Book Review | Book Advances Theory and Evidence-Driven Design and Redesign of Community Leadership Development Programs

Review by Jennifer W. Purcell
Kennesaw State University

K. Pigg, S. Gasteyer, G. Martin, G. Apaliya, and K Keatings, Community Effects of Leadership Development Education: Citizen Empowerment for Civic Engagement. Rural Studies Series, Vol. 3. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, 240 pages. ISBN-10:1940425581.

This volume is the product of a five-year collaborative study on the impact of community leadership development programs spanning six states. The book is the third volume of the Rural Studies Series sponsored by the Rural Sociological Society, and the research presented was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The purpose of the book is to engender thoughtful theory and evidence-driven design and redesign of community leadership development programs.

Organization and Content

The book’s nine chapters are organized into two parts. In Part I, the authors dedicate six chapters to the presentation of their analysis of data collected on community leadership development. In Chapter One, the authors provide a historical context of community leadership development (CLD). They define community-based programs as those that are (1) focused on community issues and needs; (2) organized and managed locally or by a community group; and (3) sponsored by local resources. Although CLD programs are diverse in their target audience, curriculum, delivery, and specific community-level outcomes, the authors contend the common element across programs is their goal to “increase local leaders’ capacity to improve the community’s well-being” (p. 21). The authors suggest investment in leadership development and capacity-building responds to observed deficits in the community. They contend current and future community leaders in smaller, rural communities have inadequate preparation to address the complexity of social factors impacting their communities. In closing Chapter One, the authors propose two significant reconsiderations for CLD. First, they suggest CLD program sponsors and practitioners examine evaluation strategies for how program outcomes for individual participants, organizations, and communities are achieved. Identifying how CLD achieves outcomes at various levels is critical to evaluating and improving programs. Second, the authors call for a conceptualization of leadership that moves beyond individual roles and talents to one that recognizes the collaboration and interaction through which leadership and leaders manifest. This conceptual view of leadership as a social process informs the learning intervention that is CLD and is the premise on which the study is built.

Chapter Two details the impact of CLD on individual participants. The key finding related to individual participants informed by data collected in 24 communities with CLD programs, or “treatment sites,” was respondents who participated in CLD programs had significant learning when compared to respondents who lived in counties without programs. CLD participation yields learning that is associated with measureable increased levels of civic engagement and enhanced social capital within communities. Chapter Three expands upon the impact of CLD on social capital by illustrating how involvement in community organizations is broadened and intensified among CLD participants. In Chapter Four, the authors utilize a modified application of Flora, Flora, and Fey’s (2003) community capitals framework to demonstrate the positive impacts of CLD on community development.

Chapter Five addresses participant diversity, curriculum design, and community effects. The authors present data related to the six individual-level outcomes of CLD identified in the study (Personal Growth and Efficacy, Community Commitment, Shared Future and Purpose, Community Knowledge, Civic Engagement, and Social Cohesion). In Chapter Six, the authors press the core idea of the book: community leadership is about community change (p. 119). Their intent is to reveal strategies for CLD program improvement through empirical evidence. Chapter Six concludes Part I with a series of questions for practitioners and sponsors to consider as they design or redesign CLD offerings.

Part II includes three chapters that address the implications of the research for practitioners and future research. In this section, the authors detail a conceptual framework for community leadership development that integrates existing literature and findings from their research. The authors first emphasize the individual motivations for developing community leadership capacities and the myriad expressions of civic engagement (Chapter Seven). The authors suggest civic engagement leverages individual capacities for leadership and builds upon networked, relational leadership within a community in order to influence positive change (Chapter Eight). Hence, developing individual leadership capacity is elemental to promoting civic engagement; however, such individual-level development is merely a first step in CLD.

As demonstrated through the study, effective CLD interventions include curriculum that addresses individual, organizational, and community-level outcomes. Absence of any one of the three curricular outcomes is a missed opportunity to influence change and impact the community. The authors conclude with a discussion of a model of CLD informed by their research through which participants first attain and/or demonstrate (1) improved human capital self-efficacy and governance skills, (2) increased community commitment, (3) shared future and purpose, and (4) increased political knowledge (political capital). Based on the model, CLD participants then demonstrate increased social cohesion and ability to bridge networks and increased civic engagement. These CLD participant behaviors then result in enhanced civic infrastructure and community capacity that yield community-level awareness of responsiveness
to social needs and the inevitable changing conditions experienced in communities.


The book is tailored for CLD practitioners, sponsors, and evaluators through its accessible theoretical literature, study design, and data analysis. The volume is valuable for researchers who will be impressed with the breadth of relevant citations and integration of multiple disciplinary literature bases. Additionally, the authors provide five sets of study questions throughout the text that would be helpful for structuring independent or group learning exercises for graduate students or as a means of professional development for community leadership development practitioners.


Community effects of leadership development education: Citizen empowerment for civic engagement is an essential read for anyone responsible for the design and evaluation of community leadership development programs. Although targeted program evaluations and assessment of participant learning exist, there is a dearth of empirical research on CLD effects on communities and the interplay between individual, organizational, and community-level outcomes. This much anticipated volume heralds a new era of scholarship and practice that engages interdisciplinary literature and empirical research to more critically and precisely explore the benefits of the vast investment in CLD. The authors are frank in their discussion of the research’s limitations; the factors influencing CLD outcomes are numerable and controls are challenging. Despite the acknowledged limitations of the research, this volume is a significant contribution to CLD. The research presented provides an unprecedented synthesis of literature and empirically based insights into the recruitment practices, curriculum design, and evaluation strategies of CLD. Furthermore, the volume is a welcomed summons for scholars and practitioners to build upon the recommendations contained therein and advance the design of community leadership development programs and the ways in which such programs’ outcomes and impacts are measured.

The volume will also appeal to community engagement practitioners and community-engaged scholars who support and participate in university-community partnerships. University-sponsored community engagement activities, including community-engaged scholarship, are championed for their positive impact on communities;
however, comprehensive monitoring and measuring the varied impacts of these activities remains a challenge. Pigg and his colleagues challenge us to reconsider the design of programs intended to support leadership and community development. While the emphasis of their research addresses community leadership development specifically, there are implications for the diverse array of university-community partnerships. For example, the authors address multiple program design elements: primary and secondary outcomes, sponsorship mobilization, collaborative learning, the political and value-laden nature of community-engaged efforts, and diversity among participants among others.

The text may also encourage university leaders to reflect on the ways in which academic, co-curricular, and outreach programs meet their communities’ leadership development education needs. As representatives of anchor institutions that contribute to their communities’ sustainability and advancement, university leaders must carefully consider how and to what extent myriad initiatives individually and collectively impact participants and communities. Through this rigorous investigation, universities may more holistically illustrate their significance and demonstrate appropriate stewardship of the vast public and private investment in higher education.

The authors provide substantial insight into the effects of community leadership development programs; however, even they acknowledge their contribution falls short in providing a general
theory of community leadership. Pigg and his colleagues provide a model of the effects of community leadership development programs on individuals and communities that, although limited, presents a more comprehensive conceptual framework for leadership development education. Their model synthesizes multiple disciplinary literatures related to civic leadership capacity and demonstrates the interconnectivity and complexity of community leadership development. Community effects of leadership development education: Citizen empowerment for civic engagement is crucial addition to the literature on community leadership development, civic engagement, and community capacity building that will advance the influence of citizen leaders in their communities. The volume is also a valuable resource for university leaders who advocate for campus-community partnerships and those whose work directly impacts such collaborations that are designed to have positive impacts on communities.


The editorial team of the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship would like to acknowledge and thank the West Virginia University Press for providing copies of the book for this review.

About the Reviewer

Jennifer W. Purcell is an assistant professor of Leadership Studies and faculty consultant for community engagement at Kennesaw State University.

Book Review | Book on eService-Learning Posits Goals of Service-Learning Pedagogy and Technology’s Role in Achieving Them

Review by Sarah Stanlick
Lehigh University

Jean Strait and Katherine J. Nordyke (Eds.), eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement Through Online and Hybrid Courses. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2015, 182 pages. ISBN 978-1-62036-064-4.

Higher education has become increasingly technology-centric with massive open online courses (MOOCs), hybrid courses, and classroom technologies pushing us to reconsider how knowledge is shared, how identities develop, and how learners are reached. With this shift, there are both challenges and opportunities for the field of service-learning and civic engagement to consider. At the recent Pathways to Achieving Civic Engagement Conference hosted by North Carolina Campus Compact, a clear theme emerged with regard to technology’s impact on the future of service-learning and civic engagement. Some spoke with trepidation, and others with bold hope for innovations that could make service-learning even more accessible in the online format.

As educators, if we seek to develop the civic knowledge, skills, and values/attitudes of our students, that practice can take place in many different forms and formats. Harnessing technology’s power to support that diverse sharing of ideas, connections to modes of communication across boundaries, and scaffolding of critical reflection and growth are all domains in which the experience of service-learning and civic engagement can be deepened. However, not all are hopeful for technology’s role in education or society. Psychologist and MIT Professor Sherry Turkle (2012) has done extensive work on the divisive nature of technology and its capacity to push people further apart and encourage less “human” interactions. Clearly, there is much to be learned and new horizons to explore if we are to meaningfully and effectively implement technology in the service-learning and civic engagement field.

Editors Jean Strait and Katherine Nordyke are ahead of the curve in this respect, having published a volume that delves into the many expressions, benefits, and potential pitfalls of engaging in the online world. In their work eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement Through Online and Hybrid Courses, the editors bring together a diverse collection of author experience to speak to the future of service-learning in an online capacity. Divided into three main sections, the book provides a scaffold for readers to think through the ways in which experiential learning and civic engagement can take place in online and hybrid courses.

Moving from essentials to models to future directions, the book clearly scaffolds the knowledge about e-service-learning for the reader to both learn new frameworks and imagine the possibilities for their own practice. In the opening chapter, the editors—joined by Jane Turk—provide a comprehensive review that sets up many of the issues and implications of service-learning, both digitally and analog. They identify civic knowledge, skills, and values/attitudes as the ultimate goal of the pedagogy that is service-learning, and thus posit the question of how technology helps us to realize those goals. Leora Waldner provides a critical understanding of the components of e-service-learning and, further, what the values of a high-quality experience should encompass. In chapter 3, Nordyke explores the ways in which service-learning at large can be realized in a course, and then asks us to think about the appropriate usage when technology is involved. Whether it be direct or indirect service, integrated or standalone, there are many options for what service-learning can look like in the digital realm, and it is incumbent upon the curriculum designer to make intentional choices about that delivery. Finally, Strait rounds out this section of chapters by exploring the role of technology as a support system for service-learning, and specifically e-service-learning models.

In the next set of chapters, models for e-service-learning across disciplines and geographic areas are explored. Each provides a specific context for e-service-learning, from university adoption at-large to an online business course to the assessment of experiences in an established service-learning office. One of the chapters that focuses on exemplars is a case study on service-learning after Hurricane Katrina. Striking a parallel between today’s political landscape and the intense focus on the Syrian refugee crisis, one can look at this chapter as especially salient. A spike in attention and awareness can lead to a situation that susceptible to largely technocratic or unsustainable engagement. In the chapter on post-Katrina efforts, the example of the Each One, Teach One program provides evidence of a successful model that integrated hybrid online, in-person experiences for sustainable engagement and community partner relationship development. This section reminds us that we must think critically and carefully about the way in which service-learning and civic engagement is being implemented in truly meaningful, high-quality ways regardless of the realm—online or in-person.

Moving into the final section of the book, the focus shifts to the future. The penultimate chapter is a call from John Hamerlinck to leverage technology and community engagement to make higher education more purposeful and impactful. Trends in neoliberalism and internationalization in higher education—coupled with an increased focus on providing asynchronous experiences—have driven the growth and development of MOOCs and hybrid courses. Hamerlinck cites a number of examples from domains of cost, student success, and debt that point toward the need to rethinking the purpose and usefulness of higher education. Within the space constraints of a chapter, it is impossible to exhaust all of the issues facing the wicked problem of higher education delivery and transformation. However, there is one notable absence: the issue of access. I can envision an opportunity for a critical examination of these issues of access and equity in future works, especially as the opportunities for e-service-learning continues to grow and concern about the digital divide remains very real. That being said, the exciting opportunity that he highlights is the ability re-imagine higher education, leverage technology to create community, and highlight one’s work in service-learning and civic engagement to shift the expectations and models of higher education. In his vision, social media can be a tool to promote civic ideals, the openness of online courses can disseminate knowledge across stakeholders, and the creative, collaborative capacity of joint projects can be ever-expanded across geographies. Community-engaged teaching with technology, connectivism, and the decentralization of knowledge bases can have implications for the field, while strengthening values of community and public purpose for all of higher education.

Strait and Nordyke have put together a timely and useful resource for imagining and reconsidering the role of technology as a support, facilitator, and space for service-learning and civic engagement to take place. As a scholar-practitioner with significant experience in using technology in the classroom, I found this book to be an immensely helpful tool for those at any level of technology adoption. The contributors give us a catalyst to spark creative thinking about the delivery of service-learning education while retaining a focus on the values and quality of community engagement. Whether you look toward this brave new world of technology to expand your practice or deepen its impact, this volume is an essential resource.


Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.


The editorial team of the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship would like to acknowledge and thank Stylus Publishing for providing copies of the book for this review.

About the Reviewer

Sarah Stanlick is director of the Center
for Community Engagement and professor
of practice in sociology and anthropology at
Lehigh University.

Book Review | Comparing, Contrasting, and Combining Civic Engagement Education Through the Lenses of Social Entrepreneurship and Service-learning

Review by Paul H. Matthews
University of Georgia

Sandra L. Enos, Service-Learning and Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: A Pedagogy of Social Change. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, NY, 2015, 101 pages. DOI: 10.1057/9781137554444.0001

Is social entrepreneurship education just a kind of service-learning found in business schools? Or is it grounded in such different history, assumptions, and practice that its commonalities with community-based pedagogy are only superficial at best? The field of social entrepreneurship—an “innovative, social value-creating activity” (Wei-Skillern, Austin, Leonard, & Stevenson, 2007, p. 4)—is sometimes construed as analogous to service-learning, but on many campuses the two fields seem to occupy disparate and non-overlapping spaces. Sandra Enos’s brief volume (84 pages in four chapters, plus prefix, one appendix, and references), published in 2015 as part of the Community Engagement in Higher Education series (Palgrave Macmillan), seeks to change that, and to illustrate some of the ways in which these pedagogies of service-learning and social entrepreneurship can, do, and do not intersect on college campuses.

In the first chapter (“The Landscape of Social Change Education”), Enos—a sociology professor with experience in both service-learning and social entrepreneurship—sets the context with a sketch of some recent discussions of university engagement’s place in higher education, and contends that both fields focused on in this volume should be considered a subset of “social change education.” She provides evidence for the growing institutionalization of each, for instance through journals and professional associations, and draws parallels specifically between the existence of overarching organizations that encourage campus involvement in both movements (e.g., between Campus Compact and Ashoka U). Next, she summarizes prior work presenting these two fields’ commonalities (e.g., these are social-change oriented movements seeking greater campus reach; entail community-based partnerships; and provide opportunities for real-world applications of knowledge) as well as differences (e.g., a stronger focus on student learning in service-learning, versus on community/societal change in social entrepreneurship; a stronger orientation toward “disruption” of existing structures and practices in the latter; and differing language as well as desired learning outcomes). While Enos also contends that “[S]ocial entrepreneurship prizes the founding of new organizations” (p. 18), other researchers have noted the growth and value of social “intrepreneurship”—i.e., working to implement change within existing structures and organizations (Bornstein, 2007; Bornstein & Davis, 2010)—a construct not included in Enos’s overview.

Her second chapter (“Organizing for Engagement”) comprises the bulk of the book’s research contribution, an attempt to determine how these two pedagogies are organized and interrelate on campuses that offer both. Enos reports on website analyses and interviews she conducted with staff at the 10 campuses currently recognized with both Carnegie’s community engagement classification and the “Changemaker Campus” designation by Ashoka U. She contends that these “exemplars of service-learning and of social entrepreneurship education” (p. 23) should offer a view into the current status of institutionalization and potential relationships between these subfields of community engagement on U.S. campuses. As such, she investigates whether there are “patterns in the organization of these programs, whether there are typical disciplinary homes for service-learning and social entrepreneurship courses, …and how programs that offer [them] are related to each other” (p. 27). However, Enos reports that little consistency was found; instead, “what we see are individual profiles, tied to institutional size, history, culture and leadership” (pp. 32–33). While she summarizes information about each campus in a table, its content reads more like field notes than an analysis. As might be expected from a range of institutional sizes, types, and locations, she found that the colleges and universities studied had varying amounts of coursework, centralization, and support structures, and used different terminology in talking about their initiatives.

In chapter three, “Challenges for Service-Learning and Social Entrepreneurship,” Enos iterates several of the criticisms that have been extended toward these two sets of practice, including (for service-learning) a lack of “deliberate and intentional incorporation of civic skills” (p. 45), as well as issues of privilege, social justice, and the problematization of “service” (pp. 47–48). For social entrepreneurship, Enos notes that this field sometimes uses different terms (e.g. “social enterprise”) implying different foci; that innovations may struggle in being implemented at scale; and that the “celebratory nature of innovations in the social entrepreneurship space makes it difficult to mount a critical review of these practices” (p. 55). She also summarizes concerns that social entrepreneurship may tend to “paint the state, unions, public employees and other existing nonprofits as the enemy” (pp. 56–57), undermining rather than enhancing existing efforts, which may contrast with service-learning’s focus. In terms of social entrepreneurship education, Enos notes that existing courses have been criticized for a lack of emphasis on complex problem-solving, and for mismatches between desired competencies identified in course syllabi and those recommended by practitioners in the field. While interesting, and a good overview of some of the critiques offered for each field, this chapter does not contribute much new to the discussion beyond summarizing.

In the book’s final chapter, “Educating for Engagement: A Turning Point,” Enos renews her recommendations that, as two subsets of campus/community engagement, service-learning and social entrepreneurship should become better integrated institutionally. She provides examples from her own and other universities as demonstrations of how these two fields may fit into a broader conceptualization of civic engagement, as well as how particular disciplines might implement both. After repeating her calls for more cross-fertilization, Enos suggests the need “to challenge each other on what works—in teaching and research—and certainly on what strategies get us closer to working with community partners in problem-solving reciprocal ways” (p. 83). Finally, the book’s appendix provides a list of campus representatives for Chapter 3’s interviews.

Several aspects of this book raise issues worthy of contemplation for those in the community engagement field. The explicit comparison and contrasting between the two sets of philosophies and practices illuminates several interesting points. For instance, Enos contends:

Among the most important differences between service-learning and social entrepreneurship include the former’s focus on groups and collaboration vs. the latter’s on individualism, and vocabulary borrowed from the nonprofit sector vs. vocabulary taken from the business world. Other points that differentiate these fields are skepticism about market-based approaches to social problems on part of the service-learning community compared to an embrace of market-based solutions in the social entrepreneurship field. The service-learning field aims to educate students for civic engagement and democracy while some versions of social entrepreneurship work at solving problems outside of or independent of politics (pp. 16–17).

Likewise, a careful consideration of what each field might offer the other is a valuable exercise. Could some of the tools and concepts used in social entrepreneurship—e.g., the double/triple bottom line for determining return on investment—be helpful for assessing service-learning programs’ impacts? Could service-learning’s established expertise in reflection and in highlighting the importance of reciprocity with community partner organizations bolster the success of social entrepreneurship education and application?

In several areas, the book could be stronger. For instance, while couched at times in the language of research, this volume’s findings from campus interviews do not seem to follow many standards of qualitative methodology (e.g., thick description, coding, etc.), and as such fall somewhat short. Likewise, while the author includes a solid listing of prior articles that relate to this work’s guiding questions, Enos’s style of reviewing literature often seems more focused on enumerating a list of each author’s points, rather than synthesizing them as a whole. While in two separate chapters Enos offers other authors’ definitions for “social entrepreneurship,” she does not ever clarify how, specifically, she is using the term; and, while she notes that “the practice of social entrepreneurship is distinct from social entrepreneurship education” (p. 11), that distinction is not consistently apparent in the volume.

Several chapters enumerate details about certain journals, organizations and initiatives, yet omit others of similar potential interest and merit without explanation. For instance, for service-learning and community engagement, she lists several journals (JCES; the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning) and conferences and organizations (IARSLCE; Campus Compact), while other equally relevant resources (e.g., the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement; the Engagement Scholarship Consortium) are omitted. On the social entrepreneurship side, Enos provides a strong focus on both the Skoll Foundation and Ashoka, but does not acknowledge other important resources and players such as the Acumen Fund, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, or Echoing Green (Bornstein & Davis, 2010). Likewise, her “short history of social entrepreneurship” seems to lay the founding of this field at the feet of Jeffrey Skoll and Bill Drayton, with no mention of key international “pioneers” (Bornstein & Davis, 2010, p. 13) such as Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) and Fazle Abed (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). Finally, frequent typos and minor errors (e.g., in names of national organizations, journals, and funders, or in referring to the “2012 [sic] Carnegie round of applications” [p. 29]) also distract somewhat from the book’s content.

In the end, Enos defends and extends her thesis statement: “Some may believe that service-learning and social entrepreneurship models of educating students for community engagement are incompatible but I am going to argue that they are not” (p. 70); however, as her own research shows, even on campuses considered exemplary in each area, at present these two fields tend not to converge in practice. For readers interested in how these two branches of engaged pedagogy might interweave more productively, Service-Learning and Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education may be a good starting point, from either side of the equation.


The JCES editorial team would like to acknowledge and thank Palgrave Macmillan for providing an electronic copy of the book for this review.


Bornstein, D. (2007). How to change the world: Social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas (updated edition). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bornstein, D., & Davis, S. (2010). Social entrepreneurship: What everyone needs to know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wei-Skillern, J., Austin, J.E., Leonard, H., & Stevenson, H. (2007). Entrepreneurship in the social sector. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

About the Reviewer

Paul H. Matthews is associate director of the University of Georgia Office of Service-Learning.

Book Review | A Message from the Book Review Editor

Dr. Andrew J. Pearl

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I am honored to have been asked to serve as the new Book Review Editor for the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship. Not only do I view this as a great opportunity to serve in the advancement of higher education community-engaged scholarship, but also as an opportunity for me to learn from authors, scholars, and community partners from across the country and around the globe.

I am currently director of Academic Engagement at the University of North Georgia, where my overarching responsibility is to institutionalize community-engaged scholarship across our five campuses. Among the ways that we accomplish this is to engage with and develop faculty members, work with students and let them know about the educational opportunities available to them, and develop mutually beneficial community partnerships.

I am a relatively recent graduate of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, and my scholarly agenda includes faculty member motivations related to the scholarship of engagement, student motivations and outcomes related to service-learning experiences, and institutional and public policies that affect community engagement in higher education. In my research, I utilize the complementary strengths of both quantitative and qualitative analytic methods to fully explore scholarly questions, often through interdisciplinary collaborations. I am also interested in exploring how graduate students are socialized for and participate in community engagement, as well as strategies for integrating engagement into the STEM fields.

My goal with the book reviews in JCES will be to introduce readers to literature that advances knowledge, provides practical advice, disseminates best practices, and encourages conversation and dialogue. Book reviewers will not only provide summaries of recently published titles relevant to our field, but will also critically analyze and examine the works through the lens of community engagement.

I invite faculty members, administrators, staff members, students, and community partners to offer their interpretations of the literature. From its beginning, JCES has always intentionally been a “different kind of journal,” which helps to establish a niche among scholarly publication outlets. In addition to providing established scholars and researchers with a platform to disseminate their work, we also seek to hear from all of the people who work to make these multi-faceted community-campus partnerships work. In the true spirit of community engagement, we encourage authorship from first-time authors, students at all levels, and community partners.

To paraphrase Ernest Boyer, higher education has the potential, and I might even say the responsibility, to advance both intellectual and civic life, and I believe that JCES plays an important role in this process. I gratefully look forward to the opportunity to work with the rest of the JCES editorial and publishing team as we continue to build on the wonderful foundation already in place.

Student Voices | Cultivating Equitable Partnerships Through Cultural Synthesis


Eric Conrad, Meghan Shewmake, Courtney Shows, and Jen Nickelson

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Sustainable community partnerships require more than good intentions, necessitating the facilitation of true collaboration to be successful (Blouin & Perry, 2009). McLean and Behringer (2008) assert that for a truly equitable partnership to exist, each party involved must both contribute to, and receive benefits from, the relationship. These contributions from students, campus partners, and communities provide meaningful experiences that result in reciprocal benefits among all partners. Practices that enable equitable collaborations include the establishment of personal relationships, reciprocity, flexibility in adapting to unexpected outcomes, and collaboration to overcome barriers (King, Williams, Howard, Proffitt, Belcher, & McLean, 2004). Fostering these practices result in increased sustainability with the potential to expand collaborative efforts.

The Holt Health Fair is a community event with the goal of providing health screenings and information dissemination to the community of Holt, Alabama. The inception of this annual event was developed through the formation of a collaborative between The University of Alabama (UA) students within the Delta Xi Chapter of the Eta Sigma Gamma (ESG) National Health Education Honorary, and members of the Holt community. Through the maturation of this partnership, stakeholder capacity has increased through mutual support and empowerment. This evolution is the direct result of a partnership that strongly values community voice and input. The following is a student perspective illustrating pertinent community engagement principles, as adapted from McLean and Behringer (2008), and their application in the development of the Holt Health Fair and community partnership.

Partnerships Thrive on Personal Connections

Two commonly asserted theoretical approaches to community change are that of  “cultural invasion” and “cultural synthesis.” Cultural invasion occurs when external institutions or academics impose values and agendas with brazen disregard for community voice. Cultural synthesis necessitates those same external forces support and supplement community efforts to collaboratively solve community need (Green & Kreuter, 2005). The primary distinction between these theoretical approaches is in the formation of personal connections within the community. Development and fostering of these relationships demonstrate an investment in the community’s well-being that extends beyond the cessation of singular research projects and funding.

In 2008, a collective of concerned citizens established the Holt Community Partnership (HCP) in an effort to develop initiatives within Holt that “transform lives through opportunity, education, unity, and safety” (HCP, 2010). The HCP was comprised of Holt community members, local law enforcement, religious leaders, board of education affiliates, as well as faculty and staff from UA. This partnership established a foundation in which personal connections between UA and the Holt community could be fostered through cultural synthesis.

The establishment and cultivation of this relationship led to the inclusion of UA student associations, such as the ESG health organization. Since the integration of ESG and Holt, students have been afforded the opportunity to foster relationships within the community through interaction and participation at HCP meetings as well as through additional community collaboratives and initiatives. This community immersion is a transformative process in which programs and initiatives are no longer simple extracurricular activities, but vested experiences in which tangible change can result within the community where these relationships are formed.

Participation and Communication Requires Reciprocity

A true collaborative is one that includes an empowering and power-sharing dynamic that promotes an equitable partnership (Israel, Schulz, Parker, Becker, Allen, & Guzman, 2008). This dynamic may be challenging for academics due to the relinquishment of power or the perceived threat to validity, but is necessary to ensure cultural synthesis and capitalize on community expertise to enhance initiatives and improve outcomes. Support for this synergistic relationship can be achieved through the mobilization and utilization of university resources to supplement community efforts. The reciprocal nature of an equitable partnership ensures community collaborators have input in the development and implementation of programs that can be tailored to meet the diverse needs of the community (Ahmed & Palermo, 2010).

Prior to the inception of the health fair, the HCP and UA collaborators established a community festival within Holt. Over time, attendance and participation in the festival waned, necessitating a reevaluation of the initiative which ultimately resulted in the conclusion that the festival was no longer feasible and meeting the needs of the community. Collaborators began an iterative process to develop a new initiative within Holt to maximize the collective capacity of UA stakeholders and the community. Consistent with the theoretical approach of cultural synthesis, this cyclical method emphasized concerns created by community members and the capacity of stakeholders to address this need. The outcome of this reciprocal dynamic was a community proposal for the establishment of a Holt Health Fair and the creation of processes to support the initiative. Critical to this process was the explicit attention to the knowledge and expertise of community members and emphasis on empowerment inclusive of information sharing, decision-making power, resources, and support within the partnership.

The importance of reciprocity does not diminish following the approval of the initiative, but must be maintained throughout its entirety. As a health education organization, ESG was enthusiastic regarding the community initiated proposal for a health fair within Holt. While well intentioned, unbridled enthusiasm may result in an overzealousness that neglects or excludes community input and precipitates cultural invasion. Eta Sigma Gamma student and faculty representatives perpetuated an equitable dynamic through attendance at HCP sessions to ensure continued communication that emphasized community-initiated development, implementation, and evaluation. Respect for the unique perspective and expertise of Holt collaborators produced a reciprocal transfer of knowledge, skills, and resources that enhanced the capacity of all stakeholders.

Communication and Cooperation Overcome


Partnerships sustained through personal relationships that prioritize reciprocal communication and power facilitate leveraging of collective capacity to overcome project barriers (Green & Kreuter, 2005). A significant challenge following the decision to develop a health fair was creating a suitable event on an abbreviated timeline. Previously established relationships with the HCP facilitated efficient role delineation, allowing for the attainment of resources and services necessary for event implementation. Following the initial implementation of the Holt Health Fair, a stakeholder evaluation identified further barriers that adversely affected project outcomes. Promotion efforts in year one were primarily managed by ESG students which utilized radio and television broadcasts, as well as flyer distribution, yet intended reach was lower than expected. Year two of the initiative improved these processes through increased community involvement in the dissemination, utilizing the cultural influence of local church networks and businesses. Collaborations with Holt High School teachers and coaches resulted in presentations from high school students as well as performances by the dance team and band. The expansion of entertainment activities and the addition of childcare were incorporated to increase event appeal and facilitate easier access to services for community participants with children. Auxiliary barriers that were also addressed included the improvement of issues in regards to venue, transportation, as well as the expansion of vendors and services. Addressing and reducing barriers throughout the evolution of the health fair was expedited through cooperative mechanisms that prioritized continual communication and assessment between ESG, the HCP, as well as UA and community organizations.

Progress Necessitates Increased Capacity

The readiness of the partnership to be adaptable and amenable to increase contributions to the program strengthens the collaborative and improves program success (Sandy & Holland, 2006). Compared to the health fair, the Holt Festival required less resources and investment from each collaborator in the partnership. During the initial conception of the Holt Health Fair, the partnership determined current stakeholders needed to expand their capacity to accomplish the successful implementation of the initiative. The UA stakeholders increased capacity through incorporation of ESG student members and the expansion of university collaborators able to provide resources and health services. Barriers identified served as the impetus for increased community contributions resulting in systematized processes to increase promotion and engagement. Maintaining the equitable relationship through this expansion necessitated that each collaborator augment their contribution to improve the initiative and preserve reciprocity.

Expanding capacity to increase contributions of the partnership should also result in increased benefits to all stakeholders (King et al., 2004). Through the development and improvement of the Holt Health Fair, offerings were expanded from each collaborator which in turn increased the benefits each party received. University students within ESG and other collaborating organizations were provided the opportunity for experiential learning in their respective disciplines. Through application of classroom content, students benefit from deeper understanding of course material and are afforded the opportunity to strengthen cultural competency, leadership attributes, and self-efficacy (Powell & Conrad, 2015). Community members gained the expertise of UA students and faculty, access to health services through the university and external organizations, as well as media coverage and publicity. The benefits resulting from increased capacity were cultivated through relationships that foster trust and reliance in the collaborative process. The increased contribution and capacity can then be extended and utilized in other community partnerships.

Successful Partnerships Breed Successful Partnerships

The principles and benefits of equitable partnerships are transferable regardless of initiative, event, or program (Rhodes, Malow, & Jolly, 2010). The same practices of fostering and sustaining partnerships of reciprocity through cultural synthesis serve to reinforce relationships facilitating initiative success. Partnerships capable of overcoming project barriers promote capacity building through multidirectional learning on an individual or community level. Cultivating improved competence and proficiency through existing partnerships result in increased knowledge, skills, and expertise that enhance diverse community initiatives.

In addition to being active partners of the Holt Health Fair, ESG is also involved in additional health related initiatives within the Holt community. One such coalition is the Holt afterschool program in which ESG members educate elementary students regarding health topics in collaboration with the community organization Tuscaloosa’s One Place. An additional initiative is the Holt Health Lab in which UA and Holt collaborators aim to empower the community to meet health needs through screening, education, and policy. Similar to the Holt Health Fair, these initiatives incorporate processes to ensure community voice and reciprocity to enhance program success. Lessons learned in each initiative may serve to build on successful aspects and avoid barriers that other projects may have encountered. In this way, the expertise and capacity of each partnership is extended beyond itself to ultimately benefit the community through pervasive processes.

Partnership Length Increases Success

Successful partnerships that provide meaningful contributions and benefits to the community and university is a long-term process that requires commitment from both parties (Israel et al., 2008). Cultural synthesis asserts that the establishment and maintenance of trust and rapport among communities necessitate that commitments extend beyond single projects or funding. This prioritization on relationships over outcomes mediate an equitable power-sharing dynamic in which the partnership can more efficiently overcome barriers and increase capacity to achieve goals. These approaches allow for the development of an infrastructure that promotes longevity and sustainability which increases partnership and project success.

The successes of the Holt Health Fair and other community initiatives are direct results of an equitable partnership facilitated through cultural synthesis. Utilizing this approach, UA collaborators prioritized people over processes to develop and strengthen relationships among the Holt community. Through this genuine engagement and interaction within Holt, ESG student perspectives were altered from a mentality that prioritized a tangible product to a mindset that strongly desired an increase in community wellness, well-being, and empowerment. This vested interest fostered reciprocity among ESG students, UA faculty, and Holt community partners through the establishment of processes that respected community voice and perspective. Utilizing the collective strengths of the partnership, event deficiencies were identified and barriers were surmounted as each stakeholder evaluated and subsequently expanded contributions to the initiative, increasing student and community capacity. Lessons learned from the development, implementation, and evaluation of the Holt Health Fair can be applied in diverse community initiatives to further transform lives through opportunity, education, unity, and safety. Establishing an equitable partnership within Holt did not deny differences among multiple perspectives, but embraced diversity by affirming undeniable support through cultural synthesis to create improved outcomes in community engagement.


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Holt Community Partnership. (2010). How the HCP developed. Retrieved from

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Rhodes, S. D., Malow, R. M., & Jolly, C. (2010). Community-based participatory research (CBPR): A new and not-so-new approach to HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment. AIDS Education and Prevention, 22(3), 173-183.

Sandy, M., & Holland, B. A. (2006). Different worlds and common ground: Community partner perspectives on campus-community partnerships. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 13(1), 30-43.

About the Authors

Eric Conrad is a doctoral student, Meghan Shewmake is working on a master’s degree, Courtney Shows is an undergraduate student, and Dr. Jen Nickelson is an associate professor, all in the Department of Health Science at the University of Alabama.

Community Perspectives | Our Journey into a CBPR Project: Health and Nutrition Solutions in the Alabama Black Belt


Yawah Awolowo, Debra Clark, and Darlene Robinson

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Project UNITED is a federally funded grant that addresses obesity issues in the Alabama Black Belt. The Black Belt represents some of the poorest counties in the United States and is plagued with chronic health conditions—obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer—which are predominantly found in African Americans. Community leaders from the Black Belt Community Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to help improve the quality of life of residents in the Alabama Black Belt, participated in the project as community health scholars. Project UNITED partnered community health scholars and academic scholars to develop proposals that addressed obesity issues in rural communities. A team of three community health scholars and three academic scholars collaborated and formed, Home Sweet Home, a two-year, $50,000, multigenerational obesity intervention in Greene and Sumter counties. This paper provides reflections from the three community health scholars regarding their experience in a community based participatory research (CBPR) project.

The paper is presented as first person testimonials describing the experiences of each participant.

Darlene Robinson, Greene County

Being one who is always looking for ways to improve myself and my community, I took a step of faith in response to the invitation I received to become a community health scholar with Project UNITED. I also believed I would acquire knowledge that would help my community. In the community my mission is to improve everyday life of parents and their children. Even though my plate was already full, I felt it would be an opportunity to find ways to improve myself and my community.

The Project UNITED journey introduced us to individuals from around the state who also wanted to improve themselves and their communities. I could tell the training was well thought out, as we visited a small garden at a rural school where the youth were being introduced to growing their own foods. This was the Project UNITED pilot project. Educating our community about healthy lifestyle changes is very important and we learned ways to take it home. Project UNITED brought professors from the University of Alabama and community people together as a learning tool that showed that we all share the same passion of making Alabama a healthier place to live.

The circle was complete when our team formed. We had three members from the community and three members from academia, with a mission of curtailing obesity by educating ourselves. As a group we merged our thoughts, hashed out our ideas, made a plan, found an audience—the preschoolers and their parents—and formed a roadmap to get us where we wanted to go. We named our program “Home Sweet Home.” Our mission was to introduce and teach a new way of thinking about eating. We sought to change current statistics that says we are an obese society.

If you’re busy, think you have that all you can handle, feel you know all you need to know, then CBPR is probably for you, because it takes all you’re doing and all you can handle and turns it into a mission that you’ve been on all the time but gives you directions to get to a better place. Then it will not just be your idea of what the community needs, but the community will be able to tell you what they want.

Debra Clark, Sumter County

In 2013, I was chosen by the Black Belt Community Foundation to be a community health scholar. This was because of my health-related awareness work at the Health and Wellness Education Center (HWEC) Disease Management Program. At the first meeting my first thought was “Why am I here?” realizing that I did’t have time to take on an additional project. But my second thought was “how can I not participate?” considering the impact this project could have on my community. Certainty, it is through strong community partnerships with local agencies that has made HWEC successful. The agency has made great strides to implement initiatives to address obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illnesses to improve the health of local residents.

As a result of this project, I

1. Was invited to present a paper entitled “Fighting Obesity for the Health of It” at the Rural Health Conference in Tuscaloosa in 2013.

2. Received the Rural Heroes Award from the UA College of Community Health Sciences.

3. Was able to expand the Jump To It (what is it?) program for additional communities.

4. Produced a simple handout on the traffic light diet to promote healthy eating for distribution at health fairs and community events.

5. Have witnessed the greatest impact within my own family. My 5-year old grandson was never introduced to yogurt, but now eats yogurt and encourages his mom to “add stuff” to make it good.

Although this fight has been tedious and time consuming, I must admit that rewards have been greater than the struggle. The program has helped build capacity and strengthen my agency by connecting me with a team of experts with genuine concern and interest, which correlates with the agency’s mission of promoting healthier lifestyles through education and prevention.

Yawah Awolowo, Sumter County

As a community health scholar participating in Project UNITED, I have enjoyed adding to what I already knew about health-related issues and unhealthy eating. I nurtured my family in an organic, self-sufficient, natural homebirth/home schooled permaculture environment and have sustained five seriously committed years of organic farming on a 66-acre, family-owned farm. My journey with CBPR and the development of a partnership with academic researchers not only expands my baseline knowledge, but the collaborative process has also allowed me to continue to put into practice my knowledge in a way to benefit my community. I have learned that while academic researchers are very knowledgeable about health and treatment, I also bring a great deal of knowledge about nutrition and health. Additionally, I have expertise about the rural community where I live, which I know is valuable for eliminating obesity in this community.

My participation in Project UNITED enlightened my interest in heart disease and obesity, major health concerns in my family. My mother, who was 90 years young developed heart disease. She had no hypertension, diabetes, no medicines for her entire life. The doctors informed the family that there was a blockage in one of her heart valves; surgery was necessary to remove the blockage. One of the major reasons I chose to be involved as a community health scholar in Project UNITED was because I watched my 90-year-old mother go through heart surgery and witnessed her spectacular recovery as she completely changed her eating habits. The other reason for my interest is because there are so many people in my family who have serious health conditions. My sister had surgery two weeks prior to my mother and my daughter has also had medical issues. For these reasons, my desire has been fueled to establish alternative eating habits as a means to prevent disease, especially with kids at an early age. I believe this can be done by letting them be involved with the purchase, preparation, cooking, and serving of good healthy foods.

Project United was the right program for my personal and community needs to learn more about prevention of this disease in our community. I realized that the cultural normality of food intake always consists of some type of animal products on a daily basis that cause blockages and slow down the process of the heart pumping blood and oxygen.

Involvement in Home Sweet Home Project

Debra Clark

As a community health scholar I have been able to work with a team of people who share my interest of eliminating diseases through education and awareness. We met as a group utilizing a tool called speed dating to develop a professional relationship/marriage that has grown into a big happy family. Consider the three-legged stool; one cannot stand without the other. Each of us brings so much to table that I wonder how we could have been so close without ever crossing paths. Nevertheless, we have bonded and now look for ways to improve our efforts by enhancing our writing skills and seeking additional resources to promote sustainability to enhance our community for a better future. Community health scholars: What better name can you give to such individuals who are a community’s first choice when it comes to health care. We are the movers and shakers in our community.

Darlene Robinson

Home Sweet Home is our project. We named it, we designed the program, we listened to the community, we respected the community, we educated ourselves, and we educated the community. The program was not handed to us; it was made by us for us with the mission in mind of changing lifestyles by teaching our families how to spend time together, talk to each other, share with others, cook with love, train our children how to prepare a dish and making home truly Home Sweet Home. The mission of introducing new ways of cooking to our parents was well received. The preschoolers enjoyed the experience and the parents appreciated the information because our eating habits have led to many health improvements. The traffic light playing cards (red light = foods to avoid; eat; yellow = sometimes foods; green = go foods) were designed as a way for families to learn what foods to stop eating, for example cautiously eating the yellow foods and eating lots of all the green foods. Each family received a deck of Home Sweet Home cards designed by the team.

The program was introduced in the communities represented by the community health scholars. The team was glued together by a passion to make a difference, and we believe it is the start of great things to come. Our coming together was not by accident; it was time for academia and the community to unite on a mission of bringing the idea of healthy eating to the community.

Yawah Awolowo

Project United has been a perfect learning catalyst. One of the major goals of the project was to partner community leaders with academic researchers to develop and pilot test an obesity intervention program. We spent the year getting to know each other’s interests and personalities with an emphasis on building trust and working toward sustaining a lasting relationship. This was important to me because I have had several business encounters where I have shared ideas and people have either ignored or taken my ideas. These experiences have made me wary to trust experts sometimes. Therefore, any emphasis on building trust and sustainability are going to be important for me and my community.

I eventually ended up working with a team of six. We talked about potential projects based on our interests where we would be competitive for funding internally. We also evaluated the best approaches to write the grant using all our strengths. As a member of the team, I also earned my IRB certificate, which builds on the training I received in medical ethics and research. We titled our submission: Home Sweet Home, with a focus on home food environment. This project addresses obesity in the age group 2 to 5 years (pre-k). Our primary goal was to get 2-5-year-old children, along with their parents, to learn how to choose good, healthy produce, prepare food in a clean area, practice safety measures, make it a child friendly environment, create their own recipes using the things they like to eat, and spark their interest in healthy eating habits from an early age.
Thankfully, our collaborative proposal received funding for one year through a competitive internal grant process.

As I reflect on the past year of my role as a Community health scholar and the value that CBPR has added to my life, I believe that the time invested in the program will save lives in my community. And that is time well spent. As the program began its journey into the community, the best began to happen with children and the parents. We prepared familiar food with new twist, collards greens with no meat; to make home-cooked foods with fresh herbs and olive oil; the children preparing salads, constructing parfaits and serving their parents and grandparents; providing chef hats and aprons and gifts for families to continue their healthy journeys.

About the Authors

Yawah Awolowo is an organic farmer and chef at Mahalah Farms in Cuba (Sumter County), Alabama.

Debra Clark is founder and executive director of the Health and Wellness Education Center in Livingston (Sumter County), Alabama.

Darlene Robinson is founder of Imagine Me Youth Development Program in Greene County, Alabama.

A Community-University Approach to Substance Abuse Prevention

Lola Baydala, Fay Fletcher, Melissa Tremblay, Natasha Rabbit, Jennilee Louis, Kisikaw Ksay-yin, and Caitlin Sinclair

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In response to high rates of substance abuse in their communities, members of the Maskwacis four Nations invited university researchers to partner in culturally adapting, implementing, and evaluating an evidence-based substance abuse and violence prevention program, the Life Skills Training program (Botvin & Griffin, 2014). This project used a community-based participatory research (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003) approach, and was carried out by university and First Nation community partners. To evaluate the impact of the adapted program, students completed pre and post questionnaires, and community members participated in focus groups. The adapted Maskwacis Life Skills Training program was delivered in schools for three years. Students’ knowledge increased significantly during program delivery, and strong support was documented from community members. This project demonstrates the impact that can be facilitated by culturally adapting and delivering a prevention program, and by forming a community-university partnership.


