Tag: Community Partnership

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

A virtual panel discussion of best practices, approaches and principles for collaboration between environmental sciences and communities that have not historically shaped the research priorities of academic institutions featuring: 

Queen Quet; Chieftess and Head of State of the Gullah/Geechee Nation & UMN CLA Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks; Spelman College & West Atlanta Watershed Alliance 

Dan Rizza; Climate Central

Kurt Kipfmueller; University of Minnesota

Moderated by Kate Derickson

Getting up to speed

Getting up to speed

Reflecting on a year and half of collaboration with Gullah/Geechee Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins

In January 2018, at the start of my senior year of undergrad, I was invited to participate in a “research sprint” where I, and a group of others were to spend three days, eight hours per day combing archives and online databases for information on a topic I knew almost nothing about. I was invited because I had shown interest in completing a senior project with Dr. Kate Derickson after taking a course with her the semester prior. I had no idea what a research sprint was, but when I expressed concern about my lack of knowledge to Dr. Derickson, she said  “don’t worry about it too much – I’d say come as you are – we’ll get you up to speed”. I did not know at the time that this research sprint would be the beginning of my participation in an ongoing collaborative community-engaged research partnership with Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.

Since then, I’ve spent two semesters worth of undergraduate research, and now many hours in my capacity as a staff person for the CREATE Initiative doing a deep dive into the history and present reality of Gullah/Geechee residents of Nassau County Florida under Dr. Derickson’s direction. I have taken two different trips to the area to further our work through interviews and engagement. From this partnership, we’ve developed a story map that highlights the experiences of legacy residents and their families. In particular, we’ve considered the relationship that legacy families have to their land and environment, the work and economy of the county, and the mainstream narrative of the county (which often excludes its Gullah/Geechee residents historically and presently).

Retention pond used to support activities of Sandhill “Recycling center” (landfill) located within a Gullah/Geechee community in Nassau County, FL. Image dated 7/13/19

The process of creating the storymap has  been an iterative process. We did not know what our final work product would look like or what information it would contain at the start. However, we have always had an end goal of creating a product that was beneficial to our partner, Rep. Jenkins, and her community. This prioritization of our community partner is what gave the work its meaning in my eyes. It meant that we needed to stay accountable to her in a partnership built on trust that was non-exploitative. Because of this understanding, we also recognized that every step of the process had meaning, and contributed to the overall partnership, even if it didn’t necessarily generate a tangible “thing”.

I have found so much value in my time working with Rep. Jenkins and the community of Nassau County. That value was mostly created because of the project’s centering of the needs of community-based collaborators. After our most recent trip to Nassau County, Rep. Jenkins also provided a reflection on our work, and how this process has played out. She wrote:

Dear Dr. Derickson:

We convened an outstanding community project reveal and reception, due to the thorough research, excellent work and preparation by you and the CREATE Scholars.

There was an enthusiastic and impassioned response from the attendees, all of whom contributed to the project with first-person testimony of their experience as Gullah/Geechee landowners in Nassau County, Fla. They offered vigorous confirmation and validation of the data collected and displayed, further reiterating their endorsement of the research.

I am grateful to each team member: to Kaleigh for her organization and leadership; to Nfamara for his world view, cultural perspective and creation of the economic model; and to Emma for using her geolocating skills to help the team navigate and document data points. (We also joked that she willingly put her whiteness to work in obtaining public records.) This list of what each contributed is only a small sample of the in depth role they played in making the work thus far a success.

In the end the community will benefit immensely from the depth and breadth of this project in ways that cannot be measured or predicted. The participants have indicated a willingness to strategize regarding next steps related to the protection of Gullah/Geechee burial grounds here in Nassau County.

Your leadership in laying the foundation for this research, and in equipping your team with the skills to execute it to this point, cannot be overstated. Thank you for building a community engaged framework that empowers and elevates those it serves.Respectfully,

Rep. Glenda Simmons Jenkins (FL)

Gullah/Geechee Nation

Assembly of Representatives

I am greatly looking forward to continuing to build this partnership, expand the work that has already been completed, and resource the community of Nassau County, through my work with CREATE, and the CREATE Graduate Scholars Program.

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!

