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Featured Member

Marlynn MayMarlynn May, PhD is the Scholar in Residence for Community-Based Research at St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities, St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System, Houston, TX; Associate Professor in Social and Behavioral Health at the School of Rural Public Health, Texas A&M Health Science Center; and Associate Director of the Mexican American and U.S. Latino Research Center, Texas A&M University. Much of his professional career and personal commitments have been rooted in community-engaged scholarship and community development practice. His research and teaching interests include community-based participatory research, capacity building with community organizations, access to health care and public health with underserved communities and integration of community health workers into the mainstream public health workforce.

Marlynn currently represents St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities on the CCPH 15th anniversary conference planning committee.  The Charities is a major partner in the conference.

  1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
  2. Briefly, what is the mission of your organization/partnership?
  3. What do you most want people to know about it and the work that you do?
  4. What are you most passionate about in your work?
  5. What is the biggest challenge you face in your work? How are you working to overcome it? What keeps you motivated to do the work you do?
  6. What wisdom, tips or lessons learned in your work would you like to communicate to fellow CCPH members?
  7. If you could give advice to a policy maker, what would you say?
  8. Why did you join CCPH? What do you value most about the organization? How would you describe it to your colleagues?
  9. What strengths and talents do you bring to CCPH?
  10. What is your greatest hope for CCPH going forward? Ten years from now, what do you hope CCPH has achieved?
  11. How can interested readers contact you?

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I was raised in a small town in Nebraska. The town’s culture (and my family’s) was rooted in a commitment to serving others as you would be served, agreed upon as both theologically and socially ‘the right thing to do.’  Through high school, college, seminary and finally graduate studies in sociology, that commitment never escaped me; it carried right into my first academic appointment.  Within a semester of setting foot on campus, I was engaged in a community-academy collaboration.  Turns out I was doing various versions of action research, participatory action research and CBPR without fully realizing it.  Only later did I find a name to put on what I was doing.

 I never looked back.  For the first 28 years of my professional life, I was on what I considered to be a dream journey - teaching in a small, progressive, premier liberal arts college, working directly with students and community to make constructive education and social change happen, finding ways to make the community-academy partnerships come alive. And even better, I was supported and received credit for it from my academic colleagues and institution. I loved and thrived on that work; I believed I could do that forever. 

Then, bam, at year 29, the journey took a drastic turn.  My wife was offered a position at Texas A&M University and, together, we made the decision to move. I left behind academic tenure and a full professorship - aka ‘security’ - and jumped in.  The jump, it turns out, was opportunity. Over the 13 years since moving to Texas, I have had the privilege of learning, teaching, researching and working with underserved residents and communities in diverse places, including on the Texas-Mexico border doing community health development, teaching and advising budding public health professionals at the School of Rural Public Health, and now working in a community-based organization (St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities) devoted to eliminating health disparities through grant making, research and education. 

Each of those 41 years has focused and deepened my professional passion - teaching, learning, researching and acting for change always in partnership with community and academic colleagues. 

2. Briefly, what is the mission of your organization/partnership?

St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities (the Charities) is a community-centered, research informed, grant-making public charity in Houston, TX affiliated the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and a separate component of St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System.  It is the area’s largest faith-based charity focused on health.  Its mission is to “increase opportunities for health enhancement and disease prevention, especially among the underserved, and make possible measurable improvement in community health status and individual well-being.”

Research is central to the Charities’ mission and is manifested its own in-house Center for Community Based Research.  Research not only informs our grant making; it is at the heart of our programs to improve community and individual health and most important of all, it engages the communities with which it partners.

I hold the Wimberly Chair in Community Based Research at the Charities, and am a member of the faculty at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, School of Rural Public Health.  The focus of my work as a scholar in residence at the Charities is primarily to provide leadership for the development of the Center for Community Based Research and leadership with the Charities’ research team to write and publish (in a wide variety of venues) the research we do.   The primary focus of my comments here are on my work with the Charities, though that work is always informed and shaped by my having one professional foot in the academy.

