January 25, 2023
As a social scientist, Joseph Hamm, Ph.D., has worked with a variety of government organizations, including police departments, courts, natural resource agencies, public health departments, and other state and federal entities.
Currently a lead on the Community Engagement Core (CEC) within the Michigan State University Superfund Research Program (SRP), he strives to define and measure trust between the public and the government.
“Working across fields gives me opportunity to combine theoretical understandings of trust from organizational psychology and my practical experience with environmental managers to develop a more nuanced understanding of the best opportunities for building trust,” Hamm said. “Being a part of the CEC has given me the ideal case for taking ideas from one context into another.”
His overarching goal is to contribute to a deeper, fuller understanding of trust, one that crosses disciplines and helps different groups to work collaboratively toward better outcomes for community health and safety.
Hamm became interested in the concept of trust through his studies of jury decision-making. In a project focused on reducing failure-to-appear rates, he explored how perceptions of government play into whether people arrive for duty. He was inspired by concepts in the organizational psychology field, where trust scholars have long been interested in the nature and dynamics of trust.
While working with criminal justice agencies, Hamm became a trainee in the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which fosters interdisciplinary learning experiences. He soon began working with environmental managers and noticed a heavy emphasis on defining problems collaboratively between policymakers and the public.
As his research evolved, he crossed into environmental health. In his work with the CEC, Hamm and an interdisciplinary group of researchers began looking at government organizations’ community engagement in Midland, Michigan. The city is home to a chemical manufacturing plant that for decades contaminated the local watershed with dioxins, a family of industrial byproducts that can cause a wide range of negative health effects.
“The communities I work with are often in the difficult position of having an important local economic driver also contributing to environmental pollution and potential health problems,” Hamm noted. “I’m interested in understanding these complex trust dynamics between the community, regulatory agencies, and industry, to help all these groups work together in protecting community health.”
Pinpointing Community Concerns
Hamm’s role in the Midland project was to examine the trust relationships between government agencies, companies releasing chemicals, and residents.
He discovered that many community members had reported that ongoing cleanup efforts were proceeding well, and that the situation was largely under control. Their shock at the pollution — and by their city’s designation as an “area of concern” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — had apparently dissipated.
“There was a lot of concern initially,” Hamm said. “Thirty years later, what had been an incredibly contentious issue has, more or less, stabilized. The chemical company is working directly with EPA on remediation, and there is not a lot of skepticism in the community about whether they’re doing a good job.”
Also, because the company has been a long-time employer and supports Midland philanthropically, community members tend to have a high level of trust in the business, Hamm explained. The conversations he heard in Midland centered less on health than on property values, and somewhat on concern for possibly losing the chemical plant as an employer.
In addition, Hamm learned that decades of outreach and education by government agencies had enhanced public health behaviors. Many Midland residents were taking recommended precautions, like adapting their fish consumption habits. To maintain that momentum and prevent redundant efforts, Hamm and his team reconsidered their approach to community engagement. They shifted to supporting the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) in their existing engagement efforts, contributing new ideas about how to continue building and maintaining trust.
“We developed a strategy for helping MDHHS better engage the community. It’s a strategy that efficiently builds trust because it has MDHHS listening to the communities, teasing out the vulnerabilities they feel, and demonstrating MDHHS is working to protect those vulnerabilities,” Hamm explained.
Meanwhile, the nearby cities of St. Clair Shores, Saginaw, and Otsego — where the CEC team is now focusing its efforts — are at a different juncture. Dioxins released into the environment from a paper manufacturing facility are a problem, and residents appear more ambivalent about how the state is managing the contamination, according to Hamm.
He hopes to improve the relationship between residents and government organizations like MDHHS. If communities feel they can trust governance, he explained, they may be more likely to adopt government health and safety recommendations to protect themselves. Or, they will at least be better equipped to make informed decisions.
“Our role is to create a feedback loop between the community and the state that is focused on finding the particular vulnerabilities the community is feeling and to help MDHHS work that knowledge into the engagement they are already doing,” he said.
Coming Full Circle
As a next step, Hamm seeks to produce a new model for how to earn and protect trust in community engagement work that is usable across disciplines. He will take the lessons learned from the CEC’s work and develop a project focused on a criminal justice agency that has struggled to build trust in its community.
“I want to work with a police department and use the same methods of listening to the community’s concerns, then working those concerns back into the department’s outreach,” Hamm said. “Some Michigan communities are disproportionately affected both by environmental contamination and over-policing. This overlap can mean health outcomes are disproportionately worse than in communities without these dual issues. Our trust-building approaches can benefit community health in places facing many kinds of compounded challenges.”