Community engagement: Why bother?

Posted on October 30, 2012 by

It can be challenging for people from academic institutions to engage with people from external communities. There are cultural distances to cross. For example, there are differences in: propensities for collaboration vs. competition; expectations around the pace of work and timeframes for achievement of results; and tolerance for risk, uncertainty or error. In addition, activities such as collaborating with external partners and facilitating students’ work in community settings take time and require skills that are different from those needed for traditional academic roles. The payoffs of community engagement are uncertain and may take a long time to become obvious. So why bother?

I can think of four primary reasons why universities should make the effort to engage with communities. Three of them relate to problems or weaknesses in academic institutions. The fourth relates to problems in society. I know there are people who believe it is impolitic to talk about weaknesses, problems, or challenges. One is supposed to focus on strengths, opportunities, and assets. Generally I agree with this orientation, but I think community engagement is enough of a stretch for academic institutions that only focusing on its positive potential will not motivate its adoption as a strategic priority. Authentic community engagement requires a change in the status quo. For individuals and organizations to be willing to undertake activities that will fundamentally change at least some aspects of their lives, it helps to be motivated by the recognition that first, there is a problem and second, the problem has a solution.

My four reasons for universities and colleges to engage with external communities are.

1. Students need more opportunities for hands-on experiential learning in real-world contexts.

Many Canadian postsecondary institutions are already responding to this problem after studying their NSSE results, attending to research on how learning happens, hearing from employers about graduates’ lack of “soft” skills such as interpersonal, communication, and teamwork skills, and hearing from students themselves about what they want from their post-secondary experience. The growth of community service learning, co-op and international exchange programs are a result of efforts to enrich classroom learning.

2. Academic research needs to be more encompassing of the knowledge, experience and priorities of people in the community.

I am not talking here about the kind of community-based research projects that are done to provide community organizations with information that will help them plan or evaluate programs or make policy decisions. I am talking about the problem with some kinds of academic research being so far removed from the ways in which the issue being investigated plays out in the “real world” that the research is limited in its value. This is a problem especially for some kinds of research in the social and health sciences. Research that aspires to influence public policy, in particular, should be undertaken in collaboration with professionals and citizens who are actively working to address the health or social issue under investigation. Community people have knowledge and experience that can help prevent researchers from going down blind alleys, “discovering” what practitioners already know, or suggesting policy solutions that are not feasible and may even be destructive.

This idea is heresy in some quarters. It is seen as a threat to academic freedom. But I see it as a way to balance academic freedom with academic responsibility, the third reason for community engagement.

3. Academic institutions need to be more accountable to the public.

Current economic conditions are prompting governments to examine their return on investments. Publicly funded postsecondary institutions are being challenged to produce evidence of their economic and social value. Responding to calls for increased accountability will require faculty to lift the focus of their gaze and look outward, to recognize the role of academic institutions in society, and to acknowledge that their pay cheques come from somewhere and entail an obligation. The public needs to be acknowledged as a key player in the academic undertaking. Faculty need to be more concerned with whether and how their research findings can be applied to societal problems, whether and how their students are being prepared for lives as responsible citizens, and whether and how their work as academics is contributing to the welfare of others.

4. Academic institutions need to get more involved in the search for solutions to complex societal problems.

This is where the power of authentic community-university engagement really lies. What is needed is effective, coordinated, multi-stakeholder action guided by broad and deep analyses of the causes and conditions that create and sustain particular problems. Too often, important knowledge remains hidden in academia. Too often, governments develop policies without a full understanding of the big picture and without tracking the consequences of their policies. Too often, civil society organizations implement programs without adequate analysis of the underlying problem and careful consideration of how the program will play out. Solving the complex social, environmental and economic problems we face will require collaborative efforts that are radically inclusive of diverse perspectives and skills. Such collaborations become possible when faculty, staff, and students come to realize that people in community settings have knowledge, experience, and talents that complement their own. They become possible when people in community settings start to trust people from the university. They grow and mature when people from diverse worlds share a passion for a particular vision for change and come to believe that they stand a better chance of achieving that change together than alone.