3. What do you most want people to know about it and the work that you do?

At the Charities, capacity building and leadership development with community based organizations (CBOs) are core values and are embodied in multiple ways.  As a grant making organization, we can increase CBO’s financial capacities.  But it goes well beyond that.  Grantees are also encouraged to build leadership capacity and to increase their capacity to evaluate the work they do in communities.  On the grant making side, the Charities is beginning a strategic plan for creation of a Center for Collaborative Leadership in which a formal program of leadership development will be provided all grantees, and others as well.  This Center will be a companion organization to and collaborate with the Center for Community Based Research to improve the Charities grant making, research and education.

Because capacity building and community health development are at the core of what I believe and do in my teaching and in my community collaborations, the fit between the Charities and me is tight.  In fact, I was initially considered and selected as the recipient of the Wimberly Chair precisely because of a research capacity building program for CBOs I had developed in collaboration with the Paso del Norte Health Foundation in El Paso, TX.  That program is intended to be “a model designed to take the practice of participatory research deeper inside CBOs, with an intent to institutionalize CBPR-grounded research as an integral part of a CBO’s program and policy.”

4. What are you most passionate about in your work?

Democratizing teaching and learning!  Democratizing expertise!  Democratizing access to resources!  Capacity building!  all applied in my collaboration with colleagues in communities and academia.  As applied this means:

•     My goal, with students, inside and outside the classroom, is not just to teach them, but for us to learn and teach together,
•    My responsibility is to lead students to work with communities (where invited) to teach and learn with and from community residents and their expertise,
•    My privilege is to share my expertise with community residents and organizations with the goal of helping build their capacities to do research in and for their own communities, and
•    My enrichment is to learn form community residents’ expertise to better collaborate with them and others..

In joining the Charities, my democratizing and capacity building passions have found new opportunities, outlets and resonances.

5. What is the biggest challenge you face in your work? How are you working to overcome it? What keeps you motivated to do the work you do?

It is a challenge to find ways to genuinely integrate grant making and research.  Several challenge questions with which we wrestle are:

•    How do we practice the principles of CBPR in the context of an imbalance of power between potential grantees and the Charities?
•    How does the Charities’ research component strike a balance between qualitative and quantitative research methodologies in the context of CBPR?
•    How does the Charities help its grantees envision the value added when research and evaluation are incorporated within their own organizations?

On another front, but related, we are challenged to find effective ways of defining and communicating to our colleagues in academia and health-related grantmaking (like NIH) who we are and what we do.  How do we make transparent where we “sit” between the academy and community?  Are we a CBO as community residents and organizations think about community?  Are we researchers as the academy and traditional research funders think about research.

What we do, of course, seems pretty clear to us: we are a research informed grant maker; we conduct multiple kinds of research, increasingly grounded in mixed methods; we do health prevention education.  However, defining our “place” that outsiders quickly grasp is another story.  The Charities lives ‘betwixt and between.” We partner with academics and academic institutions to do community-based, community-centered research and education, yet we don’t live where normal researchers live.  At the same time, we with community organizations (primarily non-governmental organizations) to design and evaluate community health interventions, yet we don’t look like they do and we carry $$ signs on our foreheads.  Living betwixt and between, we have to work harder to make clear who we are and where we fit.

6. What wisdom, tips or lessons learned in your work would you like to communicate to fellow CCPH members?

Lesson Learned #1: ‘If you only do what you know you can do, you never do very much.’ Oh, how I have come to appreciate this adage throughout my career and particularly in the last 12 years.  It was terrifically hard to leave the academic institution with which I had “grown up” professionally and it took time to integrate those experiences not as past and done, but as preparation for something new.  There is value in a kind of personal and social entrepreneurship.  It generates change; change regenerates; regeneration equates to new depths of experience and meaning in life.  

And yet, just expressing this first lesson learned makes me acutely aware that personal and social entrepreneurship is deeply tied to social, economic, racial and cultural privilege.  Writing this in the spring of 2011 and a time of growing hardship, lost jobs, personal and social unease, I am aware that personal and social entrepreneurship seems increasingly distant because it is directly and deeply correlated with social, economic, racial and cultural privilege.  I have come to own the fact that I am one of those privileged in all four of those dimensions; in living with those privileges, they are kept well tempered by the roots of my nurturing - the commitment to serving others as you would be served.

