By DeJuan Patterson, MPA

Who Am I & Who I Represent

I, DeJuan Patterson, am a Baltimore-based advocate and credible messenger. Credible messengers are trusted neighborhood leaders, experienced community advocates, and individuals with relevant life experiences whose role is to help community members transform attitudes and behaviors around a public issue.  I leverage my unique experience as a grassroots leader and government affairs professional to address public issues in my city because I am a Baltimore native with a history of frontline advocacy. My personal journey following my own experience with gun violence taught me the importance of having a voice and developing my own agency as it relates to one’s medical treatment and recovery. As a credible messenger and advisor, I have demonstrated the importance of agency and capacity building within communities. For the last five years, I have brought my experiences and skills to the PATIENTS Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore. I serve as a community partner (they call me a “PATIENTS Professor”) to assist my academic partners with empowering individual community members to be equal partners in patient-centered health care and research.

Why Use the Credible Messengers Approach?

Partnerships between credible messengers and institutions attempting to solve public issues is relatively new; however, we have seen positive outcomes in research, public health, and safety in just a few years. Credible messengers who live in the community have illustrated that we come from similar circumstances and demonstrate integrity and transformation. Place-based initiatives are more successful when they are co-developed by those living in the “place.”

Credible messengers working in tandem with traditional institutions are important because when a credible messenger is involved, residents are more inclined to feel safe, respected, included, and follow the credible messenger’s guidance. This collaborative process (called Community-Based Participatory Research, CBPR) can strengthen the quality of data and empower residents to use that data to improve their communities. Building up the CBPR model, it is important to move towards Community Engaged Research, a process that incorporates empowerment of community and recognition of the expertise of community via compensation.

Maintaining a relationship with credible messengers within this community-academic partnership can lead to:

  • Authentic conversations and data gathering;
  • Increased agency & advocacy by community members;
  • Enhanced institutional research effectiveness and reputation;
  • Community health benefits; and
  • Saved lives

This Time, It Must Be Different

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first public health crisis, nor will it be the last, but this time it must be different. Providing people with the right tools (information) to make informed decisions on their own behalf instead of broadcasting as an institution what people should do leads to better decisions and a commitment to follow through on the decision. I am currently advising on a project that invites the community to join the conversation on how to craft language and communications about COVID-19 testing during this crisis. This project is funded by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and our approach to engaging the community in the conversation involves myself and two other credible messengers. Our success in recruiting participants from six underrepresented populations using a virtual platform for research underscores the benefit of a credible messenger approach. Instead of placing an academic spokesperson who “looks like the community” in front of the community and expecting that spokesperson to inherit instant trust and credibility because of their race, the PATIENTS Program with the FDA chose to collaborate with credible messengers. We don’t just look like our community; we are our community.

This Partnership Is Different

As a credible messenger, I was willing to partner with the PATIENTS program and the FDA during the current COVID-19 crisis because of my personal experience with family members being impacted by this crisis and my history of collaboration and partnership with the PATIENTS Program. I have maintained relationships with the program and its leader, Dr. Daniel Mullins, and was accustomed to keeping them informed about current issues in my community. Our consistent communication over the years has been bidirectional and mutually beneficial. As a result, we find alignment for relevant community health research that improves public health and were already poised to collaborate on our current project with the FDA on communication with Black and Brown Communities during this public health crisis. 

Some benefits of our partnership are:

  • Increased trust of our community-academic partnership
  • Greater community understanding of the risk of undesirable health outcomes
  • Equitable return on investment with direct benefits and funding for the community
  • Respect of cultural differences and values
  • Creating credible data even during a crisis

Lastly, but importantly, we learned that remaining flexible when talking about emerging issues that may be uncomfortable or require pivoting was vital throughout the process. As trusted members of the community, credible messengers must avoid eroding our community trust. We need to understand and remember that we are taking individual risks for the collective benefits. Moreover, we must accept that there will be questions of integrity and uncomfortable situations between our community and us while navigating difficult conversations unless we do the following call to action.

Call To Action

It cannot be emphasized enough; putting someone who looks like the community but is not of the community forward as an alternative to using a credible messenger does not work. Throughout public health engagement history, we have consistently witnessed the hiring and promotion of celebrity spokespeople instead of relevant credible messengers. This approach can no longer be utilized because it is blatantly offensive and an insult to the communities’ intelligence. We can see through the façade and appointment of celebrities as a for-hire carrot of credibility. For the sake of public health, we can longer afford to take these convenient shortcuts because:

  • It’s offensive
  • It results in erosion of public trust amidst a crisis
  • It prolongs the public crisis and threatens public health
  • It has negative future implications when more participatory research and action is needed

I acknowledge the past declarations of institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion; however, this time must differ. The time is now to repair community and institutional partnerships that restore trust and increase health equity. To demonstrate this time is different, I am requesting that institutions and practitioners establish more bidirectional learning with communities, especially communities of color. There should be intentional investment and actions that promote the collaboration of credible messengers that value communication before action is implemented on our behalf without us.

Disclaimer: The project for which I currently serve as a Consultant is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $300,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents of this publication are those of the author, Mr. DeJuan Patterson, and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

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