Researcher Spotlight on Mara Decker, DrPH

Mara Decker, DrPH

What are you thinking about?
I’m thinking about how to best authentically engage youth and communities in the design, implementation, and evaluation of projects.

Why is this interesting to you?

Too often, programs are implemented by “experts” without actually finding out what the priorities are of the youth (or communities) we’re trying to serve, who are the actual experts in their own lives. The more these programs can be designed by youth, the more likely they are to resonate.

What are the practical implications for healthcare and health policy?

Sustainability and effectiveness. If a community actually values the new program/intervention/policy, it is more likely to continue or institutionalize it than if it sees it as yet another short-term research project external to their needs.  And, if that program or policy actually responds to their needs, the expectation is that you would see improved outcomes.

How do the things you are thinking about pertain to the challenges facing the world today?

Engaging and empowering youth is critical for their own personal decision-making as well as to address some of today’s most significant challenges. Youth can be such a source of energy and innovation – this world needs them now and in the future to make a more just and equitable society. Their passion inspires me in my own personal and professional efforts.

How do you see this work building from your previous work, or from previous collaborative endeavors?

My current work builds on the lessons learned and best practices from many other projects and collaborators. We are incorporating some of the practices to better connect clinical services with sexual health education that Claire Brindis has championed for decades, weaving in my commitment to health equity and human rights, and partnering with local stakeholders who are dedicated to promoting positive youth development.

Our new project, Promoting Optimal Health for Rural Youth, is a three-year initiative in rural Fresno County federally funded by the Office of Population Affairs. We’re excited to continue to collaborate with Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission and to begin partnering with the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools as well as local school districts, parent groups, and adolescents. While we are building on some of our previous activities in the county around adolescent sexual health education, we are expanding this to include professional development opportunities for school staff, training to help clinics become more youth-friendly, and supporting parents to build communication skills. This is a great opportunity to implement youth-centered design processes as well as systems-thinking at the community level.