Lula Mae Phillips, MDiv, MEd, RN, has enjoyed a significant career as an educator, pastor, and registered nurse. As the Community Engagement & Research Manager for the Weill Cornell Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC), she presents a public face for the CTSC in many of its front-line interactions with diverse groups of constituents across the New York City (NYC) area, with a special emphasis on working with faith-based organizations. She has experience as a Clinical Research Coordinator with Hunter College, as a member of the nursing faculties of York College and Long Island University, and as a former Director of Nursing at Willoughby Nursing Home. She received her Master’s degree in Divinity from Alliance Theological Seminary and her Master’s in Education from Teacher’s College.
With this background, it is unsurprising that Rev. Phillips is drawn to community outreach. In her work, she seeks to identify opportunities to connect the CTSC’s significant resources with the needs of community stakeholders. Thanks to her efforts, she has helped grow the CTSC’s Heart-to-Heart Community Outreach Campaign and Community Interactive Videoconferencing (CIVIC) programs, both of which seek to connect underserved NYC communities with essential health information and resources through health fairs, videoconferencing events, and other activities. She also serves as a liaison between the CTSC’s Community Engagement and Research component and the Cornell University Cooperative Extension-NYC (CUCE-NYC), which, for more than 50 years, has served as a hub for community participation and education for NYC’s ethnically, racially, and age-diverse populations.
According to Rev. Phillips, community outreach succeeds by building rapport and trust with a community, through cultural competence, listening, and a willingness to learn from each other, leading to opportunities for collaboration and partnership. “You have to be in tune to a community’s culture, its economics, and concerns,” she explained. “You have to be keenly aware that your understanding or interpretation of an interaction may not necessarily be what someone is actually trying to convey.”
Cultural competence is an especially critical skillset in a population as diverse as NYC’s. “Whether you’re working with an African-American church, Hasidic, or Latino—really any—group, it’s important to keep in mind the different expectations, experiences, and values of that group. For example, some communities don’t want certain kinds of medical intervention. Being aware of that is not only a sign of respect, helping to build trust, but also a powerful way of maximizing the impact of your health message. You don’t want to lose someone you’re trying to help by not recognizing these differences.”
Rev. Phillips also emphasized the importance of reciprocity. “When I go and make an assessment of a new potential community partner, I try to get a better understanding of what’s going on in the community, in the church or institution, and how much the organization is really willing to invest in this relationship. For example, when we bring our Hands-Only CPR CIVIC program to a non-English speaking community, I ask that our community partner always provide at least one volunteer who speaks the language. That shows a commitment from the partner, and of course, helps us make sure we’re communicating effectively with attendees.”
A barrier to community outreach work is often the time it takes to build the relationship, but that investment is essential in Rev. Phillips’ mind. “If you don’t take time to build the relationship, whatever you’re trying to build doesn’t work,” she argued. Another significant challenge has been to foster community participation in research, not only as subjects, but also as stakeholders and investigators. Rev. Phillips seeks to facilitate community involvement by making herself available as a consultant for community-based researchers. “It’s about helping a community member get over that initial suspicion about whether someone will really help them do this.” Fortunately, the growing interest in community-based research has meant more partners have emerged from within the CTSC consortium who are interested in helping to translate the research process in a way that will engage the community.
Rev. Phillips sees a distinct connection between her pastoral and nursing work in community outreach. “Both require being able to listen, to hear what people are saying, and what they’re not saying,” she said. “When I’m talking to a community about healthcare, I’m being a nurse, even if it’s in a church. At the same time, when I’m talking about community health, faith and spirituality come into play. As a pastor, I’m sensitive to caring for the ‘woundedness’ of human beings, and as a nurse, I see how that ‘woundedness’ translates into health situations they might find themselves in. Sometimes people don’t understand their own needs, and part of nursing is to shut up and listen.”
To learn more about the CTSC’s Community Engagement and Research component, visit here.