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Nothing about us, without us

How the new credo for community-engaged research is making a difference both in communities and at universities.

The building blocks of community-engaged research begin with the community. Photo by Andrew Myers.

University Affairs magazine, the Community-Engaged Scholarship Partnership, and @CESChat co-hosted a Twitter chat on community-engaged scholarship (#CESChat) in Canada on June 10 from 1 to 2 pm ET.

Emergency youth shelters serve a vital purpose, providing sanctuary to young people in crisis. Staff at these shelters are all too familiar with “revolving door syndrome,” in which the same vulnerable young people cycle through the social service network. Ideally, a person stays in a shelter temporarily before finding a suitable housing solution. But in most cases, the supports are not in place for that to happen. It’s a problem with no easy solution.

The problem of revolving door syndrome was not specifically on her mind when Naomi Nichols began her doctoral studies at York University’s faculty of education in 2006. But she did have a clear vision of the direction of her research. “I knew I wanted to work in the area of service provision for marginalized youth, and was thinking about a participatory-activist research project with young people.”

Dr. Nichols (she now has her PhD) had just returned to Peterborough, the city where she was raised, and a mutual friend introduced her to Walter Johnstone, executive director of the city’s Youth Emergency Shelter. “We chatted, and saw some real lines of convergence between what he wanted to do at the shelter and what I was proposing.”

Scholarship that is engaged directly with the community is not exactly something new under the sun. Researchers, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, have always engaged the wider community in their research.

“What is new is that institutions are stepping up to support this,” says David Phipps, director of the office of research services at York University. “There is now an investment of real dollars, similar to the way institutions have always supported industry liaison and tech-transfer.”

Mr. Johnstone and Dr. Nichols were awarded four months of internship funding in the spring of 2007, and Dr. Nichols received a three-year doctoral fellowship. She spent the next two years at the Youth Emergency Shelter as a volunteer researcher, grant writer, program developer and staff educator. Along with staff, she began to grapple with the seemingly intractable “revolving door syndrome.”

“I started doing interviews with the young people – I thought of it as ‘privileged listening’ rather than telling them what to do.” The young people discussed their prior learning, life experiences, goals and aspirations. They also talked about their life skills in areas such as healthy relationships, housekeeping, cooking and healthy eating.

Building on this research, Dr. Nichols and Mr. Johnstone collaborated on a proposal to the Ontario Trillium Foundation, seeking support for a life skills learning program. This ultimately led to the development of the Transitioning Life Skills program, tailored specifically for each young person and carried out with the help of a mentor.

The program has created a lasting impact in the Peterborough community. The goal was to produce a self-sustaining program within three years, after which the shelter would sell the program to other local, youth-serving organizations such as the Children’s Aid Society. This fee-for-service structure would provide a revenue stream for the shelter.

The Transitioning Life Skills program, along with a work skills development program, led the Peterborough shelter to be named one of the province’s success stories in the 2008 Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Services’ report Breaking the Cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Building relationships

The traditional system of academic incentives and rewards has not always been a good fit for community-engaged scholarship. Tenure and promotion are the two most frequently cited disincentives for scholars who might want to partner with community groups – such partnerships generally do not count for much in front of promotion and tenure committees when compared with research published in important journals.

But perhaps an even bigger barrier is cultural. Naomi Nichols understood she would need to build trust with the young people or her project would go nowhere. She went climbing at the local gym, served as a volunteer lifeguard and job-shadowed the shelter workers.

The bonds of trust are critical. Lynn Lavallée, an academic of Algonquin, Cree and French ancestry, has childhood memories of people walking with clipboards through her Regent Park neighbourhood in Toronto, making observations and taking notes. These are not pleasant memories.

“It was a feeling of being under the microscope. You felt stigmatized, even though they might have had the best intentions,” says Dr. Lavallée, now an associate professor in the school of social work at Ryerson University, whose research is on Indigenous health and well-being.

“Nothing about us, without us,” is the way Dr. Phipps sums up the current approach to community engaged research. “We don’t do research on a community – we do research with a community. This issue has been particularly strongly felt within Canada’s First Nations communities, who have not been well ‘partnered-with’ by academia.”

Assessments by peers

But a fact of the research universe is that most assessment protocols still involve single-author articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Outcomes produced by community-engaged scholarship, by contrast, can include everything from briefs written for government to public forums, videos, resource kits and other items that can be of immediate, practical use to a community.

