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Deep Roots of Public Engagement

Nancy Flowers

Director of Research Programs, CPRD

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With its focus on public engagement, the Center for Prevention Research & Development conducts research and evaluates data that result in improving lives and communities.

The Center for Prevention Research & Development (CPRD) has been improving lives and communities for nearly 35 years. Focusing on public engagement, the CPRD provides research and data evaluation, and these efforts span across five key content areas.

CPRD undertakes its research and evaluation efforts in early childhood development, healthcare for vulnerable populations, juvenile justice reform and prevention, teen pregnancy and STI prevention, and youth substance use prevention. That covers the entire age gamut and spans a wide array of issues.

All of those content areas and all of the issues within them have one thing in common, says Nancy Flowers, CPRD’s director of research programs.

“The common thread that ties all of our projects together is public engagement,” she says. “While our topics vary within the world of prevention and social services, our focus on applied research that informs and engages the public is really central to our work. Any project that we undertake has at its core the outcome of improving the health and well-being of communities, and the strategies and ways that we do that is through public engagement.”

Making Communities Stronger

Flowers gives a few examples of the ways that CPRD helps to improve the well-being of communities:

  • The biennial Illinois Youth Survey, a self-report survey administered in more than 800 schools across the state, providing the schools with information about health and social indicators, such as substance use, bullying, school climate, nutrition, and physical activity.
  • The Medicaid SUPPORT project, an evaluation of the Substance Use Disorder Prevention That Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment For Patients And Communities (SUPPORT) Act in Illinois (“The team analyzed the needs for expanding opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment by surveying Illinois residents, interviewing family members of individuals living with OUD, and interviewing medical doctors.,” Flowers says).
  • The Engaging Youth for Positive Change  (EYPC) program, which targets youths from ages 13-18 and facilitates their involvement in civic engagement, where they can learn, participate in, and change a local health-related policy—for example, regarding alcohol or tobacco use (“Students identify a need in their community and work with their local city council to present data and advocate for change,” Flowers says).

“Some of our other projects are focused on continuous policy improvement,” Flowers adds. “So, we’re working with agencies that deliver services to communities and helping them to collect data to understand what’s working and what’s not and how they can best improve outcomes for children and families.”

All of these projects, she says, have public engagement or community impact at their roots. “Some are more public policy, some are more evidence-based practice, some might be informing state agencies on how to best utilize their funding and examine outcomes, but it’s all under that public policy umbrella,” Flowers notes.

Informing Partners and Providers

CPRD works with a variety of partners at the local, state, and national levels. A number of projects have come through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Education (CPRD receives no state funds). The Illinois Department of Human Services is a longstanding partner with the Center. Locally, the Center works with community agencies and prevention providers “as a research and evaluation arm to support their work,” Flowers says.

“One example is we house an online data system for juvenile justice, partnering with the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission,” Flowers says. “We collect and analyze data about youth in detention throughout the state’s 16 detention centers, and these data have been used to inform policy decisions.”

Those data, she says, have helped the commission advocate for not having children under the age of 12 in detention centers, but to look for other solutions instead.

“We’ve also done a statewide home visiting needs assessment and these data has been used regularly by state agencies over the past three years,” she adds. “The Department of Human Services used the data to help them identify the communities throughout the state that have the greatest need for home visiting, so that had a big impact on local funding for those communities, and the data also helped to raise home visitor salaries by 23 percent, which was great and really strengthens the home visiting workforce.”

Keys to Success

So, how does an organization maintain the high standard of relevancy and immediacy that CPRD has over the last 34 years?

“We have a really diverse staff in terms of educational background and professional experience,” Flowers notes. “And 10 of our 26-member staff have been her for more than 10 years.” (Flowers is the veteran of the crew; this is her 31st year with CPRD.)

“That really speaks to an environment that supports people’s growth,” she says. “We’re dedicated to engaging in activities to support people’s professional growth. And, being housed under the School of Social Work has helped us collaborate and connect with faculty members and students, who get hands-on research experience here.”

She notes one other factor that has helped CPRD remain the fresh and nimble organization that it is.

“Innovation has been a key to our longevity and our success,” she says. “We’re always open to new ideas, seeking out new technologies, implementing new methods, and we keep an eye on the field of prevention and social service-applied research so that we can adapt to what the field needs and what our funder needs.”

“We’re never satisfied with the status quo. We’re always looking for new ways to be innovative.”

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