Lesson Learned #2: “Live the principles of CBPR as the foundation of your own existence” and not just as some protocol created to remedy fractured community-academy relationships.  The principles are important because they are humane principles and can produce genuine humility and respect for others.  One lesson we’ve learned from the principles and from our community partners is a redefined meaning of “expert.”  Expertise is multifaceted and widely distributed.  That’s an especially difficult lesson for those of us in the academy to learn with all of our ascribed social and cultural status. The Charities, on the other hand, lives this understanding of expertise nicely.

7. If you could give advice to a policy maker, what would you say?

Truly listen to community in all its manifestations.  Policy should not be, but increasingly is, a product just of those with more money, more ‘voice,’ more visibility!

8. Why did you join CCPH?

I joined CCPH (though I probably didn’t fully realize the depth of this reason at the time) because it was an institutional context in which I could talk and learn about living the principles of CBPR in my professional, academy context.  The real value of CCPR was brought home to me by an experience following the 2007 CCPH conference in Toronto.  Jon, an El Paso community partner of several years, and I had, over time, engaged in many conversations/debates about various community perspectives on the academy and academics, some of which were quite critical of the academy.  The 2007 conference was Jon’s first.  Over the course of 3 days, he heard the academy and academics take a major load of criticism for the ways in which they have treated and continue to treat community residents and organizations. The next time Jon and I met in El Paso and were discussing Toronto meeting, he looked at me and said “Marlynn, I actually felt sorry for you and all the stuff you were taking as an academic.”  This from a guy who hadn’t exactly been gentle in his own criticisms.  This is what CCPH can do.  It provides a context of openness for honest exchange, all with an attitude of improving the work we do together!

9. What strengths and talents do you bring to CCPH?

Enthusiasm for what CCPH is and stands for.  I talk about CCPH all the time, better said, I talk it up all the time.  CCPH brings together the community and the academy in a way that no other organization I know of does.  It does it with a humility I mentioned above. 

It does it giving voice to so many “tough issues” that many of us don’t like to make public.

Working with CCPH staff and members to make CCPH a better organization, e.g. contributing to the inauguration of CES4Health.

10. What is your greatest hope for CCPH going forward?

I have three hopes for CCPH!

#1: I hope that CES4Health  takes off and becomes a major on-line publication.  Editor Cathy Jordan, and those whom she led, have done an amazing job of getting it off the ground.

#2: I hope CCPH finds new ways to get the word out by building creatively on new, web-based avenues of communication, in three ways, to reach more people, more effectively and efficiently.  First, I would especially like to see these new avenues used as a means of expanding our training.  I recently watched a promotional video using web-based tools that makes me believe this could be translated into a CCPH tool.  Secondly, we currently have the webinars and conference calls as a means of information transfer, which is great.  Using web enabled, interactive audio and video, I’d like to see CCPH take its message, its work, its philosophy and it’s consulting around the world.  This would allow us to reach more people in a more “personal” way, at less expense, even enable us to organize in new ways.  Third, using web enabled audio and video could be an avenue to forging new partnerships with existing, kindred organizations around the globe, e.g. PRAXIS: Institute for Participatory Practices.

#3: I hope for the overwhelming success of the 2012 CCPH Conference.  2012 is an important milestone for CCPH and the Charities - it’s the 15th anniversary for both organizations.  What a wonderful confluence of events for us to partner on the 2012 CCPH Conference [link to]  in Houston!  For the Charities, being a major donor and partner in the conference takes us to a new level of national and international involvement and recognition, giving us the opportunity to share some of what we do and some exciting changes on our horizon. Moreover, having CCPH in Houston is a great opportunity to share the amazing work and talent ongoing in health. public health and health disparities in this city and region. Finally, we believe the 2012 meeting will be history making because CCPH is at a crossroads.  2012 is a time for looking back and looking forward to vision the groundbreaking work we can do in the next 15 years!  We at the Charities and our Houston colleagues are excited to welcome you all! Mark your calendars now and plan to join us from April 18 to 21, 2012!

11. How can readers reach you?

I can be reached by email at 

To read about previous featured members click here.

If you would like to be an upcoming CCPH Featured Member, or would like to refer a colleague, please email


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