The Maskwacis First Nations, located in central Alberta, Canada, include four communities: LouisBull, Montana, Samson, and Ermineskin. These neighboring Plains Cree Nations have a combined population of approximately 15,000 with roughly 53% of the population aged 17 or under (Grekul & Sanderson, 2011). The Nations are governed by independent chief and councils, and have separate education directors and schools.

National media attention has focused on high rates of crime and gang violence in Maskwacis, largely ignoring the rich and vibrant Cree culture that threads the four Nations together. In Maskwacis, Cree history, culture, and language are featured prominently in traditional community ceremonies and cultural events that regularly take place. Community Elders view their culture and language as a means to combat the social and public health problems that face Maskwacis community members as a result of the destructive impact of colonization, residential schools, and forced assimilation. Research evidence supports this perspective, demonstrating that a positive cultural identity can be a protective factor against substance abuse and violence for Indigenous
children and youth (French, Kim, & Pillado, 2006; Gazis, Connor, & Ho, 2009; Kulis, Napoli, & Marsiglia, 2002).

Project Initiation

The current project stemmed from a previous pilot project led by a partnership between university researchers and Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation members (Baydala, Fletcher, Worrell, Kajner, Letendre, & Rasmussen, 2014). Alexis community members sought to address the root causes of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and invited university researchers to partner with them in working toward substance abuse prevention. This pilot project involved the cultural adaptation, delivery, and evaluation of a substance abuse and violence prevention program in the Alexis community. The Botvin Life Skills Training (LST) program (Botvin, Baker, Renick, Filazzola, & Botvin, 1984; Botvin & Griffin, 2014) was chosen for the project, based on the results of a literature review that identified the program as having extensive, high-quality evidence to support its effectiveness, including multiple randomized control trials (National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, 2008). The three-year LST program has three levels, each including between 8 and 14 one-hour modules, and begins in either elementary or junior high school (see Table 1).

In 2010, a Maskwacis community member attended a presentation delivered by university researchers and Alexis community members. Following this presentation, Maskwacis community members invited university researchers to partner in introducing and adapting the LST program in their own community.


Project Objectives

The partners identified three broad objectives for the current project: (1) culturally adapt the LST program to reflect the language, culture, and visual images of the Maskwacis community; (2) deliver the adapted program in Maskwacis schools; and (3) evaluate the impact of the adapted program. Given the established effectiveness of the LST program in reducing substance abuse and violence and increasing skills related to prevention, the aim of the current project was to deliver the culturally adapted program with fidelity to the original curriculum, and to document the impact of the adapted program.

Program Adaptations

Research has demonstrated the importance of programming for Indigenous children to reflect Indigenous worldviews and culture (Hare, 2011). Further, the cultural content of programming has been correlated with enhanced learning for Indigenous children (Tsethlikai & Rogoff, 2013). A recent policy report also declared that the representation of Indigenous cultures, languages, and traditions in school classrooms is essential for promoting the academic success of Canadian Indigenous children and youth (Toulouse, 2008). For minority populations in general, culturally adapted evidence-based programs have been shown to be more effective than standard programs (Kumpfer, Magalhaes, & Xie, 2012).

The LST program is a generic program proven highly effective with students from different geographic regions, socioeconomic circumstances, and racial-ethnic backgrounds (Botvin, Griffin, Diaz, & Ifill-Williams, 2001). However, because the LST program does not incorporate Cree values, language, culture, and identity, Maskwacis community members and Elders decided to culturally adapt the program. In keeping with the principles of knowledge to action research (Graham, Logan, Harrison, Straus, Tetroe, Caswell, & Robinson, 2006), adaptations to the LST program, and the corresponding creation of the Maskwacis Life Skills Training (MLST) program, began in the first year of the project.

During the first year, a six-member adaptation committee was formed consisting of Elders from each of the Maskwacis four Nations. This committee met weekly to complete adaptations to the first level of manuals. Adaptations to the second and third levels were completed by a rotating group of Elders. During adaptation meetings, over 30 different Elders from all four communities reviewed the original LST curriculum and provided recommendations for adaptations, consisting of Cree language and syllabics, Elders’ teachings, and personal life stories. Following committee meetings, community and university partners worked together to adapt the manuals. Additionally, a community member created visual images for the manuals that reflected the Maskwacis culture and community. After adaptations were completed, Elders reviewed and provided approval for the adapted manuals.

Throughout the adaptation process, Elders were instrumental in ensuring that the adapted program accurately reflected the Cree culture. For example, one of the modules in the original LST curriculum focused on the harmful effects of tobacco use. However, Elders shared the importance of distinguishing between “poison tobacco” and “sacred tobacco” (i.e., kistemaw). In Maskwacis, kistemaw has important spiritual, cultural, and ceremonial purposes, such as being offered to communicate gratitude in advance of a request. Accordingly, the original LST module on smoking was adapted to focus on both the detrimental effects of poison tobacco as well as the healthy traditional use of kistemaw. Additionally, in order to reinforce program adaptations, MLST staff created digital stories to accompany each program module; these were guided and narrated by community Elders.

As Figure 1 shows, the adaptation process resulted in a program that incorporated both Western and Indigenous foundations of substance abuse and violence prevention. Rather than infusing Indigenous pillars of effective substance abuse prevention into an existing Western framework, the integrity of the lessons from each worldview was maintained.



Community-Based Participatory Research

This project used a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003). With an emphasis on tangible benefits for communities, co-learning, equitable involvement, and respect for multiple forms of knowledge, CBPR can contribute to leveling power imbalances between community and university partners.
Because Indigenous peoples are calling for research to be done with and for Indigenous communities rather than on Indigenous communities, CBPR has been recognized as particularly suitable for research involving Indigenous peoples (Castleden, Morgan, & Lamb, 2012; Koster, Baccar, & Lemelin, 2012; Smith,1999). The partners in this project applied the principles of CBPR in multiple ways. In particular, academic team members traveled to the community each week to engage in team meetings; meetings began with smudging and a prayer conducted in the local Cree language; a consensus-based decision-making model was followed with contributions from all team members; program evaluation was participatory, with input and guidance from all partners; and all reports and program materials were created collaboratively and approved by all partners. The project was approved by the research ethics board at the partner university and by the Maskwacis First Nations through a Band Council Resolution (the authority mechanism by which elected representatives in First Nation communities support and authorize an action).

Focus Groups

A total of 25 focus groups were held over the course of the three-year project with 42 school personnel, 102 students, 18 Elders, four parents, and 12 MLST facilitators. With the exception of student focus groups, which were held with classes of approximately 20 students, focus groups included between six and eight participants to enable effective information sharing (Kreuger & Casey, 2015). Focus groups took place at the end of each of the three program years, and were held separately with school personnel from each school, students from each school, Elders, parents, and facilitators. The length of focus groups was between one and two hours.

Using purposive sampling, university partners recruited MLST facilitators, school personnel, and students to participate in focus groups, while community partners recruited Elders and parents. Community and university partners worked together to gather consent for participation. Although university partners facilitated all focus groups, community partners were present during Elder focus groups to translate from Cree to English where necessary. University research team members who conducted focus groups had graduate-level training in research methods and focus group facilitation as well as specific experience working with Indigenous communities.

Different focus group guides were developed for school personnel, students, Elders, parents, and MLST facilitators. Questions focused on participants’ experiences with the program adaptation and delivery, program impact on students, schools, and the community, unanticipated successes and challenges, and suggestions for improvement. Focus groups were conducted using a conversational style whereby participants were invited to speak to one another rather than directly to the facilitator, disagreements were encouraged, and participants were guided to express their thoughts in their own words and on their own terms (Kitzinger, 2005).

With participants’ permission, focus groups were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data were managed with ATLAS.ti software, and analyses were completed using content analysis. Data were grouped according to common content, and a preliminary coding scheme was developed. The coding scheme was refined during discussions among partners, and themes were subsequently identified. Transcripts and preliminary data analyses were presented to participants as a means of member checking.



To evaluate learning of program content, questionnaires were distributed to students before and after each year of program delivery. The LST questionnaire (National Health Promotion Associates, 2011a; 2011b) and Piers-Harris Self-Concept Scale, Second Edition (Piers & Herzberg, 2002) were distributed to students. The wording of LST questionnaires was adjusted to accommodate students’ reading levels. The elementary school version of the LST questionnaire included items regarding knowledge and attitudes toward smoking and drinking, as well as social and personal self-management skills. The junior high version of the LST questionnaire included similar content with an added focus on drug refusal skills. Additionally, LST questionnaires were adapted to include a cultural knowledge scale consisting of items created by community members and Elders. From the initial stages of the project, community partners emphasized the importance of using a strengths-based approach. Accordingly, questionnaire items that directly questioned frequency of substance use were eliminated. Instead, questionnaire items
focused on constructs that are highly related to decreased substance use (i.e., knowledge, attitudes, self-management, refusal, and social skills).

Children who provided verbal assent and whose parents provided written consent for participation completed questionnaires before and after each year of program delivery (see Table 2). Where assent and/ or consent was not provided, children still received the MLST program but did not complete questionnaires.

A sequential longitudinal cohort design was used, and a linear mixed model was used to analyze the questionnaire data. The linear mixed model has advantages over repeated measures ANOVA for working with repeated measures data (Kreuger & Tian, 2004). Primarily, a linear mixed model gives structure to the error term by adding additional random-effect terms. This is important to properly account for error that can arise due to correlations between data points within the same subject (intra-subject correlation). Also, the linear mixed effects model can accommodate missing data points, and is less likely to lead to spurious results (both Type I and Type II error) with categorical data.


Focus Groups

Focus group findings were grouped into three overarching themes, consisting of (i) program impact; (ii) factors that contributed to the program’s success; and (iii) suggestions for improvement.

Program impact. Focus group participants described the impact of the MLST program in a number of areas. School impact was a particular
area of focus. Participants described how the program allowed for traditional Elders’ teachings to be brought in to the schools; that the program facilitated both student and teacher learning about Cree culture and the Maskwacis community; and how the program had resulted in positive classroom changes. As one teacher commented, “there’s a more positive environment in the classroom…we’re all communicating and we’re talking and there’s no yelling.”

Student impact was also described. Participants not only discussed how students had demonstrated learning of program content; they also described how the program had contributed to
elevating students’ self-esteem, respectful attitudes, and listening skills. According to one student, “I learned to like myself for who I am.” Similarly, as a school staff member stated, “I noticed their self-esteem was brought up…I noticed with their attitudes, they’ve been more respectful…to the class teacher and they’ve learned to respect themselves and their fellow peers…” Additionally, focus group participants reported that the MLST program had contributed to students’ enhanced sense of pride in their identity. One teacher described how the program had “opened up a lot of doors for them to try and realize that being who they are is okay.” Similarly, Elders reported an increase in youth attendance at cultural events in the community.

Focus group participants also described Elder impact. Elders recounted how the program had facilitated their own learning by reminding them about ancestral teachings shared by other Elders. Elders also felt that their participation in the program allowed them to contribute to their community in meaningful ways, resulting in positive personal impact. As one Elder described, “it warmed my heart to make me feel wanted.”

Similarly, facilitator impact was described. Facilitators felt that they had benefited from being immersed in cultural teachings, and described bringing traditional teachings into their own homes for their children and grandchildren to learn: “I had pride in what I was teaching. And for my personal life…I’m raising my grandson, and he gets to have a bulk of what I teach.” Additionally,
facilitators were impacted by the opportunity to build strong relationships with Elders, and also described feeling proud to make a difference in their community.

Tremblay2Table3 Tremblay2Table4

Factors contributing to program success. Among the multiple contributors to the MLST program’s success, participants described the focus on cultural teachings as paramount. According to participants, it was critical for facilitators and Elders to teach students about the importance of respect, honoring the Creator, speaking Cree, learning Maskwacis history, and developing cultural pride. These teachings were fundamental to student engagement and overall program acceptability. One teacher described how,

This content would not have worked had it not been presented culturally…we prayed before every class, we burned sweet grass…and the Elder led them in prayer and that just locked them in, they knew they were home once they did that.

In order to enrich the program’s cultural content, Elder involvement was also critical. Facilitators felt that Elders’ guidance and knowledge made program adaptations successful, while students, facilitators, and school personnel appreciated Elders’ presence in the classroom. As one facilitator described, “it seems like the more we bring the Elders in, the more the children benefit.”

Additionally, focus group participants commended the program’s community relevance.
Because the program was adapted specifically for the Maskwacis community by Maskwacis Elders and community members, the program incorporated community relevant language and visual images as well as local knowledge. Additionally, because MLST facilitators were community members, they were familiar to many students; even where facilitators and students did not have pre-existing relationships, focus group participants reported that students could easily identify with facilitators from their own community.

Facilitator skills were also important for the program’s success. Equipping facilitators with the necessary skills was a challenge in the first year of the program, with school personnel noting steady improvements in the second year of implementation, and providing exclusively positive feedback in the third year. The most important facilitator skills described by focus group participants were sincerity, confidence, the ability to engage students, the flexibility to accommodate students’ learning and reading levels, and classroom management competence. One teacher noted that, “it was really great that [the facilitator] was so enthusiastic about the program…it got the kids engaged, and they could sense that she really cared.”

Although it was important for facilitators to possess skills in leading students through program teachings and activities, teacher involvement was also described as essential. Facilitators noted that when teachers supported and contributed to MLST classes, students demonstrated increased engagement. It was helpful for teachers to assist with classroom management, to provide feedback to facilitators, and to supplement facilitators’ teachings with their own knowledge and experience. By the third year of implementation, all facilitators and school personnel reported strong relationships.

Finally, it was important for the MLST program to demonstrate compatibility with the school’s core curriculum. According to school personnel, the MLST program complemented students’ regular social studies curriculum, and was a suitable replacement for regularly scheduled health classes. This simplified the task of fitting MLST classes into busy classroom schedules. Even when classroom schedules were hectic, however, teachers were willing to prioritize the program: “They’re life skills, they’re things that are literally going to get them into their adulthood, so maybe math can wait a little while.”


Suggestions for improvement.
Focus group participants made a number of suggestions for program improvement related to program delivery. In the first year of implementation, it was strongly suggested that facilitators take part in additional training to enhance their teaching and classroom management skills. This was addressed during the second and third years of implementation. In addition, focus group participants communicated that the program should be delivered for the full school year rather than for only four months of the year. One teacher felt that, “In order to really get the full benefit of the program, it needs to be reinforced all year long…so they are always reminded and supported.”

Suggestions for improvement were also made related to program content. During the first year of implementation, a recommendation was made to increase the involvement of Elders in program delivery, to incorporate more cultural teachings, and to improve the readability of manuals. Each of these suggestions were addressed by setting a goal to bring Elders into each MLST class, and by adapting manuals to include stronger cultural elements and lower reading levels. Suggestions were also made to add modules related to grieving and gender roles, as well as to implement a parent component. Finally, focus group participants strongly suggested that the program include more hands-on activities: “When we would do activities, it was amazing, it was the most interaction I would get out of my kids all year.”


Questionnaire results are summarized below, with scores at baseline and at the final data collection point (i.e., year 3 post) depicted. Tables 3 and 4 show LST questionnaire scores for elementary and junior high students respectively. Analyses demonstrated statistically significant increases in scores for elementary students on all LST questionnaire scales. For elementary students, the Overall Knowledge scale included items relevant to anti-smoking knowledge (i.e., the harmful effects of smoking) and life skills knowledge (i.e., communication, decision-making, advertising, self-esteem, dealing with stress, and assertiveness). Items relevant to cultural content (e.g., Cree words and cultural protocol) were included in the Cultural Knowledge scale. The Attitude scale included items relevant to anti-smoking and anti-drinking attitudes. Finally, the Life Skills scale included the same content as the life skills knowledge items, but inquired about behaviors related to these content areas rather than inquiring about knowledge.

Statistically significant differences between baseline and the end of year 3 were also demonstrated for junior high students on all LST questionnaire scales with the exception of relaxation skills. For junior high students, Overall Knowledge included anti-drinking knowledge and life skills knowledge. The Cultural Knowledge scale included items with the same content as that of the elementary questionnaire. Also similar to elementary students, the Attitude scale included anti-smoking and anti-drinking attitude content. Finally, the Life Skills scale included items relevant to drug refusal skills, assertiveness skills, relaxation skills, and self-control skills.

Table 5 depicts elementary and junior high students’ scores for the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale-2. There were no statistically
significant differences between baseline and the end of year 3 for elementary or junior high students on the Piers-Harris-2.


The current project demonstrates the meaningful impact that can be achieved by culturally adapting and delivering an evidence-based prevention program in a First Nations community. Quantitative results obtained from pre and post LST questionnaires showed significant positive increases in knowledge, skills, and attitudes between baseline and the end of year three. Findings reflect that students not only retained the knowledge communicated to them through the MLST program, but that students learned progressively more from the program each year. Further, because students’ scores increased related to both original program content and additional cultural content, these results demonstrate that students improved their knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to substance abuse from both Euro-Western and Indigenous perspectives.

With regard to the Piers-Harris questionnaire, there were no statistically significant differences between scores at baseline and the end of year three. This may be due in part to students’ scores being average at baseline (i.e., t scores approximated 50). It may not be realistic to expect mean self-concept scores to increase beyond an average range. Further, like other social-emotional measurement tools, the Piers-Harris-2 was validated using a U.S. sample of primarily Caucasian children (Piers & Herzberg, 2002), and its applicability to Indigenous children has not been established. Moving forward, it will be important to establish and utilize pre and post measurement tools that reflect the unique realities of Indigenous children.

In addition to pre and post questionnaires, focus groups were implemented to provide insight regarding program impact, factors contributing to program success, and suggestions for improvement. Conducting focus groups after each year of program delivery allowed for suggestions to be addressed continually, contributing to growing community support. Overall, focus group participants communicated strong support for and investment in the program as a promising means to address substance abuse and violence and to enhance traditional culture in Maskwacis. Focus groups provided information regarding the widespread impact of the program on schools, Elders, facilitators, and students.

Key to program impact was the utilization of a community-based participatory approach that incorporated Western and Indigenous pillars of knowledge. In this way, the MLST program honored the concept of “two-eyed seeing” (Figure 2), developed by Mi’kmaw Elders Albert and Mudena Marshall. “Two-eyed seeing” recognizes multiple diverse perspectives as valid without privileging one viewpoint over another. Enacting this principle also means acknowledging that multiple perspectives can lead to a richer understanding of health issues than one perspective alone. By acknowledging the value of Western and Indigenous substance abuse prevention models, our community-university partnership provided an example of how Indigenous and Western research paradigms can co-exist in a space that honors both worldviews. Focus groups revealed that this was critical to the success of the project. In particular, schools and community members identified the central importance of cultural adaptations to the program’s acceptance by students, schools, and the wider community. Focus group participants also reported that adaptations elevated the program’s potential to reach and engage students by presenting content in a way that was relevant to their community and cultural context. Similarly, adaptation of MLST questionnaires was important to honor community partners’ perspectives regarding the importance of capturing the program’s impact on students’ cultural knowledge.

The current project also suggests that CBPR can act as a catalyst for community change. However, although pre and post questionnaires and focus groups provided the opportunity to obtain important community feedback on the MLST program, our research team identified a number of unanticipated and peripheral community impacts that were not accounted for by the use of our
conventional evaluation methods. For example, community partners took on leadership roles in the program and formed a non-profit society to sustain the MLST program beyond the terms of our original research grant. In order to more fully understand these additional impacts, we supplemented the current evaluation methods with Outcome Mapping (Earl, Carden, & Smutylo, 2001; Tremblay, Baydala, Rabbit, Louis, & Ksay-yin, submitted for publication). Outcome Mapping is a tool that is sensitive to community change and development, and that emphasizes the significant process of culturally adapting and implementing programs in the context of a CBPR partnership.

Finally, a potential limitation of this study should be acknowledged; namely, the current study does not include a control group. In order to engage all four Nations in this project, it was necessary to deliver the MLST program in all Maskwacis schools. An intervention group and control group were initially defined; however, because these groups came from the same schools, it was not possible to maintain the integrity of the control group. In particular, students often switched back and forth between control group and intervention group classrooms, and teachers indicated that students were sharing MLST teachings with students in the control group. Consistent with our experience, recent literature indicates that treating complex community change initiatives as controlled experiments may be inappropriate, particularly in the context of CBPR (Kelly, 2010). In addition, we intentionally selected an evidence-based program with extensive research to support its effectiveness. As a result, it was not necessary to once again prove the effectiveness of the program; rather the aim of this project was to deliver the culturally adapted program with fidelity to the original curriculum, and to document the impact of the adapted program.



Maskwacis community members and Elders established a partnership with University of Alberta researchers to culturally adapt, implement, and evaluate an evidence-based substance abuse and violence prevention program. Students’ overall knowledge increased significantly during the three years of program implementation, and strong support was documented from schools, Elders, students, and other community members. This project demonstrates the considerable impact that can be facilitated by culturally adapting and delivering a prevention program, and by forming and maintaining a strong community-university partnership.


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About the Authors

Lola Baydala is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta.
Fay Fletcher is professor and associate dean academic, Faculty of Extension, the University of Alberta.
Melissa Tremblay is a program evaluator in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta.
Natasha Rabbit is the executive director of the Nehiyaw Kakeskewina Learning Society in Maskwacis, Alberta.
Jennilee Louis is a research assistant for the Nehiyaw Kakeskewina Learning Society in Maskwacis, Alberta.
Kisikaw Ksay-yin is an Elder in the Nehiyaw Kakeskewina Learning Society, Maskwacis, Alberta.
Caitlin Sinclair is research coordinator, Department of Pediatrics, University of Alberta.

Cultural Adaptation of a Substance Abuse Prevention Program as a Catalyst for Community Change

Melissa Tremblay, Lola Baydala, Natasha Rabbit, Jennilee Louis, and Kisikaw Ksay-yin

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The aim of the current paper is to discuss the use of Outcome Mapping as a tool for evaluating community and stakeholder changes that occurred when a prevention program was culturally adapted and delivered through a community-university partnership. To the authors’ knowledge, this paper represents the first account of using Outcome Mapping as an evaluation tool in a Canadian Indigenous context. Changes in the behavior, actions, activities, and relationships of five boundary partners were retrospectively documented using the tool. Data demonstrated positive impact on Elders and students; growing community investment in and support for the Maskwacis Life Skills Training program’s cultural components; progressive increases in community ownership of the program; and growth in the community-university partnership. Overall, Outcome Mapping provided a systematic method for understanding peripheral changes that are often overlooked in conventional research and evaluation, but that nonetheless indicate progress toward community changes and long-term impact.


Growing evidence for the value of community-based participatory research (CBPR) (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003) has resulted in a proliferation of studies that utilize this approach (Jagosh, Macaulay, Pluye, Salsberg, Bush, Henderson, Sirett, Wong, Cargo, Herbert, Seifer, Green, Greenhalgh, 2012). With an emphasis on translating research findings for use in communities, bidirectional learning and capacity building, equitable involvement, and honoring multiple forms of knowledge, CBPR does away with the conventional hierarchy between researchers and those being researched. In this way, CBPR is particularly suitable for work with Indigenous communities (Castleden, Morgan, & Lamb, 2012; Cross, Friesen, Jivanjee, Gowen, Bandurraga, Matthew, & Maher, 2011; Gauld, Smith, & Kendall, 2011). Indeed, the option of community participation in research affecting Indigenous peoples is recognized as an ethical imperative (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 2007). When community control and agency are emphasized and Indigenous community members contribute in meaningful ways to the research process, local capacity is strengthened and community-level changes can occur (Kelly, Saggers, Taylor, Pearce, Massey, Bull, Odo, Thomas, Billycan, Judd, Reilly, & Ahboo, 2012; Salimi, Shahandeh, Malekafzali, Loori, Kheiltash, Jamshidi, Frouzan, & Majdzadeh, 2012). The task of evaluating and measuring community-level change is not simple or straightforward. Although the randomized controlled trial has long been recognized as the gold standard for academic research, experimental approaches are often inappropriate for evaluating programs that take place in community settings (Judge & Bauld, 2001; Victora, Habicht, & Bryce, 2004). Kelly (2010) notes that communities are complex and constantly evolving; as such, evaluations of community-based initiatives cannot adhere to a single theory or model, and cannot test direct cause-and-effect relationships as in a closed system. In response to concerns with utilizing experimental designs to evaluate complex community initiatives, innovative evaluation approaches are beginning to emerge (Dart & Davies, 2003). Outcome Mapping (Earl, Carden, & Smutylo, 2001) represents one such approach. The aim of the current paper is to discuss the use of the tool for evaluating community and stakeholder changes that occurred when a substance abuse and violence prevention program was culturally adapted and delivered through a community-university partnership. To the authors’ knowledge, this paper represents the first study that uses Outcome Mapping as an evaluation tool in a Canadian Indigenous context.

The Community and the Project

The Maskwacis community, located in central Alberta, Canada, is made up of four Cree Nations: Louis Bull, Montana, Samson, and Ermineskin. The four nations have a combined population of approximately 15,000. These neighboring nations function independently, with separate chief and councils, education directors, and schools. Approximately 53% of the Maskwacis population is under the age of 18 (Grekul & Sanderson, 2011). As a result of colonization and its ongoing impact on Indigenous peoples, high rates of substance abuse and acts of violence pose a challenge for many First Nations communities in Canada. In response to these challenges, Maskwacis community members invited University of Alberta researchers to partner with them to culturally, adapt, deliver, and evaluate a substance abuse and violence prevention program to children and youth in Maskwacis schools. In order to realize this goal, a community-university partnership was formed in the spirit of CBPR. The first stage of the project involved culturally adapting the evidence-based Life Skills Training (Botvin, Baker, Renick, Filazzola, & Botvin, 1984; Botvin & Griffin, 2014) program to incorporate Cree culture, language, and values. Elders and community staff led the cultural adaptation process (Baydala, Fletcher, Tremblay, Rabbit, Louis, Ksay-Yin, & Sinclair, 2016). The adapted Maskwacis Life Skills Training (MLST) program was subsequently delivered for three years in Maskwacis schools by community program facilitators.

Evaluation of the MLST program was carried out over three years of program implementation. The evaluation consisted of (1) focus groups conducted at the end of each program year with school personnel, Elders, program facilitators, parents, and students to obtain feedback on the program, discuss suggestions for improvement, and understand the successes and challenges of the program; and (2) pre- and post- program questionnaires distributed to student participants (National Health Promotion Associates, 2011a, 2011b). By the third year of implementation, it was clear that MLST program effects were extending into the wider community. Partners were aware of a web of individual and community-level outcomes that could not be comprehensively captured with questionnaires or focus groups alone. Further, program facilitators often shared meaningful stories about program impact, but did not feel that evaluation processes allowed for documenting this informal data. Accordingly, Outcome Mapping (Earl et al., 2001) was utilized to supplement the evaluation of the MLST program. This paper will share project findings documented through Outcome Mapping, describe the use of Outcome Mapping as a retrospective evaluation tool, and discuss the suitability of this method for use in a CBPR partnership as well as with Indigenous communities.


Outcome Mapping

Outcome Mapping was developed in Canada by the International Development Research Centre, and was released to researchers and practitioners in 2001. Since that time, Outcome Mapping has mainly been used in Africa, Latin America/ Caribbean, and Asia, with only 2% of reported Outcome Mapping use in North America (Smith, Mauremootoo, & Rassmann, 2012). Although the tool was created for use in an international development context, research has documented its potential applicability to more diverse settings, including economically developed countries (Smith et al., 2012).

Outcome Mapping is a participatory approach to planning, monitoring, and evaluation. It represents a shift from defining results in terms of long-term impact to defining results in terms of observable changes in partners’ behaviors, actions, activities, and relationships. Although long-term impact is the ultimate goal of community-based projects, Outcome Mapping recognizes the importance of also tracking smaller-scale, incremental changes that indicate meaningful progress. An exclusive focus on impact can preclude a focus on these incremental changes, “severely limiting…potential for understanding how and why impact occurs” (Earl et al., 2001, p. 6). Further, the complex nature of community initiatives causes difficulty in linking large-scale impacts to discrete projects or initiatives. For this reason, Outcome Mapping acknowledges that the contributions of multiple projects, programs, organizations, and individuals are necessary to achieve large-scale impact. The work of a single initiative in isolation is not sufficient to achieve social change. Outcome Mapping is therefore useful in focusing on a project’s contributions to outcomes and impacts rather than attempting to attribute outcomes and impacts to one particular project.

The Outcome Mapping manual (Earl et al., 2001) describes 12 steps divided into three stages. The first stage is Intentional Design. This is a planning stage during which a project defines the changes it will aim to bring about as well as the strategies that will be used to contribute to the change process. The second stage is Outcome and Performance Monitoring. During this stage, monitoring priorities are identified, and methods are provided for monitoring progress toward desired outcomes. The third and final stage is Evaluation Planning. Appendix A (Page 67) lists the three stages and the steps required. Moving through the stages requires a series of workshops, with workshop implementation instructions provided in the manual.

Our Approach to Outcome Mapping

Recent research indicates that the procedure is especially relevant when adapted to meet the needs of an individual project (Smith et al., 2012). In practice, many researchers have employed the tool as part of a retrospective evaluation (Nyangaga, Smutylo, Romney, & Kristjanson, 2010). In this case, only the first stage, Intentional Design, is applicable. Stages 2 (Outcome and Performance Monitoring) and 3 (Evaluation Planning) are applicable when Outcome Mapping is used to prospectively plan, monitor, and evaluate a project.

For the current project, Outcome Mapping was used as a retrospective evaluation tool. From January to December 2013, approximately 150 hours were dedicated to workshops designed to move through the required steps described in stage one. These workshops were facilitated by the team’s program evaluator and always took place in the community setting. Workshop participants consisted of four academic team members, seven community team members, and two community Elders; this team is referred to as the working group committee (WGC).

When the WGC began the process, the project’s mission and vision statements had already been established (see Appendix B). Subsequent steps were followed in order, with boundary partners, outcome challenges, progress markers, and strategies developed by the WGC. After generating retrospective progress markers, the evaluator examined a number of data sources to collect evidence for progress. In particular, the evaluator examined minutes from four years of weekly WGC meetings; bi-annual reports to the project’s funder; transcripts from post-program focus groups conducted over three years; facilitator reports completed after each MLST class session over three years; and pre and post program questionnaires completed by MLST students over three years. These data were systematically extracted, coded, and classified according to the identified progress markers. After data were extracted and compiled, the WGC engaged in a series of meetings to discuss findings. These discussions allowed the WGC to reflect on areas where progress had advanced considerably as well as areas where less progress had occurred.

After progress markers were identified, workshops focused on identifying the strategies used to achieve the outcome challenges. In consultation with a practitioner, the WGC decided not to apply the strategy categorization process described in the Outcome Mapping manual. Instead, the evaluator separated identified strategies into those that the WGC had already successfully employed and those that would be useful in moving forward. In this way, the technique was not only useful as a retrospective evaluation tool, but was informative for ongoing program planning and improvement. The WGC decided not to employ Step Seven: Organizational Practices, as it was determined that the first six steps provided sufficient information and detail for the retrospective evaluation.


Changes in the behavior, actions, activities, and relationships of five boundary partners including Elders, leadership/education directors, schools, community and university partners were documented using the first stage. Changes in the student boundary partner were also documented, but were included in a separate paper (Baydala et al., 2016). These changes indicated meaningful progress toward desired outcomes. Consistent with the program’s vision and mission statements, outcome challenges and examples of progress markers are presented below for each of the five boundary partners. Examples of progress markers are presented in table form along with a summary of changes to support each progress marker. In keeping with guidelines outlined in the manual, progress markers were divided according to changes that the WGC expected to see (indicating an early response to project activities), liked to see (indicating more active engagement of boundary partners), and loved to see (indicating profound change in boundary partners). Finally, strategies for achieving progress markers are summarized for each boundary partner.


As in other Cree communities, Maskwacis Elders are held in the highest regard and act as community educators, historians, and storytellers. Because Cree culture and language were at the heart of the MLST program, Elders were critically important to the program’s planning and implementation. Following from the program’s vision toward healthy First Nation communities, the outcome challenge identified for Elders was to strengthen relationships between Elders and youth. Table 1 lists progress markers and a summary of changes for this outcome challenge.

Outcome Mapping allowed the WGC to evaluate a bi-directional learning relationship between the MLST program and community Elders. In particular, not only was the MLST program founded on the knowledge and direction of Elders; the WGC was also promoting behavioral changes in Elders by encouraging the formation of Elder-youth relationships in the community.

The primary strategy toward building relationships between Elders and youth was to invite Elders into Maskwacis classrooms as part of the MLST program. When Elders could not be physically present during MLST classes, digital stories, narrated in Cree by community Elders, were used to reinforce cultural teachings. Also, facilitators deliberately emphasized the importance of respecting community Elders and created opportunities for Elders and youth to interact in positive ways both in the classroom and through extracurricular events including a hide tanning cultural camp. In addition to allowing the WGC to identify existing strategies for promoting Elder-youth relationships, Outcome Mapping prompted the WGC to generate ideas for additional relationship-building activities. For example, the WGC planned to implement a tea and bannock day where students could invite their grandparents to engage in storytelling at their schools.

TremblayTable1 TremblayTable2

Leadership/Education Directors

The Maskwacis four Nations are governed by separate leaders (i.e., chiefs and council members), and have separate education directors. In Maskwacis as in other First Nation communities, formal approval from community leaders during the project’s initiation was required; this approval was granted in the form of band council resolutions from each Nation. The outcome challenge here was to reawaken the spirit of our leaders’ and education directors’ Nehiyaw mamitonecikan (i.e., Cree spirit). Progress markers are listed in Table 2.

Toward the outcome challenge of reawakening their Cree spirit, leaders and education directors were strongly supportive of the MLST program’s goal to promote culture in Maskwacis schools.
Although communicating with leaders was difficult due to their busy schedules and demanding jobs, the WGC did establish and maintain ongoing relationships with a number of prominent community members, resulting in one chief taking on an advocacy role in support of the program, and in all leaders and education directors signing letters in support of the program.

In order to facilitate progressive changes in leaders and education directors, community staff employed a number of relationship building strategies. In particular, leaders and education directors were invited to all MLST events, were given MLST newsletters, and were provided with a comprehensive business plan. Community staff also regularly attempted to schedule meetings to provide updates. Regarding prospective strategies, the WGC committed to provide leaders and education directors with monthly updates, and to invite leaders from all four Nations to meet as a collective.

Evaluating leaders and education directors as boundary partners allowed the WGC to recognize how important they were to program sustainability and to facilitating positive community change. As part of the process, the WGC discussed that it was important to maintain relationships with leaders and education directors beyond obtaining band council resolutions and formal written approval. In order for the program to thrive and have a community-wide impact, it was necessary for the WGC to provide leaders and education directors with multiple opportunities to become familiar with and involved in the MLST program.



While the support of community leaders and education directors was necessary to allow the MLST project in the Maskwacis community, the support of school personnel was necessary to allow for the project to experience success in Maskwacis schools. The outcome challenge for schools was to support and promote the program in the school environment, particularly the cultural aspects of the program. Progress markers and a summary of changes are listed in Table 3.

The above summary highlights that school personnel became increasingly welcoming, supportive, and interested in the MLST program and the program’s cultural teachings. During the first year of the program, teachers were hesitant to accept the program, rarely supported facilitators with classroom management, and reported a number of issues with facilitator reliability. By the third year, teachers provided expressly positive feedback about facilitators and the program, allowed extra MLST class time, began to advocate for the program, and incorporated cultural teachings into core subjects. Outcome Mapping allowed for the WGC to identify these progressive changes in school personnel.

To promote these changes, a number of strategies were utilized. An important strategy at the outset of the project was to invite schools to participate in program training delivered to facilitators. This allowed for schools to gain an understanding of the program before it began. Additionally, schools were given the opportunity to participate in focus groups at the end of each project year in order to provide feedback. Each year, this feedback led to additional strategies being employed for schools. In particular, the second and third years of the program saw more emphasis placed on facilitators being punctual and reliable, facilitators communicating with teachers, and facilitators being present in schools outside of MLST class time. Evaluation updates and promotional material were also provided to schools as a means of keeping school personnel informed about the program. Through Outcome Mapping, the WGC was able to identify and reflect on each of these strategies and the extent to which they were successful with schools.

Using the technique, a number of prospective strategies were also identified for schools. Primarily, because all three years of the program saw low attendance from school personnel at MLST events, the WGC determined that they needed to employ more targeted efforts to involve schools in MLST events. Additionally, it was determined that facilitators should spend time in their classrooms before the MLST program began in order to develop rapport with students and teachers and to establish mutual expectations. The WGC also committed to sharing a facilitator code of conduct with teachers, providing more regular updates to school principals, and annually revisiting the program’s memorandum of understanding with schools. Finally, unlike schoolteachers, facilitators were not University educated; rather, they were well-informed and knowledgeable regarding their culture and language. It was important for teachers to understand and respect the cultural qualifications of facilitators from the outset of the project. Accordingly, it would be important for the MSLT program to more clearly communicate with school personnel regarding the qualifications of facilitators at the beginning of the school year. Overall, Outcome Mapping provided a means for the WGC to generate prospective strategies in a systematic way that allowed for targeting areas where additional progress could be made.


Community Partners

Community partners (Table 4) included both MLST facilitators and program administrative staff. The outcome challenge for community staff was to practice, promote, and support a Nehiyaw (i.e., Cree) worldview through the program.

In identifying and evaluating progress markers for community partners, the WGC began to recognize the complexity of community partners’ roles, which extended beyond delivering the MLST program to students. These included developing their leadership capacity, as well as building relationships with Elders, students, schools, other MLST staff, the wider community, and university partners.

It was important to clarify strategies that facilitated the success of community partners in their complex roles. Strategies to this end were focused on promoting culture within the workplace. In particular, the job descriptions of community staff emphasized a significant cultural component, and it was clearly communicated to community staff that they were expected to spend time each day engaging with and learning from Elders. Additionally, community partners were permitted to participate in ceremonies and other cultural events during work hours, and took part in multiple culturally relevant professional development opportunities. To the extent that community partners were able to strengthen their cultural knowledge and connection with Elders, relationship building and accountability were similarly strengthened.

Moving forward, the WGC determined that it would be important to regularly revisit the staff code of conduct and handbook to ensure consistent staff expectations and standards. Another prospective strategy was to focus more on enhancing Cree language skills, and relatedly, to institute a Cree naming ceremony for all community staff.

University Partners

University partners (Table 5) included the project’s principal investigator, research coordinators, research assistants, and a program evaluator. For university partners, the outcome challenge was to practice authentic CBPR.

The mapping technique highlighted that University partners experienced significant growth in their capacity to practice authentic CBPR. This was made possible by community partners’ willingness to educate university partners, which in turn facilitated a strong and trusting partnership.

A number of strategies were relevant to university partners. Perhaps most importantly, university partners were physically present in the community as often as possible. The WGC held weekly meetings in the community; accordingly, university partners were present in the community at least once per week. Having regular meetings between partners was essential for relationship building. University partners also traveled to the community to work with community partners on program adaptations, conference abstracts, presentations, and to complete day-to-day project tasks together. Community partners shared that it was also imperative for university partners to attend community events and ceremonies, and to create opportunities for partners to informally socialize. While these strategies were employed throughout the project, the WGC had not evaluated why and how these strategies were effective until they began to use the technique. In this way, the process allowed for partners to discuss and clarify their assumptions regarding CBPR and the strategies necessary for establishing a strong and equitable community-university partnership.

Through these discussions, the WGC identified a number of additional strategies for community-university partnerships. Primarily, at the outset of a project, partners should establish a mutual understanding of expectations in order to avoid later confusion and misunderstanding. In this vein, the WGC recommended that community partners be involved in budget discussions from the beginning of the project in order to understand how and why budget decisions are made; this would help community partners to develop a more solid understanding of budget management when projects later transition into sustainable, community-led programs. Additionally, both partners should be aware of the power imbalance that is inherent to grant funds being held at the university rather than in the community. Most, if not all, community-university partnerships must deal with the reality that large funding agencies award research grants solely to university partners, who are then accountable for managing funds. Although in the current project, a portion of the overall grant was allotted to community partners to manage themselves, funds were still administratively filtered through the university, which was reportedly frustrating for community partners. In order to deal with these frustrations and the power imbalance that accompanies this situation, partners must be open and honest with one another, and willing to discuss the uncomfortable circumstances that such a funding arrangement can result in. Again, the overarching strategy for working through these challenges was to develop strong and trusting relationships between partners throughout the project.



To supplement the MLST program evaluation, Outcome Mapping was employed as a retrospective evaluation tool by community and academic research partners. Through the process, a number of boundary partners were identified, including Elders, community leaders and education directors, schools, as well as community and university partners. Outcome challenges, progress markers, and strategies were identified for each boundary partner through a series of team workshops, and evidence to support progress was systematically collected from meeting minutes, focus groups, reports to funders, and program facilitators’ daily reports.

Overall, partners were in strong agreement that Outcome Mapping provided a meaningful method for evaluating and telling the MLST program’s story of progress. In this way, the process was congruent with Indigenous worldviews. In particular, Indigenous research methods often emphasize narrative and relationality. Through workshops, team members told stories of their experiences with the program, informing the creation of outcome challenges and progress markers. This also allowed for the project’s milestones to be structured as more of a narrative than conventional evaluation methods, resulting in a coherent story of progress. Similarly, because the WGC created progress markers, the project was able to capture outcomes that were significant to community partners.

Importantly, the process was extremely beneficial for the current project. Of particular importance was the opportunity that Outcome Mapping offered for relationship building, both among community staff members and between community and academic partners. Bringing team members together to collaboratively define evaluation outcomes served as a reminder that partners were working toward a common goal. Participating in interactive workshops also allowed for partners to more fully understand multiple perspectives, and to consider ideas that were often innovative and novel. In this way, rich opportunities were provided for partners to learn from one another, and provided a catalyst for community partners to articulate and communicate expectations of university partners. Further, it provided a means for all WGC members to feel a sense of ownership over and investment in the evaluation process. The MLST evaluation was perceived as less of an academic endeavor, and more of a learning opportunity for both community and academic partners. Disentangling the complex web of progress also served to enhance staff morale. The WGC described feeling a sense of immense accomplishment at the evidence for progress elucidated by the process.

Similarly, Outcome Mapping prompted the WGC to recognize outcomes that might otherwise be overlooked by more conventional evaluation tools. Although there is obvious importance in remaining focused on long-term impacts such as reduced substance abuse and healthy First Nation communities, the process allowed for the WGC to take pride in smaller accomplishments indicating progress toward these long-term goals. A systematic examination of smaller-scale changes and strategies also allowed for the WGC to examine how changes occurred, and why less progress occurred in certain areas. Although the WGC had used tools such as phase diagrams in the past in order to illustrate progress, Outcome Mapping demonstrated far more complexity as well as peripheral and unanticipated changes. Likewise, it allowed for the WGC to examine outcomes and strategies that reached beyond the end of the evaluation, and to consider strategies and markers of progress moving forward into a phase of program sustainability.

Although the program was highly beneficial for the current project, a number of challenges must be highlighted. Primarily, it required a large time commitment from both partners. Because Outcome Mapping is a participatory process, it is essential for all team members to be present at workshops. Additionally, one person must be assigned to facilitate workshops and to organize and track data, which in itself represents a significant time commitment. Further, because Outcome Mapping is a relatively new method, it can be difficult to secure a facilitator who has an in-depth understanding and experience with the process. Investing time and energy into it also requires a flexible project funder. For the current project, funders did not impose particular evaluation methods, and trusted team members to employ appropriate evaluation tools. This flexibility is essential for the success of Outcome Mapping. Indeed, framing knowledge with its use could be seen as a risky undertaking in the world of academia, where randomized controlled trials and experimental methods are the standard. However, in complex community settings, the technique is highly valuable and arguably necessary for evaluating and understanding community progress and change.

This project represents the first account of Outcome Mapping in a Canadian Indigenous community. Given the need for evaluation methods that align with the non-linear, multi-faceted processes of community change and development, this project makes an important contribution to the evaluation literature. Our project not only demonstrates how Outcome Mapping can accurately and comprehensively capture the change process in community projects; it also highlights how the method can be used to bring together and engage community and university partners in the evaluation process.

Finally, this project details how Outcome Mapping can be effectively adapted by a community-university partnership.


While conventional research and evaluation methods can provide valuable information regarding the effectiveness of a program, CBPR projects require the additional use of innovative methods that can account for the complex nature of community change. For the current project, Outcome Mapping provided a systematic method for understanding peripheral changes that are often overlooked in conventional research and evaluation, but that nonetheless indicate progress toward community changes and long-term impact. Among other findings, data demonstrated positive impact on Elders and students; growing community investment in and support for the MLST program’s cultural components; progressive increases in community ownership of the program; and growth in the community-university partnership throughout the project. The method is a highly valuable tool for CBPR projects. It supports growth in community and academic capacity and relationship building between community and academic partners. Outcome Mapping can enhance research and evaluation quality and contribute to project sustainability by offering a framework for capturing outcomes that are meaningful for community partners.


