Putting Community First in a New Social Justice Initiative

The Community Collaboratory for Co-Creation, led by Penn Nursing and Penn Engineering, will focus on research and education as well as community engagement and outreach.

More than a year ago, George Demiris PhD FACMI and Mark Yim PhD began a conversation that included many of their colleagues from Penn’s School of Nursing and School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Beyond the challenges wrought by the pandemic, that moment had also highlighted the health equity and social justice struggles faced by many. “Structural racism was affecting health outcomes. So was climate change,” says Demiris, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments in Penn Nursing and the Perelman School of Medicine. “It became pretty clear that we needed to rethink how we innovate, problem-solve, and engage people who are immediately affected by the processes we design.”

From those initial discussions came the Community Collaboratory
for Co-Creation, which Demiris co-leads with Yim, a Penn Engineering professor and director of the GRASP Lab. The first three years of the new initiative, which officially began in October, will focus on research, education, and community engagement and outreach.

Penn Today spoke with Demiris and Yim about the collaboratory’s goals and what they see for its future. What follows is a reprint of that conversation.

Why is now the right time for this initiative?

YIM: COVID has made it very apparent that there are communities getting hit harder than everybody else. This is an area that we can really make an impact by having the Nursing School make connections with the community—they really understand the health needs. Then Engineering can help by developing technical solutions.

DEMIRIS: To that end, we often design for populations that are not at the table with us. We want to create a paradigm shift that allows us to get vulnerable populations, marginalized communities at the table. None of the problems they face are new problems, but the current situation, exacerbated by the pandemic, made it clear that we have significant societal challenges that can be addressed only by doing things differently than we’ve done before.

What does it mean to ‘do things differently’?

DEMIRIS: For one, we want to make an impact on research. The collaboratory will be funding pilot grants as seed money for investigators on the Penn campus and community members to work together. We are planning to fund about three to four projects each year. The first round will come in early 2022.

We also want to be a connector for investigators. Many people at Penn do innovative research, but they don’t necessarily have community partners or the right connections to get into communities. We hope to have an active community engagement board who can help us identify needs and people from the larger Philadelphia community who can be actively involved.

YIM: Another priority for us is education. The curricula for the two schools look very different, so we’re trying to figure out how to get Nursing and Engineering students to work togeth- er more. We were able to start this semester. We have a couple senior design teams in Engineering who have connected with Nursing students on projects like an idea for an autonomous toilet, which could help people who would be better off with a bathroom on the first floor.

What has the reaction to this initiative been so far?

YIM: Enthusiasm. I’ve been shocked at the level of enthusiasm. Everyone is super excited, including the students, particularly when they learn that health equity and justice are the underlying priorities.

What does success look like to each of you?

DEMIRIS: Successful projects where we could demonstrate the power of community engagement, really learning from the communities we serve. They are the experts on their conditions and their problems. With education, it would be great to see a cohort of Nursing and Engineering students who have been exposed to co-creating with the community. Finally, as we increase awareness, it would be great if this collaboratory could be seen as the place researchers and community could come together to think of innovative solutions.

YIM: I can imagine a success story would be if we can point to something that’s an inspiration for other people. For example, a project with engineers and nurses working together for the community to solve a real problem. Often, getting out of the classroom to help even just one person can be a powerful inspiration. Another vision of success would be people talking to each other more: Engineers talking to nurses. Nurses talking to the community. Engineers talking to the community. The social aspect of people interacting, that will be invaluable.

“We have significant societal challenges that can be addressed only by doing things differently than we’ve done before.”

GEORGE DEMIRIS PHD FACMI is the Mary Alice Bennett University Professor and a Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor who holds joint faculty appointments in Penn Nursing and Penn Medicine. MARK YIM PHD is the Asa Whitney Professor of Mechanical Engineering, director of the GRASP Laboratory, and faculty director for the Design Studio at Penn Engineering.

This piece was written by Michele Berger and originally appeared in Penn Today on November 29, 2021.

A Blueprint for Change

The Community Collaboratory for Co-Creation (Penn4C) is based on the
recognition that technological solutions should be designed with active engagement
of marginalized communities with the explicit goal to challenge rather than reproduce or exacerbate structural inequalities as technology often does. Penn4C focuses on the health care needs of low-resource, high-need populations and marginalized groups. We work with a Community Board with members of groups or organizations that can provide the perspectives of low resource, high-risk communities as well as advice on critical issues of social justice and serve as advocates as we broaden and deepen our community outreach. The priorities of the Collaboratory focus on three areas: Research, Education, and Community Engagement and Outreach.


In order to facilitate research activities that address social justice through designing and implementing solutions to improve health, well-being, and safety, we fund research projects that will require engagement of faculty and students as well as active community engagement.


Our long-term goal is to foster interdisciplinary educational activities and synergies for students in SEAS and SON (as well as other disciplines) at all levels (undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral).


We invite Community Members to actively serve on our Board. Additionally, we aim to increase awareness of the Collaboratory both within and beyond the Penn Campus so as to allow researchers in the two Schools and on campus to identify and build community partnerships and create a platform that fosters co-creation.

To learn more, visit www.penn4c.org

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