Community outreach isn’t a one-time thing. It’s about forming relationships. Dede Golda Gbikpi Benissan learned this lesson during her undergraduate research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Benissan interviewed disaster relief organizations about their work with marginalized communities for the CRC project “Support Strategies for Socially Marginalized Neighborhoods Likely Impacted by Natural Hazards,” a project led by Dr. Cassandra Davis. Benissan wanted to understand how these organizations reached marginalized communities and what communication strategies they employed.
“It was really eye-opening,” Benissan said about these organizations' community outreach initiatives. She learned that the biggest barrier to helping people was trust. Organizations often swarmed an area immediately after a natural disaster. When the media spotlight moved on, the money and support dried up.
Benissan explained that building trust meant going back and asking questions, such as “Did the help work? Did what we provided help?” In short, it meant fostering a lasting relationship with communities.
Benissan graduated from UNC in 2021 with a B.S. in Biology and a B.A. in Public Policy. She currently works as a Health Justice Project Medical Legal Partnership Coordinator for AmeriCorps VISTA at the Loyola University Chicago, where Benissan connects communities in need to legal resources to combat poverty.
“I felt a strong attraction toward the AmeriCorps Program,” said Benissan. “I've always been passionate about community work ever since I started community college here.” She brought many of the skills she learned during her undergraduate research to her current role, such as time and project management.
Both our choices and our environment impact our health on this beautiful and often perilous planet. Fixing the social factors that make us sick is the goal of health practitioners and litigators working with the Medical Legal Partnership. Just as a doctor might refer a patient to a dermatologist for a skin condition, the MLP helps patients whose problems stem from their surroundings.
“If you go to a doctor and say, ‘Oh, I can’t pay my rent, but it’s putting stress on me,’ that doctor can refer you to the law team,” explained Benissan. That’s when she steps in to ferry community members from medical aid to legal aid.
Benissan moved to Chicago from Togo about seven years ago. Although her work with AmeriCorps put her face-to-face with many problems endemic to Chicago and other US cities — namely corruption and poverty — she feels like she’s been able to make a positive impact.
“I fell in love with the city,” said Benissan, “and I’m doing whatever I can to contribute to the betterment of [Chicago].”
Benissan is looking to attend law school after her tenure with AmeriCorps VISTA to continue her community advocacy work.
Connect with Dede Golda Gbikpi Benissan on LinkedIn.