Moving the agenda forward

My last post argued that a preoccupation with changing tenure and promotion policies is diverting attention from alternative strategies for promoting community-university engagement. The situation is analogous to that of a gardener who wants a fruit-bearing shrub to yield a greater number of fatter, juicier berries who concentrates only on producing more blooms rather than paying attention to systemic considerations such as the amount of nutrients in the soil, the availability of water and sunlight, or the plant’s exposure to wind and cold. This post tries to broaden the perspective on the question of how to move the community engagement agenda forward.

How much change, where, and how?

It’s important to start by recognizing that there are tensions inherent in the effort to achieve change from within a system or institution. For example, how much can you change the status quo when you need to conform to at least some aspects of it in order to establish the legitimacy of new ways of doing things?

It’s also important to recognize that practitioners of community-university engagement are working across multiple systems and institutions. Getting community engagement legitimized within academia is a predominant theme in the discourse. However, it is rare to find any mention of the parallel need to get this activity legitimized in communities. I believe academics need to demonstrate their trustworthiness and prove the value of partnerships to current and potential collaborators in the community. We need to determine how to motivate, recognize, and support community organizations in ways that are meaningful to them. If we instead focus all our efforts on gaining legitimacy in the academy, when we finally turn our attention outward, we may find no one there still willing to work with us.

We also need to keep in mind the question of what kinds of changes need to happen, where they need to occur (e.g., at what levels of an organization or within which elements of a system) and how they might happen. Choices need to be made about where to put limited resources based on some analysis of where the potential for change is greatest, where the leverage points might be, and where you might find allies. It’s helpful to have some concepts or principles to guide decision-making. There are lots of lenses through which change processes can be viewed. In my own work at UBC I was guided by a “theory of change” that states that people change their minds about what is or is not legitimate when they hear new stories about the way things are, have experiences that are congruent with these new stories, and can discuss these stories and experiences with others.

Strategies for change

Attempts to promote community-university engagement need to take three realities into account:

  1. Lots of people in both academic and community settings don’t know what these activities look and feel like or what they can achieve.
  2. This sphere of activity takes time, energy, skill, and commitment. While Canadian universities have learned a great deal from research and operational models developed in the U.S., their models for managing activities such as Community Service Learning developed in a context where significant government funding was available. This is not the situation in Canada.
  3. There are pressures on higher education that are seen as more urgent and important than the call to engage more with external communities. (University Affairs is a great source of information about these other forces.)

These realities represent significant challenges. But they also present opportunities for creativity. To fully exploit these opportunities our strategic efforts need to be more congruent with the way community engagement works, i.e., relationships with diverse actors need to be at the core of our change efforts and the exigencies of particular contexts need to shape specific strategies. In addition, we should use tactics that themselves unsettle the status quo and model the kinds of changes in structure and culture that we seek.

Here are some concrete suggestions:

  1. Educate institutional leaders about how community engagement could help universities and colleges respond to some of the challenges they face (e.g., Community Service Learning can increase student engagement and satisfaction with coursework. CSL could be particularly important as a counterpoint to more on-line learning).
  2. If your institution has made rhetorical commitments to community engagement, find out which leaders are behind these commitments and build alliances with them. These leaders may be eager to connect with someone who can help them make the rhetoric come alive.
  3. Look for issues of significant concern in particular communities that link to areas of academic strength in your institution. Explore ways that sustained collaborations could result in demonstrable impacts. Consider making institutional commitments that go beyond ad hoc partnerships between individual faculty members and a small number of organizations. Such efforts often attract external funds, sometimes from donors who support social or environmental initiatives but do not typically consider giving to universities.
  4. Convene groups of people who are passionate about the work to explore new models for organizing community-based activities. Include community organization representatives, community leaders, faculty, administrators, graduate and undergraduate students, and staff (who are too often invisible in the discourse about community engagement). Use a variety of techniques to generate new conversations. For example, convene dialogues where the format supports people to wonder together about what they do not know, rather than voicing familiar refrains about what they do know. Resist the temptation to form task forces or committees. Avoid organizing conventional academic activities such as panel discussions, lectures or conferences which allow people to fall into habitual patterns of thinking and relating.
  5. Establish awards or prizes for community-engaged activities. Awards could be made separately to different categories of players (e.g., to students, faculty, staff, or community partners) or to collaborations that exemplify the kind of work the institution wants to encourage. Allocating a small amount of money for such awards is an easy way for an institution to reinforce its rhetoric. If the criteria and submission procedures are defined carefully, this can be a way to educate people about what high-quality community engagement consists of. It can also be a way for institutional leaders, department heads and Deans to find out what people are doing. Information from the submissions can be used to raise the profile of community engagement.
  6. Build awareness of what community engagement is, how it is done, and what it achieves. Invite leaders in the university and the community to visit sites where activities are taking place. Include the Chief Financial Officer as well as the President and Provost. Find ways for people to tell stories about their experiences through a variety of media. Students and community partners can be especially compelling advocates.

Building a movement?

I’m not convinced that current community-engaged activities in Canada constitute a movement. But many institutions have made rhetorical commitments that could serve as a rallying point. In order for institutions to deliver on these commitments, more people at all levels need to get a feel for what community-university engagement is so they can discover for themselves why it’s worth investing in. Once institutions see how this domain of activity can be rewarding for them, they will be more likely to reward their faculty for being on the front lines.

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