TremblayAppendixA Trembley_AppendixB


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About the Authors

Melissa Tremblay is a program evaluator in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta. Lola Baydala is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta. Natasha Rabbit is the executive director of the Nehiyaw Kakeskewina Learning Society in Maskwacis, Alberta. Jennilee Louis is a research assistant for the Nehiyaw Kakeskewina Learning Society in Maskwacis, Alberta. Kisikaw Ksay-yin is an Elder in the Nehiyaw Kakeskewina Learning Society, Maskwacis, Alberta.

Building Civic Capacity for College Students: Flexible Thinking and Communicating as Puppeteers, Community Partners, and Citizen-Leaders

Deborah Thomson, Rebecca Dumlao, and John Howard

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College students face a complex world filled with pervasive social problems that require strong knowledge bases, critical thinking abilities, and sustained engagement in civic life. This article details key pedagogical practices for our innovative health puppetry program, in which undergraduate honors students use puppets to share information about healthy eating, diabetes prevention, and active lifestyles with children and their families in community settings. We articulate a notion of “flexible thinking” as the ability to take on and perform new roles within the public/civic arena by seeing complex social problems from multiple perspectives and responding with creative solutions and engaged action. We look to the written reflections of our student puppeteers to share, in their own words, multiple ways their thinking and communication changed as they grew as puppeteers, community partners, and citizen-leaders. We also offer insights about promoting flexible thinking through in-depth service-learning.

In the spring of 2011, 13 undergraduate honors students from a variety of majors were part of the inaugural “Puppet Shows that Make a Difference!” class, a service-learning honors seminar team-taught by two of us with another of us serving as guest lecturer and project advisor. Our goal was to give our students the experience of using health puppetry to speak with children in our community about ongoing childhood overweight and diabetes issues. We spent the first half of the semester training our students as puppeteers using large colorful puppets and scripts purchased from the longstanding educational puppetry organization The Kids on the Block (n.d.). We also taught our students an interdisciplinary course curriculum focused on interpersonal, intercultural, and small group communication, with guest speakers on topics like healthy eating, childhood obesity and diabetes, child development and family relations, and educational principles for children. In the last month of our class, we visited nine different low-cost (or no-cost) after-school programs that partner with our university’s service-learning center. Our students performed the puppet shows to nearly 300 children. Each show was approximately 30 minutes long, with 20 minutes of scripted performance and 10 minutes of interactive dialogue.

But the puppet shows were more than just a set of community-based experiences. We recognized that students engaged in rich, well-designed, service-learning projects learn not only through hands-on experiences in the community; they also learn through sustained self-reflection. In-depth written reflections can help teach students to consider their experiences thoughtfully to “generate, deepen and document” their learning (Ash & Clayton, 2009; Rama & Battistoni, 2001). Throughout our course, we asked our students to write weekly reflections, called articulated learnings (ALs) in response to prompts about key course topics. We also required a final essay that took the form of a longer AL that integrated and highlighted learning from across the semester. The ALs were based on a model for critical reflection (Ash & Clayton, 2009). This model—known as the DEAL model—provided a clear framework for students to organize and understand their own experiences via (D)escription, (E)xamination, and (A)rticulation of (L)earning in the journals so that they would glean new meaning from their community interactions, rather than just to have an experience outside the classroom. This model not only encourages students to think in-depth and critically about topics being explored, but also easily lends itself to scholarly analysis.

Below we will argue that our health puppetry project led students to develop and engage in flexible thinking and communication with members of their community. In our thematic analysis of student journals kept over the course of the semester, we find flexible thinking in a) perspective-taking shifts experienced by students as they enact the roles of puppeteer, teacher, leader, and citizen and b) increasing awareness of students’ sense of civic responsibility and agency in “making a difference” as citizen-leaders. We end our analysis with suggestions for scholars and practitioners to promote flexible thinking through in-depth service-learning courses. But first, we provide a brief literature review and a detailed explanation of our class and how it worked.

Literature Review and Background Information

Today’s college students face an increasingly complex world filled with pervasive social problems that require the knowledge, skills, and informed agency to put learning into action in their communities. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) points out that “full civic literacies cannot be garnered only by studying books; democratic knowledge and capabilities also are honed through hands-on, face-to-face, active engagement in the midst of differing perspectives about how to address common problems that affect the wellbeing of the nation and the world” (p. 3). For students to truly care about problems, they need to experience them outside of what they may read as an example or statistic in a textbook. Or, as Battistoni (2013) states, a broad understanding of civic knowledge (and subsequent action) “includes a deeper knowledge of public issues, including their underlying causes as well as of how different community stakeholders understand issues” (p. 115–116). Students studying a health issue might, for instance, learn about the multiple facets of community and family life that could contribute to health issues as well as to become more sensitive to the cultural traditions surrounding food and health.

To be well-prepared to work in communities, then, students must be able to think about different perspectives on a problem, consider varied courses of action, and determine ways to collaborate effectively to create solutions that serve a larger purpose (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2012). Indeed, students must be empowered to embrace an ethical civic identity (Knefelkamp, 2008). For example, students could learn that there are diverse professionals who could address complex health issues from varied perspectives and areas of expertise. Students could also be given opportunities to actively experience new ethical civic identities by playing unique roles in the community.

Further, as Minnich (2012) points out, “education and democracy both thrive on inquiry, on experimentation that may enable discovery” (p. 25). Effective civic action requires what we are calling “flexible thinking.” Flexible thinking is necessary to take on and perform new roles within the public/civic arena. It requires the ability to see the “big picture” of a complex social problem, along with the ability to look at that problem from multiple perspectives, responding with creative solutions and engaged action. It requires the type of “fluid intelligence” Cattell (1963) described as necessary for “adaptation to new situations” (p. 3). Fluid intelligence is “the ability to be creative, make leaps of insight, and perceive things in a fresh and novel manner” (Potter, 2013, p. 78). Community-based performance helps students to develop this kind of flexible thinking, as the performer must venture into unfamiliar territories of self and other, both as they take on the role of a character in a puppet show and as they take on the role of citizen-leader within their community. Structured reflection about community experiences can also help students develop flexible thinking as they must look back at what worked (or didn’t) in one situation and then be creative in considering new alternatives to use in the future.

Using Service-learning and Performance

To Address Complex Social Problems

Recognizing the importance of students’ civic learning as well as building their capacity for flexible thinking and action, we created a service-learning course to take on the problem of childhood overweight and diabetes, both of which are severe problems in our community. In North Carolina two thirds of all adults (67.5%) are overweight or obese. The state also ranks 50th in the United States for rates of childhood obesity (Pitt County, 2008). In our county, it is estimated that 40% of elementary-age children and adolescents are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight Pitt County, 2008). Given the pressing social issues facing us, these interactive puppet shows were not just “fun” (although they were that); they were a way to share accurate information on healthy
eating and active lifestyles with children at-risk of developing obesity and eating-related health problems such as diabetes.

These puppet shows were also a way for our students to learn from the children in their community about what kids face when it comes to eating well, using fluid intelligence to gain new perspectives on these health problems. All of our puppet shows contained both a scripted scene and a time to interact, so children in the audience could speak directly with the puppets. Our puppets, for instance, asked the children questions like “What could you eat for a healthy snack?” And our puppeteers were frequently surprised by the children’s answers. In this sense, our project created a unique learning partnership between college student learners and elementary school learners, with puppets in the middle. As Bringle and Hatcher (2002) point out, campus-community partnerships are developed through person-to-person interactions that are dynamic. Moreover, partnerships between campus members, such as our university students, and community members, such as the children, are recognized to be both complex and challenging (Jacoby, 2003), since the partners come to the interactions “from different worlds” (Sandy & Holland, 2006, p. 30). So, as a primary learning goal, we hoped our students would “learn to put themselves back into the mix of humanity…working ‘with’ people (in the community) rather than ‘on’ them” (Boyte, 2009, p. 15), being able to shift their thinking accordingly. We also hoped that our students would see themselves increasingly as citizen-leaders “making a difference” in the very communities where they were performing.

Block-Schulman and Jovanovic (2010) state that “service-learning programs work because they engage students wholly—involving the intellect, the body, and the emotions in a social arena to assert an ethical posture (as active citizens)” (p. 93). Performance lends itself to this holistic level of engagement, because the student-as-performer engages the flesh, the memory, the senses, the emotions, the voice, and even the human spirit in the act of performing. Pineau (2002) describes performance as “a medium for learning,” one that “requires the rigorous, systematic, exploration-through-enactment of real and imagined experience in which learning occurs through sensory awareness and kinesthetic engagement” (p. 50). This type of performative learning through embodiment is closely aligned with Minnick’s (2003) notion of deeply democratic thinking as “play” in which students get “caught up in imaginative moments, not tied down to or locked within what he or she already knew or what logically followed” (p. 24). We found that this form of “play” as a learning strategy was quite effective, as we discuss below.


Our Course: Puppet Shows That Make A Difference!

Our “troupe” included 13 undergraduate honors students who were majoring in disciplines as diverse as chemistry, criminal justice, communication, biology, accounting and nursing, among others (see Figure 1). They were primarily sophomores and juniors, and they were fairly evenly split by gender. Almost half of the class planned to go into a health profession, and most of these intended to attend medical school after college. Only 3 of our 13 claimed to have any performance experience; only one had ever worked with puppets. We were also lucky to have three teaching assistants, graduate students in our department’s master’s program in health communication. We had trained these students as puppeteers during the previous semester, both for our own process of learning to work with our new puppets and so that they would, in turn, be able to help our undergraduate students with the difficult skills of puppeteering such as eye focus, puppet gesture, and lip sync.

We had two faculty members team teaching this course. One of us has extensive performance experience, and the other has extensive service-learning experience. Both of us are also graduates of our university’s Engagement and Outreach Scholar’s Academy, an intensive program to learn about community-engaged scholarship with institutional and financial support to develop new projects. Because both of us study and teach communication, we invited a number of colleagues from areas such as nutrition, pediatrics, and childhood development to present on these topics to give our students interdisciplinary knowledge. These areas of understanding were key to our project, not just because we wanted our students to see the “big picture” of childhood overweight and diabetes, but also because they would need to be able to answer children’s questions on these topics in their puppet shows.

To provide a strong sense of the challenge our students faced in learning to be puppeteers, we must first describe these puppets. These were not hand puppets. They were huge, kid-sized puppets with arm rods, requiring both physical strength and substantial performance skills by puppeteers (see Figure 2). This style of puppetry is based on the ancient Japanese Bunraku style in which the performer stands behind the puppet dressed in black, as a kind of shadow to the puppet. The performer also wears a black mesh hood in order to see the audience, allowing for better interaction. Although the shows were fully scripted (and copyright demanded no deviation from these scripts), each performed puppet script was followed by an interactive question and answer session between the kids in the audience and the puppets. Thus the need for interdisciplinary learning by the students and another need for them to quickly flex their thinking from being a puppet using a script to being a puppet that could accurately and responsively answer each child’s questions.

We were able to purchase the puppets and scripts with grant funding from our university. As part of this, we were also able to bring in two trainers from the head office of The Kids on the Block, who conducted a one-day puppeteering workshop with our students. Consequently, the students were very well prepared as puppeteers and had many chances to practice and develop their puppet skills both in and out of class before actually doing the community puppet shows.

Throughout our course, we asked our students to write weekly reflections in response to prompts about key course topics. Both the prompts and the students’ writing followed the DEAL model for critical reflection (Ash & Clayton, 2009; Ash, Clayton, & Moses, 2009; Ash, Clayton, & Atkinson, 2005). The DEAL model encourages students to describe and then explain their learning using the following sentence stems: “I learned that…; I learned this when…; This learning matters because…; In light of this learning….” Our discussion prompts covered topics within three categories: personal growth, civic learning, and academic enhancement. Topics included community partnerships, leadership, performing with children, teamwork, exploring cultures, and making a difference, among others. The ALs also traced students’ experiences as they learned about the academic foundations of their practices and as they learned from their interactions with community members as engaged citizen-performers. The final AL essay called for an integration of the multiple dimensions of their experiences.


Research Questions and Method

Our investigation of service-learning and flexible thinking considers the intersections among role playing/perspective taking, civic engagement, and flexible thinking in students’ writings. That is, we looked carefully at the essays to see whether our primary learning goals for students were being met. To this end, we posed the following research questions:

RQ1: How did playing new roles (puppeteer, teacher, etc.) contribute to students’ abilities to take the perspective(s) of others (and enact flexible thinking)?

RQ2: What did the service-learning experiences mean to students, relative to their citizenry and perceived ability to facilitate change?

Students were asked to participate in the study, but had the option not to include their responses in the research. They were told that their reflections would be used to analyze the content and critical thinking. So, while we recognized that the prompts would influence the content of their responses, we also expected that the structure would give our students some grounding in what to write about (as opposed to open-ended journaling where students may choose to simply recall experiences without delving deeper). The DEAL model encourages students to think deeply about the content of their learning, as well as their related thoughts, feelings, and developing skills. As researchers, our hope was to gain some understanding of the meanings and significance our students would make of their service-learning and related classroom experiences.
Consequently, our primary method of analysis is focused on generating understanding as it emerges from students’ own voices (i.e., grounded theory).

We chose the “constant comparative method” (Lindlof, 1995, p. 222) so students’ voices could be heard without imposing a rigid theoretical frame. This approach enables researchers to develop common and overarching themes, frames, and principles through a systematic but flexible form of inquiry. Two important aspects of this method are that “it specifies the means by which theory grounded in the relationships among data emerges through the management of coding (hence, grounded theory), and it shows explicitly how to code and conceptualize as field data keep flowing in” (Lindlof, 1995, pp. 222–223). In this study, thematic elements were identified in the student reflections and compared across authors. Below we share the themes that emerged from our analysis and the connections among them.

Learning New Roles: Puppeteer, Community

Partner, Citizen-Leader

Minnick (1985) lists “play” as a characteristic of the kind of thinking that we should be teaching in the college classroom, noting that “Such play is not always fun: It can take us to scary places. But it also unclenches, releases” (p. 24). Many of our students began the semester feeling “clenched” about what lay ahead. As honors students, they were accustomed to performing well on tests and receiving high marks on essays. But, for most, performing was an entirely new venture, one squarely outside of the proverbial “comfort zone.”

Interestingly, in their first week of journaling about the class, these 13 students collectively used the word “comfort” 21 times, all basically describing how uncomfortable they were about performing. Representative of this was Mike, a pre-med student, who described the discomfort he experienced when students were asked to sing their names as part of a warm-up activity. Mike wrote that the activity “forced students like me out of their zones of comfort.”
He elaborated:

I was slightly taken aback on the first day of this class when asked to sing in front of my classmates for several short periods as a part of warm-up exercises. I do not often sing in front of people, and much less often in front of those I barely know.

Ron, too, described the anxiety he felt upon reading scripts aloud for the first time, writing, “I sink into my chair, excessively, unnecessarily fearful of being selected to assume the vocal identity of a character about whom I know slightly more than nothing at all.” This process of taking on a character would eventually prove liberating for our students, freeing them up for other possibilities of self. But this “liberation” was only after hours of practice and increasing self-confidence as performers and educators.

Moving Between Self and Other

Richard Schechner (1985) theorizes the restored behavior of taking on a theatrical role as “me behaving as if I am someone else” (p. 37). Schechner describes the performer’s stance as she inhabits the character as a dance between the “not me” and the “not not me,” explaining:

While performing, a performer experiences his own self not directly but through the medium of experiencing the others. While performing, he no longer has a “me” but has a “not not me,” and this double negative relationship also shows how restored behavior is simultaneously private and social. A person performing recovers his own self only by going out of himself and meeting the others—by entering a social field (p. 112).

For our students, this interplay between self and other was not an easy process. The challenges of performance went beyond learning the physical mechanics of puppetry such as lip sync, eye focus, and gesture. It was entering Schechner’s “social field” in which the self would be doubly displaced, first as our students took on a puppet character and then a second time as they came into dialogue with their young audiences, who offered them a child’s eye view of the world.

Interestingly, it was the mental image of this future performance partner, the imagined children, which brought Jada some comfort as she navigated the anxieties of performing before her peers in these early days of our class:

During my reading I focused so much on the part that everyone else in the room seemed to disappear. While I continued to talk as Christine I began to imagine myself in a room full of young children. … I believe that I was able to get into the reading as I began to imagine children because I love working with children. I know that they are not judgmental and that they love it when adults act crazy.

Ron also navigated performance anxieties with an eagerness for learning this new role when he wrote in his first reflection: “I am eager to start practicing with the puppets, and molding my own personality to theirs.” Ron likely intended to communicate that he would start the process of shaping his character’s personality (rather than his own). But the mistake is revealing of what would happen for many of these students, as the process of taking on a character freed them up for other roles and for seeing the world from other points of view, to think more flexibly.

Teaching and Leading

In Hersey and Blanchard’s (1977) situational leadership model, leaders can delegate to their followers (in other words, let their followers lead), when the follower’s readiness level is high. In our case, this happened when the students were ready to go off script in the interactive portion of their shows. Having embodied the knowledge about healthy eating and diabetes through rehearsal and performance, they were ready to teach, and they were ready to lead others. After eight weeks, our students stepped out into their community to perform. As they did this, they took on a new role, that of teacher. Arnold, another pre-med student, spoke to this challenge and the learning opportunities it presented when he wrote:

Questions like “Can diabetes kill you?” were hard to answer when dealing with children, but showed that they were relating to the topic and trying to understand as much about it as possible. Dr. Collier came and instructed us on the medical aspects of diabetes in order to improve our knowledge so we could answer questions with factual information. This was knowledge that we could apply immediately to the performances that were in our immediate future, something that is a rarity in college courses.

Arnold imagined this learning continuing into his future role as physician, stating “I will also continue to learn as much as possible about diabetes, and continue to educate my community about the disease in some way.”

As our students became more comfortable with their roles as puppeteers, they shifted into new roles as teachers and leaders. This was clearly demonstrated during the one show when students had to think on their feet because they received no questions from the audience. We had become accustomed to a room full of little hands popping up when the puppets took questions. But in this location the children had been highly disciplined to sit still and say nothing, and this discipline continued into the interactive portion of our show. After a prolonged silence ended the show, our students came out and took their bows. They put their puppets down, took their black hoods and gloves off, and began to interact with the children as themselves. Maggie started off by saying to the group, “You really don’t have any questions about healthy eating or diabetes?” Then a question came, and then another, turning into our longest audience dialogue and the only one that took place between performer and audience with no puppet in between.

Perspective Taking

These sorts of dialogic experiences with children in our community challenged our students to see the beyond their own frames of reference. Melanie writes about this learning when she first had to answer the question “What is diabetes?” posed by a young person in her audience. Melanie stated that her “first instinct […] was to begin by explaining the function of glucose in the cells and its conversion to energy in order to be used for carrying out daily activities.” She quickly realized that a highly technical explanation would likely not be met with wide understanding from the K-2 crowd. Melanie continues:

As I gained performance competence, I started to think more about who my audience was, and what kind of answers they would understand. This learning matters because it made me realize who I was answering, and take into account what their level of understanding about biology would be as an elementary school student. In light of this learning, I began to think like a kid when the question and answer portion of the show began so that I would be able to answer questions in a way the child asking the question would comprehend.

Melanie not only had to think like her character to answer the question, she had to think like her audience, displaying the kind of entry into Schechner’s (1985) “social field” that enables a performer to escape the perspective of the self, however briefly.
Maggie also spoke about this when she was surprised by the willingness of the children in her audience to share their own stories, writing:

Once we began talking about diabetes, I realized through the children’s numerous comments that many of them had firsthand experience with diabetes through family members, but also that they did not know much about the condition.

Our students were now not just learning about the problem of diabetes in our area from the perspective of a physician or a professor, they were learning from the personal stories of children with a diabetic grandmother who had died from the disease or a diabetic uncle who took shots of insulin every day.

Making a Difference

We had titled our course “Puppet Shows that Make a Difference!” hoping that our planned puppet shows would do just that in our community as our students shared information about healthy eating and diabetes with youth at risk of diet-related health problems. Although we did not assess the impact that these puppet shows had on our audiences, what we found was that the perception of making an impact was deeply meaningful to our students. Caitlin’s final essay exemplified this:

I felt at the beginning of this class that it would not be possible for me to change the world, the nation, or even a city on my own. I seemed to block out the “…That Make a Difference” part of the class. I did not see how it was possible for a freshman in college to do anything that would have enough impact to be considered “making a difference”. I realized that if I could help one child, this class, and ultimately I, would be a success. Yet, the complete breakthrough did not occur during [the lectures]. […]Finally, on the day in which we performed for the children, a complete breakthrough occurred. I saw the children and how receptive they were. I saw their excitement, and the excitement of the adults around me. It finally seemed real. I had made a difference.

Of course, we should be skeptical that these puppet shows could affect the kind of dramatic societal changes that Caitlin articulates. But we can see in her optimism and investment in community that spark of what it feels like to be an agent of change.

Astin and Astin’s (1996) Social Change Model of Leadership Development posits that there are three levels of change for engaged citizenship: individual, group, and community. At the first level, individuals gain a consciousness of self and a commitment to the value of civic engagement. Next, at the group level, individuals come together for collaboration and common purpose. This sets the stage for the final level: community engagement. Christine Cress (2011) also writes about how service-learning can engage students in these three stages, noting that “students are able to extend their intellectual capacities to include empathy and problem solving that will have a real community impact” (p. 78). She continues: “in this spirit, service-learning offers students the opportunity to become critically conscious citizens with the knowledge and skills for creating more equitable democratic communities” (p. 78). Our student Caitlin echoes this notion as she ties the work of performance to the work of democracy and citizenship, writing:

A belief in the ability to make a difference is even more important to the citizens of this and any other democratic nation. Democracy thrives on the belief of its citizens that they can make a difference. This is what drives people to the voting booths, to rallies, and to signing or forming petitions. If the belief in a single person’s ability to change the world was lost, I believe that democracy itself would be lost as well.

Caitlin’s conception of perceived civic agency as fundamental to a thriving democracy offers an insight into the kind of flexible thinking that our service-learning puppeteers experienced as they went out to perform “making a difference.”

Embracing Community

Part of perceived civic agency, for our students, was embracing the idea that they were part of multiple communities, including the sometimes overlooked ones surrounding their university, and that they needed to be an active participant, a citizen, in those communities. Justin, in his final paper, thought about this as he discussed the importance of “teamwork,” writing:

Last, but definitely not least, the most important teamwork was with our class and our partners in the community, both the adults and the children. This was the most delicate and important version of teamwork we learned about this semester. I learned that we, as East Carolina University students, as current Pitt County residents, as citizens of the United States of America, have a civic responsibility to improve and take part in each and every community we are involved in. Every community from my immediate family to the enormous student body we have at East Carolina flourishes only when we work together to try to improve it.

Justin here identifies several “communities” that he is a part of—from his family, to his university, to his current county of residence. Justin’s sentiments speak to the power of service-learning to help invest students with what Justin aptly terms the “civic responsibility to improve and take part in” the communities of which we are a part. Another way to think about this is that Justin was moving from the “not me” to the “not not me” on his return from his journey through the “social field.” The larger community of Pitt County was now not-not him. His statements also demonstrate that he was able to think about community from multiple perspectives.

By the end of the semester, many of our students were reconceptualizing themselves as community leaders. Arnold wrote about this new citizen-leader role when he stated:

We are becoming leaders by consciously choosing to symbolically communicate the importance of eating healthily to children through puppetry. … Leaders are not perfect people. They can be anyone. A leader is simply someone with the right skills who, when the opportunity arises, has the courage to step forward and say, “I can make a difference, starting today.”

Melanie had this same realization, noting the importance of each individual’s contributions as part of the larger collective effort that is community leadership. She wrote:

I had a few epiphanies about making differences in the world around us. I realized that you already have what it takes to make the world a better place. Making a difference to the world may seem like an enormous task, but it is in fact the collective effort of everyone to make small contributions with a lot of heart. The size of the contribution is not what matters most. The key here is to have the heart to do it.

In both Arnold’s and Melanie’s sentiments, we see students who are conceiving of themselves as leaders as they rethink what citizen-leadership is, something that does not necessarily come only from “perfect people,” in Arnold’s conception, or from “enormous tasks,” in Melanie’s. It can come from those who choose to step forward, even in small acts.

Building Capacity for Civic Engagement

Our inaugural puppetry course demonstrates what can happen when students are given the opportunity to focus in-depth on a community-based issue/problem. That is, our students were asked to consider multiple human perspectives, to draw on insights from multiple disciplines as well as across specialties within a single discipline (i.e. small group communication, leadership communication, and interpersonal communication) and to do this in a single semester. This type of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary learning is, unfortunately, a rarity in most college classes that are instead structured to focus on subject matter rather than giving students a “breadth of understanding” about an issue. Admittedly, there are many structural and functional obstacles in the way. As Fitzgerald, Burack, and Seifer (2010) note:

Pressures to build strong university-community collaborations pose difficult problems for the academy because they demand interdisciplinary cooperation, rejection of provincial disciplinary turfism, changes in the faculty reward system, a re-focusing of unit and institution missions and the breaking down of firmly established and isolated silos (p. x).

Still, we must overcome such challenges, because providing students with a greater breadth of understanding is essential to enabling them to think deeply about the complex issues we face in today’s world. Being a contemporary problem-solver frequently requires more than just disciplinary knowledge; civic action necessitates higher ordered flexible thinking that applies, evaluates, and integrates knowledge. Indeed, focusing on a single community-based issue rather than on a subject specialty area is one way to help students capture the complexity of a contemporary problem (in our case, eating-related health problems for children). This offers a new possibility for what others have identified as the important process of “doing democracy” and “fostering civic action” (The National Task Force, 2012).

Our course, heard through the student voices in their reflections, reiterated to us how important “big” (pressing, social) issues are in our classes and how students can be empowered to address some aspect of those “big” issues. Just as there may be many partners necessary to solve complex problems, there could be possibilities for students representing many disciplines to work together. Working with different partners and being able to think about an issue from different perspectives is important far beyond any single issue. In a diverse global society, everyone must interact regularly with people representing different experiences and assumptions. So, the abilities to look at a problem from multiple perspectives will be essential to college graduates functioning as active citizens in very dynamic and ever-changing democracies.

Our project had several challenges and limitations. One was simply the labor-intensive nature of this type of performance work. Many hours were spent outside of the classroom conducting
rehearsals and scheduling performances. There was a very steep learning curve here! For example, one of the lessons we learned was that our child audience members were more attentive audience members when they had their teachers sitting nearby. This was a lesson we learned the hard way at an after-school program where the teachers left and we had to monitor behavior while trying to do our jobs as performers.

Another limitation had to do with the depth of partnering that took place in our project. While individual college courses can be subject to the limitations of a semester-long commitment to a community program (See Stoecker & Tryon, 2009), classes that are issue-focused like ours can be part of a longer-term programmatic effort or what Heath and Frey (2004) call “community collaboration.” These authors rightly note that “in most communities today, it is a necessity for groups, organizations, and institutions to work together collaboratively to confront complex issues” (p. 189). In subsequent puppetry projects, we have worked to partner more deeply with one agency, and to write our own scripts based on interviews and focus groups with members of our community on the topic of healthy eating. Similarly, scholars from other disciplines could partner with community members to develop interactive puppet shows to address other community issues. We see nutrition students developing interactive puppet shows to teach children about healthy eating and to learn about children’s eating habits. We see dentistry students doing the same with dental health or sport science students doing the same with exercise (two topics our continuing puppetry students have been working on).

Although we chose not to conduct pre- and post-tests to attempt to quantify our student’s growth, their reflections showed us what they learned while interacting with the children. These opportunities to learn-while-doing were invaluable and went far beyond the cognitive content emphasized in many, even most, college courses. They offered positive emotion, excitement, and “in the moment” kinds of thoughtful responding. We saw that allowing our students the opportunities to “play” both in and out of the classroom helped them to get more excited about not just the “thinking” part of their work, but also about the community-based “doing.” We hope that future scholars and practitioners will develop new ways to capture the element of this rich “play” that can invigorate and motivate both learning and doing. Staying motivated and having fun is not just nice, it is fundamental to opening up new possibilities and to keeping us enthusiastic enough to overcome problems and dilemmas we face along the way.

This service-learning course has also shown us the value of in-depth written reflections. We agree with Ash and Clayton (2009) that critical thinking through reflection requires careful consideration and planning to specify detailed learning outcomes and to design reflections that help students achieve those specific outcomes. We also recognize the importance of aligning our student outcomes with assessing the overall community impact—something that we admittedly did not address in the single semester allotted for this course. We did not gather formal feedback from the children we performed for, but we did learn from the places where children laughed or were especially engaged and from questions and comments they gave. In the future, seeking more formal feedback can help us to improve the quality of our performances and to understand what our audiences are getting out of them. Still, we realize that teaching toward community impact and designing related assessments will also require broad, interdisciplinary efforts over time. Researchers need to work with practitioners to determine what will work to demonstrate
impact and to show the long-term sustainable commitment to making positive changes. Students can have a part to play in identifying what really matters. Working as co-educators (Zlotkoswki, Long, & Williams, 2006) and solo educators for others (like the children in our audiences), service-learning students offer real potential for looking at long-standing situations with fresh eyes… and that may be just where innovative responses to “what’s never been done” can begin to take root.

While our study demonstrated a single semester’s course projects, we are well aware that the community partnerships started through these classes require our long-term commitment and efforts, even as we train new puppeteers and work with other community-based programs focused on our chosen issue. As Enos and Morton (2003) aptly note, ideal service-learning is not just about the single transactions between partners, but rather about “the continuing possibility (that partners) will be transformed in large and small ways” (p. 20). We wholeheartedly agree. Teaching for flexible thinking has real possibilities to change students, faculty, universities, and communities as we, together, address the issues that demand our attention. Our students, working collaboratively with others on and off campus, began to see how their own efforts are part of the larger whole, a part of a complex problem’s long-term solution. They saw how they “can make a difference” as players in community collaboration. This is the exciting civic challenge we face; it is also what is most needed for a bright future for our communities, for us all.


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Author’s Note

This research project was approved by the
University and Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board as research project #11-0147. Following our IRB protocol, we sought written informed consent to access the student journals at the start of the semester. A graduate student collected the consent forms, and they were kept by one of our administrative staff members until after grades were posted at the end of the semester, so as not to create pressure on
students to consent. We have changed the names of our
students to preserve anonymity.

About the Authors

Deborah Thomson is an associate professor and John Howard and Rebecca Dumlao are professors, all in the School of Communication at East Carolina University.

Volunteers Needed: Bridging Latino Immigrants and Local Communities Through Service Learning and Critical Analytic Practice Ethnography

Diana M. Ruggiero

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This essay presents a brief ethnography of a small Latino community in Tennessee and their interaction with local volunteers following a disastrous flood that occurred in July 2014. The ethnography, in this case in the form of a screenplay, depicts the overall intercultural sensitivity of the volunteers, the affected, and the interpreters. In the process, this essay also considers such creative analytic practice (CAP) ethnographies may help students involved in Spanish and community service-learning courses as well as communities bridge the “self”/“other” gap that so often distances Latino immigrants and locals.

It is well known that migrant populations
contend with numerous challenges in their adopted society, from secondary citizenship and discrimination to cultural differences. This exclusion is exacerbated, if not caused, by language barriers. Indeed, as scholars in the social sciences have long noted (e.g., Hill, 1995, 2008), it is often language that demarcates the difference between “us” and “other.” Unfortunately, this polarizing form of thinking can be extremely detrimental to the progress of both marginalized and dominant populations within a city. When we fail to realize that we do indeed have new residents who are monolingual in Spanish and then ignore the needs that this population has, we are not only doing a disservice to them but to the population in general in that we reify and maintain the very structural differences that keep Latinos in an undesirable and marginal position in relation to the dominant society (see, for example, Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011).

As a language professor with community
service-learning courses, I cannot help but attend to the needs of Latino immigrants and connect students with this reality. While grammar instruction and cultural activities such as dancing salsa and eating at a Mexican restaurant are valid forms of teaching and learning Spanish, learning a foreign language also entails applying the language in the context of daily life. For me, this means visiting a local community and using the language as much as possible in a positive and beneficial manner. Though situating language use within a lived context can be achieved through study abroad, an immersive language experience can likewise often be accomplished within one’s own local community. The benefits in this case, however, extend well beyond the individual student and the development of language abilities.

This essay chronicles an actual event that took place during the week of July 1, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee, a city of more than 650,000 residents, following flooding in June. Demographically, the city is majority African American (63.3%) and Caucasian (29.4%), with a growing Latino population (6.5%) for which there are few resources in this heavily monolingual city (

The events deal with the aftermath of a period of unseasonably heavy rainfall during the month of June. There was major flooding and aid was needed throughout the city. Many agencies, such as the Red Cross, were there to aid those who needed it, but as the Red Cross is staffed locally, they reflected the demographic majority of the city; there were very few, if any, Spanish speakers available. This created a huge need for third party interpreters who could speak both English and Spanish and help the affected families receive aid. This third party was vital to the success of both parties by being a bridge across the language barrier.

Language differences provided enough of a barrier for the disaster relief team that the process to receive aid was stalled to the point of barely functioning. The need for bilingual volunteers was vital, but the availability and turnout was abysmally low. Agencies that exist to bridge the gap between the two communities were working overtime to get the word out and to find those willing to volunteer their services. Emails were sent and social media was alerted, but despite this there were very few people willing to help. Some of the responses were that the holiday was approaching and there was no time; others were that they had no confidence in their Spanish speaking ability. Both responses, while seemingly reasonable, were in fact forms of further exclusion of the communities. Such responses are understandable given that being a formal interpreter takes several years of training; however, for this cause, all that was required of the volunteers was assistance with a form that was already bilingual (Spanish-English). Issues that arise commonly in this situation are the ability to read and write on the part of the Spanish speaking residents.

During the week of July 1, 2014, I was able to help with interpreting and also to pass out cleaning kits for homes damaged by the flood. From observations and personal experience during the event, the jobs were very simple and straightforward; they were about helping to ease the fear for those affected and to provide help through the aid process. This required at minimum an intermediate command of the language. For those who passed out the cleaning kits, a beginning Spanish level or less was required. The questions were the same, and with the correct teacher anyone could successfully parrot the sentences. That is to say, anyone with the desire to help would have not only been welcomed, but much needed and of great service. Those who showed up found a lively community that, despite the devastation, continued to remain optimistic. The community was an open place, and they continued to do the best they could while supporting one another. The children were running around and playing and neighbors were sharing what little they had. There was some worry that permeated the air, some unease and fear…worries about where to go, what would come next for them, and how they would be able to pick up and carry on. There was a tangible tension in the air, mostly in the form of questions such as: How are the damages going to be paid for? What aid will the management of the housing community affected by the flood give? But mostly the community was grateful for the help and the assurance that things would get better.

Though the language skills required to assist the Red Cross in this particular case were indeed minimal, it was perhaps the relative cultural awareness and sensitivity of the interpreters that made more of a difference in serving the affected families as shown below. It is perhaps here, at the intersection of community service-learning and language instruction, that language instructors such as myself can make a lasting contribution toward the betterment of society.

Indeed, the service-learning approach to the acquisition of a foreign language is an approach that I would have previously benefited from before the incident of the week of July 1, 2014. Prior experience with such a disaster relief event within the community would have quelled the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. As it so happened, I had not taken any service-learning courses as a student. It becomes very difficult to ease another person’s fears as your fears and misgivings run rampant. There was not enough preparation in the world for the emotional impact of the job that I was to perform. As previously noted, the translation and transcription of information to the form was not in and of itself difficult. The hardest part was occupying a neutral territory, reminiscent of Homi Bhabha’s (1994) “third space,” as a Latina and naturalized U.S. citizen with first-hand knowledge of the trepidation and uncertainty that comes with being an immigrant and an immigrant in need of assistance amid crisis. It was unsettling knowing that, at the end of the day, I could return to my cozy home when the homes of those I was helping, those I identified with in many ways more than with my fellow neighbors, were destroyed by the flood.

Following this experience, I realized that I needed a productive way to help me process what I had encountered and experienced. I also realized that, if this were the case for me as a Latina, than certainly my own students could and would also benefit from similarly creatively processing their service-learning experiences. Rather than journal, I opted to create a creative analytic practice (CAP) ethnography to represent what I had observed and encountered during a total of 12 hours worth of volunteer work and observation. My experiences were additionally informed by in-depth interviews with those affected by the flood and with the director of Latino Memphis. The brief screenplay presented below exemplifies the dialogs and interactions that occurred during volunteer hours.

CAP Ethnography: The Screenplay

The term “creative analytic practice ethnographies” was coined by Laurel Richardson to refer to a host of interpretive processes informing research and representation in the social sciences and humanities following the postmodern turn (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005). Though hardly new, the various forms of creative ethnographic representations now practiced across different disciplines and fields share a fundamental concern with the nature of social reality, the subjective positioning of the researcher, and the relationship between the researcher and those being researched. What CAP ethnography offers is a way of approaching and representing social reality that is perhaps most reflective of the way reality is actually experienced in everyday life; as heterogeneous, contested, and contradictory.

I was drawn to CAP ethnography, and specifically screenplay writing (as a form of CAP ethnography), in part as a result of my experience with the service-learning course, but also because of its
potential to draw audiences into the interpretive process. As Nathaniel Kohn (2000) notes in his observations about the collaborative and dialogic nature of screenplay writing, the format of the screenplay encourages academics to treat their writings as an open dialogue. The screenplay requires openness to critique and frankness that traditional academic writing does not often employ (aside from the peer review process). It also invites the audience to share the sights, feelings, and sounds of the characters that it portrays, as well as in the final interpretation. By helping the reader contextualize everyday activities and the emotion behind them, the use of the screenplay as a creative analytic practice allows for the evocation of the human element within research. It also allows for a potential transformative experience for both the writer and the audience in that it necessitates active engagement on both parts in elucidating meaning from the text. This is especially important when considering the politics surrounding the issue of immigration and Latinos in the United States.

The screenplay excerpt (see Appendix A), then, is written with the intention of inviting audiences to reflect on their encounters with Latino immigrants as well as with their experience of natural disasters, loss, and need. They are called to think past their stereotypes, preconceptions, and beliefs concerning Latinos and the issue of immigration and to empathize with the struggle and humanity of the people affected by the flood (both victims and aid workers).


Regarding the choice of presenting the screenplay in both Spanish and English, Richardson (2005) explains that “language is a constitutive force, creating a particular view of reality” (p. 960) and that it is tied to the idea that the ethnographer cannot be separated from who he/she is; thus the play was originally written in Spanish (my first language).

The screenplay excerpt, though brief, depicts a telling exchange between a Red Cross volunteer, interpretr, and Latino family, and captures the greater function of intepreter as cultural interpreter. The Red Cross volunteer in this case, though humane in his/her treatment of the flood victims, necessarily acts within strict boundaries and guidelines dictated by the task assigned—in this case, processing claim forms and handing out cleaning kits. Mr. Lopez, in dire need of assistance extending far beyond what the Red Cross could offer, is understandably nervous and wary of approaching and divulging personal information to the Red Cross. Indeed, though the status of Mr. Lopez is left unspoken, it is presumed on the part of the Red Cross volunteer that he is undocumented. The reasons for Mr. Lopez’ reticence, however, may be a result of numerous factors, an element of the screenplay left open to interpretation and debate. The end result, however, is that there is a deep mistrust of authority, despite the fact that an organization like the Red Cross transcends national boundaries (as the volunteer worker alludes to in his/her comment regarding his/her unconcern with the place of origin of Mr. Lopez’s document). Into this scene where much is left unspoken the interperter enters.

Though speaking little in the script itself, the interpreter plays a crucial role in mediating and bridging the divide between the two distinct social realities represented here by the Red Cross volunteer and Mr. Lopez. Though there to help, the Red Cross volunteer inadvertently alienates Mr. Lopez in two interrelated ways: by failing to acknowledge and respond to his particular story and concern for his daughter as well as by denying him agency in assigning him to a preconceived and generic category (or categories) distinct and opposite from that occupied by the Red Cross volunteer (i.e., victim, Latino, foreigner/immigrant, undocumented/illegal, and “other”). Mr. Lopez’s alienation is further exacerbated by yet another major factor; the language barrier. The interpreter in this case becomes the voice and therefore means of agency for Latinos such as Mr. Lopez. Thus even though the task of the interpreter in this scenario is rather banal (communicating the content and meaning of a form already written in Spanish), the significance of the interpreter’s role as a mediator navigating the power dynamics inherent in the space between the Red Cross volunteer and Mr. Lopez is greatly heightened and cannot be understated.

The impact of the gulf between the Red Cross and the Latinos affected by the flood and of the relative weight of the responsibility we (meaning myself and my students) had assumed during this service-learning project was overwhelming. Horror, sorrow, compassion, guilt, shame, and anger coupled with an intense sense of urgency in my desire and determination to help were but a few of the emotions that overtook me. I vividly recall a woman with five children pleading with me to take her youngest, an infant, home with me for the evening, so damaged was her home. With tears in my eyes, I returned to her the child she had placed in my arms as the Red Cross volunteers adamantly shook their heads and sternly warned us: “Unless you have room for them all, do not take anyone home with you.” We were pained by the limitations of our role. Yet, we also knew that we were providing something far greater than interpreting skills and cleaning kits: We provided a human element to an otherwise cold and alienating process. We listened when the Red Cross could not. We navigated cultural differences that could have potentially led to misunderstanding, anger, and further mistrust. And in so doing, we advocated and provided a voice for an otherwise voiceless “other” in a potentially dehumanizing moment of crisis and need.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of voicelessness and the desire to give voice to the families affected by the flood that led me to process my experience through the form of a screenplay. I now realize that the reality or truth of this experience lies in neither the voice of the Red Cross volunteers, the Latino families, nor the interpreter alone, but somewhere between them as well as between what transpired during the event (my memory creatively captured in the screenplay) and my reflection and reading of the event now several months later. The process has been at once illuminating, therapeutic, and cathartic on an intellectual and personal level.

Though journals are indeed valuable tools for processing such experiences, I contend that CAP ethnographies like the screenplay offer teachers and students undertaking similar service-learning projects a unique opportunity to unpack, reflect on, and critically assess their experiences in a personally meaningful way. Within my own class, the screenplay and its actual performance by the students (using different readings or interpretations of the roles) provided a rich space for exploring the role, responsibilities, and significance of language interpreters. It also served as a launching point for deep and meaningful conversations about the social, cultural, and political conditions and dynamics surrounding Latino immigrant communities, as well as about disaster relief and the nature of the relationship between the Latino community and local, national, and transnational service providers. It also reminded us of our individual responsibilities within our own communities to look after and care for one another in times of distress and need, regardless of language, culture, or any other social barriers that may exist. As my class concluded by the end of the semester, we are all human beings, not categories and labels to be checked off on a form; and just as we are all liable to be in a position of need, we are all also capable of lending assistance. Following this service-learning experience, I am confident that my students will not hesitate to respond to the call: “Volunteers needed.”


Bhabha, H.K. (1994). The location of culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bolaños, A.F., & Verdesio, G. (Eds). (2002). Colonialism past and present: Reading and writing about colonial Latin America today. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hill, J. (1995). Mock Spanish: A site for the indexical reproduction of racism in American English. Language and Culture, 2. Retrieved from

Hill, J. (2008). The everyday language of white racism. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kohn, N. (2000). The screenplay as postmodern literary exemplar: Authorial distraction, disappearance, dissolution. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(4), 489–510.

Gomberg-Muñoz, R. (2011). Labor and legality: An ethnography of a Mexican immigrant network. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, L., & St. Pierre, E.A. (2005). Writing: a method of inquiry. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research, 3rd edition (pp. 959–978). Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage Publications.

About the Author

Diana M. Ruggiero is an assistant professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Memphis.


The Co-produced Pathway to Impact Describes Knowledge Mobilization Processes

David Phipps, Joanne Cummings, Debra Pepler, Wendy Craig, and Shelley Cardinal

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Knowledge mobilization supports research collaborations between university and community partners which can maximize the impacts of research beyond the academy; however, models of knowledge mobilization are complex and create challenges for monitoring research impacts. This inability to sufficiently evaluate is particularly problematic for large collaborative research networks involving multiple partners and research institutions. The Co-produced Pathway to Impact simplifies many of the complex models of knowledge mobilization. It is a logic model based framework for mapping the progress of research  dissemination  uptake  implementation  impact. This framework is illustrated using collaborative research projects from Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet), a pan-Canadian community-university network engaging in knowledge mobilization to promote healthy relationships among children and youth and prevent bullying. The Co-produced Pathway to Impact illustrates that research impact occurs when university researchers collaborate with non-academic partners who produce the products, policies, and services that have impacts on the lives of end beneficiaries. Research impact is therefore measured at the level of non-academic partners and identified by surveying research partners to create narrative case studies of research impact.

