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Doctoral Student's MCH Project Underscores the Significance of Community-Led Research Initiatives

Sammy Shuster headshot

November 16, 2023

Samantha (Sammy) Shuster is a second-year student in the DrPH program in the Department of Health Management and Policy. Prior to starting the doctoral program, Sammy worked at the Maternal, Child & Family Health Division at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. In her role as a community coalition manager, Sammy coordinated the Community Action Network working with community members that were pregnant or had recently given birth to create and pilot collaborative programs.

"This project has solidified that whatever work I do will involve community-led research." - Sammy Shuster

Sammy received a mini grant from the Drexel Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Program to support her MCH workforce development project with the Newborns and Neighbors program.

The Newborns and Neighbors program is a community-driven participatory research pilot embedded in a partnership between the Philadelphia Maternal and Infant Health Community Action Network (CAN) and the Dornsife School of Public Health. The program, which originated from the CAN’s Holistic Mental Health Workgroup, trains perinatal peer support workers to provide practical and emotional support to Black and Latinx mothers and birthing people during their first six weeks postpartum. The pilot itself, as well as all program and research activities (e.g., training and research protocols, budgeting, hiring, etc.) were developed through participatory processes by mothers and birthing people with lived experience, who are core members of the pilot team.

The MCH Program spoke with Sammy to learn more about her experience with this project.

What did you do on the project? What products did you produce?

At the time I joined the project, the funding for the first iteration of the pilot had ended so I worked with the collective to determine new ways to extend the project. This included finding grants and determining iterations of the project, such as support during pregnancy as phase one and postpartum support as phase two, that could align with funding cycles. Additionally, I worked with the collective to identify the most important components of the program and those components that could be revised to help move the program forward.

Through conversations with peer support workers, who were also new moms/parents, I worked with the group to identify additional support that they needed. It was decided a culturally responsive therapist could provide emotional support to the peer support workers, as well as to the pregnant and birthing people receiving peer support, and I helped create the job description for the therapist role.

I also worked with the group to develop an abstract to submit for the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting.

What did you learn from the experience?

One lesson I learned which I am applying in my current role is the importance of improving the funding processes for community projects by large government and academic institutions. It was unfair that the peer support workers had this important work put on hiatus after the first iteration of the pilot, because of severe delays in contract and grant funding processes. Contract and grant funding mechanisms and processes that are timely, equitable, and fair to community members and community groups are necessary.

There was an incident where a peer worker’s benefits were impacted by their income from the peer support worker role. It highlighted the need to have a person, like a benefit counselor, to help community members identify and understand how this income may impact their benefits and make an informed decision about being a peer support worker with the program.

I also learned about true collaboration with community members. I met weekly with people with lived experienced to talk about the project. The program was co-created with community members included in all aspects of the planning from developing and leading training efforts and being trained in research practices.

How did the experience augment your training experience at Dornsife?

I learned about community-based participatory research (CBPR) in my research course, but this project increased my knowledge of CBPR. This project provided actual experience with CBPR and how it works in real-life.

What are your future career goals? Did this project impact those goals?

I am unsure of what the future holds or my dissertation topic. I originally focused on maternal and child health and now I work in environmental justice. What I do know is that this project has solidified that whatever work I do will involve community-led research.

What advice would you give to current MCH students?

You may think you know based on data or what you’ve seen in your scholastic journey, but those in the community may have a different opinion of what is impactful. Include the voices of those impacted and obtain their feedback on what is really happening. Make sure the voices of communities are heard and that they have a seat at the table.

Learn more about Dornsife's MCH program and upcoming MCH events.

Dornsife's Maternal and Child Health Program is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit