How can communities and universities make connections?

One of the comments offered in response to my first blog post suggested that universities have a long way to go before they will truly be accessible to community partners. I agree.

In my work at UBC, the success of our partnerships with community organizations depended entirely on personal relationships. Most often, these partnerships were initiated by someone from the university. A staff person, or faculty member, or student would connect with someone in an organization that was doing good work in an area of interest to the university. Or maybe an organization had been involved with the university in some way before and a pre-existing relationship evolved into something new. Once people got excited about pursuing some shared interests, a focused, goal-oriented relationship would develop.

But if people in a community organization have an idea they want to pursue in collaboration with someone at a university or college, and they do not know anyone at that institution, how can they make a connection? I know from my own experience working in the community before getting involved at UBC that universities are pretty impenetrable to outsiders. University websites can be intimidating. Even if there is a general phone number, the people on the other end of the line rarely have enough knowledge of who’s who in the university to point you in the right direction. Even if you find the name of a potential first contact, it is not unusual for emails and phone messages to go unanswered.

Some universities have created websites to serve as a portal for community organizations that have an idea for a community-based research project or have community service learning opportunities to offer students. But I am skeptical about whether these websites really do make the university more accessible. Despite all the hype about Internet-mediated forms of social interaction, I think the distance between universities and communities is significant enough that personal relationships are the only foundation for collaborations that will withstand the inevitable tensions that arise when people work together. I think of the distance as being primarily cultural, although in some cases, universities are geographically isolated as well. By “culture” in this context, I mean the way language is used, the things people get either excited or upset about, the things they find funny, the way they organize their work, their propensity for risk-taking, their sense of urgency about producing results, etc. For example, some community organizations I have worked with would never invest the time or energy in filling out a web-based form about the project they want to do. This is just not how they do business. But they have been excellent partners.

I understand how challenging this issue is for both universities and communities. Universities, especially the large ones, are complex, confusing places. Because of the way academia is structured, there are few central sources of complete, up-to-date, accurate information about who is doing what. The stereotypical story of people not knowing about the work of others whose office is just down the hall is often true. When people in the community complain to me that the university’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing, I try to explain that this is actually not an appropriate metaphor. The situation is worse than that. The university is not even a cohesive body.

What can be done? I think everyone needs to acknowledge that successful community-university engagement is rooted in personal relationships and that this reality has certain implications (e.g., websites on their own are not enough). Others (e.g., Community Campus Partnerships for Health) have offered useful guidelines for the sustenance of such relationships. But first these relationships need to be created.

How might relationship-generating strategies used in other domains provide inspiration? I think there is no substitute for the power of networking. Find someone in the university that you or someone in your network already knows and pick their brain about who you could talk to about your idea. Don’t think you necessarily have to talk to a faculty member at the outset. Students and staff have lots of connections. Follow the links in the chain as they arise. Or go to public lectures or other events hosted by the university that are relevant to your idea and talk to the speakers or organizers. Ask them for help.

If informal networking does not work, are there more formal ways of making connections? How about off-campus gatherings that use innovative formats for dialogue on issues facing particular communities? I am not imagining panel discussions featuring academic experts, but formats such as World Cafes where everyone participates equally. How about convening groups of students and professors and community organizations that work on the same issue (e.g., climate change, early childhood education, or food security) and using speed-dating as a way of encouraging matches? What if a particular school or faculty or department and a specific community committed to pursuing shared interests? (I am not suggesting the academy “adopt” a community or organization but rather “marry” it.) The key point to remember is that you are looking for one or more individual people who share your passion for some change-oriented goal and who you think will be fun to work with. As is the case in any relationship, if you are not laughing together regularly, chances are the relationship will not thrive.

None of these methods will succeed unless there is some receptivity on the academic side. I know that it can be intimidating to try to connect with professors. I think what can appear to be aloofness or even arrogance might be something else. I was taken aback many years ago when I was talking with a faculty colleague about how difficult it was to get faculty interested in community service learning. She said, “Margo, you have to understand. We have no idea what you are talking about!” It made a huge difference to know that the idea of working in and with community might be a completely foreign concept to a professor. It turned out to be better to start conversations by finding out what the professor cared about rather than asking if he or she wanted to get involved in a specific activity that might seem incomprehensible and perhaps even scary.

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