Knowledge mobilization helps make academic research accessible to non-academic audiences and supports collaborations between academic researchers and non-academic partners such as community-based organizations. Knowledge mobilization is a process that supports action oriented research and finds novel approaches to persistent social, economic and environmental challenges. Knowledge mobilization has elements of: 1) university “push” of research beyond the academy; (2) community “pull” of research from the academy; 3 “knowledge exchange” between community and the academy; but extends those to include 4) the co-production of research that has academic merit and also has relevance for community action (Phipps & Shapson, 2009). Knowledge mobilization can thus support community engaged scholarship and community-based research as well as service-learning when the learning opportunity is meeting the needs of a community derived research question. There has been increasing attention paid to knowledge mobilization and related activities as the academic research community seeks to articulate and maximize the various impacts of university research beyond the academy (Donovan, 2011; Grant, 2015).

Despite this increasing attention to articulating the impacts of research there is little evidence that research is creating extra academic impacts (Bhattacharyya & Zwarenstein, 2009). Sandra Nutley and colleagues point out that “a central irony is the only limited extent to which evidence advocates can themselves draw on a robust evidence base to support their convictions that greater evidence use will ultimately be beneficial to public services” (Nutley, Walter, Davies, 2007, p. 271). Although it is feasible to measure the
impact of a single knowledge mobilization intervention by testing indicators pre- and post-intervention, it is challenging to evaluate a complex system of knowledge mobilization where there may be multiple research collaborators practicing a diversity of knowledge mobilization methods with diverse end users.

In a recent review of leading models for knowledge mobilization such as the circular Knowledge to Action Cycle (Graham, Logan, Harrison, Straus, Tetroe, Caswell, & Robinson, 2006) and the models of Bennet and Bennet (2008), Phipps, Jensen and Myers (2012) concluded that many models of knowledge mobilization are highly complex. This conclusion is not surprising because knowledge mobilization is a complex process described by Bennet and Bennet (2008) as collaborative entanglement: “Collaborative entanglement means to purposely and consistently develop and support approaches and processes that combine the sources of knowledge and the beneficiaries of that knowledge to interactively move toward a common direction such as meeting an identified community need” (p. 48).

Knowledge Mobilization Pathway to Impact

In an effort to simplify a system of knowledge mobilization that reflects movement toward a common direction of impacts we turned to a logic model (Frechtling, 2007) where activities produce outputs that in turn produce outcomes that then produce impacts (Figure 1a). By mapping such a logic model onto knowledge mobilization processes, it is possible to draw a sequence of stages that lead from research to impacts (Figure 1b). In addition, it allows for the development of metrics at each stage of the logic model.

Dissemination. Knowledge mobilization supports dissemination beyond traditional academic publishing and conference presentations. This dissemination can include publishing activities such as press releases, clear language research summaries, as well as more iterative tools such as social media. It also involves active, in person methods such as research events where researchers engage actively with organizations seeking to engage with research and research expertise (Phipps, 2011). The goal of dissemination is to move research out of the academic setting and into practice and policy settings where it can progress towards impact.

Uptake. Once an organization has received research information from a dissemination activity it takes that research into the organization with a goal of determining whether the research is useful for informing decisions about policy, professional practice, and/or social services. Uptake can include presentations at staff meetings (that may or may not include the original researcher), internal evaluation, as well as comparisons to the literature and existing practice.

Implementation. Once the research has been taken up and passed through internal assessment, the organization may choose to use the research when developing new or improved products, policies, and services. Implementation in the knowledge mobilization context is an activity internal to the non-academic partner that uses research evidence to inform organizational decisions.

Impact. Impact is the effect the research-informed products, policies, and services have on end users as measured by the non-academic organization. It is measured not only in metrics of utilization but also by changes in the lives of citizens, the health of the environment, or animal welfare, depending on the ultimate end user the organization is seeking to address.

This model as illustrated in Figure 1b creates a pathway to impact that enables the monitoring of progress. By understanding the goals of each stage of the pathway to impact, it is possible to assess the benefits accruing along the pathway; however, the linearity of this model may be a limitation. Linear models of research use have long been abandoned in favour of more iterative models of research use that show sustained engagement between researchers and non-academic partner organizations (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007; Greenhalgh & Wieringa, 2011). Linear models create risks that research evidence merely “transferred” to end user organizations may be misinterpreted or misused. Linear models create challenges of attribution which is the extent to which impacts can be attributed to the use of specific research outputs (Boaz, Fitzpatrick, & Shaw, 2008). By requiring a moment of transfer from the academic to the non-academic setting, linear models also reinforce academic and non-academic silos.


Knowledge Mobilization Co-produced Pathway to Impact

Academic research networks are expected to collaborate with non-academic partner organizations to make new discoveries and transform those discoveries into impacts. This requires a more iterative version of the pathway to impact than is shown in Figure 1b because this process requires collaboration and co-production at each stage of the pathway. A circular or iterative logic model has previously been recommended for evaluating knowledge translation (Davison, 2009) such as the Knowledge to Action Cycle (Graham et al., 2006) and a cyclical model proposed for education research (Amo, 2007). The iterative aspects of circular and cyclical models can be embedded into the knowledge mobilization logic model of Figure 1b to produce a Co-produced Pathway to Impact, as illustrated in Figure 2. The Co-produced Pathway to Impact maintains collaboration throughout the process and creates an iterative relationship between the non-academic partners and academic researchers, while maintaining an overall progression from research development to ultimate impact. As illustrated in Figure 2 there are domains where academic research and policy/practice activities remain distinct; however, the central overlapping space is a shared space of collaboration where co-production occurs at each stage of the pathway.

Co-production occurs at each stage of the pathway and accelerates the impact of research. For example, co-production at the research stage ensures partners’ readiness to take up findings because of their input on the nature of the research questions, methods, and interpretations. Co-production in the research stage enhances partners’ motivation and engagement with research content—the new knowledge will be relevant to them. At the dissemination stage, the research findings are tailored to meet the partners’ needs from knowledge mobilization products. These products are produced in an accessible format for the partners. Different partners can then tailor the same research findings into their own relevant and actionable knowledge mobilization products that further heighten network engagement and increases dissemination. Partners enhance dissemination through their organizational channels with a breadth and depth that researchers cannot achieve. The ongoing mutual and reciprocal support and collaboration between the researchers and partners in the uptake and implementation stages enables organizational transformation in response to the new research findings. Traditionally, as research moves to impact, there is a decrease in engagement across the four stages of the pathway and engagement of the academic partner is lowest in the ultimate impact stage. Unlike the traditional process of research dissemination with research “handed” to partners, our framework supports an ongoing relationship through the knowledge mobilization processes. As illustrated in Figure 2 each stage of the pathway confers benefits for both researchers and partners, leading to new research questions, knowledge, and potential knowledge mobilization products.

This Co-produced Pathway to Impact is illustrated with examples from PREVNet ( PREVNet is a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectorial network founded in 2006 on the premise that to prevent bullying strategies are required in every setting where Canadian children and youth live, learn, work, and play. PREVNet includes 121 researchers from 21 disciplines (e.g., psychology, education, social work, law, business, criminology, policy, psychiatry, nursing) collaborating with 63 national public and
community sector organizations.

PREVNet addresses the increasingly recognized and urgent need to provide all adults responsible for socializing children and youth with knowledge and tools to choose, implement, evaluate, and sustain effective bullying and violence prevention initiatives. Although many bullying prevention programs are available, they often lack empirical evaluation, and have the potential to be ineffective or, in some cases, harmful (Dodge, Dishion, & Langsford, 2006; Farrington & Ttofi, 2011). Programs based on science with evidence of effectiveness are not well disseminated, particularly to isolated and vulnerable communities; moreover educators are most likely to choose programs and resources on the basis of word-of-mouth, rather than evidence (Cunningham, Vaillancourt, Rimas, Deal, Cunningham, Short, & Chen 2009). PREVNet promotes engaged scholarship by collaborating with its member organizations to develop evidence-based initiatives that rest on four pillars: education/training, assessment/evaluation, prevention/intervention, and policy/advocacy (Pepler & Craig, 2011). PREVNet has a focus on participation by non-academic partners and a target of action oriented impacts which are hallmarks of authentic community engagement (Stoecker, 2009).

PREVNet’s research, training and knowledge mobilization projects are at various stages of development from research to impact. The projects below are presented as a snapshot in time to illustrate the different stages of the Co-produced Pathway to Impact. Each of the projects is a collaboration between academic and non-academic partners. The ongoing, sustained collaboration of each project described below creates the critical feedback loops illustrated at each stage of the pathway (Figure 2). In this manner the academic and non-academic partners not only contribute their complementary expertise to the project, but the collaboration enables critical reflection on the creation of new knowledge and its application to the prevention of bullying.


An example of partner-led co-produced research. The Quazar Positive Behaviour Recognition Program: Wynford Motivation Works is collaborating with PREVNet and the Toronto District School Board’s Build Character Build Success initiative to produce animated videos and lesson plans to build elementary students’ motivation to behave in ways that exemplify each of this initiative’s 10 positive character traits shown to be important for healthy relationships: respect, responsibility,
empathy, kindness and caring, teamwork, fairness, honesty, co-operation, integrity, and perseverance.

PREVNet academic researchers and Wynford entered into an intense collaborative co-production process for program development and evaluation research. The first draft of program content was collectively reviewed and subsequently revised and enhanced to reflect current scientific evidence about character development and violence prevention. A manual for school implementation was produced to ensure program fidelity. Now named the Quazar Positive Behaviour Recognition Program, it is ready for dissemination to end users, with an ongoing evaluation component. There is a website that introduces and enables schools to register for the program. It is currently launched and being evaluated in four Toronto and five Kingston Ontario elementary schools.

Research benefits. New knowledge about the positive characteristics important for healthy relationships; new collaborative activities between researchers and partners, such as the Toronto District School Board; engaged graduate student experiences.

An example of dissemination—Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) Canadian Best Practices Portal (CBPP). CBPP is an authoritative repository for annotated and evidence-based health promotion practices. PREVNet researchers and graduate students have collaborated with PHAC since 2009 to create and populate the Violence Prevention Stream for the CBPP as a tool for disseminating evidence-based violence prevention practices, tools, and interventions. Each year, violence prevention programs developed in Canada and internationally are reviewed by PREVNet academic researchers and PHAC and those meeting the stringent inclusion criteria are included on the portal. The Violence Prevention Stream currently hosts 80 programs on the site, and there are 3,000 unique visitors annually.

After conducting six focus groups with educators and community organizations to explore the usability of the portal, feedback has resulted in improvements to the site. PREVNet and PHAC have developed a Needs Assessment Toolkit, to enable stakeholders to select programs that will be effective, relevant and appropriate for their specific populations and local needs, further enhancing the utility of the CBPP as a dissemination tool. PREVNet researchers have actively promoted the CBPP violence prevention portal through public presentations and professional conferences.

Dissemination benefits. These provide improved functionality using the Needs Assessment Toolkit; web based and social media promotion; improved accessibility of the 80 evidence-based programs, as well as four academic presentations at conferences; and increased decision maker awareness regarding the importance of evidence-based violence and bullying prevention programs.

An example of Uptake­—Family Channel StandUP! Campaign. Family Channel is a commercial-free network offering family television entertainment in 5.8 million homes across Canada. Its target audience is children aged 9–12. Family Channel has been involved in Bullying Awareness Week every November for the past for 11 years, and approached PREVNet to be its official research partner in 2006. In 2012, a comprehensive Bullying Awareness Teacher’s Guide for Grades 4–6 was written by a team of graduate students from across Canada under the leadership of a PREVNet researcher. The 80-page guide brought together current evidence-based information about bullying, cyberbullying, bullying and LGBTQ students, bullying and students with exceptionalities, building a respectful classroom climate, and a plan for lead-up activities before and daily activities during Bullying Awareness Week. After reviewing and evaluating this resource and the accompanying tip sheets and associated activities, Family Channel contributed professional graphics and design. The 2012 Teacher’s Guide was downloaded 2,250 times. In February 2012, Dr. Wendy Josephson, professor, Department of Psychology, University of Winnipeg, and three students held a series of focus groups with 41 elementary and high school teachers from Winnipeg and the surrounding area to review the 2012 Teacher’s Guide. Based on this input, the 2013 guide was revised and refined.

Uptake benefits. Family Channel validated the academic research in a real world setting; graduate students gained skills working with non-academic audiences (Family Channel and teachers); user audience input was used to refine the resource; resource made available to end users.

An example of implementation—Girls United Training, Girl Guides of Canada (GGC). Beginning in 2006, consultations with GGC leadership revealed that the training provided to Girl Guide Leaders, known as “Guiders,” did not specifically address bullying and relational aggression, nor was bullying addressed in the GGC Code of Conduct even though Girl Guide leadership identified bullying and relational aggression as needing to be addressed. A working group with leading researchers on girls’ aggression was convened, and then a PREVNet researcher and graduate student worked with senior GGC training developers to co-create the Girls United Training Module for adult leaders and Girls United Badge for Girl Guides. The initial iteration of the training was presented to the PREVNet Social Aggression Working Group, attended by leading Canadian researchers working in the field of social aggression and by staff from several youth-serving community organizations. A training module was developed based on the feedback from the working group. GGC training developers simplified the language, sharpened the messaging, and supplied graphic design. Between 2006 and 2008, PREVNet delivered the training to over 75 Senior Trainers (who in turn trained other local trainers, who then trained Guiders) in British Colombia, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. PREVNet collected participant evaluations of these training sessions (N = 129) and found high levels of satisfaction, with a mean rating of 4.7 on a 5-point scale assessing perceptions of value and relevance, understanding of topic, and increased confidence about addressing social aggression among girls. Similar ratings were found by PREVNet from 27 participants who took the training from a Senior Girl Guide Trainer (mean = 4.6), providing evidence that the “Train the Trainer” model was effective (Daniels & Quigley, 2009).

From 2007 until August 2013, 1,445 Guiders completed on line training. Between October 2007 and August 2013, 18,873 Girl Guides achieved the Girls United Badge, indicating they had fulfilled the required activities designed to develop their understanding of healthy relationships with their peers. This example illustrates how co-produced evidence informed training (the Girls United Training Module for adult leaders, and Girls United Badge for Girl Guides) was disseminated to the PREVNet Social Aggression Working Group, was taken up by GGC training developers and implemented in a national train-the-trainer campaign.

Uptake benefits. These included a research informed training program; graduate student experience working in a practice setting; expansion of program to an online version; and Girl Guides developing an enhanced understanding of healthy relationships

An example of impact—the Healthy Relationship Training Module (HRTM). The HRTM was developed through a Community of Practice that included PREVNet academic researchers, students and three youth-serving non-profit organizations: Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada, Canadian Red Cross, and Scouts Canada. By sharing resources and exchanging knowledge, the goal was to enhance each organization’s capacity to
foster respectful, safe, caring, and inclusive environments for children and youth.

Adult leaders play a critical role socializing children and youth: they serve as role models, mentors, guides, supports, and teachers. To be effective in their work with children and youth, they need explicit training about how healthy development depends on healthy relationships, and how to identify and address bullying and other unhealthy relationship dynamics. There was an assumption that professionals and volunteers who work with children and youth have the knowledge, confidence, and skills they need to create healthy social climates and prevent bullying, yet explicit, comprehensive, and evidence-based training was missing. Working collaboratively, the Community of Practice co-created the HRTM to address the gap in relationship training.

The module consists of a comprehensive Facilitator’s Guide, a slide presentation deck, and a Participant’s Handbook. Following a multi-step process in which PREVNet and Community of Practice members move from visioning to design to evaluation and training, the HRTM was co-created in stages, with a graduate student preparing a first draft that was extensively presented and critiqued through multiple Community of Practice meetings. Based on participant feedback and questionnaire results, an extensive revision of the HRTM Facilitator Guide was completed.

Within the three partner organizations, the HRTM was integrated into existing training resources and procedures. Pre- and post-training pilot data were collected using the “Knowledge Confidence Skills: Healthy Relationship Questionnaire,” with a pilot data set of 505 participants from the partners. Analysis of these data revealed significant increases in participants’ confidence and commitment to fostering healthy relationships.

The following comments from partner organization leaders speak to the rapid uptake and implementation of HRTM that occurred by the end of 2012:

…if you look at knowledge mobilization, that knowledge that was presented, all the research and best practices made its way down to the field, which I think was a huge benefit. Across Canada, we incorporated portions of the Healthy Relationships training into all our prevention education materials. For example, in our training for teachers in bullying prevention we have integrated a module on healthy relationships. These teachers train Youth Facilitators and share information on healthy relationships. Our Youth facilitators deliver workshops to younger students and talk about healthy schools and healthy relationships. We have 3,500 Youth facilitators across Canada and reached over 260,000 youth with information on bullying prevention and healthy relationships last year. We also recently updated our Be Safe! Program for children ages 5 to 9 (formerly known as c.a.r.e.). Our 8th edition contains a section on healthy relationships. We hope to reach over 30,000 children, parents
and teachers with the new kit over the next year. — Lisa Evanoff, National Training Manager Canadian Red Cross

This year we have the potential of reaching more than twenty-four thousand youth, right from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. So that’s a goodly number of youth and as far as adults, potentially more than twenty-seven thousand volunteer leaders. If you include all of our paid staff as well as our volunteers, we’re looking at over one hundred and two thousand individuals. — DeEtte Bryce, past Training Representative for Fraser Valley Council, B.C. Scouts Canada

The impact has been very exciting given our magnitude across the country – we work in every province and now have some relationships and programs in each of the territories as well. We’re able to bring these new resources to children and youth, parents/guardians, volunteers/mentors, service delivery staff, and executive staff and boards across the country. In 2012 Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies across Canada served over 40,000 children and youth—every child and youth, along with their volunteer mentors and parents/guardians, benefits from the Healthy Relationship training. Susan Climie, director of training, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, 

Impact benefits. Gaps in training identified and addressed; training developed and provided to make safer spaces for children and youth across Canada. Training contributes to economic and social benefits.

These examples illustrate how sustained engagement between academic researchers, students, and non-academic partners enables: the co-production of research (Wynford); the dissemination of research (PHAC); the uptake of research
evidence into non-academic programs (Family Channel); the implementation of research evidence into products and services (Girl Guides); and, the eventual impact of evidence informed training on the lives of end beneficiaries (HRTM). The use
of the Co-produced Pathway to Impact has a number of implications for the practice of knowledge mobilization as described below.


Reflecting on the PREVNet experiences of collaborations between academic researchers and students with non-academic partners including (but not limited to) Wynford, Toronto District School Board, PHAC, Family Channel, Girl Guides, Red Cross, Scouts Canada and Big Brothers Big Sisters we have not only developed and implemented the Co-produced Pathway to Impact but can draw conclusions on its utility as a framework describing knowledge mobilization processes.

It is clear from the HRTM collaboration that impact is measured at the level of the non-academic partner. Academic impacts arise from research and dissemination, but impacts on the lives of end beneficiaries are mediated through the products, policies and services of non-academic partner organizations. The HRTM was a training program co-produced with academic researchers but delivered nationally though Community of Practice partners such as Red Cross, Scouts Canada, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. That impact is  a function of non-academic partners has also been demonstrated by Sarah Morton, who has shown the critical role of research users in mediating impacts of research beyond the academy (Morton, 2014).

As illustrated by the HRTM example, in a co-production process, research can skip dissemination and uptake and move directly to implementation, which then has an impact. There was no need for dissemination and uptake because the end users of the HRTM were involved in its creation. This outcome is unique to co-production where the process of undertaking the research can have an impact (i.e., influence decision making) even before the research has been disseminated. Co-production can therefore help to address issues of attribution (Boaz, Fitzpatrick & Shaw, 2008).

When these impacts are measured by partners evaluating the effects of their efforts on their stakeholders and end beneficiaries, the stories of impacts can be told through narratives and case studies. Structured impact case studies were the unit of assessment for the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF; and research on the REF confirmed this method as the best method for articulating impacts of research beyond the academy (Grant, 2015).

Because the pathway from research to impact may be measured over years, researchers and academic institutions need to remain in contact with non-academic partners to be able to capture the narrative case studies of impact. Without this active follow up or continual engagement with partner organizations, academic researchers may have little appreciation of the impacts of their research. This has been confirmed by an evaluation of knowledge mobilization programs by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC, 2013).

If funders, such as SSHRC, want to generate impacts from their investments in research, then they need to fund uptake and implementation activities within partner organizations. These activities can be supported by funding graduate student internships and post-doctoral fellowships in partner organizations to support uptake and implementation. This strategy will provide the non-academic organization with ready access to academic research expertise and will provide the student/fellow with experience in non-academic professional environments.

Finally, knowledge mobilization is often described using the metaphor of “bridging the gap” between the silos of research and policy/practice; however, this metaphor maintains the academic and non-academic silos. In co-production there is no gap to bridge. Academic researchers and non-academic partners come together in a shared space of collaboration (see Figure 2). They maintain their own independent spaces but research, dissemination, uptake, and implementation occur in a collaborative environment. In contrast impact beyond the academy is expressed in the non-academic environment only.

Future Work/Issues Arising

This theoretical framework is a snapshot in time of a number of research collaborations at various stages along the Co-produced Pathway to Impact. Some of the observations are retrospective and are not intended to make predictions of future benefits arising from the research. To establish how the Co-produced Pathway to Impact works for a single collaborative research project, one would follow a co-produced research project such as the Quazar Positive Behaviour Recognition Program as it progresses through dissemination to uptake to implementation and eventually to impact. However, a number of potential challenges arise. It may take years for impact to be realized. Many research projects will not proceed all the way to impact, as other factors such as availability of resources and competing products may prevent good research from proceeding to impact. Therefore, the question arises about the unit of measurement and evaluation: should the Co-produced Pathway to Impact be applied at the project, program/unit,
institutional or network level?

Additionally, the linearity of the logic model underpinning the Co-produced Pathway to Impact may not be an issue. A number of linear logic model based frameworks describing the flow of research to impact have been described by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions (Graham, Chorzempa, Valentine, & Magnan, 2012), and by the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation in Australia (Morgan, 2014) and is linearly referred to as research uptake, use and impact at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh (Morton, 2014). What is interesting about this convergent thinking is that knowledge mobilization professionals seem to be getting comfortable with the linearity of these pathways. Linear models for a single knowledge mobilization project have been abandoned in favour of iterative models such as the Knowledge to Action Cycle (Graham et al., 2006). When working in a system of knowledge mobilization, however, a portfolio of projects, such as described for PREVNet, does move towards impact. And this movement is linear from research to impact. Different projects at different stages in the in the linear Co-Produced Pathway to Impact create the opportunity to further examine projects and develop indicators describing each to the stage of the pathway.


The Co-produced Pathway to Impact requires that researchers and research partners engage in ongoing collaboration throughout the process from research to impact. PREVNet’s deep and sustained collaborations may not be feasible or desirable for some community organizations or university researchers; however, in collaborative networks that have a mandate to not only create new knowledge but also to translate that knowledge into improved economic, social, health, cultural or environmental impacts the Co-produced Pathway to Impact creates a framework that describes the progress of collaborative research as it develops from research into new products, policies and services. It also illustrates that getting to impact is a shared enterprise and activities in both academic and non-academic partner sites need to be eligible expenses in research funding programs. A number of recommendations arise for those wishing to use the Co-produced Pathway to Impact to describe knowledge mobilization processes.

For academic researchers: Since impacts of research beyond the academy are mediated by non-academic partners it is important to stay in touch with non-academic partners who may be using academic or co-produced research to inform new products, policies, and services. Only by working with partners to tell those stories will academic researchers be able to articulate the impacts of research.

For non-academic partners: The role of the non-academic partner in community-campus collaborations is more than a co-creator of research knowledge or passive recipient of academic research. It is the community partner, not the academic researcher, who will implement research evidence into products, policies and services to benefit stakeholders. The Co-produced Pathway to Impact highlights the critical role of non-academic partners in mediating research impact.

For research institutions: Public policy drivers such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) are driving UK academic institutions to articulate the impacts of university research beyond the academy (Grant, 2015). It can take many years for research to be taken up by partners and implemented into the products, policies and services that will then have an impact on end beneficiaries. Without an institutional office like a Knowledge Mobilization Unit (Phipps & Shapson, 2009), research institutions have little ability to identify these impacts. Sustainable research networks such as PREVNet maintain relationships with non-academic partners and over time collaborate with them to articulate the benefits of research projects at each stage of the Co-produced Pathway to Impact.


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About the Authors

David Phipps is executive director, Research and Innovation Services in the Office of Research Services at York University in Toronto, Canada. Joanne Cummings is knowledge mobilization director, PREVNet. Debra Pepler is a professor in the Department of Psychology at York University. Wendy Craig is a professor in the Department of Psychology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Shelley Cardinal is National Aboriginal consultant to the Canadian Red Cross RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention program (Vancouver).

Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador: Insights for Knowledge Mobilization and University-Community Engagement

Heather M. Hall, Jacqueline Walsh, Rob Greenwood, and Kelly Vodden



In this paper, we provide insights for knowledge mobilization and university-community engagement based on the lessons learned from the Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador Project. Out hope is to provide a window into the experiences of academics as they navigate the complexities and politics of mobilizing research and engaging with diverse stakeholders. Despite the challenges of this work, presented by factors inside and outside the academy, it is crucial to enhance our capabilities if we are to maximize the impact of universities in linking theory, research, and expertise with critical social and economic needs, such as enhancing innovation.


In January 2013, the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development (Harris Centre) at Memorial University, in partnership with the Navigate Entrepreneurship Centre (Grenfell Campus), and the Canadian Regional Development: A Critical Review of Theory, Practice, and Potentials project team launched the Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador project to synthesize and share knowledge related to innovation and ways it can be fostered with key innovation stakeholders in Newfoundland and Labrador. The project was inspired by the Contextualized Health Research Synthesis Program (CHRSP) approach created by Stephen Bornstein in the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research at Memorial University. This approach aims to synthesize and contextualize research for Newfoundland and Labrador versus conducting new research on a particular topic. The Innovation Project included a team of researchers from Memorial University and an advisory committee made up of key representatives from industry associations, the provincial government, the federal government, the university, college, and labour. The project deliverables included a series of reports, innovation case studies, innovation workshops, a website, and an innovation summit.

In this paper, we provide insights for knowledge mobilization and university-community engagement based on the lessons learned from the project. We begin with a brief overview of some of the key challenges and opportunities identified in the knowledge mobilization and community-engagement literatures. In the next section we introduce some of the key concepts in the innovation literature that highlight the importance of learning and collaboration between industry, government, postsecondary institutions, and communities. We then provide an overview of the Innovation Project and approach, which is followed by a discussion on the main challenges and opportunities that we encountered during the project. Our hope is to provide a window into the experiences of academics as they navigate the complexities and politics of mobilizing research and engaging with diverse stakeholders. Despite the challenges of this work, presented by factors inside and outside the academy, it is crucial to enhance our capabilities if we are to maximize the impact of universities in linking theory, research, and expertise with critical social and economic needs, such as enhancing innovation.

Knowledge Mobilization and University-Community Engagement

Postsecondary institutions across Canada, and internationally, are increasingly embracing knowledge mobilization and university-community engagement through a variety of mechanisms (Hall, 2009; Levin, 2011; Heisler, Beckie, & Markey, 2012). The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching describes community engagement within a post-secondary context as “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity” (New England Resource for Higher Education, 2016). This can often include service-learning, community-based experiential learning, community-based participatory research, and community-based research (Hall, 2009; Heisler, Beckie, & Markey, 2012; Castledon, Sloan Morgan, & Lamb, 2012). While community engagement, defined in this way, is focused on knowledge exchange, knowledge mobilization, on the other hand, includes “public participation, translating ideas into accessible language, working with media, social networking strategies, [and] podcasting” (Hall, 2009, p. 19) among other means to bring “knowledge, people and action together” (Bennet & Bennet, 2007, p. 17).

We share Bud Hall’s (2009) argument that the collective resources of universities and colleges represent the “largest accessible, available, and underutilized resource for community change and sustainability” (p. 13). Likewise, Barbara Holland and Judith Ramaley (2008) highlight “the urgent need to summon our collective wisdom to address critical social, economic, cultural, and environmental threats” (p. 334) by bringing together academic institutions and communities. Despite this, there are still a number of challenges confronting academics within postsecondary institutions when they focus their efforts on community engagement and knowledge mobilization. In relation to the traditional trifecta of research, teaching, and service, in 1996 Boyer argued: “At tenure and promotion time, the harsh truth is that service is hardly mentioned. And even more disturbing, faculty who do spend time with so-called applied projects frequently jeopardize their careers” (p. 13). More than a decade later, this is still the case in a number of postsecondary institutions (Jackson, Schwartz, & Andree, 2008; Moore & Ward, 2010; Jaeger, Katz, Jameson, & Clayton, 2012). While we recognize that this varies among and within institutions, it still poses a significant challenge where it does exist, especially for emerging scholars, as further discussed below in relation to our experience with the Innovation Project. Other challenges include time, financial support, and building and sustaining relationships for engagement (Moore & Ward, 2010; Heisler et al., 2012; Castledon et al., 2012).

We turn now to a discussion of some of the key arguments emerging from the innovation literature that support and necessitate university-community engagement and knowledge mobilization.

Learning and Interaction to Promote Innovation

One of the major arguments emerging from the innovation literature in the last decade is the importance of interaction and learning between a wide variety of actors including individuals, firms, industry associations, and support institutions like government, universities, colleges, and innovation centres (Hall, Walsh, Vodden, & Greenwood, 2014; Asheim, Boschma, & Cooke, 2011; Tödtling & Tripple, 2011; Nauwelaers, 2011; Rodríguez-Pose, 2013). This supports the argument that “innovation is increasingly recognized as a social process” (Wolfe, 2009, p. 15) versus a linear process including the phases of invention, production, marketing, and diffusion (Sternberg, 2009). Simply put “firms do not innovate in isolation” (Nauwelaers, 2011, p. 468).

The term “quadruple helix” (Carayannis & Campbell, 2009; Leydesdorff, 2012) is often used to describe the various innovation stakeholders including business, community, government, and postsecondary institutions. Related to this is the importance of innovation support systems often called “regional innovation systems” (Cooke, 1992; Cooke & Morgan, 1998) or “innovation ecosystem.” For example, the Canadian Independent Panel on Federal Support to Capital Research and Development (2012, pp. 2–15) explains how the “innovation ecosystem” includes, not only firms, universities, colleges and polytechnics, but also a spectrum of intermediary players [technology transfer offices, college applied research offices, public research institutes and programs, incubators, angels and venture capitalists]…characterized by effective synergies, connections, and flows of knowledge and ideas.

Given this emphasis on interaction and learning between and among innovation stakeholders, university-community engagement and knowledge mobilization can play an important role in supporting business innovation.

The Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador Project

As noted earlier, in January 2013 the Harris Centre at Memorial University—in partnership with the Navigate Entrepreneurship Centre (Grenfell Campus) and the Canadian Regional Development: A Critical Review of Theory, Practice and Potentials project team—launched the Innovation Project to synthesize and share knowledge related to innovation and the ways it can be fostered with key innovation stakeholders in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the following sections, we provide a brief overview of the Harris Centre and the CHRSP approach. We then turn to a discussion on the Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador approach including a description of the advisory committee, the innovation workshops, and the innovation summit.

A Brief Overview of the Harris Centre and the CHRSP Approach

The Harris Centre was launched in October 2004, with a mandate to facilitate and coordinate Memorial University’s activities in regional development and public policy. It developed a series of programs and supports to connect Memorial faculty, staff, and students with the needs of the province. These include organizing regional workshops in partnership with community-based organizations, holding public policy forums, and establishing applied research funds in partnership with government and private sector partners. The Harris Centre also developed the online public engagement tool called Yaffle. As the Harris Centre has built its brand based on values of independence, integrity, and practical application, it has established a reputation within the university, the province, and internationally as a trusted knowledge broker and mobilizer.

Given the Harris Centre’s focus on knowledge mobilization, we were inspired to try the CHRSP approach, created by Stephen Bornstein in the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research at Memorial University. CHRSP provides systematic reviews of topics identified in partnerships with key decision-makers in the health sector. More importantly, this information is contextualized to take into account the unique issues, challenges, and capacities in Newfoundland and Labrador (Newfoundland & Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research [NLCAHR], 2013; Memorial University Faculty of Medicine [MUNMED], 2013; Barrett, Bornstein, Kean, & Navarro, 2011). In terms of process, the CHRSP approach includes several stages: (1) identify pressing issues of concern in partnership with health system decision-makers; (2) use research expertise to develop research questions based on these concerns; (3) synthesize international research literature on the subject and contextualize it to Newfoundland and Labrador—this includes taking into account the unique provincial challenges and capacities; and (4) quickly produce research results that are easily accessible and in usable formats.

In recent years, the Harris Centre has supported a number of innovation-related research initiatives (Table 1). The focus on innovation results from the widespread understanding that innovation is critical for economic growth and the recognition that Newfoundland and Labrador businesses have the potential to be far more innovative than current evidence suggests (Greenwood, Pike, & Kearley, 2011). Given the widely recognized importance of innovation for economic development but also regional development more generally, the emphasis on partnerships in fostering innovation in a region, and the abundance of existing literature on this topic, innovation was selected as the theme for the Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador Project, the Harris Centre’s first CHRSP-like initiative.


The Advancing Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador Approach

The team included Rob Greenwood (executive director – the Harris Centre), Heather Hall (postdoctoral fellow – the Harris Centre and Department of Geography project coordinator), Kelly Vodden, (associate professor research – Environmental Policy Institute), and Jacqueline Walsh (assistant professor – business), together with an honours undergraduate student (Kyle White) and Ph.D. student (Ken Carter), both focusing on innovation in Newfoundland for their thesis research in the Department of Geography. The composition of the team, with backgrounds in business, geography, and political science, reflected the interdisciplinary approach to the complex issue of business innovation. The team also included members at varying stages of their academic career. This proved to be a very useful method of introducing and embedding new researchers into existing relationships with community members.

The project team prepared a four-page background document outlining the key objectives and three-phase approach, including a knowledge synthesis, a series of innovation workshops, and an innovation summit. Like the CHRSP approach, the knowledge synthesis summarized in a succinct fashion the latest research on innovation with insights for advancing innovation strategies in the context of Newfoundland and Labrador. The innovation workshops, on the other hand, ground truthed these insights and reported on how the research findings from the knowledge synthesis could help foster innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador. As well, the workshops were used to report back to community partners on related research findings that had been previously explored in that particular region in the province. The innovation summit then distilled lessons for policy and practice (Table 2). The team was careful to include both urban and rural parts of the province in all aspects of the project to counteract the urban bias in the innovation literature and because Newfoundland and Labrador is one of Canada’s most rural provinces, with more than half of its population residing in rural and small town communities as of 2011 (Vodden, Gibson, & Porter, 2014; Statistics Canada, 2012).

The Innovation Project Advisory Committee

The Innovation Project team invited key innovation stakeholders in the “quadruple helix” (Carayannis & Campbell, 2009; Leydesdorff, 2012) to become members of an advisory committee. The advisory committee included 15 representatives from industry associations, the provincial government, the federal government, the university, the college, and labour. The roles of the advisory committee, which were outlined in a terms-of-reference document, were to: provide feedback on proposed workshop locations; provide advice and comments on the workshop reports; identify existing relevant data and resources; identify key local contacts in each of the workshop locations; highlight important local or stakeholder specific issues for consideration; review emerging themes and lessons and provide advice to the project and research teams on the final report; and assist with publicity for all events and reports. From the start, it was emphasized that the final project report would reflect the independence of the research team and that the final content for the report would be the responsibility of the project team.

We held five advisory committee meetings in March, April, and September 2013 and January and March 2014. The March 2013 meeting provided an introduction to the project as well as an overview of the advisory committee terms of reference. In the April 2013 meeting we discussed workshop locations, times, possible local stakeholders and research for the knowledge synthesis. The September 2013 meeting was focused on preparing for the innovation summit with the advisory committee providing feedback on the knowledge synthesis and findings from the workshops as well as recommending participants for the innovation summit. At the January 2014 meeting we discussed the final report and insights for policy and practice while the March 2014 meeting was focused on next steps for the advisory committee and ideas for disseminating the Innovation Project materials.


The Innovation Workshops

Throughout May and June 2013, we held five Innovation Workshops in Kittiwake, Labrador Straits, the Northern Peninsula, St. John’s and Corner Brook (see Figure 1). These locations reflected urban, rural, and remote regions from across the province, which was essential for understanding place-based challenges and opportunities as well as combating one-size-fits-all policy approaches. These locations also reflected places where previous community-based research had been undertaken on related issues. The workshops provided an excellent opportunity to report back to the stakeholders in each region. We used a variety of methods to try and encourage participation in the workshops. For example, prior to the workshops we traveled to some of the locations where we had limited research connections to meet with local stakeholders to discuss the project, select dates for the workshops, and tour innovative companies identified by the advisory committee, local stakeholders, and previous research. By visiting the regions in advance we were ultimately trying to show our interest in building relationships within the communities as well as our willingness to be engaged at a very practical and meaningful level. Another recruitment strategy included contacting individuals who had previously participated in one or more of the research projects highlighted in Table 1.

We decided on a half-day format to encourage more businesses attendance. We know it is difficult for small business owners, in particular, to be away from their businesses for long periods of time. We also tried to hold the workshops in conjunction with other meetings. For example, in Kittiwake we held our workshop in conjunction with a Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) business network meeting. The format for these workshops included:

• A brief overview of the Innovation Project by the project coordinator

• A presentation based on prior research undertaken in the region and on themes related to innovation in the regional
economy by a project team member

• Question and answers

• A presentation on firm-level innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador by a project team member

• Questions and answers

• A panel discussion with regional representatives from business, the community, government, and/or postsecondary to respond to earlier presentations and speak about what strategies were needed to enhance innovation in their region

• A breakout discussion on challenges, opportunities, and strategies, and 

• A survey using TurningPoint technology (voter keypads) to select the top challenges, opportunities, and strategies according to participants

Seventy-six people attended the workshops including 16 representatives from business and social enterprises and the balance from community-based organizations, industry associations, postsecondary institutions and all levels of government. The workshop attendance breakdown was as follows: St. John’s, 23; Corner Brook, 17; Kittiwake, 16; Northern Peninsula, 11; and Labrador Straits, 9.


The Innovation Summit

In October 2013, we held a full-day Innovation Summit in St. John’s (the provincial capital). We invited innovation stakeholders from each of the workshop locations and from across the province. In total, 46 participants attended from all three levels of government, business and labour, Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic, and community organizations. The summit started with a brief overview of the Innovation Project, which was followed by presentations on the key findings from the knowledge synthesis and key lessons from the innovation workshops. The morning also included a panel discussion with representatives from business, the community, government, and postsecondary who responded to the key findings from the knowledge synthesis and innovation workshops. The afternoon consisted of facilitated breakouts on the critical gaps that needed to be considered for advancing innovation and how these critical gaps could best be addressed. Each group reported back with their top three gaps, which were identified through a dotmocracy1 exercise. These critical gaps were then entered into the TurningPoint technology to select the top gaps that needed to be addressed. A closing panel followed this with representatives from business, the community, government, and postsecondary, responding to these critical gaps and how the various stakeholders could address them.

Insights for Knowledge Mobilization and Community-University Engagement

During the Innovation Project we encountered a number of expected and unexpected challenges and opportunities. The challenges included: the demise of the regional matchmaker; the politics of timing; working in the business and not on the business; academic independence versus co-production; and the academic publish or perish mentality. Opportunities, on the other hand, included: hope, optimism, and networking; reporting back, validating research findings and building relationships; exploring new research topics; student engagement; and informing policy.

We turn now to a discussion of each while highlighting how they offer insights for knowledge mobilization and community-engaged research.

The Demise of the Regional Matchmaker

Just as regional economic development agencies were being abolished in the UK (Kitagawa, 2013) and across Canada (Hall & Greenwood, 2013; Gibson, 2013), in May and June 2012, the federal and provincial governments announced that they were discontinuing the funding for the Regional Economic Development Boards (REDBs) in Newfoundland and Labrador. The REDBs were created in 1995 in response to growing economic challenges impacting communities across the province and were designed to be the ‘facilitators of regional economic development’ (Report of the Ministerial Committee, 2005). As we have noted elsewhere, “the REDBs acted as a ‘matchmaker’ between diverse regional interests and provided a point of contact for information about government programs and policies in many rural regions” (Hall, Vodden, & Greenwood, forthcoming). The demise of the REDBs impacted the Innovation Project in several ways, including: the loss of a key partner and the introduction of a contentious policy issue into project design and stakeholder dialogue and relationships.

The structure of the REDBs included professional economic development staff and a volunteer board of directors made up of representatives from municipalities, business, community development, education and training, labour, and other organizations (Hall et al., forthcoming). As a result, they were well connected to many of the key innovation stakeholders within their respective regions. More importantly, the REDBs had provided a quick and efficient “one-stop-shop” to disseminate information and gather contacts. Team members had benefited from this function played by the REDBs in previous related research initiatives. However with their demise, the Innovation Project lost this point of contact in the region. We also lost a key regional development partner that would have played an integral role in advancing a number of the recommendations from the Innovation Project. The decision to close the REDBs was done with little consultation and took many organizations by surprise. As result, it became a fairly contentious policy issue especially in a number of rural regions across the province in the period leading up to and during the Innovation Project. In many of the innovation workshops, participants were keen to discuss the REDBs and what regional development could look like after their closure.

The Politics of Timing

Related to this, several members of the Innovation Project team were labeled “political” by certain government stakeholders because of our critical discussion of the decision to close the REDBs in other research reports and for discussing the REDBs at the innovation workshops. This issue was exacerbated by deep provincial budget cuts and layoffs in early 2013 that resulted in further cuts to regional development organizations along with dramatic reductions in government staff and provincial spending, which precluded some government officials from attending the innovation sessions. Also complicating (and politicizing) matters, the governing provincial political party was losing support in public opinion polls (CBC, 2014). Thus, the demise of the REDBs, the deep cuts and layoffs and this weakening in public support, created a perfect storm of political sensitivity that presented a number of unexpected challenges for the Innovation Project, including the loss of financial support and participation from some key provincial
government actors.

Ward and Jones (1999) refer to this issue as the mode of entry, which is shaped by the political-temporal contingency of research. Simply put, they suggest that the political timing of research has significant implications for the research project. In their paper, they discuss the secretive nature and political sensitivities with researching training and enterprise councils in the United Kingdom when they were in the political limelight. As a result, researchers experienced issues with access and political sensitivity (see also Hall, 2012). Likewise, Desmond (2004) discusses the politics of time and the impacts on quality and access to information. She argues, “as any stand up comedian knows, timing is everything, and it is particularly relevant when interviewing elites during moments of political sensitivity” (p. 266). In the Innovation Project case, it impacted collaboration and stifled critical and informed discussion on pressing policy concerns facing rural areas across the province. It also highlights the importance of recognizing and responding to political sensitivities when trying to inform policy and practice through research.

Working in the Business Versus Working on the Business

We also experienced challenges with getting business owners or managers to attend the innovation events. This is largely because many small- and medium-sized business owners are often too busy “working in the business” and they lack the time to step back and attend events or what we call “working on the business” (see McGoff, 2012). Members of the Advisory Committee also brought this issue to our attention. To contend with this challenge we used the innovation case studies as a way to gather feedback and information from businesses. We also sought to partner with existing industry events. In particular, we had excellent business turnout at the Kittiwake innovation workshop where we partnered with a CME’s Central Continuous Improvement Network (CCIN). This business network formed three years ago and includes seven manufacturing firms that meet regularly to share business advice and ideas. The CCIN network also receives one-on-one coaching/mentoring from CME. For the innovation workshop, the CCIN held their own meeting in the morning and participating businesses were encouraged to stay for the workshop, while workshop participants were encouraged to arrive early and join the CCIN and Innovation Project teams for innovation tours of several local firms. The Innovation Project team then provided lunch and we continued with the innovation workshop throughout the afternoon.

Academic Independence Versus Co-production

The Harris Centre brand of integrity and independence has provided a means to ensure scholars that the projects and funds brokered with community, industry and government partners will not compromise their findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The Harris Centre has a policy of not responding to Requests for Proposals, as it will not compete with the private sector, and clients paying for consulting reports usually own the intellectual property. If an external partner comes to the Harris Centre with funding or to broker a project, it is with the explicit understanding that there will be consultation and engagement during the research process, which is often driven by a need identified by the partner, but the university researcher(s) retains independence in what is in the final report. For most stakeholders, this has value, as they often are conflicted within their own organization to examine difficult issues. The relative independence of university researchers provides the means to access research and expertise that may pose difficult answers. The partner may wish to distance themselves from the conclusions, in whole or in part, but they now have research to inform their decisions.