If academic institutions succeed in responding authentically to these four problems or opportunities, the associated changes will not represent a movement of community engagement from the margins to the centre of academic institutions. They will represent a shifting of the centre of gravity of academic institutions and their faculty members. Making this shift requires more commitment to learning with and from others and less investment in being an expert. It requires greater skill in participatory decision-making and shared governance, going far beyond inviting a few community members to sit on advisory committees. It means balancing the concern for theories, concepts, and data with a focus on creating and sustaining productive relationships.

Can such a significant shift happen? Is it already happening? Or is it too much to ask? Should universities and colleges bother to learn how to effectively engage with communities?


4 Responses to “Community engagement: Why bother?”

  1. Back2basic says:

    This article of “Community Engagement, Why bother?” is very thoroughly, and amazingly accurate and insightful.

    I pray God that leaders of all Higher Education Institutions will take this report, and its reference of NSSE results seriously.

    Time management, money management, responsibility, ability, capacity, and the outcome of goal in each student, and its university’s administration need to be focus, emphasized with a conscience. back2basic

  2. Fryer’s perspective is that of the university and, in general, I agree with her points. There is a tone, however, that only universities need to change in orientation, for example, “Making this shift requires more commitment to learning with and from others and less investment in being an expert. ” I would not like to less investment in expertise, on the contrary, non-university organizations can benefit from acknowldeging that there is other expertise to be drawn upon from the academy. The key is relationships of respect where academic and non-academic expertise are shared and there is mutual respect.

  3. An interesting and very worthwhile read. This emphasis can be advanced as the importance of such practices as community based participatory reseach (CBPR) is better realized. One avenue for this to transpire will be more methdological oriented textbooks to have a chapter devoted to this topic (not just one or two lines). Needed as well are instructors who are trained in both the benefits and challenges in doing CBPR, as well as improved institutional supports for CBPR.

  4. Todd Barr says:

    Lots here – thanks for initiating the conversation Margo.

    I think beginning the conversation with a focus on problems or issues is a good place to start. Depending on the situation, looking at power imbalances among stakeholders or options for action (if the problem is already understood) might also be good starting points. Or sometimes the starting point is understanding how parts of a complex system interact before doing anything else. These are key questions I ask myself when beginning a complex project.

    Your first point about experiential learning for students is becoming an accepted norm here in Ontario for the reasons you suggest. The trick is to make sure applied learning happens equitably – not just serving student needs. See this book for more discussion:

    For me, points two through four all focus on a few central issues:

    a) for the most part, the way post-secondary faculty members are reviewed and promoted is disconnected from notions of community-engaged scholarship. This is a local-to-global phenomenon with local institutions and global scholarly communities driving what gets rewarded. In other words, if it’s not in my job description and my peers don’t value it, why would I do it?

    b) Similar to faculty, student pathways for engaging in this kind of work are not very well defined at most post-secondary institutions – particularly at the graduate level;

    c) Same goes for external community organization pathways for involvement;

    d) I agree with the above comment calling for better training materials and methodologies for equitable, rigorous community-based, participatory action research (CBPAR) and community service-learning. It’s one thing to talk about addressing complex societal issues through multi-stakeholder engagement and rigorous research methods, it’s another to try and do it. Here’s an approach to CBPAR that we’re working with in the Peterborough, Ontario area…trying to connect faculty, students and external community stakeholders together using participatory and rigorous methodologies that are “good enough” for a given situation (i.e. different situations call for different levels of participation and rigour):; and,

    e) I also agree with a comment above that we need to be careful about ‘expert’ labelling – experts are all around us and must be respected for what they know.

    Overall, I think that those who are not willing to collaborate for equitable and respectful education and community development will ultimately be left behind much like other sectors when participants refuse to innovate and/or acknowledge emergent ways. This does not mean an abandonment of the rigorous pursuit of knowledge or the inclusion of everyone in every research project so that it becomes exhausting…it means working from a mutually agreeable “good enough” principle, and as Margo put it: “…when people from diverse worlds share a passion for a particular vision for change and come to believe that they stand a better chance of achieving that change together than alone.” In other words, we need to become better storytellers and listeners so that we build understanding of one another and, in the process, “…focus on creating and sustaining productive relationships.”

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