“We Know We Are Doing Something Good, But What Is It?”: The Challenge of Negotiating Between Service Delivery and Research in a CBPR Project

Fay Fletcher, Brent Hammer, and Alicia Hibbert


Engaging communities throughout the research process and responding to community priorities results in constant negotiation between service and research. Community-based participatory research has well established principles intended to guide both the process and goals of research with community. The authors contribute to the body of literature that speaks to the challenge of achieving CBPR ideals amidst the complexity of community realities. When university-based research is aligned with community-based service delivery, at least three sets of expectations must be balanced – those of the community, the university, and the funding agency. The complexity of achieving balance between the ideal and the reality of CBPR, and balance between service delivery and research, were explored using a cyclical process of debriefs throughout the delivery of a youth life skills program with Métis Settlements in Alberta. The value of the process and lessons learned are presented.

The phrase “scholarship of engagement” (SOE) represents an emergent and therefore somewhat nebulous concept in the current domains of higher education and community-university partnerships (Driscoll & Sandmann, 2001; Giles, 2009). Not to be mistaken for “engaged scholarship” (ES), now ensconced in community-university partnerships (CUP) and community-based participatory research (CBPR) literature (Calleson, Jordan, & Seifer, 2005; Horowitz, Robinson, & Seifer, 2009; Jones & Pomeroy, 2009), the intent of SOE is to represent a reflection on the process of doing ES. Since Ernest Boyer (1990, 1996) described his vision of SOE, there has been a tendency over the past two decades for researchers and academics to get bogged down in terminology while trying to reconcile the study of ES and SOE (Giles, 2008) with the ideals of CUP (Calleson, Jordan, & Seifer, 2005) and guiding principles for conducting CBPR that supports collaborative, equitable partnerships that involve long-term process and commitment (Horowitz, Robinson, & Seifer, 2009; Israel, Schulz, Paarker, Allen, & Guzman, 2003).

The purpose of this paper is to report on an approach for SOE research. The authors present a formative evaluation process designed to document the challenges of developing, delivering, and managing a community service delivery program while balancing the goal of and institutional expectation for academic research rigor. The process and outcomes are explored through discussions of complex issues and events during a CBPR project entitled Métis Settlements Life Skills Journey (MSLSJ). We further explore the challenge of balancing the ideas, guidelines, and rhetoric of research literature with the lived experiences of community partners and research participants.
Whether delivering a community service program or conducting a program evaluation, working with, not for, the community remains a priority in CBPR (Wallerstein, Duran, Minkler, & Foley, 2005). Ongoing multi-dimensional communication and relationship building are recognized as key components to effective CBPR projects (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998, 2001); yet they also remain at odds with funders’ goals of producing quantifiable results in a timely fashion and academic institutional policies for rewarding achievement (Driscoll & Sandman, 2001; Horowitz, et al., 2009). Academia and project funders largely undervalue sustainable working relationships as outcomes in CBPR projects in general (Shaffer, 2014).

This article explores how a CBPR research team strives to maintain academic rigor in a health oriented CBPR project while addressing the multitude of variables in working directly with people and communities, for example:

You wonder how authentic the engagement is when, in order to meet the academic rigor as they define it, they can’t be responsive to community priorities and community realities in terms of development. So it’s very complicated, right? How do you actually gauge a relationship being authentic and enforce academic rigor that this measures? (principal investigator)

CBPR, CUP, and ES literature clearly articulate their respective principles, in theory (Horowitz, et al., 2009; Israel, et al., 2001; Jones & Pomeroy, 2009). However, in practice, delivering a program with community members and conducting research shaped by their everyday experiences did not fit into prescribed principles and theories. CBPR requires a balance between the ideal and real, and often constant negotiation between service and research. To manage this balance, we created an opportunity to understand the tensions and to garner insight into engagement and capacity building.

Regular debrief sessions were held with the principal investigator (PI), project manager (PM), and research coordinator (RC) at the request of the PI of the MSLSJ project. The motivation came from the PI’s experience across multiple projects where “the elephant in the room” was ignored: politics, power, and prevailing stereotypes that many scholars are uncomfortable addressing. The PI shared the hope that debrief participants would commit to an environment where these issues could be openly discussed. The purpose of these debrief sessions was twofold: first, to provide an information-sharing forum for team leaders during MSLSJ implementation, and second, to provide an opportunity for reflection and reflexive analysis, similar to academic journal writing, now encouraged as a part of performing engaged scholarship. Insights gained from this process would be used as formative assessment and to inform planning. Three team leaders, referred to here as participants, debriefed regularly on the ongoing challenges of negotiating between service delivery and research.