Graduate Students Help Build an Analysis of Green Gentrification

Graduate Students Help Build an Analysis of Green Gentrification

Examining Green Gentrification is a report produced on behalf of CREATE through a semester-long partnership with six graduate students in the Humphrey School’s Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies and Theories course in fall 2018. The purpose of this report is to analyze the green gentrification literature, discuss how this process manifests in Minneapolis, and explore some existing policy tools to respond.

For CREATE, the importance of green gentrification came into focus through a conversation with community collaborators that started at the intersection of water and equity. As Initiative Co-PI Kate Derickson explained, “As the mission of CREATE began to take shape, it was clear that the communities we were working with wanted to see investment in the environment that wouldn’t result in displacement. We were also finding that the state and local agencies and environmental NGOs we spoke to weren’t clear on how environmental amenities might contribute to negative impacts for low-income communities.”

This report is a first step in building a common analysis of green gentrification, following the priorities set by CREATE’s community partners. The analysis is rooted in a definition from Melissa Checker (2011) where she describes green gentrification as “the convergence of urban redevelopment, ecologically minded initiatives and environmental activism in an era of advanced capitalism. Operating under the seemingly a-political rubric of sustainability, environmental gentrification builds on the material and discursive successes of the urban environmental justice movement and appropriates them to serve high-end redevelopment that displaces low income residents.”

A working visualization of green gentrification processes overtime

The course brought together graduate students from a variety of academic backgrounds, expressing an understanding that interdisciplinary education is vital in analyzing such a decidedly interdisciplinary set of social and political processes. This multidisciplinary background was reflected among the six students who worked with CREATE on this report.

Julia Brokaw, a PhD candidate in UMN’s entomology program, was one of those students. Throughout the semester she found some (perhaps unexpected) intersections between green gentrification theory and more familiar conversations in scientific literature. For example, green gentrification raises issues of who benefits and long-term land use implications. “Sometimes, scientists are asking the same questions,” Brokaw said. But the course also provided a space to engage in crucial conversations that are situated outside the traditional purview of her own disciplinary background. Seeing the intimacy of the intersections between housing justice, green space, and her own PhD research “sparked an urgency to bring these conversations into science spaces,” Brokaw said.

Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies and Theories was co-taught by Shannon Smith Jones and William Delaney of HOPE Community Inc., a Phillips neighborhood-based organization that engages in a wide range of community development programming. To have instructors who are embedded within a community organization was instrumental in shaping how students analyzed course content. This is particularly significant because questions about “neighborhood revitalization” – a phrase which itself holds a complex and controversial history in American urban space – have deep implications for community institutions and the people they serve. Moving beyond calls to simply offer inclusion for wide range of voices, this course made space for community practitioners to set the framework for how knowledge is presented and analyzed in the first place.

As Kowsar Mohammed, a Second Year Master’s Candidate in the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the Humphrey School reflected, “The politics of knowledge production is that often academia and professional setting decides what forms of knowledge are acceptable…The CREATE project allowed our group to experience how the transformation of knowledge production from academia to the community helps decolonize narratives and source policies that best-fit members of the community that face the challenges at hand.”

The course was structured around collaborative projects with community organizations in Minneapolis. When it came time to find “clients” for the students to work with, CREATE emerged as an obvious choice. In addition to complimentary pedagogical approaches, HOPE Communities Inc. had already built a relationship with the Initiative as a member of the Policy Think Tank. As Jones put it, “There was a natural alignment.”

Embedding course material in the context of community collaboration also fostered a more intentional examination of power and hierarchy within the classroom. For example, rather than viewing the class as a “neutral” space, the students established a system for deciding who would get first dibs on projects by considering race and gender, among other factors – a process which Jones was very impressed with. “Watching the group dig into the work the way they did was extraordinary,” she said.

As Derickson added, “The phenomenal work that these students did in this class has already informed how we understand the relationship between neighborhood change and green infrastructure.  The passion and dedication the students brought to this project represents the enthusiasm that graduate students have for community-engaged, problem oriented research. Shannon and Will also did an excellent job guiding them through the research process.”

A two-page visual summary of report findings can be found here. You can also view the final Green Gentrification report in its entirety via this link.

CREATE is grateful for the work that Leoma Van Dort, Kowsar Mohamed, Savina Proykova, Yi Wang, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, and Julia Brokaw put into this project, as well as for the leadership of William Delaney and Shannon Smith-Jones.

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