Cassandra Arroyo-Johnson

In Funded Scholars
Cassandra Arroyo-Johnson
Cassandra Arroyo-Johnson




Assistant Professor of Surgery
Washington University School of Medicine

Project Description

The project seeks to generate a detailed, baseline snapshot of the built environment for physical activity in the City of St. Louis (STL). Using community-based participatory research methods to conduct this observational study, the specific aims of the proposed project are to (1) document and describe the presence of publicly accessible playgrounds in the 79 neighborhoods of STL; (2) describe the condition of playgrounds in STL by neighborhood; and (3) examine the associations between playground access and safety and neighborhood population characteristics. The conceptual framework is the Social Ecological Model, with a specific focus on the Institutions and Organizations, Community, and Structures, Policies and Systems levels. In conjunction with the City of STL Department of Health’s Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Partnership, the Play Across Boston Playground Safety survey will be adapted for STL. We will work closely with the HEAL Active Living work group and Evaluation & Data Planning work group to adapt the survey and data collection protocols prior to obtaining full HEAL Partnership approval. Data will be collected using the adapted survey in all 79 neighborhoods within the STL city limits. Data will be analyzed using ArcGIS v10 and SAS v9.4. In addition to the playground safety survey, we will also evaluate the CBPR process of the project for adherence to and implementation of CBPR and community-engaged research principles. Results from the project will aid in identifying areas where there are disparities in resources for helping all children achieve a healthy weight and developing a plan to foster healthy communities in disadvantaged areas in STL that aligns with Mayor Slay’s City of St. Louis Sustainability Plan and the RWJF strategy for promoting a culture of health.

My New Connections Experience

I am at a point in my career where I can fully focus on research in a supportive, research intensive environment. I have wanted to collect primary data on the built environment for active living, especially for youth, for a few years. St. Louis is the perfect setting for my project and New Connections provided the perfect opportunity to assess playground safety at a time when the City is focused on sustainability, opportunities for active living, and reducing obesity and chronic disease morbidity and mortality disparities. As chair of the City’s Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Partnership, I wanted to bring resources to the partnership and dedicate my time and efforts towards community-engaged scholarship. I knew that a New Connections grant would not only afford me the freedom to work with the HEAL Partnership to identify social determinants of obesity in St. Louis, but also identify disparities in opportunities for active living in a city that is racially and economically polarized. I grew up in a small, rural township with very similar issues of racial and economic polarization, so this project and the New Connections Initiative focus on empowering underrepresented and underserved communities and scholars to actively participate in creating a culture of health. Applying for New Connections was the ideal opportunity to become the agent of change I dreamed of being as a young girl.

Though this was my first time applying for a New Connections grant, I attended a New Connections Research Symposium when I was in my first academic position in 2008. I learned so much at the symposium and it was great to be in the presence of scholars from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. At the same time, I wasn’t prepared for one of the speed mentors to tell me that I shouldn’t try collecting primary data as a biostatistician. She was honest with me about what she saw on my CV. I took it very personal and was determined to prove her wrong. At the time, I didn’t have an “elevator speech” to explain that I was more than a biostatistician and that my training went far beyond just biostatistics. I didn’t know how to articulate that while I did have a passion for and expertise in social determinants of health and chronic disease prevention, I was also very passionate about community-based participatory research. I saw myself as a social epidemiologist and biostatistician dedicated to applying the methods so that the communities I worked with wouldn’t be left without the expertise necessary to address their own issues. What I gained from that first encounter with New Connections was a renewed purpose and a refined “elevator speech” that explicitly defined my research interests and expertise. Since then, I have used that experience to fuel my passion for community-engaged scholarship, creating sustainable programs for the creation of health equity, and training underrepresented and underserved graduate students to do the same. The early part of my career was primarily dedicated to building community partnerships for community-engaged and participatory scholarship, developing community capacity in program development, implementation, and evaluation, and training a new generation of public health scholars. New Connections has meant that I have been able to build a network of colleagues that I can share with students and communities. Most of all it has meant a lot to me that someone else, namely New Connections, believed that my personal background, my career, and my work are worth the investment.

Research Interests

My research interests focus on social and behavioral determinants of chronic disease among youth and adults. My primary emphasis is on the assessment and analysis of physical activity, resources for physical activity in schools and the community, and the social and built environment’s impact on health. Secondary data analysis, community-based participatory research, and community-campus partnerships for chronic disease prevention serve as the underlying methodological approaches for my research when applicable and feasible. I also focus on the translation and dissemination of evidence-based community assessments to elucidate health disparities, as well as, evidence-based, sustainable primary prevention and intervention strategies for health equity in both rural and urban areas. As a biostatistician and social epidemiologist, I am interested in methods and measures for social constructs related to the built and social environment for health and wellness. Through research and service, my work seeks to demonstrate a commitment to the idea that the elimination of health disparities and creation of health equity must happen by substantially changing the social, political, ethical, and economic norms that perpetuate them.

The Details
  • New Connections Status: Mid-Career Consultant
  • Award Year: 2014
  • Project Name: Play Across St. Louis: Presence and Condition of Publicly Accessible Playgrounds

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