Karyn Bolden Stovall, MA, Community Research and Training Director, IIT

Where are you from?

I was raised in Joliet, Illinois, which is where my family still lives. I have lived in Chicago proper for the last five years, primarily on the south side.

What led you to your current organization?

I started my career in international relations. I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in international studies. I lived abroad and worked for the State Department for about five years—at embassies, consulates, and in academic program management. I managed the English language scholars in the Fulbright program in Paraguay. I left when I was 18 and came back when I was about 28, and I’m 36 now.

When I came back to the Chicago area, I worked for the Chicago Bar Association as one of the directors for public affairs. I also managed educational programming at a not-for-profit institution. Immediately prior to this job, I was working as a peer provider, providing support for people with mental health conditions in my capacity as a community health worker doing case management and connecting people to resources.

I have been at IIT for two years. I train researchers, usually early stage investigators, who are just starting to get into the process of community engaged research. I also conduct a lot of our peer trainings. I am someone who identifies as a person with lived experience: I live with anxiety and depression, so I train on what it means to be a peer. We have a program funded by the State of Illinois called the Certified Recovery Support Specialist Program, of which I am one of the two primary administrators.

For the last five or six years, I have been really interested in healthcare. I have personally struggled with lots of healthcare issues—not just mental health but also physical health. I’m someone who lives with high blood pressure and obesity, and diabetes and hypertension run in my family. I’m a Black woman who lives on the south side of Chicago, and the disparities that we see in the communities of color are very clear. I really wanted to shift into this field to figure out how we make it better. I speak Spanish and have primarily worked with African-American and Latino communities for basically my entire career. It’s really close to my heart. We’ve got to find a way to bridge that gap. Sometimes there are 10-, 20-, 30-plus years’ differences [in life expectancy], and it is an injustice.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of CSAC?

I’d like to focus on how to make sure that communities have a voice, especially communities of color. Right now there’s a lot of mistrust. Communities of color have been treated horribly by research teams, and we’ve got to do a lot of work to fix that. We saw it most starkly in the COVID pandemic, where people were afraid to get tested or get shots because they didn’t trust it. I really hope to be a part of that solution. Tuskegee ended in the 70s—it’s within my parents’ lifetime. People remember the horrible things that happened, and we have to own that. I think the CSAC is a step in the right direction—this is a total pivot change from what traditional research looked like 10 or 20 years ago, and I’m really happy and honored and proud to be a part of the solution.

I spend a lot of my time talking to both community members and researchers about the fact that we’re not all doing this just to write a paper, put it in a really nice journal, and move on. We are doing this to effect change—to save people’s lives.

I hope to be a voice that very openly and proudly talks about my lived experience in all aspects of healthcare, both physical and mental health, and I hope to also bring perspective from communities of color, to be as inclusive as possible, and to expand our reach. One of the things that I always talk about to my students and to the people who are in the trainings is that everyone’s voice and vote matters. I’m used to working with people from across the spectrum: people who have low levels of formal education, people who may not have documentation, people who are BIPOC or on the LGBTQ+ plus spectrum, and I think it’s super important that we do that work and do it well. We’re putting in the hard work now so that 50 years from now our kids and our grandkids won’t have to have it so difficult.

What are some issues in your community you hope to resolve?

I first got involved in research because I’m someone who lives with mental health issues. I have anxiety and depression, and there’s been a lot of stigma about mental health conditions, especially in communities of color, especially in Black and Latino communities, because treatment is stigmatized but also because we have centuries of experience of having to pretend we’re okay — even when we’re not — because it kept us safe. Because we’ve had to be so protective has meant that we have not gotten the services that we need and that we deserve. I hope to help dismantle this idea of the stigma around mental health. I used to work for NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, which does a lot of grassroots work on reducing the stigma of mental health. I hope to show that most of us have mental health challenges at some point in our lives: we all go through grief, we all go through bouts of depression. I really hope to impress upon people that mental health is health, we have to take care of ourselves, we have to get the support that we need, and that it is a strength to say we need help, and it’s not something to be ashamed of.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I’ve been on the CSAC for six or seven months now, and it has been a wonderful experience to see all of these people from all over Cook County sitting on a team together really talking about the big systemic issues that need to be addressed. We as a community of researchers and health providers need to recognize systemic issue and think about systemic changes, systemic growth, and systemic areas for improvement. It’s not an overnight process, but it’s great to be on a team of people that really take on this charge and really want to put in the work so that we can create a better health care system for everyone.