There are concrete differences in the two approaches. When reviewing a grant application with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Lavallée will ask whether the principal investigators have plans for hiring and building capacity within the community.

“Are they planning community forums where they will disseminate the knowledge? Will they be writing a plain-language report that will be given back to the community? Will they publish in journals that are available online, so communities can have access?” Dr. Lavallée asks. “Many of the high-ranking journals are only accessible to people with library access in a university setting, which is a very limited amount of people.”

Community-engaged scholarship, known as CES, is often instigated by real-life problems. Carmichael Outreach assists those struggling with addictions, poverty and health issues in Regina, Saskatchewan. In 2011, the group was trying to get a handle on why Regina property owners and managers were no longer renting to social-assistance recipients. Carmichael Outreach became the lead researcher on a project funded by the Community Research in Action fund at the University of Regina. A 15-minute documentary video called Bridging the Gap, examining conflicts between landlords and tenants, is an example of a non-traditional research product.

“It was great research,” says Patricia Elliott, director of the community research unit and assistant professor of journalism in the faculty of arts at the University of Regina. “It uncovered new knowledge, and it addressed a community problem. But the question becomes: How do you recognize that work? Under the current rubric, you can’t. It would come under community service, which is a ‘soft’ category akin to volunteerism.”

Papers published in journals with high “impact factors” are the achievements that matter most in grant applications and tenure and promotion. The impact factor was conceived in the 1970s as a tool for libraries to judge the relative merits of academic journals and is calculated annually as the mean number of citations to articles published in any given journal during the two preceding years.

“The biggest problem occurs when impact factors are applied to individual papers and to people as indicators of the paper’s quality or people’s scholarship,” says Li-Shih Huang, associate professor of applied linguistics and Learning and Teaching Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Victoria.

Dr. Huang says there needs to be a much broader definition of “impact.” A well-received paper might be forgotten a year later, while work that makes a real difference in a community can have positive ripple effects decades down the road.

“I am not the only one to point out that the impact and attention generated by some blog posts are much greater than the impact of some articles published in ‘high impact’ journals locked behind pay walls,” she says.

CES is not mutually exclusive to traditional scholarship – engaged scholars still publish in peer-reviewed journals, and indeed some research has shown that the best scholars are also the most engaged with community partners. But engaged scholarship takes time.

“It takes time to build trust between the academic and community partners,” Dr. Phipps observes. “Time working with a community organization to build trust and build a collaboration is time when a scholar is not supervising graduate students or writing papers.”

An alternate view

While tenure and promotion are part of the puzzle, to focus on these two aspects misses the larger picture, argues Margo Fryer, senior adviser, Student Learning Initiatives, at the University of British Columbia.

“I am not saying [tenure and promotion] policies should not be changed. I would be very happy if policies, procedures and practices related to faculty recognition were made more flexible and more inclusive of different forms of ‘scholarship’ including CES,” Dr. Fryer says. But she isn’t convinced “that changing T and P will, in fact, result in more uptake of CES by faculty.”

Dr. Fryer is considered a Canadian pioneer in the field; she received a British Columbia Community Achievement Award in 2007 for service to the community. She also has just completed a blog for University Affairs called Taking the Plunge on “community-university engagement” (or CUE) – the term she prefers as it can include forms of valuable engagement that would not be considered scholarship.

Community-university engagement, says Dr. Fryer, is such a different way of doing business that trying to fit it into the existing academic paradigm may actually be counter-productive.

“The effort to legitimize this activity using the language and norms that faculty members value risks distorting what is a fundamental characteristic of CUE – the participation of a host of players in collaborative activity that is not driven by academic agendas alone.”

Collaborations such as these are also giving way to new kinds of funding, like the self-sustaining life skills program pioneered in Peterborough.


The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council was one of the first large agencies to step into the role of CES funding about a dozen years ago with its CURA program for Community University Research Alliance. Today SSHRC’s Connection program exclusively funds collaboration between researchers and partners from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Grants are typically worth $7,000 to $50,000 over one year, with higher amounts considered on an exceptional basis.

One trend in CES is less reliance on a grant from one of the three major granting councils. When a community group has a specific problem that needs attention, it doesn’t want to spend a year in the application process for a large grant. The University of Regina’s Community Research in Action fund, which pays for projects of up to $3,000, is an example of the smaller, more local and more nimble funding sources available for CES.

