Joanice Thompson didn’t have a manual or a textbook about community outreach, engagement or research recruitment when she arrived at UAB more than 30 years ago.

Yet, by the time she retired in 2018, Thompson had become a sought-after authority on community engagement and on ensuring that community-based research translates into opportunities and improvements for those communities.

“I found very little when it came to practical application, so I just started building my own strategies,” said Thompson, former associate director for community outreach at the UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Center and an early figure in the development of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. “There’s nothing like being out there in the community because that’s where you learn. You must follow some procedures, but invariably write your own story and build your own road map based on the many different communities you work within.”

Joanice ThompsonJoanice Thompson

Thompson’s association with the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center dates back to 2000 with the establishment of the Deep South Network for Cancer Control. The result of a national collaboration led by O’Neal Cancer Center scientists, the Deep South Network was created to eliminate cancer health disparities by conducting participatory education, training and research in urban Birmingham-area communities, in Alabama’s Black Belt and around the Mississippi Delta.

Thompson traveled with the Deep South Network team and offered guidance primarily on recruitment and identification. Thompson stressed the need for the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement’s Community Health Advisors, or CHAs, to recruit participants from within their own communities and their personal spheres of influence, such as local stores, beauty shops, churches and schools.

“CHAs are priceless,” Thompson said. “There’s nothing like word of mouth and having boots on the ground carry the message. If you’re going to make a difference, then you must train people in the community and unapologetically help identify resources, because they know the community better than you would ever know it, but often do not have the resources needed to make a difference.”

The Deep South Network became the flagship program for the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement and created the template for how the office currently operates.

Thompson vividly recounts the early days of the program, including collaborating with Program Director Claudia Hardy, MPA, and founder Edward Partridge, M.D.

“Dr. Partridge had the passion and the heart for the people that he was trying to help,” Thompson said. “When you know him as a person and you know his family, then you know why. It wasn’t a put-on.”

She compared Partridge’s excitement and dedication to the program to that of a traveling preacher filled with a zeal for his mission.

“He was a very high-level leader, but he was also a very compassionate leader,” Thompson said. 

The health and societal impact of the Deep South Network was broad and longstanding among communities, as well as among the CHAs themselves.

“Every time I boarded a bus with CHAs of more than 50 on each bus, I would often look around and think of the opportunity we had to impact the CHA's personal health while encouraging and teaching them to educate others,” Thompson said. “I strongly believe the Deep South Network also had a positive impact on CHAs’ families.”

Thompson specifically remembers a woman who found encouragement to return to high school to earn her diploma.  

“I saw women who participated in Deep South Network training sessions come from the back of the room up to the front of the room and become some of the best spokespeople that you would ever meet,” she said. “The impact of the Deep South Network was far-reaching. I still visit some of the counties and will always meet someone that remembers the Deep South Network.” 

Thompson began her career at UAB conducting phone interviews in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine.

She rose to become the first recruitment coordinator in the Division of Preventive Medicine and helped establish the first Recruitment and Retention Shared Facility at UAB.

“My community partners were gracious, even when no compensation followed,” she said. “They provided letters of support and thousands of mailing lists to help build our recruitment database. I met [facilitiy director] Dr. Mona Fouad when I was written into a grant to be the recruitment coordinator for the Women's Health Initiative. We teamed up to find ways to engage and address health issues in underserved communities. Dr. Fouad stayed the course amidst many major barriers we faced with community engagement.” 

In her roles, Thompson knew she needed to be in the communities she sought to engage. To effectively reach those communities, Thompson learned to find leaders and influencers, including pastors, elected officials and neighborhood leaders, who could help give her credibility.

“I could sing 'Amazing Grace' in any way and in any church,” she said. 

Yet, there remained a common theme among the local people when discussing health-related issues, particularly clinical trials.

“They do not want to be guinea pigs. People needed more information to help them make an informed decision,” she said. “If you stay in the community long enough, build trust and give people enough information, they will make informed decisions.”

After retiring from UAB in late 2018, Thompson founded her own organization, Alabama Communities Together, or ACT, which continues and expands upon her previous community engagement work.

“I like connecting the dots,” Thompson said. “I like helping people move from dependency to self-sufficiency, especially when it comes to their health and where they live and play. This is who I am.”

Read more about clinical trials and how the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement and the O'Neal Cancer Center are working to make them more accessible for everyone.

This story originally ran in the May 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.