Best Practices for Community-Campus Engagement

By Aimee Coueslan

August 29, 2018

Image from Pixabay

In their core strategic planning, universities across Canada are now identifying community engagement as a core function of research, teaching, and learning. Universities are also recognizing the power of engagement to enhance learning and research. In terms of learning, community engagement can provide students with a new sense of purpose for their education, as well as a sense of belonging that can transform young lives and support student mental health. Community engagement also allows different types of learners to thrive, while enhancing competencies and confidence. In the case of community-engaged research, benefits include increased research impact, greater opportunities to translate findings into practice, expanded funding opportunities, and increased capacity of both researchers and community groups. Community-engaged research provides an opportunity to positively effect change in one’s own community through the development of research questions that are responsive to community needs.

Community-First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE), a seven-year SSHRC-funded action research project based at Carleton University, has officially launched a national network and community of practice called Community-Campus Engage Canada (CCEC). To celebrate the launch on June 20, 2018, CFICE convened a panel to discuss how to provide long-term support to the community-campus engagement (CCE) movement and ensure that it maximizes value for all partners. The discussion began with the perspective that community-campus engagement must be community-driven; it must put the priorities of the community first and allow the community to decide how it wants to contribute and how it would like to benefit. The panelists addressed what being community-driven means in practice, and their answer had four parts: establishing participatory, horizontal relationships; developing a shared vision; addressing issues of equity and inclusivity; and the democratic communication of research findings.

Relationships

Catherine Graham of the National Association of Friendship Centres prioritized the establishment of relationships as a necessary first step. Researchers need to communicate directly with community members, approaching them with the perspective of “What can I do for you?” There are four interrelated concepts integral to the establishment of these relationships: shared power, cultural safety, knowledge democracy, and long-term reciprocity.

1. Sharing Power: At its heart, sharing power means humbling oneself and allowing the community to be the teacher and the academic to be the student. The researcher must know when to step back and follow the community’s lead. Power is not necessarily shared 50/50.

2. Cultural Safety: involves creating a safe respectful welcoming environment with no denial of who people are and what they need. In this environment, people are supported to draw strengths from their identity, culture, and community. Creating this environment requires cultural humility, listening without judgment, and being open to learning from and about others.

3. Knowledge Democracy: The concept of knowledge democracy is part of a larger discourse on the decolonization of higher education which has disrupted academia’s monopoly on knowledge creation. Crystal Tremblay of the University of Victoria detailed the principles of knowledge democracy: recognizing multiple epistemologies, including indigenous ways of knowing and being; recognizing multiple ways of representing knowledge, beyond text and statistics, to include arts-based forms of knowledge mobilization; recognizing participatory knowledge as critical to social transformation; and prioritizing open-access publishing and dissemination.

4. Long-term Reciprocity: When establishing relationships, researchers must be mindful that they need to be in it for the long-term. Parachuting into a community and then appearing to disappear sows mistrust.

Image from Pixabay

A Shared Vision

Once established, these community-campus relationships are deepened as partners align around a shared vision. It is important that all parties agree upon the opportunity or issue to be resolved, a shared understanding of that issue, and an agreed-upon approach for addressing it. A shared framework and strategy creates a sense of common purpose, builds trust amongst participants, and provides coherence to diverse activities. Liz Weaver, co-CEO of the Tamarack Institute, pointed out that it is only by unlocking our collaborative potential that we can solve the increasingly complex problems that communities face today.

The Tamarack Institute has a tool for developing a collective vision for change.

Equity and Inclusivity

Academics and community groups are on an unequal footing in terms of funding and access to technology and other resources. In the interest of fairness, researchers must strive to be transparent about these inequities and power differentials, and, where possible, address them. In their mid-term report, CFICE provides the example that post-secondary institutions should move funds for community-based projects in a timely manner to ensure fair treatment of community partners.

Similarly, those involved in community-campus engagement need to be mindful of reducing barriers — attitudinal, geographical, physical, social, and economic — to participation. CCE must be inclusive, reaching out to marginalized and informal communities and bringing together the rural and the urban, east and west, north and south.

Democratic Communication

Isabelle Kim, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Community Partnerships, spoke about making research findings accessible in terms of both who gets to communicate them and who gets access to them. If community-engaged research results are only communicated via academic language, community partners will be excluded. Story-telling is a vital tool for democratic discourse: all project participants can engage with the results or collaborate in the story-telling itself. The key is to avoid superficial boosterism or university public relations and remain attuned to the complexities of the story and its interpretations.

Community-campus engagement is of growing importance at university campuses around the world. It is also at the heart of what the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University does. For all researchers involved in rural issues, developing the capacities to serve in this boundary-spanning CCE role is key. Rural researchers must learn to embrace complexity, conflict, and uncertainty enroute to the realization of shared solutions.

The panel discussion at the heart of this blog post, entitled “Co-Creating the Future of Community-Campus Engagement in Canada,” is available on the CFICE website.

SSRHC provides one-year Partnership Engage Grants for community-campus partnerships that will inform decision-making and serve the needs of one partner outside of the academic sector.

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