Healing from Within

UMass center fosters health equity through community partnership
MOCHA leaders discuss the program at the UMass Center in Springfield, MA.

Poverty, discrimination, and lack of social support take a toll on well-being that’s hard to measure and even harder to alleviate. That is especially true for low-income African American men, a population that suffers disproportionately from chronic disease and poor health. To combat this disparity, the UMass Amherst Center for Community Health Equity Research (CCHER) is teaming with the Springfield, Mass.–based MOCHA (Men of Color Health Awareness) program to help develop stress-reduction strategies to promote better health outcomes.

"We live in a time when,

for good reason, many

communities around the

country have lost faith in

institutions."

- Louis Graham

MOCHA began as a grassroots program for black men to share experiences of stress stemming from gender-role pressure and associated issues such as violence, depression, incarceration, and substance abuse. Through a multiyear, NIH-funded study, CCHER researcher and UMass Amherst public health professor Louis Graham is working alongside MOCHA’s director and with colleagues in the departments of health promotion and policy and psychological and brain sciences and UMass Medical School to test an expanded program that introduces digital storytelling, field activities, and community activism. In addition to completing interviews and surveys, participants are measured for stress-related biomarkers such as blood pressure, BMI, and levels of the hormone cortisol, providing much-needed longitudinal data on stress disparities and intervention effectiveness. 

What makes the study unique is that its content is driven primarily by the community itself: residents designed interview questions and weighed in on research methods, and the men built a bank of coping strategies based on their own stories. “This program wasn’t developed by researchers,” says Graham. “It was started by a group of community members who were concerned about men’s health.” Graham believes this is key to long-term success for participants and to the program’s future as a potential model for communities nationwide.

“We live in a time when, for good reason, many communities around the country have lost faith in institutions. People no longer accept the notion that highly educated elites know what’s best for them—and they shouldn’t,” says Graham.

“Designing research that truly reflects what’s happening within the community and developing solutions to address disparities can only happen by working alongside the communities that will take up those solutions,” he adds. “You may not believe some nameless, faceless person, but you will believe your own work.”

Top photo: MOCHA leaders meet with UMass Amherst program manager Jeffrey Markham, Jr. (second from left) at the UMass Center in Springfield, MA.

Center for Community Health Equity Research

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