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Tashara M. Leak, co-director of the Action Research Collaborative and assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences (CHE), spoke at the March 20, 2023 Talks at Twelve, hosted by the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR). During her talk, entitled “Lessons Learned from Engaging Communities in Nutrition Research,” Leak stressed the importance of action research and shared several lessons she learned from working with communities to launch the Advanced Cooking Education (ACE) program, a nutrition and cooking curriculum aimed at “adultified adolescents,” or youth who often take on parental responsibilities, such as cooking family meals or being the primary grocery shopper.

To create the ACE program, Leak knew that the curriculum would need to go beyond nutrition, since many of the youth involved were facing other pressing concerns.

“I’m a nutrition scientist by training, and when I’m at a table, I’m often representing nutrition, but I wouldn’t be a good scholar if I didn’t also acknowledge employment or housing insecurity or educational issues. In many ways, nutrition is a privilege to think about,” she said. As a result, the ACE program devotes a lot of time to wellness, professional development, and college preparation.

Creating relationships with the community took effort. Leak’s approach began with building and maintaining trust with the community. Showing the audience photos of herself playing basketball alongside the youth at a partner school, Leak explained how she had to form strong relationships with adolescents and their families to build trust. When working with the community “I wasn’t Dr. Leak from Cornell,” she said. “I was just Tashara from Durham, North Carolina.”

She also noted the importance of involving community partners in all phases of the project and developing a plan for sustainability so ACE can exist after her research concludes, a plan that Leak said is often overlooked by researchers.

As she continued her work, Leak realized that there was a need for additional support for faculty engaged in action research. In January 2022, Leak and Neil Lewis, Jr., assistant professor in communication at the College of Agriculture and Life Science, launched the Cornell Action Research Collaborative (ARC) with the mission of bringing together researchers, community members, and policymakers to generate sustainable solutions that promote equity and improve lives. Leak said she hopes it would offer more opportunities for researchers to work on the ground with communities and help generate projects like ACE that offer sustainable solutions to equity issues.

In closing, Leak offered words of wisdom to the audience: “The big lessons that I’ve learned from all of this is to be in community with community. Prioritize the needs and desires of the community. Oftentimes we come in with these pre-identified solutions, but we have to be flexible, transparent and communicate.”

Watch the full talk, “Lessons Learned in Engaging Communities in Nutrition Research,” here.