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Kristi Gordon and Parinda Khatri.

Trustees of the William T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Doris Duke Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation have approved funding for the winners of the 2024 Institutional Challenge Grant competition. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Cherokee Health Systems will receive $650,000 to grow their unique research-practice partnership — and to learn how to implement community-engaged scholarship that results in ongoing positive outcomes.

UT has a long history of working with CHS, a federally qualified health center that provides outpatient services to more than 65,000 Tennesseans annually. “Over years of working together in different ways and different parts of our organizations, we have built a foundation of trust and integrity,” said CHS CEO Parinda Khatri. “The time was right to deepen this relationship. Receiving this grant acknowledges that our vision, approach and the hard work that has gone into this are truly worthwhile to invest in.”

“As far as we know, we are the only academic partnership with a federally qualified health center,” said Kristina Gordon, associate dean for community engagement for both the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and the College of Social Work. “FQHCs frequently work with underresourced populations who are also underrepresented in health care research. Developing a strong research-practice partnership with CHS will allow us to generate more research that addresses health care inequity.”

Improving care from the start

The William T. Grant Foundation, who co-funded the award with the Doris Duke Foundation, is dedicated to reducing inequality in youth outcomes. Over the grant’s three-year cycle, UT and CHS will apply the funds to improving outcomes for maternal and child health for Black families in East Tennessee. “We are not only developing and testing interventions for a population that has a high health care priority,” said Khatri, “but we are building a workforce that can be part of the solution.”

Grant-funded efforts will center around the development of a training program for CHS practitioners and UT students and faculty. The training program will involve hands-on projects that help participants develop skills relevant to the community’s needs and help CHS deliver its services even more effectively. It will likely explore themes highlighted by previous UT-CHS collaborative initiatives, including the need to incorporate family and community support in health interventions, how to establish health care environments in which women feel empowered to speak up, and how to seamlessly connect women and the community resources available to help them have healthy pregnancies.

Space for collaboration

UT and CHS already have important elements for collaboration in place. In addition to established relationships and ongoing communications, they have neighboring units in Knoxville’s Cherokee Mills office complex, where CHS runs a pediatric and OB-GYN clinic. Khatri referred to the shared location as “our hub for incubating innovation.”

Gordon pointed out the everyday reality of collaboration thanks to physical proximity at Cherokee Mills: “Our nutrition students, for example, can just walk over to the CHS space to see clients or bring clients over to our office.”

Khatri and Gordon seek to involve CHS practitioners from the start of the new grant-funded initiative, enabling them to drive the direction of research. Housing the initiative at CHS rather than UT — and basing the first hands-on project at the Cherokee Mills location — will facilitate co-creation of research and resources.

Gordon said, “This can help us bridge the research-practice gap,” which occurs when evidence-based interventions developed in academic settings are not adopted widely or don’t match community needs.

Steps for 2024

During the first year of the three-year grant cycle, UT and CHS will collaboratively plan the training program and how to implement it. Another research team will evaluate the planning process itself to better understand this phase of implementing successful research-practice partnerships.

“We’re all learning together,” said Khatri. “We don’t know what will work, but we’ll find out together and build a path that communities nationally can use.”

The third step in 2024 is creating a task force to identify and evolve university policies that could inadvertently discourage community-engaged scholarship. For example, a common challenge across many universities relates to how faculty are evaluated for promotion and tenure: the white papers, research-informed community resources, policy statements and other products resulting from community-engaged scholarship are often not given the same weight as publishing in academic journals. “I believe UT can find ways to value both the traditional and the community-engaged scholarly products,” said Gordon.

A heart for discovery and community

Gordon and Khatri believe the funding will enable UT and CHS to become more effective partners and build something that will last beyond the grant’s three-year cycle.

“At its heart, this grant brings together CHS’s mission and UT’s,” said Gordon. “We will generate scholarly discovery and live out our land-grant university mission to serve the community by bringing our research into it.”

“Working together, with the help of this grant,” said Khatri, “we can become a force multiplier for collective community impact.”


Jennifer Johnson (865-974-4448,