Before there were grants or formalized agreements, Mona Fouad, M.D., MPH, recalls burgeoning community relationships and a shared vision to tackle major health inequities in some of the state’s most challenged communities.

Fouad remembers the earliest days of the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement 25 years ago. Fouad and former O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Edward Partridge, M.D., were co-leaders on cancer control programs designed to address the dramatic disparity in cancer mortality rates

“We both had the same mission, which was to address the health disparities in cancer within our state,” said Fouad, senior associate dean for Diversity & Inclusion in the UAB School of Medicine and professor and director of the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine. “More African Americans were dying from cancer than majority populations. We started by just going to the community and establishing some committees and coalitions of interested individuals. People were genuine about getting together.”

Mona N. Fouad, M.D., MPHMona N. Fouad, M.D., MPH

Fouad will be a featured guest on a virtual panel on April 25 marking the 25th anniversary of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. The event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public via Zoom and conference call.

As one of the office’s members, Fouad has a unique perspective on the earliest days of OCOE and its decades of evolution and expansion. The event is part of a series of activities this year celebrating the founding of the office.  

Fouad said it was clear early on that a community-based approach was the way to address the challenges inherent to cancer-related health disparities.

“If the problem is in the community, then the solution is going to come from the community,” she said. “Based on that, we started to think that, if we trained and built capacity in the community, then they could be the support system to promote cancer screening and cancer control. That’s where the Community Heath Advisor model came in.”

Grant support then followed, resulting in the Deep South Network for Cancer Control. The Deep South Network reached urban Birmingham-area communities, down to the rural Black Belt and into the Mississippi Delta. The Deep South Network created the template for how OCOE currently operates.  

“We did the training, which was very structured training on how to listen, how to communicate and how to identify resources,” Fouad said. “But then we left them to develop the messages on their own. We didn’t impose on them. This brought a lot of creativity. Each county had a completely different approach on how to convey the message.”

Various community-led activities included fashion shows, plays, poetry readings and one one-on-one conversations at neighborhood beauty shops.

“The message was the same the message about early detection, but they did it the way they wanted to do it,” Fouad said. “Coming from the community is not coming from the scientists at UAB, which made a huge impact. We understood that women would listen and be more trusting of their peers.”

Fouad was surprised by the high level of community enthusiasm for the program early on. Everyone was a volunteer.

“I wondered, ‘Why are they here?’” she said she remembered thinking. 

She soon learned why.

“They were the women who wanted to help their sick friends or their neighbors or themselves. They were empowered, and they were motivated to help. Their passion was just contagious, and you learned a lot from them. Every time I left the meeting, I went out more inspired.” 

Partridge officially retired from the O’Neal Cancer Center in 2017, but his partnership with Fouad continues. He is now collaborating with her on new initiatives.

“I got him out of retirement,” she said. “We never said goodbye.”

As Fouad continues her research and advocacy as the founding director of the UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center, she says lessons learned in the early days of OCOE remain relevant.

“I found out that, if you targeted and worked with people one on one and understood the challenges, then you could make a difference,” she said. “You can’t do anything without true partnership with the community. We have to do more listening. Don’t underestimate the community’s resources because they have a lot to give.”

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