But funding is one area where the interests of the researcher and of the community group may not converge. “As a scholar, pulling in tri-council funding gets you a stamp of approval,” says U of Regina’s Professor Elliott. “Universities tend to rely on the [major granting councils] not only as a source of funds, but as an indicator of how well both individual faculty members and the university as a whole are regarded.”

Community organizations are often connected to a much wider universe of funding sources, ranging from targeted government programs to private foundations. But, says Professor Elliott, “the researcher isn’t going to get the same professional recognition he or she would get for pulling in a million-dollar SSHRC grant.”

Still, those non-academic grants can do a lot of good, which is ultimately what CES is all about. The university benefits in a different way, by creating new opportunities for students and researchers and allowing society to have other ways to judge the value of a university.

In another departure from the standard funding model, in some cases the community partner, rather than the researcher, has become the principal applicant and receives the grant money.

“This transfer of wealth is a transfer of power,” Professor Elliott asserts. “We hook the community group up with academics who have expertise in a certain area. But the researcher is not calling the shots in the way they would with a singular research project.”

Institutions themselves are showing a growing enthusiasm for community-engaged scholarship. Eight Canadian universities have formed the Community Engaged Scholarship Partnership, with links to an international organization. The partnership is focused on three areas: institutional assessment, scholar development and faculty assessment. (Please see “Changing the culture” below.)

In October, York will host a symposium bringing together 19 community-engaged scholars from across the country to look at the politics, policies, barriers and best practices in the field. “Many of the researchers are working in an engaged fashion, but there’s not a lot of research on how to do this,” Dr. Phipps says. “So we’ve asked our scholars to think critically around the processes of engagement. We want evidence on what works.”

Even sooner, Canada’s Governor General David Johnston will deliver the keynote address at CU Expo, an international conference on community engagement taking place in June in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. The conference will showcase best practices in community-university partnerships worldwide and try to create opportunities for innovative and successful collaborations.

The Governor General has referred to community-engaged scholarship as “democratizing knowledge” and the best way to address problems that are global in reach, tremendously complex and well beyond the purview of any single discipline, sector or country.

Collaborative research and sharing of knowledge has great potential to improve quality of life around the world. “It’s a long-established research tradition,” Professor Elliott says. “The Greeks were doing practical, community based research. But under our modern academic model it somehow fell by the wayside, and now we’re trying to fit it back in.”

Joey Fitzpatrick is features editor with The Chronicle Herald in Halifax.

Changing the culture at universities

The Community Engaged Scholarship Partnership comprises eight Canadian universities: Victoria, Alberta, Calgary, Regina, Saskatchewan, Guelph, York and Memorial, as well as the Community-Campus Partnerships for Health as the facilitating partner. Its goal is to document, with a view to changing, university culture, policies and practices to recognize and reward community engaged scholarship. Each institution has committed $10,000 a year towards the effort, said the group’s director Sarena Seifer. The group is studying three main areas that many proponents say are ripe for change.

Institutional assessment and change

U.S. universities use a system developed by the Carnegie Foundation called Community Engagement Elective Classification for self-assessment and quality improvement. Participation requires a substantial effort on the part of the institutions to collect and document significant data. Many believe Canada should develop a similar assessment tool for its own universities. Some Canadian institutions are now members of the Talloires Network, an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education.

Scholar development

Community service learning opportunities are now much more common at the high school level. When high school graduates reach university, they often expect to be working side-by-side with community members. Younger faculty are also drawn to CES, says University of Regina professor Patricia Elliott. “It opens up so many opportunities for students to do interesting, hands-on work,” she says. “Providing these opportunities is really valuable to a university in recruiting and retaining younger faculty.”

Faculty assessment

The Community Engaged Scholarship Partnership has taken an inventory of tenure and promotion policies across the eight participating institutions, and is developing language that will help promote policies that recognize and reward CES.

Presidents’ community-campus group

A working group of university presidents on campus-community engagement was set up this past January by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Chaired by Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter, the eight-member group defines “community” in a broad way to include municipalities, not-for-profit groups, First Nations communities and the private sector. The group met with national leaders from the community sector in April to identify common interests and opportunities for collaboration. One goal is to explain to the public how universities and community organizations jointly address major social, economic and cultural issues.

Joey Fitzpatrick
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  1. Dr. Kevin Willison / June 1, 2013 at 08:58

    Willison, K.D. (2013). Maximizing Chronic Disease Prevention and Management through Community Based Participatory Research and Inter-collaborative Practices. Open Journal of Social Science Research 1(1):7-14.

    DOI: 10.12966/ojssr.04.02.2013