The Innovation Project Advisory Committee understood this. As the research progressed, however, and the ground truthing workshops took place, some partners heard negative comments about their programs or policies. In some cases they welcomed this information as a way to improve, but in others they were defensive or failed to appear at the summit or some of the final committee meetings. As long as the integrity of the research was maintained, and the workshops and summit offered means for clear and balanced input from stakeholders (such as dotmocracy and voting keypads), the project team was comfortable with the process results. Significant revisions were made to the final document and its recommendations based on the Advisory Committee’s feedback—their expertise and perspectives made for a better result. When the project team failed to respond to their suggestions, it was based on an informed dialogue, building on the research and process. Advisory Committee members were not always happy, but most respected the integrity of the process and of the project team.

Publish or Perish

One final challenge is the “publish or perish” mentality that confronts many individuals within academia, which can act as a deterrent to community-engaged research and knowledge mobilization. Similar to our discussion earlier in this paper, the “publish or perish” mentality often refers to how academic hiring, tenure, and promotion committees only recognize (or place more value on) peer-reviewed publications. Jaeger et al. (2012) suggest, “community-engaged work is still perceived as an ‘add-on’, rather than integrated into faculty roles” (p. 160). In a study of faculty engagement, Moore and Ward (2010) explain how participants in their study were labeled as outliers within their departments and academic institutions. They also felt the pressure to accumulate the so-called “‘coin of the realm’: peer-reviewed publications and grant funding” (p. 52). Similarly Jackson et al. (2008) argue that in Canada, “One of the major challenges to the growing movement for community-university engagement is the nature of traditional academic tenure and promotion (T&P) procedures, which tends to reward disengagement” (p. 133).

Publish or perish is increasingly playing a strong role in grant applications and university rankings (van Dalen & Henkens, 2012). While we recognize that this varies between institutions and within institutions, it still poses a significant challenge where it does exist, especially for emerging scholars. This pressure to publish leads to the mentality that “it no longer matters what you write, but only how often, where and with whom you write” (p. 1283). While business leaders and government officials have reviewed our knowledge synthesis and final report (including recommendations to enhance innovation), these manuscripts are not traditional peer-reviewed academic outputs and may or may not be “counted” on our academic CVs. While Memorial University’s senior administration has expressed a commitment to engaged scholarship, most recently through the establishment of a Public Engagement Framework, the extent to which this has transferred to department P&T committees has been inconsistent, with peer reviewed publications and funding remaining as the dominant criteria. Considering three of the project team members were emerging scholars (one postdoctoral fellow, one recent faculty hire, and one faculty member undergoing tenure review), this posed some challenges.

Community-university engagement and knowledge mobilization efforts also take time (see also Castledon et al., 2012). In the Innovation Project Team, time was required for booking the venue and catering, sending out invites, organizing panels and supplies, and making travel arrangements in the lead up to the innovation workshops and summit. Because our chosen communities included both rural and urban regions spanning the entire province, the team traveled in excess of 3,900 kilometres over the course of six weeks in May and June 2013. After the workshops and summit, our priority was getting the reports out to the public while the momentum was there and the discussion was fresh. Our next priority was then spending time on producing peer-reviewed publications. However, in the “publish or perish” environment time spent on community engagement and knowledge mobilization is often viewed as secondary to peer-reviewed publications (and in some cases even wasted time that could have been better spent on the latter). Interestingly, innovation stakeholders at the summit identified this mentality as one of the critical gaps impacting innovation in the province (Hall et al. 2014). Despite these challenges, we experienced several positive outcomes in using this approach. We turn now to a discussion of these opportunities.

Hope, Optimism and Networking: “It’s Like Having a Wedding after a Funeral”

As noted earlier, rural regions across the province were significantly impacted by the closure of the REDBs and the deep provincial budget cuts and layoffs. In the Northern Peninsula, one participant commented, “There’s only so many bullets a man can take before he dies,” while another in the Labrador Straits described how the last year was one of the most depressing times she had ever worked in (see also Hall et al., forthcoming). The innovation workshops were seen by many regional development stakeholders as an opportunity to come together and discuss the impacts of these cuts and new strategies for the future. One participant even argued: “It’s like having a wedding after a funeral.” The innovation events also brought together a diverse array of stakeholders from business, postsecondary institutions, government, and the community. This provided networking opportunities, some of which have continued beyond the innovation project. For example, participants in several regions have held their own follow-up meetings to discuss the research findings and next steps. This also emphasizes the need for findings and recommendations to be disseminated in a manner that allows community partners to gain maximum follow-up benefits from their participation in the project in the spirit of knowledge mobilization as a process of “moving new ideas and shared understanding into the hands of the people at the point of action” (Bennet & Bennet, 2007, p. XIII).

Reporting Back, Validating Research Findings and Building Sustainable Relationships

Project team members were each involved in at least one of the innovation-related research initiatives outlined in Table 1. Most of the innovation workshop locations were also case study regions in one or more of these research projects. The innovation events, therefore, provided a platform for the researchers to report back and in some instances validate initial research findings. These repeat encounters with the same community members raise some key issues for success in community-based research. The importance of reciprocity and partnerships when building sustainable relationships were highlighted in the introduction to this article as part of the framework for meaningful engagement initiatives. The necessity of collaborative arrangements is also often highlighted in the academic literature. For example, Fisher et al. (2004, p. 29–30) report that university researchers have historically created a negative impression by using their perceived dominance to take advantage of external stakeholders without giving them back something in return. Establishing partnerships built on trust and integrity become even more integral when the research team wishes to continue to engage with the same stakeholders on multiple levels for various research projects over time. The research team has a common interest in economic development, particularly in rural areas. There is no quick fix and short-term relationships would not be beneficial to either party.

For example, the Canadian Regional Development project included two case study regions in Newfoundland and Labrador: Kittiwake and the Northern Peninsula. In the Northern Peninsula the research team had placed particular focus on the project themes of innovation and governance. Both primarily rural regions were sites for Innovation Project workshops. This provided previous connections as contacts for the team as well as an opportunity for the research team to meet a commitment to report back to each of the regions on project results, with the valuable assistance of the project coordinator and other project resources. Further, through a combined effort between the research project and team, case studies of innovation within small and medium sized firms and social enterprises in these regions were completed, providing additional insights for both groups. Finally, the Canadian Regional Development project received provincial level exposure, increasing the project’s knowledge mobilization impact.

Exposure to New Research Topics

Community engagement provides an opportunity to interact with a variety of stakeholders and to build a researcher’s capacity and reputation in specific areas. It also exposes the researcher to a variety of issues and challenges that are outside the scope of the project being undertaken. Research ideas arise organically and can easily be validated as important to community stakeholders. From the Innovation Project findings, one team member developed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada proposal and was able to use the final report as evidence to support the research question being addressed in that application. As well, through the project a member of the team learned about a mining firm with innovations in both human resources management and mineral exploration and processing technology, forming the basis of subsequent case study research. Finally, knowledge and relationships built during the Labrador Straits workshop helped to advance a subsequent federally-funded research initiative to identify development assets in that region.

Student Engagement

Two students—Kyle White (Geography undergraduate student) and Ken Carter (Geography Ph.D. student)—were also engaged in the project. Kyle was the note-taker at all five innovation workshops. He was also a co-author on each of the workshop reports and lead author on the innovation case studies. Ryser, Markey, & Halseth (2013) cite a number of benefits to introducing undergraduate students to community-based or community-engaged research. For example, it can “expose them to the complexity of community development issues, build support and career networks and foster student interest in graduate studies or a research career” (p. 13). With the project, both students were just starting innovation-related research of their own. For Kyle, his participation on the Canadian Regional Development and Innovation Project influenced his desire to focus on sustainable innovation for his undergraduate honours thesis.
It also inspired him to pursue graduate studies in public policy. As members of the project team, both students benefited from opportunities to present their work, gain knowledge, and strengthen relationships in their study areas. We strongly believe that undergraduate and graduate students build research and  networking skills, gain valuable research experience, and develop confidence through knowledge mobilization and community-university engagement.

Informing Policy

One of the major benefits of knowledge mobilization and community-university engagement is the opportunity to inform pressing policy concerns. As Boyer (1996) argued: “The academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems” (p. 13). From the onset we were committed to offering insights for policy and practice, which were provided in our final report. As noted earlier, our advisory committee included government policymakers and the workshops engaged with representatives from all levels of government. It became clear at our final advisory committee meeting in March that the committee wanted to continue beyond the project. The final report was well received with plenty of discussion about where to go from here, which is one of the major goals for this type of community-engaged project. Many of the stakeholders also acknowledged their role in advancing innovation, which they did not previously seem to accept.

In May 2014 we publicly released the report through a media campaign organized by the Harris Centre. Copies of the report were also mailed to every participant who was engaged throughout the workshops and/or summit. One outcome thus far was Innovation Week, organized by a number of innovation-support organizations involved in the project. We were invited to present our major findings for policy and practice at two events during Innovation Week. We also organized a live webcast of the presentation made at an Innovation Outlook event through the Harris Centre to make the presentation accessible to all project participants. The final report and findings were referenced several times during Innovation Week by senior policy-makers, leaving us optimistic that some of the recommendations will translate into new policies and approaches. We also submitted our final report to a federal consultation on science, technology, and innovation. Several members of the project team are planning follow-up sessions in some regions and with key government innovation departments and other innovation organizations to discuss the major findings for innovation policy and practice.


The goal of this paper was to provide a window into the experiences of academics as they navigate the complexities and politics of mobilizing research and engaging with diverse stakeholders. We presented the Innovation Project as a practical example of university-community engaged research and knowledge dissemination as complimentary techniques for addressing economic challenges (in this case advancing innovation) in Newfoundland and Labrador. This recount of this project, including the methodology and the researchers’ perceptions, adds to the growing body of literature on good practices and challenges in this area. As we noted in the introduction, understanding both the benefits and the challenges of knowledge mobilization and community-engaged research is crucial to maximizing the impact of universities in linking theory, research and expertise with critical social and economic needs, such as enhancing innovation.

The success of projects like ours should not be measured solely based on the number of peer-reviewed articles published. Success for this project must be measured by its overall impact on the communities involved; the mobilization of key stakeholders to achieve a common goal; the validation of methods used in community-engaged research; the capacity building opportunities for the researchers and students; the exposure to new networks and new research ideas; the dissemination of collective knowledge and reports containing the voices of community participants to influential stakeholders and policy-makers; and the strength and longevity of the relationships being nurtured with every interaction. Every research project involves challenges, but few provide the opportunities and rewards found in community-engaged research.


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We would like to thank the research teams, advisory committees, and funders from the NL ISRN project (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), the Rural-Urban Project (CRRF, MNL, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador and Labour Market Development Agreement), the Canadian Regional Development project (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grand No. 410-2010-2273), the Navigate Entrepreneurship Centre, and Industry Canada. We would also like to thank Kyle White and Ken Carter for their research assistance on this project.

About the Authors

Heather M. Hall is a postdoctoral fellow in the International Centre of Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan. Jacqueline Walsh is an assistant professor of Business at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. Rob Greenwood is executive director of the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development at Memorial University (St. John’s Newfoundland). Kelly Vodden is an associate professor in the Environmental Policy Institute at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. The Grenfell campus is in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

Are We There Yet?: Outreach and Engagement in the Consortium for Institutional Cooperation Promotion and Tenure Policies

Diane M. Doberneck

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More than 20 years since Scholarship Reconsidered and 15 years since The Disciplines Speak raised awareness about multiple ways of defining, conducting, and rewarding engaged scholarship, faculty members continue to cite institutional barriers to outreach and engagement scholarship. This qualitative study analyzed promotion and tenure policies from 15 Consortium for Institutional Cooperation (CIC) institutions. Thematic and content analysis focused on documents, including policies, instructions, forms, and templates, and followed a two-stage coding process guided by both extant theory and emergent discovery. The study revealed unexpectedly wide variations in language used to describe faculty work; types of examples included in the documents; the role of outreach and engagement in the promotion and tenure process; and criteria for assessing quality and excellence. No policy stood out as an exemplar, though many incorporated exemplary elements. Implications for policy and practice and directions for future research are included in the conclusion.

More than 20 years since Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered and 15 years since Diamond and Adam’s The Disciplines Speak I and II raised awareness about the many ways of defining, conducting, and rewarding scholarship, faculty members continue to cite institutional policies as a significant barrier to scholarly outreach and engagement (Wenger, Hawkins, & Seifer, 2012). Institutional alignment—that is, ensuring an espoused institution’s values are reinforced by its faculty roles and rewards system—continues to be a significant challenge for many institutions of higher education. When institutions of higher education initiate alignment processes on their campuses, reappointment, promotion, and tenure policies for faculty are often a main focus of attention, and in some cases, a point of contention. In Becoming an Engaged Campus: A Practical Guide for Institutionalizing Public Engagement (2011), Beere, Votruba, and Wells (2011) note:

There is probably no issue as fundamental to institutionalizing public engagement as reappointment, promotion, and tenure (RPT)…. Faculty are unequivocal in their views: RPT policies must support public engagement in order for them and their colleagues—especially junior faculty—to invest significant time and energy in the work (p. 124).

Some higher education institutions have worked to address the institutional alignment challenge by impaneling faculty and administrator committees to revise their RPT polices to better accommodate scholarly outreach and engagement. Little, however, is known about the nature and extent of these RPT policies: What has been changed? Do the revised policies reflect the scholarship of engagement? How much progress has been made? In other words, are we there yet?

Approach to the Study

Research Purpose and Questions

The purpose of this study was to understand how institutions recognize and encourage the reporting of scholarly outreach and engagement in their promotion and tenure policies. The researcher pursued the following research questions:

What language is used to describe faculty roles and responsibilities in general and outreach and engagement specifically?

What role, if any, may outreach and engagement play in faculty members’ promotion and tenure materials?

What types of scholarly activities are included in the description of faculty work to encourage the reporting of outreach and engagement?

What criteria, if any, are included in promotion and tenure policies to set expectations for quality and encourage excellence in outreach and engagement?

According to the CIC, engagement refers to

the partnership of university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching, and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good (CIC Council on Engagement, 2005, p. 2).

In this study, the phrase outreach and engagement was used because it acknowledges a broader range of collaborative arrangements with community partners than the term engagement (Doberneck, Glass, & Schweitzer, 2012) and because it more accurately reflects the language used in the CIC’s institutional policies.

Purposive Sample

The CIC was selected as a purposive sample for this qualitative, exploratory study (Kezel, 1999). Established in 1958 as the academic counterpart to the Big Ten Athletic Conference, the CIC focuses on collaborative research, teaching, purchasing, and technology agreements to amplify the impact of investments and ideas across the Consortium’s membership. Since 1958, the CIC has expanded from the original 10 to the 15 member institutions included in this study (Consortium on Institutional Cooperation, 2015).

The CIC institutions were purposefully chosen for this exploratory study because the CIC Engagement Council was an early innovator in the engaged scholarship movement and author of Engaged Scholarship: A Resource Guide (2005), which compared institutional definitions; provided examples of community-engaged scholarship in research, teaching, and service; and promoted the adoption of institutional benchmarks and outcome indicators. The CIC’s institutional characteristics and engagement commitments are summarized in Table 1.

Institutional characteristics. All CIC institutions are classified as research universities/very high (RU/VH) by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; 87% are public universities; 13% are private, not-for-profit universities; none are for-profit institutions; 60% have student enrollments over 40,000; 97% are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU); and 87% are members of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU).

Institutional engagement commitments. Eighty percent of the CIC institutions are institutional members of Campus Compact; 67% have received the elective Carnegie Engagement Classification; 53% are institutional members of Imagining America; 40% belong to The Research University Civic Engagement Network (TRUCEN); and 33% are Engagement Scholarship Consortium members.

Sources of Data

The researcher accessed promotion and tenure documents, including policies, instructions, forms, templates, guiding documents, and frequently asked questions from the CIC institution’s main human resources websites during the summer of 2013. Documents from these websites represent the institution’s official policy and are, therefore, deemed to be credible and trustworthy sources of data for this study (Whitt, 2001). Documents posted on division, college, departmental, or outreach and engagement websites were excluded from this study unless they appeared as links on the main human resources webpage.

Data Coding and Analysis

Because little is known about the presence and role of outreach and engagement in the CIC’s promotion and tenure policies, the researcher employed an interdisciplinary bricolage approach to the inquiry instead of using an established conceptual framework in the analysis (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). Bricolage is concerned with “diverse theoretical and philosophical understandings of various elements encountered during the research” (Kincheloe, 2001, p. 679). This approach allowed the researcher to explore the data thoroughly, drawing upon multiple and sometimes competing concepts from the engagement literature without limiting the exploratory analysis to a single scholarly perspective.

The researcher qualitatively analyzed the documents using a two-stage process: (1) thematic analysis focused on identifying variations and patterns (Boyatzis, 1998), and (2) interpretive content analysis focused on determining frequencies in the identified patterns (Krippendorf, 2004). For each research question, a code sheet was developed that summarized significant concepts from the engagement literature related to the particular research question. Both nominal codes and absence/presence codes were used in the data analysis (Boyatzis, 1998). Open-ended codes were also used to note emerging concepts relevant to the research questions. If an emerging concept appeared more than one time, the researcher returned to the coded data and re-coded it in light of the newly discovered concept. Through this constant comparative approach, the coding and analysis process incorporated key concepts from the engagement literature and remained open to the discovery of new ideas emerging from the data (Glaser, 1965; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The researcher used multiple strategies to ensure quality and rigor in this study, including purposive sampling, the creation of an audit trail, code and re-code strategies, and researcher reflexivity (Anafara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002; Creswell & Miller, 2000).



Q1: What language is used to describe faculty roles and responsibilities in general and for outreach and engagement specifically? For this research question, the researcher examined the promotion and tenure documents for the incorporation of Boyer’s language, including the scholarship of discovery, teaching, application, and integration (1990) and the scholarship of engagement (1996); the CIC’s Council on Engagement’s language about the cross-cutting nature of community engagement (2005); the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification definition (2015); and Imagining America’s continuum of scholarship (Ellison & Eatman, 2008). Analysis used absence/presence codes. Some institutions used more than one word to describe faculty responsibilities, so the reported numbers and percentages in this section exceed 15 or 100%. These findings are summarized in Table 2.

Analysis revealed that the majority of the institutions (73%) continued to use the word service in their policies. Of the 11 CIC institutions that used service, only four distinguished among service to the university, discipline, and community. Three of the 15 institutions used the word outreach in their policies. Three of the 15 institutions used the word engagement in their policies. Two institutions did not refer to service, outreach, engagement, or Extension as faculty responsibilities. One institution used the Kellogg Commission’s terms of discovery, learning, and engagement to describe faculty roles and responsibilities (Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, 2000). None of the promotion and tenure policies incorporated Boyer’s language, referenced the Carnegie Foundation’s definition, or mentioned Imagining America’s continuum of scholarship.

Q2: What role, if any, may outreach and engagement play in faculty members’ promotion and tenure materials? For this research question, the researcher coded the documents inductively and examined the policies for key ideas including outreach and engagement as responsibilities that cut across research, teaching, and service (CIC Council on Engagement, 2005).

Emerging from the analysis were four mutually exclusive nominal codes that characterized the role of outreach and engagement in the promotion and tenure process. In the University of Chicago and Northwestern University policies, outreach and engagement was not recognized or encouraged during promotion and tenure. In the University of Iowa and University of Minnesota policies, outreach and engagement was recognized as a form of faculty work but explicitly described as one subsidiary to the main faculty functions of research and teaching. This excerpt from the University of Iowa’s policy exemplifies the recognized but subsidiary code:

Continued teaching and research excellence, and to a lesser extent the quality of other major professional contributions to the University or to society in general, form the basis for salary increases as they do for promotion and tenure (University of Iowa, 2004, p. 4)…. The criteria for promotion and tenure include teaching and research, and other forms of professional contributions. Since teaching and research are the central focus of faculty, other professional contributions are considered subsidiary to these fundamental tasks (University of Iowa, 2004, p. 12).

For the majority of institutions (53%), outreach and engagement were considered to be neither subsidiary nor privileged; faculty members could report scholarly outreach and engagement activities in the same way they would report traditional scholarship.

At University of Illinois, Indiana University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, faculty members had the option of reporting outreach and engagement as their primary form of faculty work. This excerpt from the University of Illinois policy typifies this code:

There are certain faculty roles for which the weighting of criteria for measuring excellence in research, teaching, and service may be appropriately different, such as in some forms of outreach and public engagement (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012, p. 6)…. Faculty members who are in positions that are primarily public engagement oriented should be evaluated with heavy weight on the quality of performance in the activities provided. Activities should share the following characteristics:

1. They contribute to the public welfare or the public good.

2. They call upon the faculty member’s academic or professional expertise.

3. They directly address or respond to societal problems, issues, interests or concerns (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012, p. 7).

Finally, analysis showed almost half of the CIC’s institutional policies (46%) framed outreach and engagement as a scholarly endeavor that cuts across faculty responsibilities in teaching, research, and service. This excerpt from the Pennsylvania State University policies exemplifies this cross-cutting characterization of outreach and engagement:

Outreach activities should be properly documented and considered in the promotion and tenure process: Under service when they are mostly service, under teaching when they involve teaching, and under research and scholarship when they result in publication or activity that can be valued in those terms (Pennsylvania State University, 2012, p. 8).


Q3: What types of scholarly activities are included in the description of faculty work to encourage the reporting of outreach and engagement? For this research question, the researcher analyzed the documents using the Typology of Publicly Engaged Scholarship (Doberneck, Glass, & Schweitzer, 2010); Bringle and Hatcher’s definition and description of service learning (1996); and Imagining America’s Figure Eight concept describing academic and public products (Ellison & Eatman, 2008). Analysis used absence/presence codes followed by the grouping of institutions by the number of types of examples of outreach and engagement mentioned in the policies.

Analysis revealed that University of Chicago, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Northwestern University did not mention any types of outreach and engagement in their policies. Indiana University, University of Iowa, University of Minnesota, and Rutgers University included between one and four examples. University of Maryland, University of Michigan, and Ohio State University included between five and eight examples. University of Illinois, Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and University of Wisconsin-Madison included nine or more examples of outreach and engagement in their policies. The outreach and engagement activities most often mentioned were non-credit conferences, seminars, or workshops; professional short courses, certificates, or continuing education; educational materials to promote public understanding; and clinical, diagnostic, and patient care.

Only Pennsylvania State University and the University of Michigan mentioned service learning specifically. Indiana University and the University of Michigan included special instructions to administrators and promotion and tenure committee members to consider collaborative scholarship, new scholarly communications, impact on diverse communities, and interdisciplinary or entrepreneurial forms of scholarship that may differ from traditional scholarship. This excerpt from the University of Michigan’s memo exemplifies these special instructions:

I encourage you to give full recognition, both in evaluating tenure and promotion cases, and in considering faculty annual activities reports, to the broad range of entrepreneurial, outreach, and creative activities in which faculty engage. These activities may enhance any of the criteria on which faculty are measured—teaching, research, and service. They may include involvement with other sectors of a sort that has not traditionally been considered in faculty evaluations, or they may include creative activity that does not take the form of traditional scholarship. Examples include:

1. Creating service learning and action-based learning opportunities for students.

2. Creating new instructional methods.

3. Engaging in community-based research.

4. Engaging in research funded by industrial, non-profit, or other non-federal or foundation sources.

5. Creating a start-up company that enhances the broader scholarly, public service, or health care missions of the university.

6. Engaging in creative performance.

7. Creating new or enhanced practices, products, or services.

8. Working with the Office of Technology Transfer to patent or license an invention.

9. Encouraging and instructing students in entrepreneurial and public service activities.

10. Developing collaborative approaches to solving complex world problems (Hanlon, 2012, p. 1).

Q4: What criteria, if any, are included in promotion and tenure policies to set expectations for quality and encourage excellence in outreach and engagement? For this research question, the researcher examined the promotion and tenure documents for the inclusion of quality and excellence criteria from Lynton (1995), Michigan State University’s Points of Distinction (1996); Glassick, Huber, & Maeroff (1997), and the Community-Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH) expanded Glassick list of criteria (Jordan, 2007). The documents were also analyzed for references to the National Review Board for the Scholarship of Engagement (a national body that peer reviews faculty promotion and tenure dossiers), CES4Health (a national body that peer reviews scholarly community-engaged products created for public audiences), and the inclusion of community partners as peers in the promotion and tenure review process (Freeman, Gust, & Alsohen, 2009; Gelmon, Jordan, & Seifer, 2013). These findings are summarized in Table 3.

Analysis revealed that two-thirds of the CIC institutions made no reference to criteria for traditional scholarship or outreach and engagement in their policies. University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Iowa, Michigan State University, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln included criteria for quality and excellence for all types of faculty scholarship. University of Illinois and Indiana University included additional evaluation criteria for outreach and engagement. This excerpt from Indiana University’s policy exemplifies these additional criteria:

Evaluations of research can never be reduced to a simple metric: judgments about the quality of work, and its influence, impact, utility, and creativity cannot be fully captured by the count of publications and citations or by a journal impact factor (Indiana University, 2013, p. 6)….Excellence in Service/Engagement: Candidates seeking tenure and/or promotion on the basis of Excellence in Service/Engagement must provide evidence for national/international visibility and stature resulting from service activities (even abundant local committee work is insufficient). The key is to demonstrate that the candidate’s efforts have been sustained and transformative, for a professional association, government agency, or non-academic community (Indiana University, 2013, p. 8).

None of the promotion and tenure policies refer to criteria promoted by Lynton (1995), Glassick, Huber, and Maeroff (1997), or the CCPH’s expanded Glassick list of criteria (Jordan, 2007). Only Michigan State University included all four criteria from Points of Distinction (e.g., significance, impact, scholarship, and context), though three additional institutions included one or more of those criteria in their policies. None of the policies mentioned the National Review Board for the Scholarship of Engagement or CES4Health as options for external review of the dossier or products, respectively. Even though the University of Illinois policy includes this statement about the review of public engagement, “There are some public engagement activities…[that] should be evaluated thoroughly by both inside and outside evaluators” (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012, p. 7), none of the CIC’s policies advocated for the inclusion of community partners as peers in the promotion and tenure review process.



This study revealed unexpectedly wide variations in how CIC institutions recognize and encourage outreach and engagement in their promotion and tenure policies. There was little congruence in language used to describe faculty roles and responsibilities or in the role of outreach and engagement in promotion and tenure review processes. In addition, types of outreach and engagement included as examples in the policies varied. Very few policies included standards for quality and excellence.

Seventy-three percent of the CIC institutions permitted the reporting of outreach and engagement as either a primary focus or a part of a faculty member’s promotion and tenure materials. This is in keeping with recent observations that the engagement movement has made advancements—namely, there is more of it and structures are in place to support it (O’Meara, 2011). Despite this recognition, the majority of the CIC institutions continue to use the word service instead of engagement in their policies, and of those using service, only a few make the critical distinction among service to the university, the discipline, and the community.

Are we there yet? Not quite. While the CIC institutions have made some progress in revising their policies, there is still a long way to go to fully align promotion and tenure policies to encourage and support scholarly outreach and engagement. No institutional policy clearly stands out as an exemplar; however, many policies have strong elements that are noteworthy, including:

• Pennsylvania State University policy defines all forms of faculty work as scholarly endeavors and sets forth faculty expectations in these terms: the scholarship of teaching/learning; the scholarship of research and creative accomplishment; and the scholarship of service to university, society, and profession (Pennsylvania State University, 2012, p. 3).

• Indiana University and University of Michigan policies acknowledge newer forms of scholarship and encourage reviewers to consider them. Purdue University recognizes a variety of achievement and the diversity of academic enterprise at a land grant institution (Purdue University, 2012, p. 1).

• The policies at University of Illinois, Indiana University, and University of Wisconsin-Madison allow faculty to report outreach and engagement as their primary form of faculty work.

• Michigan State University’s policy encourages faculty members to indicate peer reviewed publishing (p. 11) and contracts and grant awards (p. 15) that have outreach and engagement components with asterisks (Michigan State University 2012a, 2012b, 2012c).

• Rutgers University’s policy makes distinctions between expectations for county agents and Extension specialists at different levels of review (Rutgers University, 2013a, 2013b, Form 1-C, Form 1-D, Form II-3, Form II-4) and promotes detailed reporting of non-credit instructional activities by requiring descriptions of program, title, duration, audience, enrollment, evaluation/teaching effectiveness, and evaluation/program content (Rutgers University, 2013b, Form 1-C, page 3).

• Policies at the University of Illinois and Indiana University include specific evaluation criteria for outreach and engagement (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012, p. 12; Indiana University, 2013, p. 8).

• The University of Iowa’s policy encourages post-tenure allocation of effort to focus on learning, quality, and responsibility, with an expanded view of service, administration, and outreach (University of Iowa, 1994, p. 15).

Limitations and Future Research Directions

This study was exploratory, with a small, purposive sample that provided limited analysis of outreach and engagement in institutional policies. Because institutional characteristics influence faculty members’ participation in outreach and engagement (Colbeck & Wharton-Michael, 2006; O’Meara & Rice, 2005; Thornton & Jaeger, 2008; Wade & Demb, 2009), future research could build upon this study by analyzing policies from different institutional groupings or by expanding the sample size. Second, there is growing evidence that disciplines influence how faculty members frame, collaborate, and execute outreach and engagement (Buzinsk, Dean, Donofrio, Berger, Heighton, Selvi, & Stoecker, 2013; Doberneck, Glass, & Schweitzer, 2012; Kreber, 2009,; Volgelgesang, Denson, & Jayakumar (2010), Wade & Demb (2009)). Future studies could analyze division, college, or departmental level policies to better understand how disciplinary expressions of outreach and engagement are manifest in mid-level institutional promotion and tenure policies. Third, the analysis of institutional policy is by definition a study of formal structures within institutions. In contrast with official written policies, there is some evidence to suggest faculty, especially junior ones, are informally counseled to under-report their outreach and engagement during promotion and tenure reviews (Ellison & Eatman, 2008). Future research could focus on better understanding of the informal structures and messages (e.g., hallway conversations, advice from mentors, feedback on draft dossiers) faculty receive about whether and how to include outreach and engagement in their promotion and tenure materials. Related research may also explore the gap between stated institutional policy and actual implementation by RPT committees and identify successful strategies for closing the policy-implementation gap. This is vitally important if future faculty from Generation X, Generation Y, and Millennials are to be recruited, retained, promoted, and tenured at institutions of higher education (Janke, Medlin, & Holland, 2013). Finally, institutional policies supporting outreach and engagement are necessary but not sufficient for changing institutional cultures. Future studies could determine effective ways to build capacity for mentors, promotion and tenure committee members, and external reviewers to provide critical and constructive feedback to faculty about their outreach and engagement across all phases of their careers—from hiring, annual reviews, promotion and tenure, and post-tenure review (Beere, Votruba, & Wells, 2011). National organizations, including the National Review Board for the Scholarship of Engagement and are national mechanisms for peer review of reappointment, promotion, and tenure documents and scholarly products for public audiences, respectively. These organizations are important, but additional capacity building efforts to strengthen peer review of community engaged scholarship on college and university campuses are needed as well.

Implications for Policy and Practice

This study’s findings point to a significant gap between the language promoted by community engagement leaders and those making institutional policies. Closing this rhetoric-policy gap should be a priority for leaders of the community engagement movement. Second, key concepts from the engagement scholarship, such as Imagining America’s continuum of scholarship or Figure Eight concept (2008) and CCPH’s expanded Glassick criteria (Jordan, 2007) are absent from all CIC’s promotion and tenure policies. National level organizations need to make more effort to include key concepts from these nationally recognized, evidence-based studies about outreach and engagement in institutional promotion and tenure policies. Third, outstanding examples of scholarly outreach and engagement in reappointment, promotion, and tenure should be identified, celebrated, and shared broadly, so that they may serve as exemplars and counteract the shared narrative about the difficulty of outreach and engagement in promotion and tenure. In addition, more effort needs to be made to identify successful faculty scholars and to encourage them to serve as mentors for pre-tenure faculty. Fourth, many of the CIC’s promotion and tenure policies have strong elements supportive of outreach and engagement as valued faculty work. Because cooperation is one of the CIC’s strengths, fostering cross-institutional dialogue about outreach and engagement in promotion and tenure policies could significantly strengthen each institution’s policies and establish a more supportive culture for outreach and engagement throughout its member institutions.


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The author would like to thank Michigan State University’s National Collaborative for the Study of University Engagement for its support of this project; Berlinda Tolsma for assistance with data entry and analysis; and John Schweitzer for review of presentation and manuscript drafts. The author would also like to thank conference participants at the 2013 Engagement Scholarship Conference in Lubbock, TX, and 2014 International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement in New Orleans, LA, for their thoughtful comments on preliminary presentations of this data.

About the Author

Diane M. Doberneck is the assistant director of the National Collaborative for the Study of University Engagement and coordinator of the Graduate Certification in Community Engagement at Michigan State University.

A Message from the Associate Editor

Marybeth Lima, Ph.D.

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New Associate Editor Joins JCES Team, Looks Forward to Helping Journal Continue “to Grow, Inform, and Inspire”

I still remember the time I held in my hands the first journal article that had I co-authored. It was 1988 and I was a senior in college—the paper was based on work I had completed during a
six-month, full-time research internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory the previous year. I remember feeling very proud because the paper represented the culmination of a ton of effort, starting with executing a set of somewhat tedious experiments (they didn’t start out being tedious, but between making mistakes and verification experiments, they got tedious), followed by thoughtful analysis, and then writing up the results in the form of a manuscript. My research paper went through at least ten drafts—the back and forth writing and critiquing process between me and my research mentor was my first exposure to writing toward a standard of excellence instead of “the good old college try,” which had been sufficient to that point in my career. The paper had to be strong enough for submission to the Biochemical Journal, which my mentor informed me was “a good journal,” whatever that meant—I had no scale against which to judge, so I took his word for it.

As I reflect on that moment 26 years and many publications later, I now have a strong grasp
of what makes a journal article good. A good journal article tells a detailed story that no one has told before—it must be unique to be published. A good article builds on existing literature in some way. It provides context so that a reader can situate the work within a broad framework. And it provides perspective, and a jumping off point for future thought.

I also have a strong grasp of what makes a journal good. There are many tools today to judge the quality of journals that were not available in 1988. Generally, the lower the acceptance rate of a journal, the better quality it is. Another metric often used in STEM fields is the impact factor
of a journal, the average number of citations per year for the articles published in that particular journal—so a journal with an impact factor of less than one is considered lower quality than a journal like Science, which has an impact factor of 33.6. As an engineer, I place great stock in numbers. However, I also heed Einstein’s observation, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” As applied to the quality of journals, I believe that acceptance rates and impact factors can give you some information, but not even close to all of it. A good journal has a clear mission, a committed editorial staff, and a reasonable time from submission to publication. It fills a niche by adding critical literature to the field. When I read articles in a good journal, I feel informed, inspired, and reflective.

JCES is a good journal. Its mission is to provide readers with perspectives that integrate community engagement, teaching and learning, and research. Its editorial staff, current and former, is committed to producing a high-quality journal with a quick turnaround time for authors. JCES fills a niche by “lifting all voices” into the literature, with special attention paid to community partner and student voices that tend to be underrepresented in the broad field of engagement. As a long-time reader and reviewer of manuscripts for JCES, I have been privileged to learn many new things and to think about new perspectives. I was honored to be asked to become an associate editor and I look forward to working with the editorial staff, reviewers,
and readers of JCES as it continues to grow, inform, and inspire.

A Message from the Editor

Nick Sanyal, Ph.D.

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An Early Goal: Finding Ways to Include More First-Time, Student, and Community Authors in JCES

In less than a decade JCES has moved into a position of excellence and now serves as one of the flagship publications in the field of community engagement scholarship. We have extended our reach beyond North America to include international contributors and readers, and our articles represent diverse disciplines—from social work to nursing, from urban design to civil engineering, and from natural resources to medicine.

I have been asked to step up and continue the exemplary lead of Dr. Cassie Simon, under whom I have been privileged to serve as JCES associate editor. This not only allows me to further serve a field that I am passionate about, but will also indeed be a special privilege to serve with and learn from the best—the JCES editorial team is second to none! JCES was founded as a “new kind of research journal.” We will continue to evolve, mature, and transform as we explore the challenges and opportunities of the day.

While we must continue to innovate as we reward good scholarship, champion bold applications of knowledge, and lend our support as credible experts as we focus on understanding the myriad of challenges that face society at home and around the globe, we must also remain rooted to our primary cause: “disseminating the scholarly works on community engagement that would promote the integration of teaching, research, and outreach.”

As editor, any change I foster will be incremental, spawned as a consequence of the interaction between our contributors, editors, advisory board, and staff. Community engagement is all about becoming better citizens. I see JCES as a way to transform that experiential learning and to create great scholarship and contribute to the scientific, artistic, and humanistic basis of our engagement endeavors.

An early goal I have is to see more first-time authors, students, and community partners published in JCES. These are the people who will carry JCES and its message into the future, and these are the people who are often disenfranchised by traditional refereed scholarly publications. As an associate editor, board member, and reviewer I read many compelling manuscripts that simply needed enhancements to structure and organization to better convey their story to make a significant contribution to the scholarship of engagement. We must be the journal that provides such space and encouragement. By enhancing the connections between existing knowledge and practice, we can expand the transference of their knowledge and become a more inclusive platform for a larger community of scholars.

As a member of a community of scholars working in a world of practitioners, I look forward to a rewarding, challenging, and productive tenure as editor, and I am thrilled to be working with exceptionally talented and always helpful staff at the University of Alabama and elsewhere in the JCES world.

Some other changes are also taking place at JCES: Dr. Marybeth Lima, professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Louisiana State University, where she serves as director of the Center for Community Engagement, Learning, and Leadership, has agreed to become our new associate editor. She was the winner of the 2007 Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for service-learning at LSU, has an extensive background in community engagement, and has been a most effective and active board member. Welcome!

At the University of Alabama, Dr. Ed Mullins has stepped down as our production editor, and Ms. Karyn Bowen has agreed to step in and fill his big shoes. Dr. Mullins will remain on staff as an editorial assistant so we will continue to benefit from his sage and practical advice. I’d also like to thank Dr. Samory Pruitt for his faith and persuasion; Assistant to the Editor Vicky Carter, a UA doctoral student in Social Work, for her unparalleled ability to “herd cats”; and to our new and continuing Editorial Board members and the many other reviewers, who share so freely of their time.

Finally, thanks once again, Cassie, for the leadership, guidance, and friendship that you have offered me. I hope I can continue to earn your trust and deliver your vision

Message from the Editor

Cassandra E. Simon, Ph.D.

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Founding Editor Reflects on JCES Development

Greetings, JCES readers. It is with great ambivalence that I write this, my final editor’s message for JCES. Being editor of JCES brought much to my life. I have had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of individuals. From the students who have worked in the office to the full-time staff affiliated with the Center for Community-Based Partnerships, my job as editor was made easier because of them. During my tenure as editor, a very difficult job was made possible through the hard work of three editorial assistants, Dr. Kyun-soo Kim, now on faculty at Grambling State University, Dr. Jessica Averitt Taylor, now on faculty at Northern Kentucky University, and Vicky Carter, a doctoral social work student, our current assistant to the editor. Each of them kept us organized, on task and moving forward. They did and continue to do far more to contribute to the success of JCES than most people realize. We are fortunate to have had Kyun-soo and Jessica at critical times in the journal’s development and we are very fortunate as we approach another critical time in the journal’s growth to still have Vicky. To each of them I say thank you and you are appreciated. A special accolade goes to Dr. Edward Mullins, production editor of JCES, whose talent and artistry continue to add to the unique aesthetics of JCES. But more than that, his strategic use of visuals gives the journal a vibrant, new, and different look and appeal. His commitment to readability adds to the journal’s accessibility to all. He oversees the production of each issue of JCES and I appreciate his work.

JCES has allowed me to meet some of the strongest engagement scholars across the globe, many whom have and do serve as Editorial Board members, reviewers, and authors. Without you, the journal would not have achieved its current status in the engagement scholarship world. Also, to the board of the Engaged Scholarship Consortium I extend a sincere thank you for your support and sponsorship of JCES. Your sanction of the journal brings with it a level of credibility that is one indicator of success. It is always nice to know that the fruits of one’s labor are recognized. And last, but definitely not least, a sincere appreciation to Dr. Samory Pruitt, vice president of the Division of Community Affairs at the University of Alabama, whose vision it was to start an engagement scholarship journal, which ultimately became JCES. For some reason (about which to this day I remain confused) he asked me to be this new journal’s founding editor. Hesitant at first, I questioned his selection of me, especially considering there were others with stronger scholarship records than mine. Basically, what I heard was in our years’ working on the same campus he took notice of my commitments to students and working with communities. He knew I was committed to providing a stronger voice and presence of those often overlooked or easily dismissed. Dr. Pruitt somehow knew before I did that I would take on this challenge. Thank you for trusting me with the course of the journal, the content of the journal, and most importantly, for supporting elevating the roles of community partners and students in a scholarly peer reviewed, academic journal.

So, my farewell is bitter sweet. It is sort of like a child getting married or going off on their own. You are happy, but…. After all, what started out at as a three-year commitment, turned into an eight-year one. It is time for me to return to working with other people and with students and doing the work I was doing before I became editor.

In the first issue of JCES we promised you a new and different kind of journal with an emphasis on what we refer to as “authentic” community engagement. We talked about the transformative nature of engagement scholarship and how JCES would be a vehicle for that. I am confident that we have delivered on those commitments. I am also confident that JCES will continue to grow, develop, and be transformative under the leadership of the new editor, Dr. Nick Sanyal of the University of Idaho. I am very pleased that Nick agreed to be the next editor. He is intelligent, committed to students and community partners, balanced and innovative with a strong engagement scholarship record. He “gets it” and I have 100% confidence in his ability to lead and shape JCES as we move into the future. We also welcome Dr. Marybeth Lima from Louisiana State University as the new associate editor. Another scholar in engagement scholarship, Marybeth brings a wealth of knowledge and perspective to the journal.

Enjoy this special issue with highlights from the 2014 Engaged Scholarship Consortium (ESC) Conference hosted by the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We are pleased to be able to distribute this issue at the 2015 ESC Conference hosted by the Eastern Region (James Madison University, The Pennsylvania State University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) at Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania. Take a minute to look at this issue. I am sure you will find something of interest to you. As always, we welcome your feedback and encourage you to let us know your thoughts. The editors may have changed, but the email address is still the same,

Outreach and Engagement Staff and Communities of Practice: A Journey from Practice to Theory for an Emerging Professional Identity and Community

Susan B. Harden and Katherine Loving

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The emergence and recognition of outreach and engagement staff and non-tenure track faculty in higher education literature as key figures in the success of university outreach and community engagement are welcome developments for these practitioners. This article describes the perceptions of outreach and engagement staff at large, public research universities with decentralized engagement initiatives. The authors describe efforts to organize outreach and community engagement staff to create supportive networks, improve practice, provide professional development opportunities, and advocate for practitioner interests and needs. Community-of-practice theory offers a model for connecting, organizing, and sustaining outreach and engagement staff practitioners and their emerging professional identity.


In the past three decades, American higher education has expanded commitments to serving the public good (Chambers, 2005; Jacoby, 2009; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). Much of the conversation has centered on the institutionalization of community-engagement (Battistoni & Longo, 2011). Driving the conversation are higher education networks, 21 new initiatives between 1978 and 2008, organized with a mission to promote community and civic engagement in higher education (Hartley, 2011). As Jacoby (2015) notes, most higher education mission statements include citizenship, democracy, or social responsibility as student learning outcomes. As a result of this call for a deeper commitment to the public good, there has been an increase in the number of the academic staff and non-tenure-track faculty members recently hired to facilitate community-university partnerships (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). However, research institutions have been lagging their private college and public community liberal arts college and university counterparts in commitments to community engagement (Stanton, 2007). The complexity and decentralized nature of research universities contribute to uneven resource allocations of engagement resources and therefore “despite strategic steps taken by institutional leaders to advance engagement at research institutions, the level of implementation on these campuses is likely to vary considerably across units” (Weerts & Sandman, 2010, p. 703).

Consequently, community engagement practitioners at research institutions work in isolation in unique roles compared to their co-workers, often in new and innovative positions. As a result, outreach and engagement staffs have questions about their new and developing professional identity and seek deeper understanding of their work. Recent studies indicate that the work of engagement requires unique functions, skills, and values (Weerts & Sandman, 2010). Do these roles constitute a cohesive professional identity for outreach and engagement staff that can be used in clarifying professional development opportunities and assessment of institutional impact? If so, can this group of workers connect in ways that overcome positional isolation and improve their practice, both on their campuses and within national engagement networks? In this essay, the authors describe the emergence of a unique professional identity for outreach and engagement staff and a common set of functions, skills, and values in these roles at the University of Wisconsin–Madison enhanced by developing a community of practice. This model for connecting and organizing outreach and engagement staff has expanded to other universities, a national network, and an annual conference, the Engagement Scholarship Consortium.

