Some Key Challenges to Community Engagement

It is not that difficult to create relationships between people from universities and people from community organizations. Many “campus-community partnerships” get created to achieve short-term, limited objectives. For example, students do a service or research project for an organization where they were already volunteering, university staff or faculty arrange for students from a class to do a community project during one school term, or a business school professor does pro bono consulting for a new social enterprise that needs help getting started. But it can be difficult to sustain campus-community relationships over the long term, to build relationships where the collaborative work accomplishes goals that are central to the interests of everyone involved.

The primary challenges to such long-term, strategic collaborations can be categorized as follows:

  1. Cultural differences between the academy and the community
  2. Power dynamics
  3. Lack of incentives for those involved
  4. Operational factors (e.g., lack of time and money).

Quite a bit has been said already in the community-university engagement discourse about these challenges, but I want to offer a few thoughts.

Cultural Differences

Neither the “academy” nor the “community” are monolithic cultural entities. There are sub-cultures within both. There are different disciplinary cultures in the academy and significant differences between the organizational cultures of private sector businesses, government departments, public schools, and non-profit organizations. Nevertheless, there are identifiable differences between academic and community cultures that can interfere with attempts to collaborate.

When we work within a homogeneous culture, we interact with people who tend to share the same norms, expectations, values, and beliefs. Everyone is implicitly playing by the same rules. What can happen in community-university relationships is that people inadvertently break the rules of the other culture. This can lead to a breakdown in the relationship. More will be said about cultural differences in later posts but I’ll give one example here.

Professors who give lectures are conditioned by this approach to teaching to talk for long blocks of time. They usually expect not to be interrupted. Given their purpose, their primary concern is whether they have been understood not whether they understand the views or concerns of the other people in the room. Professors who go into community settings and behave in ways that work in the lecture hall (e.g., taking up most of the air time) risk reinforcing stereotypes about academics being arrogant and self-centred. If faculty fail to recognize that they are entering into a different cultural space and need to adjust their behaviour, they will alienate potential community collaborators.

Power Dynamics

The literature on community-university engagement asserts that partnerships in this area can be challenging because universities hold more power than communities. The field is trying to give more voice to community partners and identify ways to equalize power (e.g., by ensuring that some financial resources are controlled by community partners). But I know there are some in the academy who think the university having more power is just the natural order of things and is no cause for concern. In addition, there are community partners who do not see themselves as having less power than the university. But I agree with those who believe that real or perceived power differentials can impair campus-community relationships. In the course of recent conversations with community partners, I was struck by the way they talked about academia, as if they knew the environment very well. I realized that most of the community professionals who get involved in campus-community partnerships have been educated in universities or colleges. As students they had experiences that would have conditioned their attitudes and beliefs about academia. These included experiences of being judged (i.e., marked) by professors, possibly being criticized by professors, and maybe even feeling intimidated by professors. As students, their status was beneath that of professors. I began to wonder whether, when community professionals find themselves working with professors, they (perhaps unconsciously) defer to professors, worry about whether they are performing adequately, and make assumptions about who is in charge. How much might this conditioning affect the way campus-community partnerships unfold?

Lack of incentives

The need for changes to policies and protocols around promotion and tenure appears on pretty much everybody’s list of barriers to community engagement. I will say more about this in a later post. But it needs to be pointed out that there is just as much need to consider what the incentives are for community organizations to engage with academia and what the incentives are for students to do an outstanding job when they get involved in this work. Too many people in academia assume there are legions of people out there waiting for the ivory tower to lower the drawbridge over the moat. Many academics are unaware of the level of skepticism, even hostility that exists in some community contexts, especially those who have a history of being exploited by academics (e.g., aboriginal communities and poor, marginalized communities).

Operational factors

Operational barriers include pressures related to other demands on people’s time, mismatches between the annual rhythms in academia and other sectors, lack of funding, and geographical distances between campuses and community settings. My experience is that if the above factors are addressed, i.e., if there is a commitment to address cultural differences and unhealthy power dynamics and if people are sufficiently motivated, then operational obstacles can be overcome.

But that can be a big “if.” One of the rarely-mentioned challenges of sustaining community-campus collaborations is that this work inevitably requires participants to learn through experience. Unfortunately, the assumption in the discourse seems to be that being an expert in a discipline is enough to qualify people to collaborate effectively with community partners. But community engagement requires sensitivities and skills that are not highly valued in some academic contexts (e.g., collaborative decision-making and straight-talking skills). As implied above, there is a need for both academic and community partners to unlearn certain habits and attitudes as well as learn new skills. A later post will expand on this observation. My goal here is to make the point that sustaining collaborative relationships requires an explicit commitment to learning by everyone involved. The fact that such learning will sometimes be messy and entail discomfort also needs to be not just acknowledged but embraced.

For more on community engagement, see the other blog posts in Taking the Plunge and  the articles in the Context section.