Author: Kate Derickson

Healthy Community-University Partnerships

Healthy Community-University Partnerships

When pursuing community-engaged research-based partnership, there is a growing awareness that the “extractive” and “directive” models are unacceptable.  The “directive” model is business-as-usual, in which “best practices” emerge from university research with the expectation that communities should change their priorities and practices accordingly. Researchers who recognize the limitations of that approach may prioritize “engagement” but can sometimes practice an “extractive” approach, which centers questions that the researcher and their colleagues are interested in, unfolds according to university timelines, and seldom results in research findings or products that meet the needs of communities.  When conducted in the name of equity and with or “on” historically marginalized and under-resourced communities, this approach is especially problematic, as it creates additional burdens on these communities while burnishing the “expert” credentials for researchers with unclear impacts on equity outcomes.

Researchers looking to avoid either of these can inadvertently create other modes of collaboration that are equally ineffective, unethical, or likely to result in problems.  Examples of unhealthy researcher-community “collaborations” include:

Proximity: researchers attend numerous meetings, observe public activities, share spaces with activists and community members and gain credibility with other researchers as a result but do not allow them to shape or influence their research questions or approaches.  It is disingenuous at best to call this “engagement.”  

Dependency: researchers are wholly dependent on the community to create scholarly outputs and without community involvement at every stage the researcher has “nothing to show for their time.” This creates undue pressure on the community partner and can cause the researcher to introduce and impose university-driven priorities and timelines on the process. This is especially problematic for graduate students and pre-tenure faculty, who have timelines and pressures to create “outputs” that might not sync up with the needs and priorities of the community partners.

Imposition: related to dependency, this is a relationship in which university priorities, values, and timelines drive the engagement and substantially shape the activities that the community and/or organization are undertaking. Shaping community activities can be generative when all parties have a trusting relationship and agree that participatory action research is called for, but this should not be a default expectation of a researcher.

Healthy university-community partnerships can take a variety of forms, and should be responsive to the needs of the community, creatively mobilize the myriad resources housed in a research university, realistically take stock of the capacities of the research team, and carefully consider how the collaboration will advance the goals of the community collaborators.  These can take the form of:

Shared Interests

Shared interests: researchers and community-based organizations or groups convene and converse around shared interests in topics, issues, and approaches.  They share findings, exchange resources, and leave open the possibility of short- or long-term collaboration as opportunities arise.

Shared Goals

Shared goals: researchers and community-based collaborators have a shared and explicit theory of change, conception of justice, and desired outcomes. Researchers create products for collaborators as well as products oriented toward their research communities that translate their findings to scholarly audiences.

Shared Activities

Shared activities: Researchers and community members identify research processes and products that address shared interests and advance shared goals.  They work together in an ongoing way to conduct research, share findings and resources.

These are just a few of the models that can be the foundation for healthy collaborations between communities and researchers that do not reproduce the extractive or directive models that have historically characterized “engaged research.”  CREATE practices all three of these with different collaborators as needed, and will continue to iterate across these as the project develops.

CREATE’s Model of Engagement

CREATE’s Model of Engagement

Community-engaged research partnerships have the potential to be transformative for community-based collaborators and researchers alike.  For communities, especially those that are under-resourced or have not historically had the ear of decision-makers, gaining access to sophisticated research that explores questions that are timely and meaningful for their sets of concerns can level the playing field in a decision-making context.  

In urban planning processes, for example, developers can hire consultants to generate promise-filled plans, reports, and projections that can be challenging to vet for people who don’t have access to their own research. Tireless community advocates who have worked overtime to develop expertise on an issue and conducted their own research on a shoe string budget are familiar figures in the urban and environmental political landscape, but the demands of this unsupported work are often too onerous for everyday people to sustain.  

Partnerships with university-based researchers can resource these efforts, providing communities with similar levels of research support that developers, large NGOs and state agencies enjoy and promoting increased community participation in urban and environmental decision-making processes.  

For researchers, these partnerships can be equally rewarding.  There is a growing sense amongst university-based researchers that the “ivory tower” model of research perpetuates inequality even as it attempts to research its roots. In the context of eroding trust in expertise, trust-building collaborations can make research findings travel further and have a greater impact.  

Collaborative, community-engaged research isn’t necessarily only “applied” research – when done thoughtfully it can invite insight into the questions considered to be the frontiers of scientific inquiry. Engaged citizens raise topics, problems and potential solutions that can generate new, creative pathways for research.  In the case of CREATE, our collaborations with communities in Atlanta, Florida and Minneapolis have provided fertile ground for pushing the boundaries of ecosystem services research to better account for the social impacts of the approach.  

As urgent and exciting as engaged research can be, it can be challenging to do.  Communities that have long been “researched” but seldom genuinely engaged as partners are understandably skeptical that university-based research will deliver any real value to them.  Under-resourced community organizations have little spare time to give to researchers who may or may not generate findings and products of value to their work. And academic institutions tend to undervalue and de-incentivize genuine community-engaged research, which has different timelines, requires different resources, and has different ethical dimensions than “traditional” research.

In spite of these challenges, there are myriad examples of effective, generative, and long-term research collaborations between communities and universities.  At CREATE, we are piloting a model of community collaboration that is responsive to a decade of community-engaged research that I have conducted through the geography field, as well as the experiences of our community-based collaborators.

The central ethos of our approach is “resourcefulness,” which has three different dimensions:

1)    It centers the needs of community-based collaborators by framing university-based researchers as resources for collaborators.  We flip the script to ensure that our collaborators benefit from research and the researchers put in the time, money, and the bulk of the work.

2)    It brings to the fore the issue of material resources, and emphasizes the need to focus on how resources are spent throughout the collaboration.  We are attentive to whose time is prioritized and compensated, whose travel is paid for, and whose priorities and needs drive the distribution of the project’s resources.

3)    It rethinks what the university has to offer publics, especially those who have not historically had access to shaping the priorities of research universities.  We take a fresh look at what the libraries, our speaker series and college-wide initiatives, our classrooms, our graduate training programs as well as our research initiatives can provide our community collaborators.

We have actualized this resourcefulness framework through our program structure. Central to this structure is the “policy think tank,” a body supported by CREATE staff that serves as a vehicle for our community-based collaborators to share ideas and identify research products that would be of value for their communities. Think tank members receive a stipend for their participation that they can use to augment their salary or resource their organizations. The think tank in turn informs our “synthesis team” comprised of interdisciplinary researchers whose role is to design, find funding for, and conduct research that our think tank considers a priority.  

This approach is distinct from “participatory action research” in which community partners participate in every stage of the research. While this model has its merits and applications, it is only one type of community-engaged research. Instead of focusing on collaboration through the process of conducting the research itself, our focus is on the topics, approaches and products we develop.

Finally, we have a team of faculty and administrators interested in changing the nature of graduate education, to train students to conduct engaged, problem-oriented research in collaborative, interdisciplinary settings. This advisory team takes lessons from our policy think tank and synthesis team and applies them in their own engagement with graduate education.  

Like any good collaborative effort, our approach is a work in progress and we’ll continue to iterate on it as our work unfolds. Look here for further updates to our model and approach!

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