Emerging Professional Identity

While recent research is rich regarding the impact of civic or community engagement initiatives on students (Jacoby, 2009) and faculty (Boyte & Fretz, 2011; Presley, 2011; O’Meara, 2011), the implications of the expansion of the engagement mission on staff are less known (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). Consequently, it is instructive for staff to look at service-learning faculty for defining elements of an emerging professional identity. Stanton, Giles, and Cruz (1999) note that pioneers in service-learning pedagogy came to higher education from multiple paths (clergy, community organizations, government programs, and academia); worked independently in their institutions and often against standard norms in higher education; felt disconnected from similar colleagues at other colleges or universities; and have worked 50 years to conceptualize their approach and institutionalize service-learning as a pedagogy and field. Early service-learning practitioners shared similar characteristics including a sense of agency, independence, ethical motivations, political convictions, a desire to serve, a concern for how service was being applied in higher education, a belief in cross cultural learning, and reflective pedagogy. Feelings of isolation among service-learning practitioners created a need for institutionalized networks to share information and provide support. The Society for Field Experience Education was founded in 1971 and developed an informal community of practitioners to gather and talk, with the focus being on dialogue, “more sharing, less competition” (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999, p. 155). Emerging professional identities can develop when professionals feel isolated, yet share common characteristics, professional values, and need for a broader community.

Outreach and Engagement Staff Roles

Outreach and Engagement staffs play critical roles in advancing community engagement on their campuses. Specifically, when studied, engagement initiatives at research universities were primarily executed by outreach and engagement staff with backgrounds as practitioners and strong connections to the community partners served (Weerts & Sandmann, 2008). Outreach and engagement staff are profiled as “boundary-spanners,” as they are responsible for the interacting with partners outside of the institution and “community-based problem solvers,” implying that the skills characterizing the work of outreach and engagement staff are largely technical and hands on, managing the daily tasks involved with advancing the partnership (Weerts & Sandman, 2008, 2010). As a result of these relationships, community partners base their evaluation of institutional engagement on the quality of their relationships with whom they identify as the boundary-spanners, most often the outreach and engagement staff at research institutions (Weerts & Sandmann, 2008).

Outreach and engagement staffs also play important roles internally within their campus engagement efforts. Managerial professionals involved with engagement activities, as defined by outreach and engagement staff at the mid-level of the university hierarchy, were the coordinators of social networks of other managerial professionals on campus that helped sustain outreach efforts and maintain strong community-university ties (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). As outreach and engagement staff can effectively build partnership relationships and utilize their social networks, the theory of communities of practice can serve as a valuable mechanism for organizing, especially on campuses that lack a centralized infrastructure to share information and provide professional development opportunities.

The Community of Practice Model

Communities of practice are “groups of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 4). Communities of practice help to create a sense of belonging, encourage a spirit of inquiry, and instill confidence.

The concept of communities of practice, originally developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), has been applied in broad contexts including higher education, as well as social, educational, and management sciences (Barton & Tusting, 2005; Blanton & Stylianou, 2009). As Wenger et al. (2002) note: “Communities of practice are a natural part of organizational life. They will develop on their own and many will flourish, whether or not the organization recognizes them” (p. 12).

Stages of Development

Communities of practice generally comprise three elements: a domain of knowledge, a social experience, and a shared practice that makes work within the domain more effective and efficient. Like other models of organizational development, Wenger et al. (2002) describe communities of practice as changing as they develop through stages, beginning from inception, moving through potential and on to coalescing. The first stage of a community of practice, inception, is characterized by a loose, informal social network of people who begin to discover common issues and interests and explore the idea of creating a more formal association. The greatest challenge for a community of practice is establishing a scope for the domain around the passions and interests of founding and potential members. The group must explore a vision that imagines greater value from the collective association, after which the association begins to discuss the potential areas for knowledge acquisition and learning. As communities of practice coalesce, members grow trust in their association and formulate a value proposition for the ongoing community. They describe the later developmental stages of communities of practice as influencing the broader organization within which communities of practice are situated. As the community of practice evolves, the focus shifts from start-up to sustaining. After the stages of inception, potential, and coalescing, the community of practice develops through the stages of maturity, stewardship, and transformation. It is in these later stages that an established community of practice begins to influence the broader organization through the collective power of informed practice. As the community of practice begins to build and validate core competencies and knowledge, members begin to transfer that knowledge within their work units and the benefits of the community of practice to the broader organization become apparent. It is at this point that the voice of the community of practice begins to be heard outside of the community of practice.

Organizing Outreach and Engagement Staff: A Case to Consider

At the large public research universities where the authors practice (UNC Charlotte, UW–Madison) outreach and community engagement staff work in relative isolation from other engagement colleagues, without campus-wide coordination of the outreach enterprise, and in decentralized institutions where operations are primarily unit and discipline based. Administrative mechanisms do not exist for horizontal, cross-campus connections, resource sharing, or even communication that would benefit practitioners performing similar roles and functions on behalf of their home units.

Without campus-wide infrastructure and coordination, informally connecting with other outreach and engagement is challenging. While some of these staff members do hold titles that indicate their outreach and community engagement responsibilities, many do not, and as such are not easily identified. Examples of these staff include a precollege program specialist, the community service director at a medical school, civic engagement coordinator, manager of science outreach for k-12 students and teachers, a community-based program coordinator focused on increasing social capital, assistant director for community-based learning, an outreach specialist for a grant-funded project for high-school students with special needs, and a staff person at a dairy institute who facilitates partnerships with dairy producers worldwide. These are academic staff with primary responsibilities for building and sustaining community-university partnerships and the intention of these partnerships is not revenue generation but addressing community needs and serving the public good. Outreach and engagement staff may also have other instructional or clinical elements to their duties, but these duties are secondary to sustaining mutually beneficial partnerships that respond to community issues.

There is something ironic about the circumstance of outreach and engagement staff feeling isolated within their institutions from colleagues doing similar work and lacking in outlets for professional development. It is important to note that while the authors work with many tenure-track faculty doing engagement, often in close partnership within the community-university projects, the authors felt a difference, professionally, from tenure-track faculty. The accountability, recognition, and power structures are different between staff positions and tenure-track faculty including the professional pathway of promotion and tenure and the power embodied in faculty-governance, the privilege of academic freedom, and autonomy of the workday within tenure-track faculty positions (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). While the partnership work of community-engagement may involve tenure-track faculty utilizing similar skills and values of engagement, our professional systems of advancement and power are very different. And consequently, the authors believe that these different incentives, opportunities, and privileges afforded each group impact our professional identity and the authors desired bonding across those similarities.

It is also important to note that the authors felt a difference with staff on campus whose accountabilities are not community-university partnerships. While the process for promotion may be similar, the accountabilities and recognitions are very different. The impact and benefits of community-university partnerships are relatively unseen on a daily basis by staff who work on campus and support on-campus operations and who observe, first-hand, the professional contributions of their on-campus focused colleagues. The lack of decentralization and infrastructure may also contribute to the lack of awareness about the daily tasks, off-campus accountabilities, and benefits of community-engagement work by on-campus staff who perform more traditional university work.

As a first step, the authors made efforts to informally connect with outreach and engagement staff colleagues at their own institutions. In informal conversations, it became apparent that outreach and engagement staff shared common perceptions and feelings around their roles, such as leading without positional power; working in an institutional structure designed for excellence in research, not responsiveness to communities; bearing the risks associated with innovative programming and non-traditional university work; and justifying the time investment required to cultivate relationships with community partners. Moreover, they were concerned that their commonly held skills, like process facilitation, collaboration, and systems thinking, were too generalist in nature and therefore not valued in large research institutions of intense specialization. Even qualities that made them well-suited for both outreach and engagement work and navigating internal institutional structures like an entrepreneurial spirit, the patience to build strategic relationships, and the ability to interpret the needs and interests of diverse stakeholders were not recognized by outreach and engagement colleagues as professional assets until they began to connect with each other around their distinct challenges and skills.

The discovery of shared professional concerns of outreach and engagement staff moved from informal conversations and perceptions to the formal research when, at the October 2007 National Outreach Scholarship Conference (NOSC) in Madison, Wisconsin, David Weerts and Lorilee Sandmann (2007) presented their research on boundary-spanning roles in higher education and outlined the predominant role that outreach and engagement staff play as the boundary-spanners at research universities. Weerts and Sandman engaged the audience in generating a long list of skills and roles like “catalyst, surrogate, translator, agitator of the system,” terms not commonly found in university job classifications and yet so descriptive of the authors’ day-to-day work in building and sustaining university-community partnerships. The authors applied the theory of boundary spanning, originally used by Weerts and Sandmann to characterize the facilitation of community-university partnerships, to define the identity of an emerging professional community: university outreach and community engagement staff who facilitate projects, programs, services, research, and relationships with community partners, with a set of shared knowledge, skills and values and a professional identity distinct from that of tenure-track faculty members.

Organizing the Organizers and Creating A Community of Community-Builders

This sense of a new professional identity called boundary-spanners and evidence of the critical role that staff and non-tenure-track faculty members play in the university outreach and engagement enterprise created a foundation for community building which eventually involved the authors. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the author initiated an invitation for formal connections with other outreach and engagement staff members, hoping that by gathering together, they would offer support to each other and improve their service to community partners and to the university. A call for participants attracted 35 interested staff members from across campus. Recognizing that the development of a campus-wide structure for boundary spanners would require additional support and expertise, a co-author agreed to share some of the leadership tasks.

The unique challenge of trying to organize outreach and engagement whose professional identities are emerging led to the effort to coalesce around goals rather than boundary-spanning roles. When the 35 who initially expressed interest in the network were surveyed, a broad range of outreach and engagement roles were represented, but 100% agreement was reached on the proposed goals of the group, which were to:

• facilitate communication and collaboration,
• share information and resources,
• improve the quality of outreach and engagement staff’s work,
• support professional development,
• improve the ability of the campus to meet community needs,
• advocate for campus decisions and policies that support partnerships and outreach work.

As the organization developed around these goals, a trusted advisor from the Office of Human Resource Development was enlisted to support the development of the network, which he identified as a peer-to-peer self-organizing system, better known as a “community of practice.”

As stated earlier, communities of practice can develop organically as was the case at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. According to the theory, the development of the community of practice network indicates that the group is following a predictable theoretical trajectory for the community of practice model and is coalescing around something real, important and worthwhile. All of the group’s initial goals were typical of community-of-practice functions, though that was not known by the authors at the earliest stages of formation. Consequently, those goals informally bound the group together as a community of practice before members had a clear understanding of their common roles, knowledge, and skills. The goals also served to organize members around their professional struggles rather than their strengths, and gave the group its first indication that existing challenges should be addressed instead of simply creating new resources.

While at the time the group leaders had not explored community-of-practice theory sufficiently to understand the developmental tasks in which they were engaged, early attempts to establish similar experiences, corresponding domains of knowledge, and shared practice led to the identification of a common set of professional challenges and opportunities:

• professional identity and isolation,
• the power of innovation and the burden of bureaucracy,
• the challenge of measuring and describing progress and success,
• the risks and benefits of collaboration,
• functional leadership versus positional power.

Over the next two years, the community of practice examined these challenges, reframed some as opportunities, and began to identify common functions, tasks, and roles, as shown in Table 1, by analyzing the themes that emerged from conversations at monthly meetings, informal focus groups, and other network activities. Similar to the list generated at the NOSC workshop on boundary-spanning roles (Weerts & Sandmann, 2007), these shared practices would prove to be a powerful organizing tool, and the most persuasive way to communicate shared purpose and professional identity to potential members (Table 1).

Articulating these functions, roles, and skills has helped determine professional development needs, suggested content for new staff orientation and onboarding, offered guidance in recruitment and hiring, and perhaps most importantly, has given legitimacy to the nimble, generalist, and relational strengths of outreach and engagement practitioners. This early work brought the community of practice to the point at which the community of practices’ domain could clearly be identified as “the art and science of community-university partnerships, outreach and engagement” (Loving, 2012).

From Network to System of Influence

As the community of practice coalesced, two main goals were identified: to create a horizontal structure across campus units in order to support engagement professionals in achieving the community-of-practice functions mentioned above, and to ensure vertical alignment in the implementation of the outreach and engagement mission of the university. The latter includes increasing campus capacity to respond to community priorities; supporting structures and policies that sustain quality community engagement; addressing the challenges inherent in leading without positional power; and engaging boundary spanners at all levels in leadership, planning and decision-making (Figure 1).
Weerts and Sandmann (2010) make the point that community-university boundary spanners operate from all levels of the institutional hierarchy. While the community of practice staff network is built on the needs and interests of “community-based problem solvers” or outreach and community engagement staff practitioners, effective engagement requires that the multiple types of boundary spanners within campus align their priorities and internal communication (Weerts & Sandmann, 2010). Consequently, administrators should know what practitioners are doing and vice versa, and their efforts should pursue the same broad mission and goals and reflect shared values around community-university partnerships. The desire of community of practice leaders to improve institutional alignment was true to boundary-spanning theory.

Table 1

Figure 1

Emerging Identity and Community at a National Level

Having successfully connected and organized at the
local institutional level, community of practice leaders pursued the broader goal of connecting, organizing, and affecting change on a national level. The National Outreach Scholarship Conference served as the venue, as a bow of acknowledgment to the Weerts and Sandman 2007 session on boundary spanning roles that had first inspired campus-based organizing. At the 2009 National Outreach Scholarship Conference at the University of Georgia, the coauthor initiated a meeting of outreach and engagement staff and non-tenure-track faculty members who wished to connect with one another and establish themselves as a conference constituency. Fifteen attendees from eight institutions gathered to explore the establishment of formal networking, presenting, and professional development opportunities for outreach and engagement professionals using the National Outreach Scholarship Conference as annual gathering place. Like the communities of practice staff network, the attendees developed a set of goals relating both to the “horizontal” needs of the staff—improving practice—and the resulting “vertical” institutional imperatives as modeled in Figure 1. Five clear goals emerged:

1) Establish an identity and voice in the national outreach community.
2) Offer targeted professional development opportunities.
3) Provide a national venue for sharing the work of outreach and engagement staff.
4) Celebrate the distinct roles and accomplishments of outreach and engagement staff.
5) Create a national community of practice for engagement professionals.

In pursuit of these goals, the attendees strongly supported the idea of a National Outreach Scholarship Conference affiliated, annual program developed specifically for engagement professionals, perhaps best offered as a preconference meeting. In 2010 at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference at North Carolina State University, a pilot preconference workshop for outreach and engagement staff was developed by Loving and UW–Madison faculty colleague Randy Stoecker. By 2011 at Michigan State University, the Outreach and Engagement Staff Workshop was formally affiliated with the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, supported and funded by the conference executive board and attended by thirty university staff members from the United States and Canada, forming the core membership of an inter-campus community of practice for outreach and engagement staff practitioners. This early success resulted in ongoing support from the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, now known as the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC), for the annual Outreach and Engagement Staff Workshop preconference meeting, as well as the distribution list and a web site, thus institutionalizing this bi-national community of practice. The annual preconference workshop for outreach and engagement staff attracts 50-75 participants and continues to grow in terms of institutional support from ESC.

Benefits of Scaling Up and Implications for the Field

Communities of practice are primarily learning and knowledge management organizations; the community remains most vibrant and effective when members are improving their practice together. While local communities of practice can meet campus-specific needs, a national community has the potential to aggregate the needs and interests of practitioners at multiple campuses to develop broadly-relevant and widely-accessible professional development opportunities and curricula specifically for outreach and engagement staff. Professional development at this scale is integral to the establishment of a new professional identity as boundary-spanners and of new directions for research.

As the parallel fields of engaged scholarship and engagement scholarship develop, a national community of practice for staff may have the power to take on a system-of-influence role in a conversation that has, to date, not had unified staff representation. Advocating for standards of practice, conveying the importance of integrating the voices of community partners, and ensuring that staff are recognized as legitimate experts and researchers in community-campus partnerships, are among the contributions that can be made at the national level to improve the quality
and inclusiveness of community-engaged theory and practice.

Questions for Future Research

Weerts and Sandmann’s research (2008) confirmed the value of community-university boundary spanners to community partners and to the outreach and engagement enterprise of universities, inspiring the initial organizing of the local and national networks. Those networks now offer a research platform for addressing unanswered questions including: What professional development opportunities are most effective in preparing and advancing the skill set of engagement professionals? How do institutions facilitate and inhibit work with community partners? These formally organized communities of practice for outreach and engagement practitioners provide a way for the group to be accessible for further inquiry and investigation, a critical step in building our emerging professional identity.

This application of the community-of-practice model also deserves examination. While the networks described developed along a typical community-of-practice trajectory, there are still challenges to explore: How can we measure and document the value of outreach and engagement staff to colleagues, institutions, and communities? How are engagement communities of practice best situated and sustained within institutions of higher education? Communities of practice are often self-organizing systems, and finding the right balance between organic growth and administrative support can be difficult. Just enough support allows the community to be self-directed and highly responsive to the needs of members, while too much support suppresses momentum and suggests competing agendas (Wenger et al., 2002). Research may indicate another model or organizational format for best supporting and advancing the work of boundary-spanning staff on a long-term basis.

Conclusions and Next Steps
As the national community continues to coalesce, a primary task will be navigating the developmental challenges of this second stage in the community of practice model—the tension between taking the time to build trusting relationships among members and demonstrating immediate value to keep interest and participation high (Wenger et al., 2002). The value of networking around the identified domain—the art and science of community-university partnerships, outreach and engagement—must be established. Affiliating with the Engagement Scholarship Consortium offers the opportunity to extend targeted professional development content and a forum for sharing scholarly work to a group that has only recently been formally recognized as an important constituency of the conference. Establishing communication mechanisms as well as relationships with other national outreach and community engagement organizations will also be critical to the network’s ability to grow in relationship and relevance over time. Can a national community be nurtured successfully, or will it exist primarily to support its institution-based counterparts?

As UW–Madison’s local community of practice matures in the third stage of development, it faces a different set of challenges. The core challenge will be to expand the network boundaries while staying true to the organization’s core domain and purpose (Wenger et al., 2002). The associated tasks include finding a place in the institution as the community of practice gains more influence, and documenting the value of the network for both internal and external audiences


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About the Authors

Susan B. Harden is an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Katherine Loving is manager of Campus Community Partnerships, University Health Services, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Responsible Engagement: Building a Culture of Concern

Irena Gorski, Eric Obeysekare, Careen Yarnal, and Khanjan Mehta




As we scale up engagement with communities around the world, how do we ensure that the foundational engagement principles of responsiveness, respect, and accessibility are never compromised? While community engagement is important and can have a dramatic positive impact, it can also result in unintended negative consequences for all stakeholders, including community members, students, faculty, and staff. At Penn State, we are developing a framework for an Engagement Review Board (ERB) to proactively educate university members about the principles and best practices of engagement, and to work with them to ensure that collaborative projects benefit all stakeholders in spirit and substance. This article summarizes the larger challenge of equitable community engagement and makes the case that there is a need for additional protection such as through an ERB. The various resources and functions that can be provided by an ERB across the life cycle of engagement projects are described. The objective is to stimulate discussion on how we can collectively develop an infrastructure—undergirded by a “culture of concern” rather than a “culture of compliance”—to strengthen and mainstream community engagement without making it more onerous to all stakeholders.

Introduction: Setting the Context

In an attempt to help an orphanage in Zimbabwe—but without collaborating with the orphanage about community assets and needs—a college-level dental hygiene class with an embedded travel component organized an engagement project to collect and send toothbrushes to the orphanage. The well-meaning class gathered toothbrushes from donors in the US and traveled to the orphanage to teach lessons on dental hygiene. While the intention was to improve the dental health of the children and staff at the orphanage, the outcome had unexpected impact on the class, the instructor, and the community. The orphanage did not, in fact, need the thousands of toothbrushes they received. In reality, they needed food, money for rent and staff salaries, and mattresses—needs that the instructor and class members were unaware of. The orphanage did, however, use the toothbrushes as a form of currency to pay staff and to barter for supplies. As for the lesson the class taught on dental hygiene, class-members were surprised when orphanage staff were offended by how little the well-meaning students knew about existing dental hygiene practices and more important community needs. A community engagement expert would have quickly recognized the likelihood of these unexpected outcomes and might have advised the class instructor and the class about how to maximize the positive impact of their work. So where can an instructor, and other educators, turn for advice to ensure that community engagement work does no harm and has positive impact?

Universities across the United States and Canada are prioritizing community engagement. Engagement is the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local or global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2015). The Carnegie Community Engagement Classification is a classification that recognizes “excellent alignment among campus mission, culture, leadership, resources, and practices that support dynamic and noteworthy engagement”. Seventy-six colleges and universities held the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification as of 2006, with 361 institutions now holding the classification in 2015. The movement to prioritize engagement is driven as much by the evolving meaning of a land-grant institution (Weerts, 2005) as it is by community and student demands and expectations (Kirkwood, 2001).

There is a growing consciousness as well as boundless enthusiasm among university students to make a positive difference in the lives of people in developing communities (Bringle & Hatcher, 1998; Moely, McFarland, Miron, Mercer, & Ilustre, 2002). Faculty members are being challenged by this trend to enable students to play a larger role in becoming change agents. While all engagement efforts and experiences are important and can have a dramatic positive impact, they can also result in unintended consequences for students, professors, institutions, intermediaries, and communities (Crabtree, 2013). Students can, for example, become disillusioned by the places they visit, gaining the skewed perspective that all developing countries and their citizens lack resources and “need to be helped” (Hinton, Ortbal, & Mehta, 2014). Professors can reduce the likelihood of tenure by devoting a significant amount of time to organizing and facilitating engagement experiences (Saltmarsh, Wooding, & McLellan, 2014). For the community, students can return home without completing projects, leaving community members with a net liability. Other negative outcomes for communities may include a disruption of community relations, conflict, disappointment, or dissatisfaction with where they live (Crabtree, 2013).

Good intentions and passion are not enough for successful community engagement (Easterly & Easterly, 2006). While community projects are usually well-meaning, creatively designed, and enthusiastically deployed, they do not necessarily result in a sustainable impact on the partnering communities (Mehta & Mehta, 2011). Projects fail, or do not realize their full potential, when local knowledge, perspectives, and frameworks are not integrated into the venture (Lissenden, Maley, & Mehta, 2015; Mehta, Alter, Semali, & Maretzki, 2013). Whether naïve or deliberate, the lack of consideration for the cultural and socioeconomic context inhibits innovation that is crucial for project success. The majority of the challenges confronted during community engagement projects can be attributed to cultural, social, economic, and ethical issues (Mehta & Mehta, 2011). Key challenges include designing, implementing, and evaluating appropriate systems (as opposed to individual products or interventions); ensuring equity from, and between, all stakeholders; growing projects to reach more communities; engaging marginalized stakeholders in the project; understanding and managing power dynamics and privilege systems; and identifying and incentivizing champions (Mehta & Mehta, 2011). To successfully navigate through such challenges, university members involved in engagement programs need to understand the resources, challenges, social and behavioral norms, and innovation frameworks of the context in which they will be working. How can we ensure that good intentions and passion result in socioeconomic development? How can we ensure that engagement programs balance immediate student experiences with positive long-term impact on the partnering communities?

Across the world, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) review proposed university research projects to ensure that they uphold the ethical principles of research involving human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979). IRBs are crucial for protecting all stakeholders engaged in research, including the subjects themselves, the researchers, and intermediaries like translators and analysts. However, IRB protection lacks comprehensiveness and applicability for some projects and has a variety of interpretations from the university to federal level (Schrag, 2010). Due to non-comprehensive IRB policies in the US and potentially blurry lines of morality and legality, a recent article in Nature argues for the utility of ethics consulting services to provide additional advice, enabling researchers to reflect on their projects without the pressure of potential rejection that comes with an IRB (Dolgin, 2014). Such services can help researchers make ethically-sound decisions in situations where the IRB may not be supportive, comprehensive, or appropriate enough.

Expanding research and teaching outside of the university to engage with stakeholders in developing communities can lead to issues even further outside the scope of traditional IRB protection. For example, in developing countries where oral traditions are common, signing a consent form can make participants uneasy because they usually reserve signatures (or thumb impressions) for legal documents such as deeds (Anderson, et al., 2012; Bell, Dzombak, Sulewski, & Mehta, 2012; Harding, Harper, Stone, O’Neill, & Berger, 2011). Additionally, while IRBs operate under the assumption that researchers are more knowledgeable about their subjects’ conditions than the subjects themselves are, in the realm of community engagement, this is not necessarily true, and the principles of engagement are sometimes compromised.

As institutions scale up engagement with communities, how do we ensure that the principles of engagement are upheld? At Penn State University, we are developing the framework of an Engagement Review Board (ERB) to ensure that community-engagement projects are conducted appropriately. The objective is to pro-actively educate faculty and students about the core principles and processes of engagement and to work with them to create situations favorable for all stakeholders. The role of the ERB was developed based on the ideas of the authors as well as ideas from collaborative discussions during a workshop at the 2014 Conference of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC). The workshop included faculty and staff members from universities across the US and several other countries. After discussing the principles of engagement and the stakeholders, this article proposes the competencies needed for appropriate engagement, presents the conceptual framework of the proposed ERB, and explains challenges and opportunities for integrating engagement into the current university system. While the semantics of engagement differ across cultures, disciplines, communities, and universities, this article aims to address the core issues of the ethics and impact of engagement. The objectives of this article are to (1) make the case that there should be additional protection for community members involved in engagement such as through an Engagement Review Board and (2) encourage further discussion on how we can collectively develop the infrastructure—a “culture of concern” rather than a “culture of compliance”—without making community engagement more onerous for any of the stakeholders.

Principles of Engagement
Figure 1

In 1999, the Kellogg Commission, made up of 24 university presidents and chancellors, published a report, Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution, explaining the need for land-grant and public universities to realize their mission to better society while simultaneously responding to the effects of globalization—i.e. the need for engaged institutions. The report identified seven characteristics of engaged institutions: responsiveness, respect for partners, academic neutrality, accessibility, integration, coordination, and resource partnerships (Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, 1999). This article is particularly concerned with three of these characteristics, defined here as the principles of engagement:

1. Responsiveness—Universities must be in constant communication with the communities where engagement is conducted and ensure there is a mutual understanding of engagement activities.
2. Respect for partners—Universities should respect the resources communities have to offer and not view engagement solely as an opportunity to show intellectual superiority.
3. Accessibility—All communities should be able to receive knowledge and resources so communities should be made aware of what universities have to offer through public awareness efforts.

Universities upholding the principles of responsiveness, respect for partners, and accessibility are recognized with the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2015). Further, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the Engagement Scholarship Consortium offer the prestigious Magrath Award, given to engaged programs that exemplify responsiveness, respect for partners, and accessibility (APLU, 2013). Truly engaged institutions that uphold these three principles in their programs find ways to ensure that scholars are engaged in a way that does no harm. By doing so, they uphold a high standard of appropriate engagement and contribute to the socioeconomic development of communities around the world. Presently, many engaged universities have IRBs, Service Learning Offices, Study Abroad Offices, Community Engagement Offices, and/or other similar entities to advise scholars on best practices for engagement.

Balancing Stakeholder Motivations in University-Community Engagement

The stakeholders that participate in engagement often have differing motivations (Figure 1). Faculty may place high importance on research and define success in terms of publication of knowledge gained during engagement. Students may have a less research-focused definition of success and consider any hands-on experience to be of value. Finally, success to communities may revolve around successful projects and the acquisition of actionable knowledge from universities. While programs that incorporate one or two of these stakeholder groups’ interests are important and worthwhile, the best engagement programs consider all motivations (Ramaley, 2001). An ideal community engagement project might include (1) a discussion between all stakeholders about their motivations in the project; (2) a clear definition of roles, goals, and outcomes for the project; (3) delivery of a project that meets the goals and outcomes; (4) reflection on the results; and (5) dissemination of results to all stakeholders as well as the broader engagement community.

Faculty members are cautioned against “hit and run research” where researchers work in a community and gain knowledge but neither share it with nor use it to serve community members. Lack of researcher follow-up can damage relationships with partners who become disillusioned with participation in studies that they never benefit from (Ramaley, 2001). Engagement can be more mutually beneficial if there is a plan of Figure 2 continuity in place that is developed jointly with the community while also communicating transparently with all parties the longer-term intentions of the project (McNall, Reed, Brown, & Allen, 2009). Not all engagement can be a long-term effort, but universities and communities can be more upfront about their expectations for the project.

Projects with multiple stakeholders are often a difficult balancing act. Engaging with communities is often more successful and mutually beneficial when everybody involved is aware of the various motivations involved in their project. ERBs, with their experience working in engagement, could play a pivotal leadership role in providing context-appropriate guidance and situation-specific scaffolding to ensure that the motivations of all stakeholders are understood and taken into account throughout the lifecycle of the project.

Preparation for Engagement: Competencies to Avoid and Deal with Failure

Community engagement initiatives fail due to a wide breadth of reasons including expectations and motivations, position and power, tension and disagreement, and ownership and agency (Hinton, Ortbal, & Mehta, 2014). Three categories of competencies emerged from the ESC 2014 conference workshop: foundational, program-specific, and engagement (Figure 2). Successfully cultivating these competencies will in turn foster the culture of concern that is needed to ensure the long-term success and growth of engagement programs.

Students and faculty can always improve upon foundational and engagement competencies, which are therefore represented on a continuum in Figure 2. Foundational competencies, such as interest and commitment, professionalism, personal awareness, interpersonal skills, leadership, critical thinking and questioning, openness to feedback, and adaptability develop during a student’s college career through curricular, co-curricular, and life experiences. Program-specific competencies, including cultural awareness, subject matter expertise, and contextual knowledge are important for students to gain prior to each individual engagement experience and are often transferred from the faculty leader to participants. Engagement competencies primarily deal with preparing for, avoiding, and moving past failure. In order to successfully complete projects and navigate failure, it is important to build skills in conflict resolution, trust-based relationship building, equitable collaboration, proactive scenario planning, ethical reflection, and empathy (Hinton, Ortbal, & Mehta, 2014). The experienced engagement practitioners at the ESC 2014 conference workshop validate that these competencies help students and faculty avoid common failure modes and enable a successful engaged scholarship program. How can we ensure that students and faculty members who are engaging with communities have these competencies?

Conceptual Framework of the ERB

Community engagement endeavors can be supported and elevated through an Engagement Review Board, a university entity whose primary goal is to ensure that engagement efforts do not violate the fundamental canon of engagement: Do No Harm. Engagement programs would Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 11.06.03 AM benefit from increased intellectual and logistical support, accountability mechanisms, and most importantly, the credibility and legitimacy that would emerge from an independent body supporting, validating, and certifying engagement activities. This section describes some of the roles that an ERB could play and types of resources the board could offer to strengthen and mainstream engagement and engaged scholarship.

ERB Structure

ERBs are currently envisioned as independent entities that include various stakeholders who are highly experienced with engagement to review protocols and make informed judgments on the ethics of proposed projects in order to bring best practices learned through years of experience into the decision-making process. Unlike IRBs, which often consist only of members with extensive knowledge of medical and psychological studies (Schrag, 2010), ERBs could also provide a wider perspective by including faculty from all disciplines at universities where engagement takes place. Furthermore, community members, who have a large stake in engagement, should be included in the process to uphold communities’ perspectives and interests. Finally, students could provide valuable insights to ensure that student interests and abilities are weighed into engagement programs.

ERB Activities

The proposed ERB would conduct many of the same activities as IRBs with the goal of ensuring that institutions uphold the principles of engagement and prepare students with the competencies necessary for successful engagement. The ERB’s responsibilities would span concerns throughout the lifecycle of community engagement initiatives and balance the needs of all stakeholders without privileging any of them. Figure 3 shows a timeline of the proposed roles and responsibilities.


1a. Online Training Modules—The first step in the process toward ensuring that university members engage in a mutually beneficial way with communities is to educate and sensitize individuals prior to getting involved. The ERB is envisioned to have online modules packaged as a training regimen for certification similar to those offered by the Office of Research Protection (or equivalent) at many universities. Since foundational and program-specific competencies cannot be covered through the same modules for every student, ERB training modules could focus on educating students on engagement competencies to prepare them for the problems they could face when working with communities. Delivering the modules online would allow them to be completed effectively and efficiently. An engaged institution could integrate the modules into introductory courses at the university so that students begin thinking about engagement issues early on in their college career. Separate modules could be created to prepare faculty and staff, educating them not only on the same engagement competencies as students but also on how they would interact with the ERB at various points in their engagement journey.

1b. Program Design Assistance—Some professors may need assistance with designing specific programs; the ERB could have staff to help. For example, a faculty member eager to start a new program but with no experience working in the field, or working across cultures, could get just-in-time support from the ERB team. The ERB could connect the professor to other practice-oriented faculty members and extension staff to collaborate with and provide contacts in the country of interest to develop stronger collaborative programs.

1c. Proposal Review and Approval—A protocol may be developed by the ERB to collect information about professors’ plans to engage with communities. The protocol would ask questions similar to IRB protocols in order to encourage professors to think through every aspect of their engagement process and the products they will create. In addition, it would ask questions geared toward community members. The ERB should provide a timely review process for engagement proposals. If a proposal is rejected, a member of the ERB would provide a detailed explanation to the faculty member about why the proposal did not make a clear case for a responsive, respectful, and accessible engagement program. Additionally, they would offer suggestions for improving the engaged program so there would be favorable outcomes for all stakeholders, allowing the professor to resubmit the proposal with revisions. Depending on the level of concern that the ERB reviewers have with the proposal, they may require the professor to go through additional training or recommend another university member work with him or her to improve the program through added expertise on the program area or the partnering community.

During Engagement

2. Problem Support—Inevitably, problems will arise when university groups engage with communities. Being flexible and learning from failures will result in positive changes that allow programs to continue and improve. For those less experienced or anybody who faces difficult challenges while engaging with a community, the ERB could provide support and advice on how to advance appropriately. For example, consider a professor who brings his students to Mozambique to build a rainwater harvester for a school. If the professor has completed the online learning modules and has assistance from the ERB, he would know to organize a public meeting through the local leaders to engender community support. If upon the start of construction, the professor finds resistance from community members and is unsure how to handle this particular situation, he could then reach out to the ERB problem support team. The support team could advise as to how he could gain backing from local people such as by discussing with them if starting construction later in the morning would help ease noise issues; whether they think the project is going the way they want; or which community members, businesses, or social groups should be brought into the project.


3. Reflection and Evaluation—As with any project, reflection and evaluation is an important part of engagement: it verifies and validates that efforts are fulfilling the agreed upon goals. Reflection and evaluation may be conducted through internal audits, monthly meetings, periodic activity reports, or assessments conducted by external consultants. No matter what the process is, it is critical that all reflection and evaluation activities solicit and integrate insights from all the stakeholders. Such a process ensures transparency, builds trust, and encourages all stakeholders to stay aware and intercede in a timely manner if they see that something is wrong or want something to happen differently (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002; CTSA, 2011; Hart & Northmore, 2011). Reflection and evaluation is an ongoing process, starting in the planning stages of a project and continuing well beyond project completion.

4. Quality Assurance and Improvement—As ERBs are implemented, problems are likely to emerge. Support within the ERB to refine policies as problems arise can help the ERB evolve and improve. There should also be a method for individuals outside the ERB to submit feedback to strengthen and streamline operations.

5. Operations—Support within the ERB for all of its operations—such as hotlines, a website, learning tools, and other resources as they emerge—would allow the ERB to run smoothly, easily moving past obstacles so it is always able to provide support, validation, and certification for engagement programs. Operations would require staff to provide feedback to people in the field in need of problem support and staff to maintain a website and online learning tools. The hotline would need to be accessible many hours of the day to be most effective considering that the staff would be working across time zones with faculty and students engaging around the world. The website and online learning tools would need regular maintenance and updates.

6. Pro-Active Community Partnerships—ERBs could conduct activities in the community to foster understanding of and commitment to the university-community partnership and projects completed in cooperation with the university. An important aspect would be identifying communities, building multi-stranded partnerships, and sensitizing them about equitable
engagement opportunities and processes.

7. Fostering a Culture of Concern—As engagement is scaled up at universities, it is important that motivation to participate in the ERB review process stems from a concern for engaging appropriately, not simply complying with a set of arbitrary rules. Fostering a culture of concern would involve activities for education, recognition, and research. To educate everybody involved in engagement programs, the ERB could host workshops, guest lectures, and community-based educational forums and roundtables where ERB members share compelling examples that highlight the issue of potentially doing harm. Additionally, messaging on the importance of using the ERB to ensure no harm is done could be shared through the initial online training, where the importance of upholding the principles of engagement is stressed to make sure that those completing the training understand that they should be concerned about engaging appropriately. To provide recognition for stakeholders, there should be awards and newsletters celebrating exemplary projects, faculty, staff, students, and community partners. Finally, to spread the message further, as part of reflection and evaluation, the ERB should include in their periodic reports reasons for concern and how programs were helped by ERB. Through such reports, the ERB should identify common problems, study solutions, and disseminate them.

Integrating an ERB into the Current System

The success of creating ERBs at universities will rely on how well they can be integrated into the existing systems. Instead of simply hoping that faculty and students will suddenly become engaged when an ERB is created, successful implementation will include building a culture of concern, piloting the ERB with an appropriate model for the institution, and providing incentives to get involved.

Building a Culture of Concern

The current IRB structure is seen by some as creating a culture of compliance around the ethics of research (Schrag, 2010). It is essential that with the ERB, the pressure of compliance does not overshadow the importance of ensuring no harm is done. A barrier to creating an ERB is an increase in paperwork and staff members—but the opportunity to increase the university’s positive impact on the world is worth it. To increase support for the creation of an ERB, additional paperwork should be minimized, potentially through combining it with IRB paperwork, and the number of employees added to the university should also be minimized. Additionally, it is vital for universities to implement the ERB in phases, making sure members of the university understand the importance of upholding the principles of engagement and are therefore motivated to participate in measures to uphold them. The goal is that the ERB will be valued as worthwhile because all stakeholders understand how crucial it is that universities do no harm when engaging with communities and faculty see the direct positive impact on their programs when working with the ERB.

Piloting the ERB

Piloting the ERB would entail working with a small group of faculty members who agree to develop, test, and refine the various resources, protocols, and review processes. This would provide valuable data about how an ERB might work in practice. As the review of existing programs is completed, engagement experts could begin working with faculty members across many colleges and departments to create additional engagement programs. The ERB could be built up slowly, both in regard to the number of individuals involved and its responsibilities. This will foster a culture of concern organically with more members of the university jumping on board with the mission of the ERB as they participate in workshops, submit proposals, and share their successes with others.

Proposed Models of Integration

As mentioned earlier, many engaged institutions have existing offices that advise scholars on the principles of responsiveness, respect, and accessibility and take on some of the proposed roles of the ERB. It is important that the ERB blends well with existing entities; therefore, the way in which an ERB is implemented at each institution would depend upon what structures have already been established to ensure no harm is done. Two points for consideration when implementing an ERB are extending the IRB and having the ERB act as an overseer and connector.

1. Extension of IRB—Since the IRB already approves international research studies and any research that is to be conducted through engagement, it would be appropriate for the ERB to work closely with an institution’s IRB. As mentioned earlier, IRBs can lack comprehensiveness and applicability for engagement projects, but adding an ERB unit would fill in the gaps to ensure engagement programs uphold the principles of engagement. The marriage of the two boards could potentially minimize paperwork, with only one protocol submitted to the joint board and a section to be passed on to the ERB for engagement-specific items.

2. ERB as an Overseer and Connector—Many engaged institutions currently have an office or multiple offices for service learning, community engagement, and study abroad that already hold some of the responsibilities of the proposed ERB. The ERB is not meant to close the existing offices and take over all responsibilities. Rather, it is important that each institution assesses which responsibilities are currently taken care of by existing entities and allow the ERB to fill the gaps, assuming responsibilities that are not yet taken care of by existing offices. Additionally, the ERB can provide a conduit for improved communication between existing offices where silos may currently exist. The ERB would oversee all engagement-related activities and assume the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the university does no harm.


While faculty and students are undoubtedly committed to developing engagement programs that will have impact, and may find them personally rewarding, incentives like certificates of completion and public recognition through newsletters and awards might help in gaining broader long-term participation. Integrity, credibility and validity, arguably the most fundamental values for academics, present the best leverage points to integrate ERBs into universities. ERBs can provide an independent “gold star” (rather than a “seal of approval”) to engagement programs, and in doing so, validate, celebrate, and mainstream them. In essence, ERBs can serve as a mechanism to bring more legitimacy, attention, and cohesion to engagement programs while acknowledging and supporting the faculty members who champion them.

Let the Conversations Continue!

The objective of this manuscript is to encourage discussion about how we can collectively develop an infrastructure, framed by a culture of concern, to further strengthen and mainstream community engagement. So what might an ideal community engagement project look like? It may include a discussion among all stakeholders about motivations; a clear definition of roles, goals, and outcomes; delivery of a project that meets the goals and outcomes; reflection by all stakeholders; and dissemination of results to stakeholders and the broader engagement community. Are these conversations happening in your projects, within your departments, colleges, and campuses? We believe that the time is ripe for pro-active conversations about responsiveness, respect for partners, and accessibility within our academic, administrative, and support programs and it is a moral and ethical imperative for institutions to conduct them.

We recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensure that every engagement project at every institution will be conducted responsibly and that results will be optimal impact for all stakeholders. Each project, and each institution, should conduct its own dialogues in the search for approaches that are appropriate for their unique culture and context. At some institutions, there may be a perceived need for an ERB structure, or the ERB functions might be integrated into the existing administrative infrastructure, or all the actors might find it most appropriate to address these concerns without any formal processes and structures. Nonetheless, having these conversations will help stakeholders understand the challenges and opportunities that engagement projects present, and most importantly, build a thriving institution-wide culture of concern that celebrates and commends responsiveness, respect for partners, and accessibility.


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The authors would like to thank Sharon Welch, Nicola McCarthy, Louanne Keenan, Annie Epperson, Sarah Ritter, and Rebecca Landis for their comments and suggestions on this manuscript. We would also like to thank Vivienne Bennett, Kathay Rennels, Patrick Nehring, Molly Engle, Huda Ahmed, Bernadette Johnson, Terri Bucci, Anastasia Lim, Tessa Landale, Ola Ahlqvist, and Paul Matthews for contributing to the idea at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium 2014 Conference.

About the Authors

Irena Gorski is the Engaged Scholarship Ecosystem manager at The Pennsylvania State University. Eric Obeysekare is a doctoral student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State. Careen Yarnal is an associate professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Penn State. Khanjan Mehta is an assistant professor of Engineering Design and director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program at Penn State.

Youth Engagement—Engaging for a Change: Changing for Engagement

Yoshitaka Iwasaki

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This paper documents the incentives for, processes of, and outcomes from our multi-year community-based research project on youth engagement. In line with the theme of the 15th Annual Conference of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC)—Engaging for Change: Changing for Engagement—this paper illustrates our project in terms of the conference’s three sub-themes: (1) Why engage?, (2) How do we engage?, and (3) What impacts are we having? Contextualized within these sub-themes, the paper describes opportunities and challenges of youth engagement from youth and professional perspectives by highlighting insights of our youth leaders and community partners, along with some reflective remarks by our university researchers. The paper provides tangible descriptions and illustrations for the significance of “strategic engagement” (Speer & Christens, 2013) by focusing on the use of “strategic youth and partner engagement.” Importantly, this strategic engagement centerpieces the voices and talents of our youth leaders, supported by our community agency partners, along with a background role of university researchers.

The 15th Annual Conference of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium brought together “academics and community members to explore, discuss, debate, and demonstrate why and how both universities and communities are changing.” The overall theme of the conference was “Engaging for Change: Changing for Engagement” that centerpieces the role of engagement in a change-inducing process. It was intended that the conference would provide a variety of opportunities for conversations that are “provocative and intense, calling on us to engage our whole selves in an examination of our motives, our rhetoric, and the impacts we are actually having.” These were strategically described as the three sub-themes of the conference, namely, (1) Why engage? (2) How do we engage? and (3) What impacts are we having?

My paper documents reflective accounts of my research partners who described the incentives for, processes of, and outcomes from our youth engagement research project, matched conceptually with the three sub-themes of the conference. The paper begins with a brief description of our ongoing youth engagement research project, followed by a detailed description of reflective experiences illustrated by our youth leaders (YL) and community agency partners (AP) who have involved in our multi-year project.

Youth Engagement Research Project

Conceptually, our community-based research project, which started in the fall of 2011, focuses on youth engagement. Engaging youth, especially, youth with high-risk conditions/behaviors (e.g., poverty, homelessness, abusive/addictive behaviors, mental health issues), presents a significant challenge in our society. The reason is that those “high-risk” youths are often disconnected and disengaged and typically distrust the existing support systems (Alicea, Pardo, Conover, Gopalan, & McKay (2012) 2012; Gemert, Peterson, & Lien 2008; Jennings, Parra-Medina, Messias, & McLoughlin, 2006; Pearrow, 2008). Yet, effective youth engagement is a key factor for positive youth outcomes at personal (e.g., self-identity, empowerment), social (e.g., belongingness, social support, cultural identity), and community (e.g., system change) levels (Blanchet-Cohen & Salazar, 2009; Davidson, Wien, & Anderson, 2010; Lind, 2008; Wexler, DiFluvio, & Burke, 2009: Yohalem & Martin, 2007). Accordingly, youth engagement through integrating youth leadership is a key concept addressed in our research (Cammarota, 2011; Ross, 2011).

