heart of the research.

Debra Friedman, dean of the College of Public Programs, emphasized the importance of the community-based initiative in producing useable information for urban American Indian populations.

“One, we will have a much better understanding [than research without community involvement],” Friedman said. “Secondly, the intervention programs that result from the research are far more effective because of it.”

Flavio Marsiglia, director of the SIRC, said the desire to research the health disparities of urban American Indians came directly from conversations with the local communities.

“We will collect all of the information and say, ‘now we can package it into an intervention,’ and that this money we received will allow us to see that the intervention is truly effective,” he said.

American Indian center personnel will be trained by researchers on the best methods to implement those techniques to children and also children with their parents.

“We will be able to follow up with them over time,” Marsiglia said. “By having a five-year long award, we can follow up with the same children to reassure that something really happened and that the change is maintained over time.”

Marsiglia described the response from American Indian families as very positive.

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