Deepening the Discourse

Community engagement is a hot topic in the post-secondary world in Canada. Many university and college presidents are highlighting the great work their institutions are already doing in the community and encouraging faculty to do more. At Congress this year the Governor General talked about the importance of sharing and co-producing knowledge with the community in his keynote speech. He also hosted a working session with invited representatives from educational institutions and the community sector. A related report recommends that, in order to realize the potential of community-campus collaborations, strategies to support a culture of collaboration and to focus on “big issues” need to be pursued.

I welcome these developments. As a result of my experiences at UBC over the past 13 years, I am convinced that getting universities and communities working more closely together is a good idea. As the founding Director of what are now two units at the University of British Columbia I have seen the power of such collaborations. The Learning Exchange is an initiative in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that offers free computer access and training and an ESL conversation program as well as organizing informal opportunities for local residents to learn from each other and to engage with students, staff, and faculty from UBC. The UBC-Community Learning Initiative works with faculty members and others to support students to do Community Service Learning and Community Based Research projects or placements in non-profit organizations, public schools, and small businesses.

Through my work in these units, I have seen how beneficial community-university engagement can be. Activities like Community Service Learning and Community Based Research can show students how classroom learning can be applied to community issues and provoke them to discover new things about themselves. In addition, such work allows community organizations to take on projects they would otherwise not have the capacity to do. I have seen faculty members rediscover their love of teaching as their students have become more curious and engaged. Some professors have even changed their research focus as a result of a new interest in community issues or experiential learning itself.

But I am aware that there are significant issues that need to be addressed if the potential of community-university engagement is to be realized on a wide scale. There are serious questions that need to be addressed in order for universities and communities to form genuine partnerships that become stronger over time. So I proposed this blog to the editors of University Affairs as a way of creating an informal space for the exploration of the many questions that arise as Canadian universities and communities increase their efforts to work together.

For example, I think it is important for universities to recognize that for them to be effective partners with individuals and organizations from community settings, some aspects of academic culture need to change. Some epistemological assumptions need to be revised to place more value on the knowledge and expertise of people in the community.  In addition, the academy needs to place more emphasis on the ways that research and reflection can lead to action. These kinds of changes will not be easy. They go against the grain of some long-standing academic traditions.

But simply relabeling activities with the latest buzz words or paying lip service to the rhetoric around community engagement will not be enough. If the on-the-ground activities of universities fail to authentically engage communities in efforts where shared goals are pursued and the power to make key decisions, including resource allocation decisions is shared, community organizations will become disillusioned. Sooner or later, they will walk away. And a huge opportunity to effect social change will be lost.

I am hoping to use this blog space to explore what it means for universities and communities to authentically engage with each other. I hope to bring to light some of the issues that advocates of community engagement may gloss over in their efforts to get this important activity institutionalized in Canada.

Future posts will cover topics such as how to create and sustain relationships across the distance that often exists between post-secondary institutions and communities, how to navigate the cultural differences that can cause campus-community partnerships to go off the rails, why more women than men are attracted to this kind of activity, and how Canadian approaches to this field might be different from those in other jurisdictions.

My goal is to deepen the discourse about community engagement so that an understanding of its complexities and subtleties can become a strong foundation for work that not only enhances students’ learning but creates a new kind of interdependence between post-secondary institutions and the communities they have relationships with, whether these are local or global.

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.