Our youth engagement research also involves engagement with community and university partners. It is recognized that a collaboration across diverse partners and the coordination of partner engagement present a significant challenge due to the differences in organizational culture and orientation, power imbalance, competitive funding structures, etc. potentially leading to a fragmented service-delivery model in our society (Abela & Hankin, 2008; Bashant, 2007; Gemert et al., 2008). To counter this fragmentation, meaningful cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary partner engagement through ongoing relationship-building can promote a more effective and coordinated system of service-delivery to benefit target populations. Guided by this intention, we have initiated a homegrown project emerged from networks and dialogues with a number of government (i.e., municipal and provincial) and non-profit (i.e., youth and multicultural) agencies and university departments (i.e., extension, social work, human ecology, public health, and physical education & recreation studies) in a western Canadian city. Methodologically, we are conducting participatory action research (PAR) to engage our community and academic partners and facilitate positive changes (Reason & Bradbury, 2008; Simich, Waiter, Moorlag, & Ochocka, 2009; Stringer & Genat, 2004). Consequently, our overall goal is that effectively engaging both youth and research partners in a mutually respectful way to build a trustful relationship can lead to a positive transformation and systems change in order to more effectively support our youth in our communities.

More specifically, the key questions being addressed in our research include: (a) how can we best engage youth?, (b) how can we more effectively facilitate the optimal development of youth?, and (c) how can we better support youth to become more engaged, successful citizens in our community? The overall focus of the research is on honoring/highlighting youth’s voice and mobilizing youth into actions for social change, specifically, the improvement of support systems (policy & practice) and environments (neighborhoods, schools, & communities), as guided by youth with the support of our community and university partners. Indeed, youth engagement and leadership are a central concept/process throughout the project to achieve the goal of our research.

Reflective Experiences with Project

This main part of the paper describes reflective experiences illustrated by our youth leaders (YL) and community agency partners (AP) who have involved in our community-based research project. Their descriptions and illustrations address (1) Why engage? (2) How do we engage? and (3) What impacts are we having? in line with the sub-themes of the 15th Annual ESC Conference.

Why Engage?

First, as for the question of “why engage,” the reasons for engagement described by these team members included: (a) having a common purpose, (b) being grounded in youth experiences through participatory research, and (c) advancing research into action through knowledge translation and practical application.

Having a common purpose. One typical response to this “why” question was having a common purpose despite the diversity in the youth leaders’ group composition. One youth leader (abbreviated as YL#1) spoke about a shared mission to challenge the status quo and promote a positive change through effective youth engagement:

We were complete strangers, had diverse life experiences but shared a common definition of youth. In addition, we shared a desire to change the status quo on how youth were being engaged with various organizations.

Another youth leader’s experience further supported the notion of having a common purpose to create greater opportunities for youth:

I feel that our group worked well together in the sense that we were all there for similar reasons. Each of us had an interest in getting involved in creating more and better opportunities for marginalized youth (YL#4).

One of the immigrant youth leaders was inspired by the desire to bring about a positive change to the community, along with learning from peer youth leaders and participants:

I chose to be a part of this research group because I saw a potential to be involved in something that will bring about a positive change to my community. I also was enthused by the opportunity to learn from and engage with other youth in my community whom I may not be able to associate with on my own. Over the past year and several months of partaking in the group, I have learned so much from the youth participants and my peers (YL#5).

Being grounded in youth experiences through participatory research. Another reason for “why engage” was captured by a community agency partner who acknowledged the significant role of our participatory research in being “grounded” within the experiences of youth themselves. Youth-guided creation of a framework for youth engagement was appreciated by a community organizer (abbreviated as AP#8) of a multicultural agency:

Effectively and equitably engaging high-risk and marginalized youth within society can be a significant challenge, yet is crucial for the positive development and integration into society. The PI and his team of youth leaders have begun to address this challenge through their process of creating a youth engagement framework that is grounded in the experiences of youth themselves.

An executive director of a high-risk youth-serving agency pointed out the importance of providing a safe and responsive space/environment for dialogue among youth to voice their needs and explore issues integral to youth’s lives with its implication to have an impact on community practice and policy change:

The opportunity for them [youth] to further explore an issue that would initially appear beyond their influence, yet integral to many of their daily experiences, is encouraging. This project opens a space for dialogue for youth to express their needs in a safe and responsive environment and hopefully impact policy change (AP#9).

A project developer of another multicultural agency resonated with the importance of using this bottom-up or “people-up” approach in working with diverse partners/stakeholders that has implications for change at community and system levels:

It brings marginalized youth together with a wide range of stakeholders so that an effective and meaningful framework for engagement is co-created and articulated. This participatory way of work from the ‘ground-up’ resonates closely with our sense of what is needed and what will be effective. In recent years, the families and community leaders we work closely with have been expressing concern about the effects of exclusion and marginalization on newcomer youth as well as on those who are born here who are at risk of being marginalized. Engaging those who are marginalized is a very present and urgent matter for the communities we work with. And undertaking research to develop a framework for effective engagement that can be shared is an important endeavor. We notice that participatory methods being employed are respectful, effective and productive. We observe that youths are invited to explore and articulate the nature of their lived experience as it relates to the ways of engaging them that is most relevant and effective. As this information is shared with a wide range of stakeholders—from service providers to researchers to policy makers—there is a real potential for change at the community, service sector, and system levels (AP#6).

A cross-ministry coordinator from a provincial government agency praised our project that engages marginalized youth and involves dialogues around youth engagement through youth-centered participatory action research:

I am particularly pleased that the project has actively engaged vulnerable youth on the steering committee for this project. I appreciate this project’s efforts to initiate ongoing dialogues around youth engagement and youth-oriented participatory action research and the team’s leadership and commitment to the youth of our province. The educational, health and safety needs of all youth, including those who are urban-dwelling and marginalized, are important issues for us all (AP#11).

Advancing research into action: Knowledge translation and practical application. Our community partners have acknowledged implications of our project for knowledge translation and practical application to advance research into action, which was identified as another reason/motivation for their engagement with this project. This notion was nicely captured by an avid professional who work with hundreds of ethno-cultural youths:

This research advances the understanding of effective knowledge translation (KT), improves the practice of KT, and supports the use of research evidence in decision-making not only for our organization and partners but also for the youth we work for, as its discoveries will lead to practical applications. We see this as an excellent opportunity for community-based and youth-driven research to have an impact on other institutions working with, or considering working with, youth in the community, and as a crucial next-step in advancing research into action (AP#8).

A community service coordinator from the municipal government stressed the importance of “usability” to have an impact on community practice and policy for better supporting youth by sharing youth-informed knowledge at a systems level:

Use of a participatory action framework in this project ensures active engagement of marginalized youth to give them a voice towards improving youth outcomes. Usability is important and so, this project involves the application of the knowledge, capacities, resources and experiences gained from these youths in order to see positive impact on practices, policy and systems to better support youth living in marginalized conditions. As a partner involved in this collective effort, we continue to reflect upon and share this knowledge within our own and allied systems (AP#12).

She recognized the potential of our project to bring forward and mobilize the voice of youth into the transformation of policy, practice, and system, using a youth-guided participatory action framework. Also, comments were made by another community partner on the guiding research question of this project and its implication for mobilizing knowledge from research to support policy and programming, as another key motivation/incentive for partner engagement:

To examine the unfolding question: How can practices and policies around engagement at personal, social, and community levels be changed to enhance youth’s capacity to mobilize the resources needed to promote youth development? Specifically, as it relates to youth in high risk conditions can contribute to the knowledge transfer needed by government, especially, to support policy and programming that will have impact on youth with complex needs (AP#9).

Attractiveness to having an impact on policy and practice was echoed by an executive director of a community agency committed to ending homelessness, who appreciated “the use of a collaborative, participatory approach with youth and the focus on developing effective youth engagement strategies to inform policy and practice.” She stressed,

As an organization, we depend on community-based, participatory processes to develop strategies for addressing homelessness and related issues in our community. Being able to draw on the knowledge and practical expertise of youth with lived experience strengthens our ability to serve this population in a meaningful and effective manner (AP#5).

Furthermore, a senior administrator from local school systems emphasized this project’s synergy with the school district’s vision for “improving the lives and opportunities for marginalized youth through working with community organizations.” She also emphasized the role of participatory action research in empowering youth and facilitating positive change and growth for youth:

This project is very much in keeping with our district’s vision for educating our young people. We have a keen interest in improving the lives and opportunities for marginalized youth through working with community organizations to better facilitate the support and direct aid that many of our youth require in order to survive. The use of a participatory action research approach empowers the participants and leads to sustained change and growth in programs that support them. We are a part of this collaborative project to engage targeted youth in conversations about their futures as a means of enabling them to become part of the process of positive change (AP#13).

How Do We Engage?

As for the question of “how engage,” our community-based project uses the principles of participatory action research (PAR; i.e., mutual respect, co-learning, capacity-building, power-sharing, co-ownership of research, and commitment to social change) as an effective, coordinated way of engaging the team members (Reason & Bradbury, 2008; Simich, Waiter, Moorlag, & Ochocka, 2009; Stringer & Genat, 2004). In particular, our project involves the strategic use of a youth-guided/informed approach to youth engagement, while working with community agency partners. Our team’s youth leaders have been identified and recruited by our community agency partners that provide local youth programs. Our female and male youth leaders aged 16 to 24 (current n = 12) include Aboriginal and immigrant leaders. All leaders possess excellent interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills and are well connected to local youth culture. Our youth leaders collectively identified our team name, “Youth4YEG” (YEG stands for the city’s airport code), along with a creative team logo.

Our youth leaders have met over 130 times since October 2012. The structure of these regular meetings is youth-oriented, including youth-led ice-breaker activities, small working-group sessions, and all-inclusive dialogues (e.g., talking/sharing circles). One major outcome from those sessions was the youth-informed development of a framework of youth engagement, which has already been reported in an earlier manuscript elsewhere (Iwasaki, Springett, Dashora, McLaughlin, McHugh, & Youth4YEG Team, 2014). To plan for upcoming meetings, youth leaders took turns to attend planning meetings and set an agenda for a subsequent meeting. In between meetings, youth leaders were assigned to complete homework such as researching various approaches used by local youth agencies and preparing to contribute to a next session by responding to specific youth-engagement questions determined at a planning meeting. Once the framework of youth engagement was developed, this framework was pilot-tested through our youth leaders facilitating a series of engagement sessions (informed by the framework) with youth recruited locally. The learnings from this pilot framework-testing study have guided the planning and execution of the next phase of this overall research program that involves hosting a local youth forum (named “2K15 Youth4YEG Forum”) to inspire and work with youth to build tomorrow’s leaders, and building a youth-ally coalition to consolidate a large number of youth leaders and partners to collectively create a more effective change.
Youth-Oriented and Collaborative Research Processes

Relevant to the question of “how engage,” our youth leaders noted that this is a youth-oriented and collaborative project, guided by the talents, expertise, and lived experiences of the youth leaders. The sub-themes within this broad theme include: (a) honoring youth voice: “bottom-up process for youth by youth”; (b) co-learning and teamwork; (c) being flexible/adaptable and strengths-based; and (d) creating a safe, comfortable, and fun space.

Honoring Youth Voice: “Bottom-up Process for Youth by Youth”

First, this project honors and highlights youth voice using a bottom-up process “for youth by youth,” as summarized by one youth leader: “I am proud to share that this project is for youth by youth. This bottom-up process gives youth a voice that they normally don’t get” (YL#1). Our youth leaders agreed that co-creating a framework for youth engagement was a youth-guided “rewarding” (YL#1) experience to incorporate their insights:

We worked well as a team to build the framework. There was a key purpose for the bi-weekly meetings. We all had chance to input our ideas of youth engagement and what factors it entails. We gained insight from many perspectives and fellow youth leaders’ personal experiences (YL#2).

Essentially, this framework development process was guided by youth’s lived experiences: “We have created the framework from nothing but our own life experiences” (YL#1). Through co-creating the framework, our youth leaders worked towards building a positive relationship while they appreciated being provided with a non-judgmental and non-threatening space to share their voices:

As a group at the end I felt that we did a great job building our relationship, while also building our framework. I felt comfortable each and every session, and was glad that I was given a non-judgmental environment where I could speak up and share my ideas, while also learning from those around me (YL#3).

Co-Learning and Teamwork

As acknowledged in the last quotes above, learning from each other (i.e., co-learning) was a major attractive process for youth leaders’ gatherings:

This project was very unique in that it attracted both people that have learned about marginalization and ‘high-risk’ lifestyles as well as people that have lived it. This brought with it an incredible diversity and opportunity for co-learning” (YL#4).

This youth leader further elaborated the benefit of co-learning and team work: “Learning so much from one another through the process. It is a very unique experience to create a tangible document of [youth engagement] framework ‘from scratch.’ It truly shows determination and effective team work” (YL#4). Another youth leader concurred, “My experience with the research project has been one that is interesting filled with great learning experiences, which I could take with me for many years to come” (YL#3). Inspired by the desire to “bring about a positive change to the community” (YL#5), learning from peer youth leaders and participants was highlighted and appreciated by another youth leader: “Over the past year and several months of partaking in the group, I have learned so much from the youth participants and my peers” (YL#5).

This co-learning process involved learning about both benefits/opportunities and challenges of working collaboratively: “Overall, I have been so grateful to be part of such a unique project. I learned a lot about the benefits and challenges of working collaboratively and got to meet so many interesting folks along the way. I will take this experience with me in whatever work I continue to do” (YL#6). Our youth leaders came together by sharing a common interest in youth engagement and leadership, and community development: “Overall, I have had a good experience. I enjoyed meeting like-minded youth that were interested in leadership, working with youth, and making the community a better place” (YL#7). Another youth leader elaborated her passion and learning about the importance of communication, hard word, and helping others:

We embodied our framework, and for that reason, I really enjoyed doing my job and knew that I was doing something that I was passionate about. I began this when I was 15 years old, and later this year I will turn 18, it has been the greatest working experience I could ask for, and I learnt so much from my fellow youths. I have learnt the importance of communication and hard work, and the importance of helping those around me (YL#3).

Being Flexible/Adaptable and Strengths-Based

Once completing the lengthy co-creation of a framework for youth engagement for over six months, our youth leaders pilot-tested the framework by facilitating a series of youth engagement sessions (informed by the framework) with youth participants. Despite the challenge of recruiting “disengaged” youth participants, they were able to adjust and be flexible to address practical challenges:

Soon after, we started the engagement sessions with youth. We had a difficult time getting the youth to come, which in a sense was expected since we wanted to engage youth that were not engaged. We have learned to be flexible and adjust things as we go and I believe this gave the research the practical experience that we
would have never foreseen (YL#1).

Another youth leader elaborated further about the importance of being flexible through effective communication to build trust and structure:

I learned that when working with high-risk, marginalized youth, one must be flexible. Communication is the key. Youth need trust in order to open up and the time it takes to build that trust may vary. Structure is important to an extent in order to garner data and results (YL#7).

The strategic use of a strengths-based approach was another related process throughout our project. This process started with getting to know the talents and strengths of our youth leaders:

We started out by getting to know each other through icebreaker activities and through learning from each other’s life experiences. We realized the talents that each one possessed and how they could be important in understanding how to engage youth (YL#1). Later on, during a pilot-test of our framework, our team purposefully relied on “youth leaders’ strengths to suggest potential activities to do with youth participants” (YL#2). Accordingly, the youth leaders planned to use a series of activities such as ice-breakers and art-based activities based on their skills and talents at engagement sessions with youth participants.

Creating a Safe, Comfortable, and Fun Space

One of the key factors for effective youth engagement was to create a safe, comfortable, and fun space during a pilot-test of the framework. One youth leader described,

We always keep communication and safety a priority and we consistently work at creating a safe and fun space for everyone and making sure everyone feels heard through the process. The fact that we had familiar faces come back every other week was very encouraging. We began to build bonds with one another, especially in the last year, making the space comfortable and fun (YL#4).

Another youth leader concurred, “I liked that the youth that came to the sessions had a safe, positive environment to get together with other youth and have fun. The youth that came did seem to enjoy their time there” (YL#7).

Another essential factor for constructive and meaningful youth engagement involved the strategic use of “check-ins and check-outs” (YL#2). Each session always started with check-in to get to know where each participant is at and get them oriented to the session, and ended with check-out to share her/his feedback, including things they liked and areas for improvement to more effectively engage youth; conclude each session in a positive, encouraging way, by bringing everyone together on the same page; and make some plan for looking forward to a next session. This point was recognized by another youth leader:

I feel like check-ins and check-outs should remain a key element of our meetings. As one of the agency members mentioned at the agency meeting, everything in between check-in and check-out can be chaotic but keeping a consistent welcome and closure is important (YL#4).

This youth agency partner shared that “everything in between can be chaos but it is crucial to have the check-in and check-out structure to help the experience be contained and create safety.”

Group Dynamics

Another key theme identified regarding “how engage” was about both opportunities and challenges involving group dynamics that include the sub-themes of: (a) dealing with transformation; (b) relationship and trust-building; (c) diversity, size, and commitment of youth group; (d) power issues; and (e) structural barriers.

Dealing with Transformation

One key factor that worked well in the operation of youth leaders’ group was the way they dealt with the transformation of the group during the course of this multi-year project:

We handled the comings and goings at the transformations of the group quite well. For those of us that have decided to stay until this point, we were forced to adapt and adjust to some people only being partially committed and to some having to leave altogether. I felt that although it was disappointing when a key member had to leave, we all seemed genuinely supportive of that person’s situation and choice (YL#4).

On the other hand, the challenges of maintaining our youth-oriented, collaborative research process were identified by our youth leaders.

Relationship and Trust-Building

In particular, building a trustful, positive relationship with youth was a major challenge in itself. The following comment by a youth leader demonstrated this relationship-building issue, which was described as “asking for answers from youth prematurely”:

Despite our plan to execute activities with the youth, our meetings took a bit of a turn and we found ourselves not just hanging out and observing but searching for answers by asking the youth that attended very directly what they thought or experienced about certain issues. I found the session when we asked the youth directly about their thoughts on homelessness to be problematic because I felt as though it was too soon and too intrusive. We had not yet created, in my opinion, a solid relationship with the youth for them to feel comfortable responding. Although our intentions were positive, I felt as though we were ‘using’ the youth for their answers in order to provide information to funders. While acknowledging that the financial side of this project is fundamental, I don’t feel that it is fair for the funding to sway the research so directly. I find that this will not provide us with authentic answers and defeats the purpose of “youth-led research” if topics are being pressured onto them (YL#4).

Despite our purposeful intention to bring forward the voices of our youth participants, asking sensitive questions such as poverty and homelessness in their lives might be judged as too intrusive if we failed to spend sufficient time to build a trustful relationship with them. It was echoed by another youth leader who was concerned about “some youth not feeling comfortable with what was to be carried out in sessions, when asking youth about sensitive issues such as homelessness without gaining their trust first” (YL#2). Although we hoped to provide youth-oriented opportunities to uncover voices of youth participants, it did not seem well received by both youth leaders and participants, as summarized by the following comment:

careful about the types of questions that are ‘acceptable’ to ask the youth participants regarding their personal experiences with poverty, homelessness, etc. I understood to some extent these concerns; however, I wish we were more creative in finding ways to get certain conversations started, which would give us some insight to each other’s experiences and possible suggestions…. I liked that many of the youth participants who come to the meetings are consistent in attendance and they seem to enjoy the gatherings. I see this as some sort of achievement on our end that we were able to keep their interest (YL#5).

Rather than directly asking sensitive questions, this youth leader was insightful to suggest using a more creative approach to engaging youth in conversation (e.g., short video-showing, art-based activities such as painting), while admitting that we were able to see consistent attendance by many youth participants in our sessions. A key lesson described by this youth leader’s saying that “I wish we were more creative in finding ways to get certain conversations started,” is extremely important as an essential reminder for our future work. This point was echoed by another youth leader’s observation that although “our group started out idealistically agreeing to make collaborative and consensus-based decisions…. in reality, there is a lot of trust, time and energy that must go into that process” (YL#6). This observation underlines a very important reminder about trust-building with you through investing “time and energy.”

Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see youth leaders’ observation about evidence of building a positive relationship with youth. One way of effective relationship-building was through the use of “debrief” within the youth leaders’ group. It was described that “we became good at debriefing and honestly voicing our thoughts and feelings. I appreciated how we were able to do this quite well near the end. It is very helpful” (YL#4). The same youth leader stressed the importance of using an inclusive, mutually respectful approach: “Assuring space for everyone was something we worked at continuously. It became important to allow everyone space to speak by not cutting the speaker off, giving a person time to respond, and listening to what was being shared” (YL#4).

Another key factor for effective relationship- and trust-building involved the maintenance of accountability, as well as the importance of flexibility to understand the unpredictable nature of youth’s lives:

Depending on what is feasible to the members of the new group, it would be a good idea to maintain some sort of accountability or stability in order to keep the process running smoothly. Ensuring that the members who are committing to the project remain engaged is important. Stability is one of the elements of our framework and it would be important to reflect that. Flexibility and understanding of the unpredictability in each of our lives and in the lives of the youth is also something we did well and should keep an open mind about (YL#4).

Diversity, Size, and Commitment of Youth Group

As noted earlier, our research project strives to appreciate diversity within the youth population. Within the context of group dynamics, a youth leader commented on internal group structure:

One of the major learnings from this research project has been from the internal group structure, makeup, and dynamics and its shifts throughout the past year and a half. When I first joined this project I was not sure what to expect. I was excited to see the diversity in the room, the variety of youth present, and the multitude of lived experience represented. This truly was a major strength of the project (YL#6).

Another youth leader further elaborated the complexity of the internal group structure, which made the process “interesting and frustrating yet rewarding”:

Creating the framework with about 17 youth who were at different stages in their lives and had diverse life experiences was interesting and frustrating yet rewarding. The discussions always went in circles and it became a routine for them to take the whole meeting. However, as we started to see the framework come to life, we appreciated the process and saw utility in having gone in circles because that is how youth in general were going to understand it. The project started to make sense but we also started to lose some of the youth leaders due to life changes. The group lost some of its diversity that made it unique especially in a university setting. This mishap made the group draw closer to each other and it made the discussions go much smoother because everyone would have a chance to speak and be heard in the discussions (YL#1).

Gradual reduction of the size of the youth leaders’ group brought unforeseen benefits: “With fewer youth leaders provided more ease of getting to know each other better over the weeks. More youth leaders’ voices were being heard in a smaller group. Group work was more efficient” (YL#2). Another youth leader spoke of the benefit of having a more committed youth group to co-create a framework of youth engagement:

In the beginning, it was very difficult to feel like we could get any work done or have our voice heard because there were so many people. This made the process quite slow and at times seemingly ineffective. As time went on, the group got much smaller. By September 2013 there was a fairly consistent 16 members or so that would come regularly to meetings. Although losing some key members who, I felt, provided a lot of good insight and experiences was difficult, the smaller, more committed group made it much easier to move forward. We started to agree upon what we felt the basis, the philosophy, and the outcome of this framework should be. We narrowed down our targeted demographic and decided upon wording we were comfortable with. Finally, in November or December 2013, we had a skeleton framework that most of us seemed pleased with (YL#4).

However, the challenging life situations of youth seem to make it very difficult to fully commit to a labor-intensive research project like ours:

Whether that be in numbers, people’s ability to commit fully, or the time in between meetings, this made it quite difficult to move forward. Though this was a paid project, I think, most, if not all, of us could not depend on this job alone to support us financially. Because of this, our full-time work would take precedence at times, making it difficult to be 100% committed to every meeting (YL#4).

Power Issues

Another significant factor for the research process described by our youth leaders was power issues. Our research project’s strategic focus on power sharing with youth was greatly appreciated and ensured innovation and uniqueness of the project, identified by a youth leader:

In the agency sharing meetings, I appreciated the youth workers/professionals admitting that they often have a hard time giving youth the power to run the programs that include them. This formalized what we were doing and finally made sense why it was a unique research project (YL#4).

However, this type of funded research projects created other power issues, one of which concerned funding from granting agencies. A youth leader voiced that “details about funding were unclear; there was not always enough transparency for the youth leaders. Power dynamics seemed to limit our voices in some circumstances” (YL#2).

Another related power issue was about ensuring that decisions made were in consultation with the group. A youth leader described this matter when the group had an option of inviting a provincial judge to one of the youth engagement sessions with high-risk youth:

It is important when dealing with this type of group that all decisions made are consulted with the group. For example, when the judge wanted to come, I think it was important that firstly the youth leaders have a say in whether or not that was okay and secondly that the youth have a say. If we are remaining true to our framework, we want this to be a safe and youth-led space so transparency is crucial (YL#4).

As emphasized by the above two quotes, “transparency” was identified as an important factor for mutually respectful relationship-building with youth. A comment was made to remind us of being more critical and conscious about whether this research project is indeed “youth-led/youth-guided”:

A major frustration I faced over the last year and a half was the presumption of this project as being a youth-led, youth-guided initiative. I do believe in the last few months we have begun to address this, but the challenges are something to acknowledge. I believe phase two of this project can start fresh with the learnings from phase one (this past year and a half). For a large part of the project, I believe the project was largely dictated by funding needs and to some extent the project-lead. Although I can understand limited funding and financial strains impact choice and options, we should not have been told that we had agency to make decisions about topics outside of our control (YL#6).

In spite of our conscious efforts to make the process more youth-guided, the complex power issues such as meeting the funders’ needs and university researchers’ positions/roles became a major challenge even unconsciously. The same youth leader voiced her uneasiness in expressing dissent and critique:

I believe it took our group a while to feel comfortable expressing dissent and sharing opinions. This led to the youth leaders (myself included) not feeling like they could challenge or critique the course of the project. I believe this was in part due to the lack of a clear process and understanding of the project. It was many months into the project before everyone fully understood what we were taking on. Putting more time and energy into determining an inclusive decision-making process may have helped mitigate some of these frustrations (YL#6).

This youth leader was insightful to suggest the use of conscious ongoing efforts and commitment to “an inclusive decision-making process” by respectfully engaging youth.

Structural Barriers

Apparently, these power issues are linked to structural barriers. The experiences from our research project uncovered structural factors that seemed to prevent many disadvantaged youth from continuing to involve in efforts to improve a support system for high-risk youth. Comments were made on perpetuating the societal/structural problems:

As the project moved forward, the frustrations of the group increased, because the purpose and intention of the project became muddled and unclear. The group also lost a few youth leaders who brought important perspectives. I believe this is an important piece to note. Although we (as youth leaders) got paid to attend, share our thoughts and opinions, this project once again perpetuated the same structural problems in society. Many youth leaders who would have liked to stay involved were unable to, because of life situations, unstable homes, jobs and financial challenges. Again, this shows that not everyone has the same access to having a voice and being heard, regardless of the desire to participate. This is not something that can be easily fixed or addressed but is important to note (YL#6).

This youth leader’s critical observation that “not everyone has the same access to having a voice and being heard, regardless of the desire to participate” is extremely important, because this reality seems to be conditioned by the socio-economic, structural challenges that many of the high-risk youth face on a day-to-day basis.

Collaborative and Coordinated Process in an Iterative Way

Not only do the issues of group dynamics involve youth leaders, but these issues also involve the other community partners. Besides being guided/informed by our youth leaders, our project periodically engages our community and university partners to seek their professional and academic guidance on the process of our PAR project. This partner engagement provides opportunities for those community agency and university partners to give inputs on our youth-guided/informed process in order to ensure that the process implemented is meaningful and rigorous and has the potential of producing useful outcomes.

In fact, our community partners showed great appreciation for the use of a collaborative and coordinated process of the project that enables an iterative and evolving way of project planning and execution. The supervisor of a provincial government’s high-risk youth division nicely articulated this notion:

I realize that uniqueness of this research involves the use of a respectful collaborative approach in an iterative and evolving way, by appreciating and integrating diverse perspectives into coherent and meaningful research. This team consists of diverse interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral partners. The use of this collaborative, team-based approach is essential to co-develop and co-implement our research. Our team meetings, as well as email conversations, provide a respectful, safe space and opportunity to discuss and have dialogues on key issues that our community faces and on meaningful approaches to addressing these issues. By directly responding to the needs of our community based on a grass-roots approach, this research is grounded in the community with the support of our diverse community-university partnership (AP#2).

Appreciation for “a stellar network of collaborators for this project” was further elaborated by another community partner since this network is essential to improving community practices:

Our partnership is well placed and a logical collaboration of agencies and institutions with the necessary skills and understanding to support the youth in exploring the identified issues and topics, while also learning about the best practices to engage youth more broadly. This network of partners has been working together for over 3 years to explore this research area. I congratulate the primary researcher in his effort to bring together a stellar network of collaborators for this project (AP#9).

The use of a collaborative and coordinated process in an inclusive and meaningful way was acknowledged by our community partners exemplified by the following comments by an executive director of a youth-serving agency:

We observed significant support from fellow community agencies at Youth4YEG meetings, which is a true barometer of the quality of work being undertaken by the team and its acceptance in the community. It is a pleasure to witness community organizations working in coordination with others in support of youth wellbeing, as we are continually being challenged with limited resources and ever-increasing youth needs. The research Youth4YEG is undertaking is significant in identifying how ourcommunity can best serve a highly marginalized population in meaningful ways. Working alongside of organizations such as Youth4YEG has been an honor and we fully support their endeavors towards building an increasingly strong and dynamic young adult population for years to come (AP#10).

Within the context of limited resources and growing youth needs, the effective coordination of community resources in a more collaborative way is vital to support optimal youth development, as stressed by the above comment.

What Impacts Are We Having?

Finally, in terms of “impacts,” our PAR project has started to show tangible benefits for both community youth-serving agencies and youth themselves. They spoke about a number of benefits from this youth-oriented collaborative research, including: (a) capacity-building; (b) inspirational, meaningful youth engagement at a positive and safe space; (c) demonstrating positive youth outcomes; and (d) activating the voice of youth for social change.

Capacity Building

Evidently, our research project has had an impact on capacity building of youth-serving agencies, as well as capacity building of youth as observed by our community partners. A program evaluation coordinator of a largest youth-serving agency in the region appreciated insightful information on effective youth engagement approaches from the research. She also described her observation for positive impacts (e.g., skills and confidence) on youth leaders from her agency who have involved in the research:

As we work with youth both in our after-school program sites and as teen mentors, being part of this project has provided us with valuable insights and information on the youth in our community and how we can work with them more effectively. The youth from our organization who have involved in this project have stated that they are very pleased to be a part of it and really feel that their voices are being heard. It has added to their confidence and to date several of the participants have gone on to speak out and advocate at all government levels—municipal, provincial, and federal—for all marginalized youth. Being a part of this project has really given them confidence and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives and offers the hope that they need right now to feel successful and inspired to make a difference for themselves and others (AP#1).

A coordinator of a high-risk youth unit at a provincial government agency admitted the benefits of co-learning, capacity building, and youth-guided knowledge mobilization:

Our diverse, respectful partnership provides a mutually beneficial space and opportunity for co-learning and mutual capacity building and for co-creating ideas and approaches to our research. I strongly believe that this research has the potential of making a real difference in better supporting our youth, by mobilizing youth’s voices and talents into actions for changes, especially for youth who live in marginalized conditions (e.g., poverty) including Aboriginal, immigrant, and refugee youth (AP#2).

Specifically, one tangible impact in the community was the role of this research in building capacity of community agencies on effective youth engagement: “Continued exploration of the framework builds capacity for more agencies to understand how to engage youth more effectively” (AP#3).

A program evaluation director from a public school board concurred:

This project enables professional learning, community engagement, and capacity-building among stakeholders in our educational community, contributing to the process of making a real difference for our youth and families in our community (AP#4).

The director of a government-funded community agency dedicated to ending homelessness acknowledged, “The project is directly relevant to our current work enhancing community capacity to address the needs of homeless and at-risk youth in our city” (AP#5).

Also, this project’s contributions to capacity-building and understanding of the complex lives of marginalized youth reached an immigrant-serving agency:

This project addresses an important need in relation to marginalized youth—some of whom come from immigrant or refugee backgrounds. This research deepens our understanding of the complex web of factors that impact the lives of marginalized youth, and also illuminates some of the unique barriers to inclusion that are faced by those who are newcomers (AP#6).

Furthermore, a regional funding agency who oversees coordinated efforts to address complex community issues including poverty and education emphasized the importance of learning from marginalized youth and implementing research findings to improve youth outcomes:

We work with numerous partners in order to address complex community issues, and our numerous investments support organizations and initiatives delivering a broad spectrum of services to vulnerable individuals and families. As an organization committed to reducing poverty in this region, it is imperative that we understand the challenges experienced by marginalized youth in achieving important milestones, like high-school completion, as a foundation for significantly improved outcomes in their future. The results from this project enable all of us to learn from marginalized youth and allow us the opportunity to implement our findings and improve outcomes for youth in years to come. There is a great deal of energy in our region right now to work together differently and in a much more coordinated fashion to promote better outcomes for youth. The timing for this research is terrific and we’re thrilled to be part of it! (AP#7)

More tangibly, another multicultural community agency partner suggested creating a “youth council” for organizations, potentially guided by our research project to honor and incorporate youth perspectives into their practices:

The framework and format that this project has initiated could be a good starting point towards having a youth council at many organizations in order to maintain the youth-led perspective. Maybe ouour youth can be a part of this (AP#8)?

Inspirational, Meaningful Youth Engagement at a Positive and Safe Space

Our community agency partners have had opportunities to witness the youth-informed process of our research and commended the provision of a positive, safe, and responsive space for meaningful and inspirational engagement with high-risk youth. For example, a director of a community youth-serving agency was impressed with the integrity of our research project, especially regarding its commitment to youth-oriented engagement:

As a community-based agency, we have been delighted to participate in their endeavors toward identifying meaningful youth engagement processes in our community. Youth4YEG provides opportunities for young individuals who are deemed at risk to engage in vital research and gain positive experiences in our community. We are very impressed with the integrity of Youth4YEG in a community climate that is experiencing ever increasing needs for youth engagement opportunities (AP#10).

Another comment was made by the principal of a local charter school that serves a large number of young people (14–19 years old) with high-risk life conditions (e.g., poverty, homelessness, abusive/addictive behaviors) who have previously experienced interruptions in their formal learning:

Our students began attending the Youth4YEG engagement sessions in February 2014. In the weeks since their first experience, I have personally observed (through my own support in ensuring students are informed and have access to the program) an opportunity for meaningful engagement and agency that supports young people who have experienced challenging circumstances in their lives. Youth4YEG offers young people who would otherwise not have access to a positive space, a place to explore their own interests free from drugs, alcohol or violence (AP#3).

In fact, several students from the school have become new members of our youth leader group and have started to make an important contribution to “inspiring today’s youth by creating community through relationships in a fun, inclusive environment to help youth achieve obtainable success” (i.e., new tentative mission of Youth4YEG).

Demonstration of Positive Youth Outcomes

Our community youth-serving agencies showed a keen interest in promoting positive outcomes for high-risk youth since they are accountable for having an impact on the community, especially on vulnerable population groups including high-risk youth and their families. For example, a community program coordinator who has known and worked with many of our youth leaders has already observed positive tangible outcomes, such as belongingness, confidence, and achievement: “This project has already improved many things for this group of marginalized youth including, but not limited to, a feeling of belonging, self-confidence, and achievement” (AP # 8). An executive director of a community agency spoke about empowered youth with pride:

In our time participating in the Youth4YEG project, we have observed a high quality of youth participation and research activity. YEG youth leaders communicated with a sense of empowerment and pride during activities and dialogues, which focused on vital youth engagement issues (AP#10).

A youth program coordinator of the same agency reiterated that our research “brought out a lot of strength and hope,” along with a meaningful relationship to promote a sense of belonging: “Relationship, youth want to make connection and community, desire to belong” (AP#10). A municipal government’s community coordinator enthusiastically mentioned the strengths of our project that “builds upon and enhances the capacity of youth to influence systems and services for the benefit of vulnerable youth and empower these youths to find their voice and to make a difference!” (AP#12).

An executive director of a local high-risk youth agency convincingly suggested the use of a strengths-based approach to working with youth, as opposed to a deficit-based approach: “From a strengths-based approach, tapping into the strengths offers more empowerment than trying to tackle bringing the weakness up to the ‘do’ level” (AP # 9). The same community partner articulated the value of our project on youth engagement as a means of youth empowerment and community development:

Activities that provide a self-determination measure of success and engagement to pursue further goals and a way out of poverty with stabilization of risk factors are essential, by striving to connect youth to engagement that will be empowering and offer lasting traction in the participants’ lives and in the local community. I value that this is the aim of YEG4Youth (AP#9).

Activating the Voice of Youth for Social Change
Indeed, a most innovative, unique aspect of our project observed by our community partners has been our strategic efforts to activate the voice of marginalized youth as the “driver” of the research:

This is a project that activates the voice of the marginalized youth that our agency serves. This project places the youth in the role of co-researcher and “driver” of the research. The key to success with this demographic is the relationships youth form with trusted workers and agencies; the youth must determine the trajectory and the outcome throughout the process (AP#9).

This community partner’s observation and suggestion for the use of this youth-guided approach are extremely important. To achieve this goal, building a meaningful relationship with youth is vital although the challenges of facilitating this process should be recognized as described earlier.

To reiterate these challenges, one community partner from a provincial government reminded of the importance of “non-judgmental” relationship-building with youth in response to our regular update on the project:

What youth are looking for is defined by the youth, and a theme that comes up repeatedly in my experience, and this update, is being non-judgmental. This is so important and certainly speaks to how sensitive youth are about interaction with adults that is judgmental. [In the update] the theme of peer interaction, caring and trustworthy people, and doing things in groups continues to repeat the importance of relationship at many levels, and having the ‘safety net’ in place. As adults, I think we continue to under-estimate the value youth put in the connections with adults they see as safe (AP#2).

Furthermore, the same community partner acknowledged that our research project is indeed an “anti-oppressive practice” in itself and that the project engages youth as key contributors/enablers to a social/system change:

The update does a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts of youth leaders around oppression, racism, discrimination, and stigma. Obviously, the participation of youth in all aspects of this project is an exercise in anti-oppressive practice and speaks to how youth should not be overlooked as important contributors to a system change (AP#2).

The update does a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts of youth leaders around oppression, racism, discrimination, and stigma. Obviously, the participation of youth in all aspects of this project is an exercise in anti-oppressive practice and speaks to how youth should not be overlooked as important contributors to a system change (AP#2).

Regarding a system change, another partner from a largest regional youth-serving agency not only admitted the difficulty in letting go of agency control, but she also reminded of the need for a societal change:

We are an organization that has been around for a long time but we don’t have a youth council that can guide our program. It is difficult to let go of control, but the framework helps us do that; this helps us change how we think of ourselves as a society (AP#1).

As acknowledged by this quote, our youth-informed framework of youth engagement has the potential of facilitating this social change as guided by youth.

Contextualized within a social change perspective, another key concept identified was about the role of youth leaders as a conduit for sourcing youth views on social justice issues: “Youth4YEG should be the mechanism by which anyone who is interested in youth research connects to, and the youth leaders are the conduit for sourcing/researching youth views on current social justice issues” (AP # 9). Broadly, our research project addresses significant social justice issues that influence youth (including youth with high-risk conditions/behaviors), as a youth-oriented way of activating the voice of youth and mobilizing youth and community partners into action for social change. An avid community partner described her experiences in involving in our research project for over three and a half years, as an “amazing journey”:

It has truly been an amazing journey and what a pleasure it has been for me to see the changes in some of these young adults, for whom I have known for many years. Some of them have spoken to me about how they feel that they belong no matter what their background or circumstances have been in life. They are truly inspired to continue on with this work. Needless to say, the work that the youth have done on this project has been incredible, along with the expertise of community representatives, and the willingness to share their time and knowledge has also been a very positive experience to date for myself. It truly has been an invaluable experience and one that needs to continue along! (AP#1).

We have already witnessed some tangible milestones exemplified by these positive remarks on changes/transformations of youth and community partners who have been inspired by this project.

Brief Remarks by University Investigators
This PAR project has started strategically to centerpiece the contributions of youth leaders and community agency partners to the planning and implementation of our research; thus, university researchers have primarily played a background role. This background, supportive role has included university researchers’ contributions to securing research funding and other resources (e.g., the use of university facilities for meetings and youth engagement activities), offering theoretical (e.g., youth and poverty, youth and homelessness, cross-cultural issues) and methodological (i.e., PAR and qualitative research) expertise, and reminding the team members of the PAR principles and rigor and impact of research (e.g., capacity-building, knowledge mobilization).

Briefly, I share some reflective statements by university researchers (UR) on our PAR project (their identifications being coded as UR#1 to #4 below). First, those academic investigators are conscious of the use of terminologies that may stigmatize or marginalize our target population. For example, one university researcher noted, “I wondered about the term ‘high risk’ and I know it is common in the literature but I wonder if we might consider at least acknowledging that this term can be marginalizing in itself” (UR#1). In fact, the literature cautions the use of these terminologies (Blanchet-Cohen & Salazar, 2009; Caine & Boydell, 2010; Cammarota, 2011).

Another university investigator was critical about the use of term, “giving voice” to youth:

I am a bit apprehensive about using the word ‘giving voice’ because this almost implies that we have the power to give. They [Youth] indeed have their own voice—we haven’t given it to them—we have just highlighted them. I am wondering if we can just write ‘highlighting youth voice’ or ‘supporting youth voice’ (UR #2).

This researcher’s point is in line with “power issues” described earlier. Still, another academic researcher with extensive experiences in PAR reflected on the significance of “time and relationship,” within the context of youth’s challenging lives:

What strikes me most is the importance of time and relationship—this comes up again and again and tends to be in the background rather than the foreground. Here time had its pros and cons. Time was needed for the engagement process but was limited by structural constraints with respect to funding, but time also meant in the chaotic lives of youth that some were lost. Time also means they grow up and move on and new young people need to be engaged. The other issue is that we focused on youth who already had leadership skills and this, if you like, was an asset, which may not be found elsewhere—i.e., there were preconditions to a successful process (UR#3).

Importantly, she highlighted multi-dimensionality of time as the basic for engagement at structural, transitional, and developmental levels, as well as the issue of “preconditions” to a successful engagement process (specifically, speaking about leadership skills of youth in this project).

Furthermore, another university researcher’s observation focused on a transformational process of our youth leaders with respect to power dynamics, which portrays the challenge of ensuring the research process to be truly youth-led:

It occurs to me that what the youth may be experiencing, as they begin to question how truly youth led the process was, was a bit of the transformation. The power dynamic must shift as the youth gain experience and confidence with each other and with the process, and begin to assert themselves more. It seems that until that point it would be difficult to be fully youth led. It is great to be able to see this “process” in the data (UR #4).

Overall, as the principal investigator of this project, I learned about the opportunities and challenges of using youth leadership (especially, the role of our youth leaders) in community-based PAR through working with cross-sectoral community partners to inspire and engage broader youth groups in a constructive, meaningful way and help them become capable, contributive members of our society. It is encouraging to see impacts of our project reported in this paper; yet, efforts should continue to achieve the goal of transforming a system to more effectively support youth (especially, youth with high-risk conditions/behaviors) and meet their diverse needs.

This paper described the reflective experiences of our PAR team members, contextualized within the theme of the 15th Annual ESC Conference, namely, “Engaging for Change: Changing for Engagement.” I believe that these reflective accounts of my research partners effectively portrayed the incentives for, processes of, and outcomes from our youth engagement research project, which were matched nicely with the sub-themes of the conference: (a) Why engage?, (b) how do we engage?, and (c) what impacts are we having? Broadly, “engagement” is a core activity of our project to facilitate “change” and transformation at personal, social, and system levels, which, once again, reiterate the significance of the overall theme of the ESC conference.

Recently, Speer and Christens (2013) spoke about “strategic engagement” to develop “social power” to promote change in communities. In particular, strategic engagement gives attention to the role of power in community decision-making in order to enhance community capacity and impact including the transformation of policy and practice. Strategic engagement “democratizes the research process” to build social power with the aim of making change and improving social conditions. A key factor for achieving this goal, however, includes long-term relationship-building with “powerful” community partners who are “attentive to social power dynamics in community decision-making and capable of mobilizing their fellow citizens to influence these processes” (Speer & Christens, 2013, p. 743). I believe that our PAR project reported in this paper has provided convincing tangible illustrations for supporting/echoing the significance of strategic engagement, by focusing on the use of “strategic youth and partner engagement.” Importantly, this strategic engagement centerpieces the voices and talents of our youth leaders, supported by our community agency partners, along with a background role of university researchers.

