The Detroit URC: fostering health equity through 
community-based participatory research (CBPR)
for more than 20 years

Detroit URC Board Partner Spotlight: An interview with Sheilah Clay, President and CEO of Neighborhood Service Organization

clayNeighborhood Service Organization (NSO) provides services that have impacted countless children, youth, adults, seniors, families, and communities since 1955. As a member of the Detroit URC’s Board, NSO contributes to the development of new community-based participatory research projects, capacity building and related activities.

President and CEO Sheilah Clay recently spoke with us about NSO’s work and involvement in Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR).

The mission of NSO is “Changing lives through innovative human services that harness the power of choice.” What does it mean to harness the power of choice?

It means that we’re driven by the decisions and the desires of the people we serve. When I do new employee orientation, I tell my staff that no matter what they bring to this job, they’re facilitators of someone else’s dream. They have to listen to the voice of the person who they’re trying to help, because change will only happen if they want it to happen. That’s why it’s the power of their choice – the power of their voice – that’s going to drive the change. Our goal is that one day they won’t need us. That’s what our mission statement is all about. We listen to their choices and stick with them as they make small changes, small accomplishments, and we celebrate those.

How did NSO first get involved with the Detroit URC? What do you gain from serving on the Detroit URC Board?

We got involved with the Detroit URC because of Dr. Richard Lichtenstein, who has been on the NSO Board for many years, and he’s now the Board chair. The University of Michigan proposed to do some research at NSO, and initially my staff rejected the proposal. What we had experienced in the past was that researchers would come to a nonprofit to study some issue, some problem – and they would leave the agency the same way they found it. There was no benefit to the agency. So that’s why we initially rejected the proposed research.

Richard eventually got us involved with the first CBPR project we did to get children enrolled in Medicaid and health care. We formed a partnership with University of Michigan researchers to identify what the challenges and roadblocks were, and then we went after a grant together. Not only did the researchers come – that was so powerful – but when we got the grant together, we also worked together to get the children health care. We saw major outcomes from that partnership – Richard’s such an advocate for that.

In fact, Richard and I presented at a conference together and talked about the role that researchers can have – and should have – when they come into a community to study a problem. Part of a researcher’s responsibility is to help the community organization find ways to put solutions in place to solve the problem that has been identified.

We have a very high-poverty population, and the Detroit URC is doing work in poverty-reduction, which is a big bite. Being on the Detroit URC Board, and being part of an entity that values the work community organizations do, is important. The resources that a researcher has can help to tell the story of the issues in the community. Then we can address it because there’s data – and you can go find funding to put programming in place around the problem. Researchers with the Detroit URC are not just coming in and taking the data and going back to their school – they’re helping gather the data to get the resources to address the problem.

What initiatives are you currently working on? What are your goals for the next year?

At NSO, we’re focused on housing development, health care, and youth services to name a few. We have a new low-income housing tax credit award through the help of the mayor and the governor, so we’re going to be building housing. We’re also going to redesign our shelter program. We know that women with children are a major population that cannot find shelter, so we are going to be moving our shelter into a new facility and change our focus to women with children. We also want to accommodate fathers with custody of their children. They cannot find many places to go if they are homeless, so I want to make sure we can find room in our facility so we can accommodate them. It’s all about ending homelessness and getting you back into the workforce.

NSO is also continuing to work in the health care arena, especially as the state is moving toward rolling behavioral health under Medicaid. There are three pilots that are going to be working in that arena, but none of them are in southeast Michigan, which concerns us. We recognize that this change will probably occur and we have some concerns, there’s an opportunity to educate Medicaid health plans around behavioral health challenges that they have not had to address with our special populations. We want to help the Medicaid health plans to understand the value of the behavioral health providers that have been doing this work for years in the community.

Finally, we’re working with youth in leadership development programs, and also workforce development. We work with high school students in both arenas, and try to get them motivated to go on to higher education – whether it’s job training or college. We’re running into major problems with kids who are just not motivated. If you don’t have a role model in your day-to-day life who has walked this path, then you’re not going to see the benefit. That’s a major challenge – and a challenge we’re ready to accept. It’s really important to me that we try to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. We chose to work through the young people to break the cycle of poverty in their families. That’s where our focus is in terms of poverty reduction and why the workforce development program is so critical. We’re really trying to give some hope and solid futures to our youth.


The Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center
University of Michigan School of Public Health (U-M SPH)
1415 Washington Heights
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
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