Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

David Himmelgreen, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Heide Castañeda, Ph.D., MPH

Committee Member

Elizabeth Bird, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Rita DeBate, Ph.D., MPH

Committee Member

Karen Besterman-Dahan, Ph.D., R.D.


Non-Profit Organizations, Community-Based Research, Anthropology, Public Health


Using the lens of a community-based childhood obesity intervention, it is possible to examine the role of non-profit organizations in community development and to deconstruct the “community” in community-based research and identify the many competing interests within a community. This contextual understanding includes how the community is formed, how a community’s agenda is set, and who will complete the tasks outlined in that agenda. In applied anthropological settings and public health interventions that are community-based, it is essential to understand the context of community and which community (or communities) the researcher is working with to ensure that the data you collect reflects the community you wish to impact.

The data collection for this dissertation occurred across phases. In Phase One, the focus was on collecting baseline data for a childhood obesity intervention using participant observation, unstructured interviews, and a community canvassing survey conducted with community volunteers who collected data going door-t- door. A midcourse review of results led to a shift in the research focus from the evaluation of a community-based intervention to an analysis of how community is conceptualized, with its various competing interests, in this particular context. To examine community membership, agenda setting, and how the community seeks to achieve its goals, this project utilized participant observation, unstructured interviewing, and semi-structured interviewing. Phase One data revealed that the community had limited interest in a childhood obesity intervention; additionally, local and county level data was ambiguous about the actual need for such an intervention. As a result, Phase Two data was collected to shed light on the role of community.

There are three actors that make up “the community” at this project’s research site: 1) long-term residents, 2) short-term residents, and 3) the non-profit service providers, who work in the community. The extent to which the service providers are members of the community is somewhat contested, and honorary membership may be exchanged for other forms of capital. The agenda in the research setting appeared to be set by the local non-profit service providers, but data collection showed the importance of long-term residents (and, to a lesser extent, short-term residents) in guiding the focus of the non-profit agencies. To accomplish the goals of the agenda set in the community, a group of women emerged as key actors. In this dissertation I use the termed “Wonder Women” to connote an archetype of a resident in this community context; these women are residents who are committed to the agenda of the community and, through volunteering, are tested for their ability to work often exorbitant hours to achieve the goals of the community. The Wonder Women are worked until a breaking point, at which time they typically leave their post as key players in the community.

This research not only contributes to identifying and operationalizing the concept of “communities” in community-based research but presents a new cultural phenomenon: the emergence of “Wonder Women.” Further research into this phenomenon is required to determine if they are occurring elsewhere and to what extent. Moreover, this dissertation informs the work of non-profit organizations working in the United States. The importance of true community participation and ways to prevent volunteer burnout are emphasized in the lessons learned from the research.