Essentially, facilitating engagement, development, and well-being of high-risk, marginalized youth is a shared responsibility across all systems and sectors (Delgado, 2002; Ersing, 2009; Zahradnik, Stewart, O’Connor, Stevens, Ungar, & Wekerle, 2010) to promote practice, policy, and social changes and improve a support system for high-risk youth and their families/care-takers (Gemert et al., 2008; Zahradnik et al., 2010). Further efforts are required to more effectively address these needs for transformational changes that are identified as a significant gap in research (Abela & Hankin, 2008; Caine & Boydell, 2010; Curran, Bowness, & Comack, 2010; Lynam & Cowley, 2007; Wearing, 2011), by using a youth- and community-oriented engagement approach in an inclusive, collaborative way. Undoubtedly, engagement plays a key role in this change-inducing process and vice versa (i.e., in turn, change can induce/promote further engagement) in a dynamic and sustainable way.


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About the Authors

Yoshitaka Iwasaki is professor and associate dean for research in the Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Expanding Engagement Opportunities at a Large Land-Grant Research University: The Engagement Ecosystem Model

Khanjan Mehta, Irena Gorski, Chang Liu, Suzanne Weinstein,
Chas Brua, and Adam Christensen



How does a public university with over 80,000 students across 24 campuses provide every student with an engaged scholarship experience? This article chronicles the first steps of this ambitious journey to educate a new generation of engaged scholars by building engagement ecosystems: networks of students, faculty, courses, and communities working together on compelling socially relevant projects around a common theme. By incorporating projects from an impact-focused community engagement program into a cross-section of existing classes, universities can expand engagement opportunities from a select few to the vast majority of the students. This article reviews current approaches to scale engagement opportunities before describing the principles and mechanics of the Engagement Ecosystem model. A case study of the pilot implementation of this model is presented with preliminary assessment results (n=1,165), key lessons learned, and future expansion plans.


Now more than ever, in the heart of the engaged scholarship movement, there is high student and faculty interest in engaging with communities, locally and worldwide. As of 2015, 361 colleges and universities have demonstrated their commitment to integrating engagement into the mission and operations of their institution by earning the distinction of the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2015). Unfortunately, despite strong interest and commitment, only a limited number of students and faculty members get involved in engagement opportunities (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2009). Universities are innovating and adopting a plethora of approaches to expand engagement opportunities from a select few to the vast majority of the students. Depending on their size, location, history of engagement, and access to resources, there are different kinds of approaches to integrate and expand engagement opportunities:

(1) Engagement within or outside of class time. Expecting students with packed schedules to commit their time outside of class voluntarily to community engagement may not be reasonable. At the same time, many courses have no room for integrating engagement into class time. Jenkins (2011) arranged for her students to complete service learning during regularly scheduled class time and reported that the negative impact that reduced face time might have had on her course outcomes and course evaluations was offset by the positive impact of the service-learning project. Jenkins’s model solved the problem of engaging students with significant demands on their time, but she had to alter her course’s learning outcomes to integrate the engagement experience.

(2) Engagement championed by individual faculty members or a college- institution-wide approach. UMASS-Lowell’s College of Engineering has integrated service learning into all of its core courses (Duffy, Barrington, West, Heredia, & Barry, 2011), while smaller institutions like Tougaloo College and Wittenberg College have made service learning a requirement for all students (Tougaloo College, 2015; Wittenberg College, 2015). Some universities have been successful in attracting resources from private donors to support more faculty and students getting involved (Weerts & Hudson, 2009; Cornell University, 2015), while others have raised funds by increasing tuition after a successful student vote (Bernhardt, 2015). All of these college- and institution-wide models require significant resources and may not be feasible at larger institutions where the number of students would likely overwhelm community partners and would require heavy commitment from a large number of faculty. It would also not be feasible to require all students to do service learning in areas with low population densities, i.e. rural areas where land-grant institutions are located and there are relatively few community partners to work with.

(3) Real-time engagement or virtual experiences. While real-time, in-person community engagement is the norm, virtual approaches to develop student competencies and prepare them for deeper engagement have been championed. Michigan State University has integrated online lessons (“Tools of Engagement”) that introduce students to the concept of university-community engagement and develop their community-based research and engagement skills (Michigan State University, 2015). The online lessons are a scalable approach to get more students interested in community engagement because they are created once for use over and over again, are relevant to students from all disciplines, and can be integrated into existing courses. At the individual course level, a faculty member created a virtual service-learning project for his online students where they used the website to coordinate an information campaign on saving money and energy by retrofitting traffic lights with LED bulbs (Pearce, 2009). Another course used a problem-based service-learning model where students acted as consultants for a nonprofit, completing and delivering commissioned assignments to them via email (Dallimore, Rochefort, & Simonelli, 2010). Both the Appropedia and problem-based service-learning projects provided non-travel-based engagement experiences where the project enhanced course-based learning while delivering valuable services to a community partner.

Alongside these approaches, there is a need for new organizational and pedagogical models that overcome the barriers of limited time and financial resources for students and faculty and limited access to community partners. The quest is for lean and scalable organizational models that can seamlessly integrate virtual and in-person engagement, in-class and community-based activities, and involve faculty and students in different ways with different degrees of engagement. A balance between delivering self-determined community impact and developing students’ engagement-related learning outcomes that encourages deeper engagement is essential. At Penn State, we are testing various models to determine how to get every single one of our 80,000 undergraduate students across 24 campuses—a diverse student population ranging from freshmen through adult learners, online distance learners through returning military veterans on campus—to graduate with an engaged scholarship experience by 2020. This monumental goal, reflected by other comparable institutions, cannot be achieved via a singular approach or definition of engagement; rather, we need a multiplicity of organizational, operational, and pedagogical models that meet the needs of students, faculty, departments, and colleges with varying priorities and buy-in for community engagement.

One potential program architecture is the Engagement Ecosystem (EE) model that focuses on carving out projects from impact-focused community engagement programs in the United States and abroad and integrating them into classes that do not have an engagement component. An impact-focused community engagement program is a program where students work shoulder-to-shoulder with diverse partners to develop, incubate, and launch self-sustaining projects identified by community partners. This article delves into the architecture, logistics, and mechanics of the EE model. A case study of the EE model, from the spring 2015 semester, is presented with results and discussion of the assessment approach in terms of impact on students and faculty. This article is of particular interest to universities striving to expand their engagement opportunities in a lean fashion without overwhelming community partners.

The Engagement Ecosystem Model

Similar to other large land-grant universities, Penn State has countless opportunities for students and faculty to engage with the world outside of the university through a wide assortment of majors, minors, and certificates; over 200 study abroad programs; and research and engagement centers with diverse thematic and geographical foci. Despite countless opportunities to engage with communities, many faculty and students do not get involved. Over a three-year period, Penn State’s Service Learning-Student Engagement Task Force (2012) identified several factors that contribute to students and faculty members not participating:

(1) Students want to partake in community engagement efforts but struggle to integrate them into their busy schedules, cannot afford travel-based experiences, or find out about such opportunities too late in their academic career.

(2) Many faculty members are interested in starting community engagement programs but don’t know how to proceed and get institutional buy-in. Established programs with regularly offered courses and engagement experiences often do not have sustainable revenue models to support faculty and student travel which compromises their ability to recruit students year-after-year, and lower student numbers further hurt program sustainability. This results in many programs shutting down after a few years when the faculty get burned-out. Community relationships often get frayed when this happens.

(3) Numerous faculty members want to play a role in community engagement but do not have the desire, time, or experience to directly engage with communities. Rather, they would like to work on meaningful projects that are mediated by reliable and more experienced faculty or staff members with strong community partnerships.

How can we integrate different kinds and levels of faculty and student interest across the engagement continuum that spans from learning about engagement to stand-alone short-term experiences to long-term impact-focused collaborations? The EE model engages students early in their college career while building pipelines into impact-focused programs. Experienced consultants help faculty members embed meaningful projects into existing courses to form engagement ecosystems: networks of students, faculty, courses, and communities working together on compelling socially relevant projects around a common theme. Depending on the nature of their course, their personal preferences, and departmental buy-in, faculty participate in this ecosystem in different ways. Courses involved at low and medium degrees of engagement tend to focus on lower-division students and serve as pipelines for the high degree and impact-focused courses and programs. While a small group of students travel and work directly with communities to address problems around this theme via the impact-focused program, six courses work on projects that directly help the impact-focused courses, and another twenty courses can offer students an exciting learning experience directly related to the community project. Students that do not physically travel can have their “minds travel” by working on projects that are based in different cultural and geographical contexts.

This innovative ecosystem model has been validated before with a single professor teaching two courses but engaging over 800 students in 12 other courses in engagement experiences (Mehta, Brannon, Zappe, Colledge, & Zhao, 2010). To test its ability to strengthen students’ engagement-related competencies in a lean and sustainable manner, engagement ecosystems can be built using these five tenets:

(1) Participating in the ecosystem is elective.

(2) The ecosystem has broad themes that are relevant across the university. Having broad themes such as water, digital music, and geriatric care make it easy to get buy-in and develop projects for courses across multiple colleges. Ecosystem themes emerge organically based on societal relevance, community demands, and alignment of the ecosystem’s theme with faculty members’ courses and research interests.

(3) The ecosystem is built around an impact-focused community engagement program to bring realism to the projects and ensure that the collective efforts lead to self-determined and sustainable short-term and long-term impacts for community partners. The impact-focused program can have a local or global focus but must espouse the core principles of engagement: it must be responsive to, respectful of, and accessible to community partners.

(4) Faculty and support staff work with participating professors to carve out projects related to the overarching theme. The degree of engagement should be tailored to the flexibility of the course so that projects within the ecosystem fall on a spectrum of engagement (Figure 1) with opportunities for students to engage at a low to high degree with both travel and non-travel-based experiences (Table 1). For more introductory courses with a strict schedule of content, lower degree projects are implemented that entail a lower percentage of the course grade as well as lower impact and relevancy for the high impact program, with the primary objective to enhance student learning. For courses with more freedom in the curriculum, larger projects worth a larger portion of the final grade, and tighter coupling with the impact-focused program are implemented.

(5) Courses involved need to have a project component, which opens the door to integrating projects where students take their class-specific knowledge and apply it to a problem presented to them that relates to the theme and is defined and driven by real needs of the impact-focused program. To be successful in the course, students must understand theme-related content and meld this knowledge with their own findings to reinforce the class-specific learning outcomes while gaining additional competencies in engagement-related learning outcomes.

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Spring 2015 Pilot Case Study: HESE Ecosystem

To illustrate how the EE model can be implemented, we present a pilot case study with an ecosystem built around Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program. The HESE program engages about 50 students every semester in the rigorous research, design, field-testing, and launch of technology-based social enterprises in resource-constrained environments. HESE ventures are multi-year endeavors that have emerged organically from engagement with developing communities in countries including Kenya, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone. Faculty-led multi-year ventures provide students with immersive frameworks for learning, research, and entrepreneurial engagement, while advancing ventures towards large-scale dissemination. HESE ventures include affordable greenhouses, telemedicine systems and low-cost diagnostics to screen for diabetes and urinary tract infections. For the engagement ecosystem pilot, the greenhouse and test strip venture teams identified sub-projects to integrate into courses in the ecosystem. Additionally, themes relevant to HESE, including international development and design for low-resource contexts, were integrated into courses in the ecosystem.

A recent graduate was hired by Penn State’s Council on Engaged Scholarship as a research and coordination assistant—i.e. an ecosystem manager—to help build and manage ecosystems. Personal networks and campus-wide listservs were leveraged to identify faculty members with an interest in aligning their course projects with the HESE ecosystem. Lower level general education courses were particularly targeted to get freshmen and sophomores involved. Once interested professors were identified, the ecosystem manager and the director of HESE met to discuss the content of the interested professor’s course(s) and how a HESE-related project could be integrated into the course.

After the initial meeting, projects were developed through emails and further meetings between the professors, the ecosystem manager, and the HESE director. Once professors approved the project and assigned it to their students, the ecosystem manager provided additional resources for the courses. A website was created to provide a background of the HESE program and its philosophy, the operational context (geographical and cultural), content of the HESE courses, and specific information about the ventures. For courses that required a significant amount of background in the content of the HESE courses, an introductory seminar course on Design for Developing Communities (EDSGN 453 – see Table 2) was streamed live and made available on-demand for all students. To answer specific questions about HESE and projects as well as get students excited about their projects and role in the ecosystem, the ecosystem manager, as well as the HESE director and students directly involved in HESE ventures, visited the courses on an as-needed basis. The ecosystem manager answered additional questions from both professors and students in the ecosystem via email throughout the semester.

Figure 2 shows the breakdown of the degrees of engagement at which courses were engaged and Table 2 provides detail on the specific projects given to courses in the HESE ecosystem.

Preliminary Assessment of Engagement Ecosystem Model

To assess the efficacy of the EE model for scaling engagement, we assessed the impact of the activities on the students’ self-reports related to one or more of four engagement-related learning outcomes: multicultural awareness, civic responsibility, ethical decision-making, and systems thinking. We were specifically interested in whether students in the non-travel-based courses would have similar learning outcomes as those students who participated in the travel-based impact-focused program. Specifically:

(1) Would the students in the ecosystem overall significantly improve in any of the learning outcomes from pre-test to post-test?

(2) Would the students in the lower-intensive pipeline courses generate any significant learning outcomes from pre-test to post-test?

(3) Which courses were most successful in building student competencies in the engagement-related learning outcomes? What were their effect sizes?

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Participants and Procedure

The preliminary assessment targeted a total enrollment of 1,165 students in the ecosystem from 14 courses instructed by 15 faculty members. Due to the varying course objectives and time that could be devoted to an assessment, each course instructor chose the learning outcomes that best fit with their course’s project and which survey would be most appropriate for assessment. Table 3 displays the learning outcomes assessed in different courses. For this initial pilot, a control group was not used because the courses did not have several sections and splitting the classes in two would have presented additional difficulties for the professors.

The instructor administered the paper-and-pencil surveys to students at the beginning and end of the course. Students’ participation was voluntary. Response rates on pre-test and post-test were 82.5% and 52.5% respectively (see Table 3). The response rate declined dramatically because four instructors did not involve their students in the post-test due to time and curriculum issues. Further explanations of the dropout rate from pre- to post-survey are in the Discussion section. Table 4 displays students’ demographic information.

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The engagement-related learning outcomes assessed were drawn from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) essential learning outcomes. We employed VALUE rubrics developed by the AAC&U as a foundation to develop assessment tools such as rubrics and self-report surveys for multicultural awareness, civic responsibility, ethical decision-making, and systems thinking. In this preliminary assessment, we only used the self-report surveys. Survey items were written based on rubric descriptions or were adapted based on existing scales or concepts in literature (Caban, 2010; Frank, 2004; Kuusisto, Tirri, & Rissanen, 2012); Olney & Grande, 1995; Simonis, 2009). Table 5 demonstrates example items from the four scales. Students rated each item on a four-point Likert-type scale that ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree) or from 1 (never) to 4 (often). An average score across the items represents a student’s score on that learning outcome. Data supported the unidimensional structure of the four scales with all Cronbach’s α values greater than 0.80 (Table 5).

In addition to using the self-report surveys to assess student learning outcomes, we designed a faculty survey to gather instructors’ feedback. The survey included 13 short answer questions covering topics such as perceived benefits and costs of incorporating engagement activities into the curriculum, reflection on collaboration and communication, and satisfaction with and future involvement in community engagement. The online survey was emailed to the course instructors at the end of the semester.

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Data Analysis

We used paired t-tests to examine whether students had significant gains across the semester. However, since more than one t-test was conducted, the p-values of the later tests were adjusted by dividing 0.05 by the number of tests conducted to avoid inflation of Type I error. Since cance testing depends on sample sizes, we also calculated effect sizes indicated by Cohen’s d on each learning outcome generated by different courses. Effect size measures the standardized magnitude of relationships between variables. The conventional thresholds to interpret Cohen’s d are small (0.2), medium (0.5) and large (0.8).

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Since we only assessed systems thinking in one non-travel-based course, we did not have enough data for analysis, though its descriptive statistics are summarized along with the other three learning outcomes in Table 6.

Multicultural Awareness

Students from five courses participated in the multicultural awareness assessment on both pre- and post-tests. The five courses included one impact-focused course and four non-travel-based ecosystem courses. 264 cases had matched responses on pre- and post-tests. Students from the five courses overall had significantly higher multicultural awareness score on the post-test (M=3.15, SD=0.351) compared to the pre-test (M=3.09, SD=0.392), t (263) = 2.936, p=.004Civic Responsibility

Students from five courses participated in the civic responsibility assessment on both pre- and post-tests. The five courses included one impact-focused course and four non-travel-based ecosystem courses. 116 students had matched responses on pre- and post-tests. Students overall had no significant gains in civic responsibility scores, t (115) = 0.493, p=.623. None of the courses had significant gains in civic responsibility scores, all p>.10, and the effect sizes ranged from none to small.

Ethical Decision-Making

Students from one impact-focused course and three non-travel-based ecosystem courses participated in the ethical decision-making assessment on both pre- and post-tests with 264 cases’ responses matched. Students overall had marginally significant higher scores on the post-test (M=3.30, SD=0.382) compared to the pre-test (M=3.25, SD=0.324), t (191) = 1.878, p=.062. The non-travel-based ecosystem courses as a whole failed to lead a significant increase in the ethical decision-making score. However, students from two out of the three non-travel-based courses improved their ethical decision-making scores over the semester. For BME401, t (58) = 2.254, p=.028, Cohen’s d=0.25. For BIOL415, t (30) = 2.329, p=.027, Cohen’s d=0.46. The effect sizes of these two pipeline courses were even larger than that of the impact-focused program (Cohen’s d=0.18) (Table 7).

Table 7

Faculty Feedback

Faculty Feedback
During meetings with the ecosystem manager, five of the fourteen professors of non-travel-based courses expressed interest in traveling to the countries where the projects in their courses were set in order to gain a better understanding of the context. Four of the fifteen instructors returned the faculty surveys. The instructors perceived that the engaged component enhanced student learning, e.g., “broadening my students’ understanding of biology and its application,” and stimulated multicultural and global awareness, e.g., “providing a way for our students to learn about different cultures…to enable our students to be global citizens and to be prepared to tackle global problems.” Professors also appreciated how the engagement projects aroused students’ interests and emotions, e.g., “many of them were quite interested to learn”; “the students enjoyed the projects…. most of them were very proud of their work”; “students get an intuitive understanding as well as mental awareness. I find that people learn better when positive emotions are involved.” Considering the nature of these engagement projects, it was not surprising that the students faced challenges as indicated by one instructor, “The biggest challenge is the number of unknowns at the start of the project….The freshmen don’t quite know how to deal with unknowns, so it was a struggle.” But it turned out to be encouraging, with one professor saying, “However, in the end, I think most of them were very proud of their work.” All four instructors indicated satisfaction with their experiences and future commitment.

The instructors valued the assistance they received from the ecosystem manager and HESE director, such as project templates (e.g., “Most helpful were my meetings with [them] to develop the engagement project…and providing me with the brochure template.” “The three engaged adventure activities created by the pilot committee were a good start.”) and guest speaker support (e.g., “I appreciated having [them] come to my class and talk.” “[The ecosystem manager] was helpful at the end when our students presented their work.”) One instructor pointed out the need for refining the process to integrate the engaged projects into the curriculum: “One of [the engagement activities] couldn’t be implemented this semester since the adventure was too distinct from the course activity it would have been embedded in, though I am going to revise the course activity for fall to make it fit better.” Other instructors felt the need to enhance collaboration, e.g. “I think a bit more on the big picture and expectations for the students would have been nice to delve a bit deeper into.” “I’d like to learn more about what other faculty are doing.”


The preliminary assessment results indicate that the students in the engagement ecosystem improved multicultural awareness and ethical decision-making over a semester. The results were consistent with previous findings that students increased multicultural awareness/competence (Dunlap, 1998; Einfeld & Collins, 2008) and ethical reasoning (Donahue, 1999; Leming, 2001) through getting involved in community engagement. More interesting is the question of whether the non-travel-based ecosystem courses would expand opportunities for more students to achieve engagement-related learning outcomes. Our results show that students in some ecosystem courses had significant gains in multicultural awareness and ethical decision-making over a semester, and these courses generated effect sizes comparable to the travel-based impact-focused program.

Zooming into individual engagement ecosystem courses, the effectiveness of building competencies in each learning outcome depended on factors such as faculty preparation, curriculum focus, and assessment sensitivity. Three out of the four non-travel-based courses generated effect sizes in multicultural awareness comparable to the impact-focused program. The only course that was ineffective in achieving the outcome was a large introductory course with fluctuant attendance. Less emphasis on a multicultural issue in the curriculum and high dropout rate for the post- assessment might explain the results.

The BIOL 415 course had the largest effect size for ethical decision-making. The result might be explained by faculty preparation since the instructor attended workshops on teaching ethics while incorporating the engagement projects in her course. The BME 401 course also generated an effect size in ethical decision-making comparable to the impact-focused program. This instructor had incorporated non-travel-based engagement experiences in the curriculum for several years.

Students failed to show any gains in civic responsibility. Several factors may explain these results. Most importantly, civic responsibility was never discussed as an explicit topic in any of these courses including the impact-focused courses. It is also possible that students do not necessarily have

the vocabulary to self-report their improvements. Finally, it is possible that our assessment tool might not be sensitive enough to detect the pre-post change. Only two ecosystem courses (CHEM 112H & ENGL 202B) showed small effect sizes (Cohen’s d = 0.20 and 0.17 respectively). The slight gains might be explained by dispersing the projects across a semester-long timeline.

Lessons Learned: Areas for Improvement

Can we integrate different kinds and levels of interest in community engagement amongst students, faculty members, and their administrators so that their collective impact is much larger than the individual efforts? Yes, but the model needs a significant amount of fine-tuning. In order to make this model more effective, we need to improve faculty preparation and support, faculty and student buy-in, coordination logistics, and assessment strategy.

Faculty Preparation and Support

As seen with BIOL 415 and BME 401, faculty preparation in understanding the concepts and appropriate vocabulary as well as being able to seamlessly relate class content with the projects leads to improved results for students. This understanding and ability will grow with experience but can be accelerated through faculty workshops, one on one support from pedagogy experts, and lateral knowledge sharing between professors in the ecosystem.

The projects that stretched across the semester as opposed to those completed over several weeks had students thinking about the context and problems over a longer time period, which seems to have lead to higher gains. First time around, faculty members wanted to do a shorter project but now they are excited about longer projects, which will likely further improve outcomes. Therefore, this model needs to be set up as a multi-semester effort to help faculty gradually step out of their comfort zones and find the right kind and level of engagement that works for their class and leads to stronger and sustainable student outcomes.

Several professors backed out of the pilot upon not receiving support from their course coordinators and department heads. This problem arose from junior faculty who were eager to try something new but were encouraged to get more experience before changing their course from the common framework. Fourteen faculty members were ultimately recruited for non-travel-based course projects and eleven were teaching faculty – this model provides an opportunity to engage non-tenure-track faculty further. The ecosystem manager can leverage several interests to recruit a wider range of faculty members: offering guest speakers (either themselves or experts on the ecosystem themes) to fill classes where the professor may have a conference and offering recognition, through university news forums, awards, newsletters, etc.

Faculty and Student Buy-In

During class visits, the ecosystem manager observed that some courses were generally more excited than others about their project. Faculty feedback further indicates that this was a result of (1) the course being a required course for a major where the students genuinely cared about the material versus a general elective the students just had to get through and pass, and (2) how passionately the project was presented to them. The ecosystem manager must ensure that the students see a clear connection between their projects and the real world community partners. There was significantly more interest from students when they could see that their project was an essential part of a real project and HESE students as well as community members were leaning on their efforts to accomplish something significant. The key to making this model work and for the students to give it their very best was this sense of community; it wasn’t about a grade anymore. Sharing past stories and pictures and keeping them posted on field updates further reinforced this sense of community and belonging.

Do the projects serve to get the students involved further in the high impact program? The ecosystem manager observed that participating in the pilot made students and professors excited about getting further involved in community engagement programs, raised awareness about the high impact program, and produced directly useful deliverables for the high impact program. While we know that a few students were inspired by and decided to partake in more engaged courses and programs, we need more data over a longer time horizon to assess the outcome of students actually joining high impact programs as a result of participating in a course in the ecosystem pipeline.

Coordination Logistics

The ecosystem manager spent six to thirty hours to set up each course and provide support throughout the semester. While the ecosystem manager can help establish and support at least three ecosystems per semester, they need to have a source of information and credibility from each program that an ecosystem is built around. While the director of HESE acted as this source for the pilot, for future ecosystems, an accessible, knowledgeable, and passionate ecosystem ambassador should be used to minimize the time needed from an already busy faculty member running an impact-focused program. An ecosystem ambassador should be a student, faculty, or staff representative from the impact-focused program who is well-informed of and experienced with the program, and able to stimulate the interest of the students in the ecosystem courses.

Assessment Strategy

Our preliminary assessment has limitations in its design including not having a control group to eliminate maturity as a confounding factor. To validate the impact of the engagement ecosystem, in the next phase, we will compare courses in an ecosystem with matched courses without engagement experiences. The high student dropout rate from courses as well as some professors’ difficulties fitting the post-survey into the tight schedule in the last week of the semester was another problematic issue, leading to fewer matched pre-post cases.

Developing sensitive but easy-to-administer assessment tools is challenging. Most faculty members had trouble integrating one survey, let alone four subscale surveys, due to time constraints in their course. Using self-report surveys to compare the impact-focused program and the non-travel-based courses was limited because skills and competencies are best assessed using direct measures, such as rubrics. In the future, we will apply rubrics to assess students’ projects to get qualitative information of engagement-related learning outcomes.

Future Expansion

Due to the promise of the EE model to be a lean and scalable strategy for getting more students involved in engagement opportunities, we will continue to test and refine the model. In the next round of implementation, the ecosystem manager will build from the lessons learned to improve upon preparing and supporting faculty, getting students excited about their projects, coordinating the ecosystems effectively and efficiently, and making simple and accurate assessment tools. It will take several years of dedicated and persistent effort for the EE model to reach the majority of university students. The plan is for the ecosystems to form organically as faculty and students get further drawn in to the culture of engagement at the university. The ecosystem manager needs to gradually develop relationships with professors, departments, and centers in every college and campus of the university, throughout Pennsylvania as well as the online community.

The EE model helps impact-focused programs emerge, stabilize, and scale by developing an ecosystem of courses around them. Two departments have expressed interest in building ecosystems around their research themes of sustainability, the natural world, and geriatric care. Similarly, two campuses have expressed interest in building ecosystems around themes of local interest: livable cities, solar ecology, and materials for humanity. As more ecosystems emerge, the ecosystem manager will search for ways to include more diversity in the ecosystems, bringing in students from various cultural and economic backgrounds, while ensuring that the collective efforts of thousands of students is reflected in the ultimate community impact.


The EE model has provided opportunities for students and faculty to engage at a variety of different degrees through travel and non-travel-based experiences embedded into existing courses. This approach of providing faculty-specific scaffolding to engage more faculty is not a one-semester effort but rather a gradual, yet determined approach to build over time. For Fall 2015, we already have ten new professors in addition to previously-engaged professors involved; over 1,300 students will be involved in the HESE ecosystem. In addition to an ecosystem around HESE, we have two additional ecosystems starting to emerge in Fall 2015, with five more planned in Spring 2016. For universities challenged with a dearth of potential partners, this is a great way to engage without overwhelming the community. Ongoing assessment is expected to provide more insights into the efficacy of the model and the desired levels of achievement for the cross-section of the students in colleges throughout the university and will help to determine whether the less intensive, non-travel-based levels of engagement can build pipelines into impact-focused programs.

The EE model is just one of many approaches and pedagogical models that Penn State is piloting to scale engagement opportunities. Other approaches include showcasing engagement opportunities to large general education courses that are relevant to their course content, sparking interest in engaged scholarship through delivering flipped classroom modules to cancelled classes on engagement-related topics such as sustainable development and an entrepreneurial mindset, and promoting engaged scholarship through a student ambassador group. It is important that all of these efforts are happening concurrently with the EE model in order to meet the varying needs of faculty and students and achieve Penn State’s 2020 goal.


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The authors would like to thank David Boehr, Priyanka Yalamanchili, Lorena Waselinko, Elizabeth May, Sarah Kollat, Denise Woodward, Chris Palma, Sarah Ritter, Susan Beyerle, Jesse McTernan, Stephen Van Hook, Peter Butler, Ravinder Koul, Linda Trevino, and John Hill for their eagerness to jump into this model in our first pilot. We would also like to thank Careen Yarnal, Barry Bram, and Richard Smith for their support and guidance.

About the Authors

Khanjan Mehta is the director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program and assistant professor of Engineering Design at Penn State University. Irena Gorski is Global Engagement Ecosystem manager at Penn State. Chang Liu is a doctoral student in Educational Psychology at Penn State. Suzanne Weinstein is the director of Instructional Consulting, Assessment and Research at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (SITE) at Penn State. Chas Brua is a research associate and instructional consultant at SITE. Adam Christensen is director and senior analyst for Penn State Student Affairs Research and Assessment at Penn State.

Hear Our Voices: Case Study Connecting Under-Represented Communities to Research Legislators on Safe Routes to School and Active Transportation

Huda Ahmed, Khalid Adam, Karen Clark, Felicia Wesaw,
Sarah Gollust, and Marilyn S. Nanney



Although research indicates the built environment influences the walkability of a geographic region among a general population, less is known about the built-environment influences among communities that face health and socio-economic disparities. Built-environment initiatives like Safe Routes to School and Active Transportation that do not take into account the unique assets/barriers of these communities can inadvertently widen disparities. With a health equity lens, this project focused on bridging information gaps that exist between underserved communities, research, and health policy-making. Community listening sessions focusing on Safe Routes to School/Active Transportation were held in the spring of 2014. Over 180 participants from some of Minnesota’s communities of color (Native American, Somali/Oromo, and LGTBQ Two-Spirit) generated recommendations for policy and program decision- makers. These recommendations illustrated that in addition to the built-environment Safe Routes to School/Active Transportation address, public safety concerns needed to be addressed for successful implementation of Safe Routes to School and Active Transportation in their communities.


Minnesota is repeatedly ranked as one of the healthiest states in the country ( This ranking, however, does not tell the whole story. Despite being healthy on average, Minnesota ranks among the states with the worst health disparities. This means that the opportunity to be healthy is not enjoyed equally by all Minnesotans. According to a recently released from the Minnesota Department of Health, examples that highlight such disparities include:

African American and American Indian babies die in the first year of life at twice the rate of white babies. While infant mortality rates for all groups have declined, the disparity in rates has existed for over 20 years. American Indian, Hispanic/Latino, and African American youth have the highest rates of obesity. Gay, lesbian and bisexual university students are more likely than their heterosexual peers to have struggles with their mental health (

Despite health disparities nationally being highlighted as an issue decades ago (Nickens, 1986), they continue to persist. According to the 2014 Advancing Health Equity Report by the Minnesota’s Commissioner of Health; they persist because of structural policies and programs that routinely advantage one mainstream population (Caucasian) and disadvantage others (minorities). These policies and programs reinforce the disparities by taking a one size fits all approach that does not take into account the unique needs, assets, and culture of other communities, these same communities that are afflicted with higher morbidity and mortality rates. This calls for an upstream approach that engages disadvantaged communities as policies and program are being planned and developed so that resulting health policies and programs address their specific needs in a way that is appropriate to them.

Currently in Minnesota, there are many health policy projects underway that communities affected by health disparities, if equipped with relevant research best practices, can help shape and influence. These include;

1. Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). SHIP is a state initiative that works on policy, systems, and environmental factors that need to be in place for a healthier community. Activities include: Farm to School to promote healthy eating; Safe Routes to School to have more kids walking to school to increase their physical activity; Physical activity in schools that are working to increase physical activity within the instructional setting; and Tobacco Free Campuses. SHIP was behind the University of Minnesota’s going tobacco free this year.

2. Community Transformation Grant (CTG). This is a federally funded initiative from the Center for Disease Control that in Minnesota, works to expand efforts in tobacco-free living, active living and healthy eating, and quality clinical and other preventive services, all toward a goal of addressing health disparities, helping control health care spending, and creating a healthier future.

Unfortunately, many of the communities that are affected by health inequities are not engaged at these policy shaping discussions for the reasons discussed earlier. So, as certain communities become healthier by benefiting from the above policies and programs, others are at the wrong end of a widening health equity gap because they are not part of the conversation.

“Bridging the Gap” Project Overview
Current research (Gollust, Kite, Benning, Callanan, Weisman, & Nanney, 2014) examining ways in which childhood obesity research evidence is used in the policymaking process highlighted several gaps, including engaging communities to have influence on policy decisions. Since legislators are accountable to community demands, communities that are engaged and knowledgeable about policy-relevant research findings can have an influential role in helping to advocate for policies to improve health. There needs to be a connection between research and policy and, even more importantly, to eliminate health inequity disadvantaged communities must be a part of this connection from the beginning. Often when policy-shaping discussions are happening and when important research findings are being disseminated, they are done in a way that leaves out communities that are not connected for many reasons. This continues to reinforce health inequities because it produces an information gap that leaves these communities lagging. This project offered the opportunity for communities to provide input to real time state and local policy making. By engaging these communities at the beginning and tailoring the engagement process to their needs, our approach ensured they were part of health impacting conversations from the start.

Our community-academic partnership implemented a robust community engagement process connecting policy-relevant obesity research findings with disadvantaged communities to mobilize them toward impacting policy decisions, specifically the legislative 2014 target of Safe Routes to School.

All partners recognized they have unique expertise that when combined moves the needle toward health equity for all. Researchers affiliated with University of Minnesota Program in Health Disparities Research (PHDR), have been involved in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health on use of research evidence in policy making decisions. This project, while including policymakers, advocates, and state agency staff, did not include any underserved communities, an important oversight that this project corrects. The community partners were key in bringing the two together due to their strong relationship with PHDR and their communities. A community dialogue series platform brought all three together; research, community, and the 2014 policy initiative of Safe Routes to School. This project was “shovel ready” for implementation and could serve as a model for engaging disadvantaged communities in achieving health equity initiatives. The University of Minnesota IRB determined the project to be exempt.

The Policy: Safe Routes to School

With the growing rates of childhood obesity around the country (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2012), the American Heart Association in 2015 recommended that kids get about an hour of physical activity a day ( Increasing children’s physical activity has been shown to decrease obesity. An 850-article literature review on the topic (Strong, Malina, Blimkie, Daniels, Dishman, Gutin, Hergenroeder, Must, Nixon, Pivarnik, J.M., Rowland, Trost, & Trudeau, 2005) concluded that 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity that was developmentally appropriate was recommended for school age youth. Most U.S. children did not meet the recommended one hour minimum of daily moderate-to-vigorous activity (Troiano, Berrigan, Dodd, Mâsse, Tilert, & McDowell, 2008).

Recent research has shown that Active Community to School and Safe Routes to School can provide a frequent opportunity for children to regularly obtain their moderate to vigorous activity (Mendoza, Watson, Nguyen, Cerin, Baranowski, & Nicklas, 2011). As a result of these research recommendations, there are national and state level initiatives to address environmental barriers to school age kids being able to walk or bike to school. Most of these efforts, including those in Minnesota, include infrastructure improvement; filling in side walk cracks; installing traffic control devices such as stop signs; and education campaigns. In 2014, when this project was being implemented, the Minnesota legislature was looking at whether to continue funding Safe Routes to School and at what level.

The Community Partners

Our partnership focused specifically on engaging communities that are often not part of the conversation on health policy change due to how, when and where these conversations are conducted. The community partners that were part of this project have roots with these communities. Along with the academic partner, PHDR, the other partners were: Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI), Positive Images, Health Equity Working Group (HEWG), and Brian Coyle Community Center. The communities engaged and represented by these partners are Native American, Somali, Hmong, African American, and LGBTQ communities of color. These are communities (among others) that suffer from poorer health and are less connected than others due to a lack of access to information and resources. Together, we aimed to bridge the information gap that exists and enforces the health inequalities for these communities. Our engagement processes included staff with the same cultural backgrounds and speak the native language of the impacted community members, dialogue events located in the community, and information presented in a way that is understood by all. Lastly, the community’s voice is combined with the research to meet the project objective of bridging the information gaps that exist between underserved communities, research, and health policy-making.

Phase 1

The community and academic partnership submitted a grant application to the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Center for Prevention and proposed to bridge persistent information gaps between researchers, communities, and policy-making bodies. After receiving the grant, partners convened for a kick-off meeting that was focused on communicating mutual understanding of the objectives of the grant mechanism and on the deliverables outlined in the grant application. Follow-up meetings were then scheduled with each partner to finalize a project work plan, establish a mutually agreed upon memorandum of understanding that highlighted how each of the partners and academic team would work together for a co-learning and co-empowering process, and to address anticipated logistical and technical needs.

Phase 2

All four community partners agreed to host in their respective communities with a goal of reaching 50 people each. It was also during this planning phase that community partners worked closely with the academic coordinator to augment their understanding of evidence based research focused on increasing physical activity. The academic partner, PHDR, agreed to provide a condensed summary of research that highlighted the benefits of SRTS (materials available upon request from authors). The summary was co-developed with the community coordinators so that it was in a format that was useful and understandable to respective communities.

Phase 3

Three out of the four partners were able to organize and facilitate convenings in their communities that reached their recruitment goals. The PHDR team made up of the project coordinator, the project manager and academic faculty whom were present at all convenings to transcribe the conversations that were taking place, to contextualize the objectives of the grant and to answer any questions community members had of the research. While all the community partners were able to adapt the questions for the dialogue as they saw fit for their communities, there was a set of general frame work questions that all the partners agreed upon:

1. What is happening in your community now (Safe Routes to School, Active Transportation)?
2. What are the main challenges to addressing these in your community? What do you want to tell policymakers/implementers about Safe Routes/Active Transportation and how it relates to your community?
3. What needs to be improved/addressed/acknowledged before these can be reality/improved in your community? What would you like to see happen?

The partners were free to frame these questions as they saw fit. One out of the three partners chose to focus on Active Transportation and not Safe Routes.

Phase 4

Partners then reviewed transcripts generated from the convenings and worked closely with a graphic designer to transform the data into engaging one page handouts geared for decision-makers that articulated the distinct needs (challenges, recommendations) of their communities as it related to active living and Safe Routes active issues.

The partnership then reconvened community members for another dialogue to present the one page hand outs and ask, Here is what you said as far as challenges and solutions, is that correct? What should we do next?

Project Measures

Measures of success were determined by the following guidelines
1. REACH: Convenings within each community that reached 50 people respectively.
2. REPRESENTATION: Convenings that reflected the identities of the intended audiences.
3. EXPECTATIONS: Meeting the objectives of communication to policy makers and timelines of the collaboratively developed work plans.

Reach: Three community organizations met and exceeded their recruitment goals for their convenings. Collectively, they exceeded their goals by approximately 22%. (On a goal of 150 people, we collectively reached approximately 184 people).

Representation: All three communities reached their intended demographics. Detailed breakdowns are listed below by community.

WEI/Little-Earth/Phillips Neighborhood: These convenings were held for the residents Little Earth and the Phillips neighborhoods. Approximately 34 community members from the neighborhood gathered for the first convening. The average participant age was 38–40 years of age. Participants in this convening comprised mainly of women (~75%) who identified as American Indian/Native American (~92%). Approximately 40% of the participants were parents with 38% of the parent participants having more than one child. Parent participants overwhelmingly had children who were between 7 months and 20 years of age. The second convening at Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) also reflected the surrounding communities’ racial and ethnic makeup. Thirty community members diverse in age and gender were part of the participant pool during this second convening.

Brian Coyle/Cedar Riverside Community. These convenings were held for residents of the Cedar Riverside Plaza. Two convenings were conducted one with youth (n=~10) and one with parents and grandparents (n=~55). Residents mainly comprised of Somalis who lived in the Cedar Riverside Plaza apartments.

Health Equity Working Committee/Two Spirit. This convening was held for LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual), Transgender/Gender non-conforming/Two-spirit Native Americans/people of color. The convening attracted more than 55 participants who represented a wide variety of age groups, sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions. This convening was not restricted to individuals residing in a specific geographic location and attracted individuals from as far as Shakopee.

Expectations. Three of the four partners and the PHDR team met the expectations outlined in our respective work plans. Major timelines and due dates were observed and the PHDR team ensured the compilation of relevant policy research and the transcription of data from the convenings was completed in a timely manner and sent back to the community partners. Currently, all three community organizations that were able to mobilize a convening have been able to work with a communications consultant to translate their findings into engaging one page handouts for policy makers. Two of the three organizations have presented their findings to policy makers.

Project Findings

While there were some uniqueness to each of the communities’ needs and assets, there were similarities in their recommendations for what SRTS and Active Transportation should look like in their communities. Generally, these needs showed that in addition to the built environment infrastructure challenges that SRTS and Active Transportation address, there were other needs that needed to be taken into account before these community members would send their kids walking or biking or to school or the LGBTQ communities of color would ride the bus or walk. These concerns focused largely on crime safety concerns.

Concerns Collective Recommendations to Decision-Makers

1. Infrastructure Safety Recommendations:
Mend cracked sidewalks and other hazards.
Install proper crossing signs.
Enforce existing no-smoking codes on community properties.
Improve lighting.
Conduct audits to identify bus routes and stops with the most use/need.

2. Crime Safety Recommendations:
Increasing positive police presence and interactions.
Train police officers and bus drivers on cultural competency; work to eliminate homophobia and transphobia.
Create structured opportunities for groups to walk to school together.
Allow adult parents or elders, hired and trained in appropriate intervention techniques as bus monitors, to ride and participate in school bus transport.

3. Education, and Socioeconomic Recommendations:
Educate community members on how to read/use crossing signs and identify safe routes.
Engage the community in designing solutions at the planning levels
Campaign to normalize presence of LGBTQ Two Spirit residents (e.g., bus stop posters)

Impact and Success

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Each of the communities participating in this project has a story that shows success:

1. Brian Coyle was able to secure a pilot grant to address the tobacco issue in their neighborhood that was identified through this project.
2. Health Equity Working Group and its partners were reached out to by the office of a city council member to present their finding from this project at the council members’ Trans Equity Summit in 2014.
3. Phillips/Little Earth has already started a process with the Minneapolis School Board to change a rule that does not allow parents/elders to ride the school bus with students
to help address the lack of safety on school buses. This was a big issue that kept coming up in the dialogues.

Partners were also asked to present project findings at the National Conference of State Legislatures – National Caucus of Native American State Legislators held in Minneapolis, Minnesota (2014).


Our community-academic partnership model successfully engaged communities, incorporated research and stories, and resulted in ongoing discussions with various decision-makers to inform current policy discussions. This community engagement project highlighted the fact that a one size fits all approach for health policies and programs likely only deepens existing health inequities. This is especially important as substantial funds are being dedicated to Safe Routes to School and Active Transportation initiatives both federally and at the state level. As public health researchers and professionals, it is imperative to keep the macro view in perspective, engage in ethical non-hierarchical collaborations with communities and that we understand there is no one solution; rather there are many solutions that have to be implemented simultaneously so that all communities can be healthy and benefit from public health initiatives equally.


Gollust, S.E., Kite, H.A., Benning, S.J., Callanan, R.A., Weisman, S.R., & Nanney, M.S.. (2014). Use of research evidence in state policymaking for childhood obesity prevention in Minnesota. American Journal of Public Health, 104(10), 1,894–1,900.

Mendoza, J.A., Watson, K., Nguyen, N., Cerin, E., Baranowski, T., & Nicklas, T.A. (2011). Active commuting to school and association with physical activity and adiposity among US youth. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 8(4), 488–495.

Nickens, H. (1986). Report of the secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health: A summary and a presentation of health data with regard to blacks. Journal of the National Medical Association, 78(6), 577–580.

Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among US children and adolescents, 1999-2010. JAMA, 307(5), 483–490.

Strong, W.B., Malina, R.M., Blimkie, C.J., Daniels, S.R., Dishman, R.K., Gutin, B., Hergenroeder, A.C., Must, A., Nixon, P.A., Pivarnik, J.M., Rowland, T., Trost, S., & Trudeau F. (2005). Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 146(6), 732–737.

Troiano, R.P., Berrigan, D., Dodd, K.W., Mâsse, L.C., Tilert, T., & McDowell, M. (2008). Physical activity in the United States measured by accelerometer. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 40(1), 181–188.

About the Authors

Huda Ahmed is associate director of Policy & Community Programs Manager of the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health Program in Health Disparities Research. Khalid Adam is community programs assistant in the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health Program in Health Disparities Research. Karen Clark is the executive director of the Women’s Environmental Institute. Felicia Wesaw is community organizer of the University of Minnesota Division of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health Women’s Environmental Institute. Sarah Gollust is an assistant professor and McKnight Land-Grant Professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. Marilyn S. Nanney is an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.