By Haley Herfurth
When Shauntice Allen, Ph.D., was a child, she saw first hand her family practice what she now recognizes as community service, if even on a small scale. When her family would gather for holidays at her grandmother’s house in the Birmingham area, there was always an extra face or two present — and whether they’d been invited or just popped by to say hello, her grandmother was there with a plate of food in hand, ensuring that everyone had something to eat.
“That was my first entrance into seeing service being done,” said Allen, who grew up in Montgomery, AL and has a younger brother.
“Just seeing [my grandmother] light up when people walked away having had a good meal or taking something home with them, that was really joyous to her,” Allen remembered. “I recall wanting to do that, to make people feel like that — I knew that I was built and programmed for it just having come from that stock of people that gave back.”
Allen, at University of Alabama at Birmingham since August 2003, now an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, has cultivated the same reputation for which she admired her grandmother — Allen is known throughout UAB for her dedication to serving the community through in both her professional and personal endeavors.
For those efforts, she earned the 2020 Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award, which recognizes a faculty member who has rendered outstanding service to the Birmingham community in education, economic development, health care delivery, the arts, social services, human rights and urban and public affairs. Allen will be recognized during the annual Faculty Convocation, this fall.
Allen’s work in public health lends itself well to her passion for community service, she says. She began working as a resident assistant and a peer educator at the Women and Gender Resource Center while attending the University of Alabama, which helped her pivot into a lifelong career studying public health, health outcomes and health disparities.
One of Allen’s biggest accomplishments is working to create the annual Community Health Innovation Awards (CHIA), which have been awarded since 2012. The awards provide grant funds to organizations in the greater Birmingham area to foster novel ways of approaching challenging local health issues.
Though the CHIA grants are awarded to an organization only once, Allen says the benefits of multiply as their work continues to grow.
“Grantees that were funded in 2012 still connect with me in 2020 about how the grant opportunity impacted their work or their organization’s ability to expand and connect with other groups doing similar things,” she explained. “You think you’re doing it as a one-time shot, not knowing how it will impact people down the line. That’s been really nice to see progress.”
In CHIA’s eight years, more than $450,000 has been awarded to community organizations, who have in turn leveraged the CHIA grants into more than $5 million in funding for local projects.
“Many of these organizations are typically overlooked for traditional funding opportunities, but through these seed grants are making tremendous improvements and strides in the health of our communities,” a nominator wrote.
Allen also worked to found the CCTS Community Engagement Institute (CEI), an annual half-day symposium focused on issues related to health equity and social justice; attendees examine the importance of why and how community engagement and collaboration are effective in social and behavioral research and essential to community-building. The 2020 CEI, hosted virtually in early October, included conversations with Lauren Simmons, the youngest trader, only woman and second Black woman at the New York Stock Exchange.
“[The CEI] has been an interesting platform to build, where you have faith-based leaders, thought leaders, community volunteers, people running small nonprofits and people doing research at UAB all in a room together and talking to each other,” Allen said. “That doesn’t always happen. It’s been a way for people to connect with others who have shared interests, missions and visions who wouldn’t otherwise connect.”
Through her work founding and continuing the CEI, a nominator writes that Allen is showing herself to be a “latter-day Odessa Woolfolk, serving and engaging our urban communities and neighborhoods in ways that encourage and support vitality and resilience.”
“Without Shauntice’s vision for a platform to encourage university-community interactions, CEI would not exist,” the nominator continued.
Expanding The Definition
Thinking about community service in a broader sense can help people truly make a difference, Allen explains. While it can be something as simple as meeting a specific need, such as serving meals at a soup kitchen, there are opportunities for much bigger changes.
Allen, who completed her undergraduate work done at UA in Tuscaloosa and obtained her Ph.D. from UAB, chairs the American Heart Association Birmingham Health Equity Committee, and she is a board member for both the Gasp Air Quality Organization and the Bib and Tucker Sew Op and member of the UAB Angel Squad at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB’s Breast Health Center, in addition to her work with CHIA and CEI.
She also is co-principal investigator of the Risk Underlying Rural Areas Longitudinal Study (RURAL) alongside Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics. The study,a six-year, $21.4 million multisite prospective cohort study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, aims to discover why people in rural communities in the South live shorter and less healthy lives than those who reside elsewhere in the United States.
Community engagement is one of the five mission pillars of Forging the Future, UAB’s strategic plan, and Allen says she has seen renewed focus on community service manifest in myriad ways, specifically in new emphases on service and experiential learning and increased grant funding for research focused on health disparities.
“It’s also about creating processes, programming and spaces for people to be able to connect and share visions together, which is different than ‘I’m coming to give you something,’” she said. “It’s about, ‘I’m here to teach you how to fish, not to fish for you.’
“That’s where I feel my heart is in terms of continuing community service. It’s about bringing out the power in other people that they already have, but don’t know how to harness it and use it.”
Impact of COVID-19
Allen has long worked with underrepresented populations, and she believes the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the groups who are often overlooked with regards to systemic health disparities.
“The pandemic has illuminated the fact there are so many systems we have to dismantle,” she explained. “This whole notion of service in the sense of ‘saving people’ is not going to work — it has to be equitably thought about. You have to think about how much strength and energy and vigor there are in communities — they don’t need us to tell them what to do, but rather to come into the space respecting what’s already been done and what’s happening and discovering how to complement what that is.”
The health disparities revealed by the novel coronavirus pandemic can’t be solved by just one group, a single amount of money or one way of thinking, Allen continued — rather, people at every level will need to work together.
“It’s going to require our Gen Z’ers and those who are seasoned and have had experience in these spaces, all these different ways of thinking, in order to hopefully see change for everyone,” she said. “It’s bi-directional — it’s not just passing the torch down, but rather about sharing it with someone.”