Partnerships or Collisions? (Part 2)

In my previous post I described a fictitious scenario involving a first encounter between a sociology professor and an executive director of a non-profit agency. The scenario illustrates the kind of cultural differences that make it difficult for people from the academy and people from community settings to work together. Here are some suggestions about how to bridge these differences.

The beginning: initiation of the relationship

First impressions are important. Establishing a level playing field is important. If the academic partner wants to give the impression that he/she is eager to make the relationship work, the first meeting should be held in the community. The primary goal for the first encounter should be to find some shared interests and goals, some common ground. The central question should not be what, specifically, the collaborators might do together but why they might want to work together in the first place. If people get a chance to articulate what they are passionate about, then their shared intentions can be a touchstone if and when things get difficult later. The meeting should follow a format that is clear and encourages authentic dialogue. Ideally, you would get agreement beforehand on the agenda for the meeting, including the time to be allocated to different agenda items or activities. This does not mean the meeting itself needs to be overly formal. Some first meetings might consist of a tour of the organization’s programs or a dinner meeting with key participants in the organization’s work. The point is that people need to know what to expect and what is expected of them. They need to begin to feel some confidence that an effective container for the work they are contemplating can be created. Ideally, people will come away from the first meeting excited about working together.

The middle: ongoing communications

Rules of engagement for campus-community partnerships typically include the recommendation to make sure roles and responsibilities are clear. This is easier said than done because so many dimensions of roles and responsibilities are invisible until some tacit expectation gets violated. In my experience community professionals tend to be better at articulating roles and responsibilities than academics because they usually have more experience managing programs, hiring and orienting staff, leading teams, etc. This suggests that community organizations should take the lead on this aspect of structuring the partnership.

Ideally, you will make explicit agreements about how you will maintain open and efficient communication pathways throughout the partnership. Determine whether using phone or email or software designed to allow participatory project management will be the best way to communicate about the details of the work that needs to be done. Determine who should be kept in which communication loops. Specify the desired frequency and mode of communication. It is not enough to say, “We will communicate regularly,” because “regularly” might mean “once a month” to the academics and “once a week” to the community people. Ensure there is a protocol in place to deal with problems, even if it’s only to say, “If you ever have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me directly. Here’s my cell number.” All this might seem trivial but I have seen the neglect of such things cause problems. For example, in one person’s work culture the standard might be that all emails are responded to within 24 hours and in another person’s organization, the norm might be to respond only to top priority emails and if it takes a week, so be it. If the first person sends an email to the second and doesn’t get a quick response, s/he can feel like a basketball player who has thrown the ball to a teammate under the hoop in the final seconds of a cliff-hanger and suddenly has been struck deaf and blind. The lack of response is usually interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

It is also a good idea to establish a protocol for meeting times, formats and locations through a process that allows partners to talk about their expectations about meetings. They might discover that their work cultures view meetings differently. It’s not fair to expect one partner to conform totally to the other’s norms. To make meetings productive and even enjoyable, I recommend partners take the time early on to discuss why they will have meetings, what approaches to dialogue and decision-making will be used, how agendas will be created, who needs to be included in which meetings, who will chair or facilitate which meetings, what kinds of records need to be kept and how, and where meetings will be held.

The end: closure and celebration

This is the most neglected aspect of campus-community partnerships. It is often when community partners feel let down: the professor or the students get what they need and just disappear. Often this happens because the end of a project coincides with the end of the school term. Students are busy writing exams; professors are marking papers and cleaning up administrative details. But a failure to reflect on and acknowledge the partnership’s accomplishments, including the lessons learned and the relationships forged, is a missed opportunity to give and receive the mutual appreciation that is fundamental to the creation of sustained relationships. It takes effort to organize a closing event, especially when food is involved (and sharing food should always be part of such events), but the time and energy should be considered an investment not only in that particular partnership but in the larger project of community-university engagement. Celebrations are a huge aspect of cultural life. Here too, closing events should reflect careful decisions about what cultural elements to include. Long congratulatory speeches may be the norm in academia, but they can be objects of disdain in community contexts. Dancing may be mandatory elements of celebrations in some communities but could be too much of a stretch for some academics. The goal of celebrations of community-university partnerships should be to acknowledge that the participants have created a new hybrid space where people with diverse backgrounds and interests managed, against significant odds, to create a sense of shared purpose and belonging.

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