Using Photovoice to assist Community-Based Social Workers Reflect on Community Resilience During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Project Intro

The projects that the COVID-19 vaccination grant funded took two forms. First, the grant was used to engage staff at New Life Centers of Chicago (NLC) in a community based participatory research (CBPR) project. During this CBPR project four NLC staff collaborated with a Columbia University PhD student to understand how social workers who live in the community in which they work see resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic? The PhD student and NLC staff met four times to complete the project with results being used to build upon the strengths of the community to promote public health best practices and vaccine information.

Secondly, additional funds were used to purchase necessary PPE for the organization as they interface with the community on a regular basis. For example, prior to the pandemic the organization’s food pantry served 100 families a week and now serves over 10,000 families. As a result, funds were allocated to provide these workers with PPE in order to enhance their safety while providing the community with resources. Additionally, NLC leads outreach efforts to reduce violence through engaging residents who are most likely to be perpetrators and victims of community violence. Thus, funds were used to provide these outreach workers with not only PPE but reflective jackets to keep them safe and visible while intervening in community conflict and conducting mediations.

Project outcomes/deliverables

The CBPR project has been completed thanks to the COVID-19 micro-grant. NLC staff were able to be compensated for their time in creating a unique research project that focuses on the strength of the community rather than their deficits. The staff were very thankful for the opportunity to be engaged as local experts since they are not often seen as such. Mike, one of the staff and participants in the CBPR project stated “I feel like my voice did matter, yeah, I think that’s the beauty of this…similar to (restorative justice) circles, right? When you’re in a circle where your thought process kind of evolves and changes, while you hear other people speak.” The staff has since used the strength and resiliency that they discovered in the project to promote public health best practices and vaccine information to the many community residents and participants that they engage with on a daily basis.

Additionally, all of the PPE and safety equipment for the organization was purchased and delivered. Where staff were able to have all the necessary equipment to serve and engage a community that has been struggling with COVID-19 cases and instances of community violence.


Nathan Aguilar, LCSW, is a third year PhD student at the Columbia School of Social Work. Prior to doctoral studies he was a social worker for five years in Chicago where he worked in a community-based organization with gang involved young men. He I also worked at a hospital violence prevention organization where he provided clinical support to gunshot survivors throughout the city. His research interests pertain to the experiences of gunshot survivors as well as the well-being of street intervention workers. He is looking to understand how technology can play a role in supporting these two populations.

Additional information

Did the project take on any new directions, and how will it influence your future research agenda?

The only new direction that the project took was that we did not produce flyers regarding the COVID-19 vaccination. It was important for the Columbia student to let the community lead efforts to promote the vaccine given their expertise. After working with staff through the CBPR project it was determined that it would be more effective to use the funds for PPE and community violence safety gear than produce flyers for the vaccine. However, such a change provided an opportunity for the researcher to work with the staff to understand the hesitations of the community regarding the vaccine as all staff members live in the community as well. These meetings took place during the CBPR project and assisted staff in creating efforts to communicate with organizational participants and community residents about COVID-19 and the vaccine given their standing in the community as credible messengers. The additional PPE and safety gear allowed NLC staff to engage with residents in a safe manner and promote public health best practices and vaccine information through their actions.

This project has taught me the importance of community engagement throughout the research process. I think I made a mistake of coming in with a plan rather than sitting down with the community to understand what they think is the best way to move forward. By working with the community as co-producers and co-leaders of the project I was able to get more buy in and used the gracious COVID-19 micro grant to assist the community in a way that they needed rather than what I assumed they needed. This will no doubt influence my future research agenda as I now understand the importance of engage the community I plan on studying in order to create effective interventions and relationships that value true collaboration and the expertise of the community.