While the participants recognize that the statement “we are doing something good” may not satisfy the rigor of academic research, the phrase speaks to the need for a more in-depth understanding of the characteristics needed to achieve success in both service delivery and research. There is growing acceptance in community engagement studies of the value in collecting stories to shape positive change in communities (Romero, 2013). The participants and facilitator chose an approach that involved collecting and reflecting on personal CBPR research stories through cycles of active participation in debriefs by the research team leaders. The process, lessons learned, and outcomes provide insight into the “elephants in the room,” expediting progress from CBPR principles to action and reflection on common pitfalls in engagement. This paper contributes to the emerging body of literature on SOE.

Project Background and Partners

The primary purpose of the MSLSJ program is to increase life skills awareness in a culturally appropriate manner, with the intent of addressing substance misuse and bullying in Métis communities. The MSLSJ program meets the community’s goal of incorporating their specific community context in programming and meets the goal of funders to foster safe communities through prevention programs in Alberta, enhance the wellness of Alberta’s children and families, and provide skill training for Aboriginal youth. The project employs an interdisciplinary approach by engaging individuals with expertise in education, psychology, recreation and physical education, anthropology, nutritional sciences, and community engagement studies to work with members of the Métis Settlements involved in the project.

The Métis are an Aboriginal group in Canada, some living on self-governed settlements in Alberta. While the Métis have a shared history with First Nations people, they are a distinct group with different lived realities from First Nations communities. The MSLSJ program is part of a Métis settlement research project that builds partnerships with individual settlements and focuses on knowledge exchange with settlement members.

The PI has been collaborating with Aboriginal communities in CBPR projects since 2005 (Baydala, Sewlal, Rasmussen, Alexis, Fletcher, Letendre, Odishaw, Kennedy, & Kootenay, 2009; Baydala, Letendre, Ruttan, Worrell, Fletcher. Letendre, & Schramm, 2011; Baydala, Worrell, Fletcher, Letendre, Letendre, & Ruttan, 2013), supported by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension. Participating authors Fletcher and Hibbert, along with Robertson and Asselin (2013), published on community engagement through needs assessments as part of this ongoing project.

Documenting Engagement: Meshing Methods in Debrief Sessions

The PI initiated weekly debrief sessions as a way to monitor the progress of the MSLSJ project and to provide a forum for reflection on the process of CUP required for engaged scholarship in CBPR projects. This approach follows a simple, yet effective, principle that the people who are doing the work should also reflect upon it (Smyth, 1989). This supports the current movement of academic institutions and faculty professing engaged learning, discovery, and citizenship to demonstrate their public engagement and contribute to the SOE (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2002; Brukardt, Holland, Percy, & Zimpher, 2004; Faculty of Extension, 2010; Stanton, 2007). The fact that the participants had taken separate academic journeys but had collectively studied critical social theory, cultural relativism, and reflexivity, led to a shared belief in the importance of creating space for multiple perspectives to inform the research process. It was agreed that journaling provided a valuable experiential learning method for exploring engagement in CUP and CBPR (Douchet & Wilson, 2008). Despite this interest, the time commitment required was impractical, especially during camp leader training and implementation. To overcome the barrier presented by this time demand, it was decided that audio recorded sessions would fill this need. The debrief sessions were used as an alternative approach to journaling; dialogue would encourage active and critical reflection. The debrief process complemented other quantitative and qualitative data collection and evaluation pieces already in place for the overall project.

The term “debrief” was selected for this process, representing an informal sharing activity unconstrained by narrow labels. Similar to the First Nations idea of a sharing circle, the debrief activity fit with the perspective of CBPR being an approach to, rather than a specific research method for, evaluating research outcomes.

The Approach: Cooperative Inquiry

Traditional qualitative methods alone would have been insufficient to meet the goals set by the participants — to explore the “elephants in the room” and document the balance between service delivery and research. Cooperative inquiry stems from action research, participatory research, feminist qualitative research, and appreciative inquiry; it was chosen as the debrief approach since it allows for reflective practice and analysis (Heron, 1996). The data collection methods align with the co-operative inquiry approach, emphasizing reflective practice.

Methods: Debrief Sessions

A doctoral student with experience in qualitative data collection, interviewing, and focus groups was hired to facilitate the debrief sessions. The student was not employed by the Faculty of Extension, was not a project team leader, and was not a member of the Métis Settlement. This enabled the debrief facilitator to assume an outsider’s perspective during discussion of this particular project. However, the student had a shared set of values with the participants; his background was also entrenched in the principles of cultural relativism and reflexivity, a key factor in his ability to facilitate the conversation with this group. The student also had experience working with the participants and was able to meet the expectation for safe and open discussions based on a well established level of familiarity and trust.

The debrief sessions were not conducted using traditional interview or focus group protocol. A typical interview process requires non-reaction from the interviewer, so it is important to note that the debrief facilitator did not maintain a strict interviewer-interviewee relationship with the participants. The lack of structure for these discussions also negates its categorization as a focus group.

In practice, the debrief sessions incorporated many elements of unstructured reflective journaling, which can be audio recorded, as well as autoethnography. In parallel to the goals of unstructured reflective journaling, these sessions involved researchers discussing their experiences, assumptions, and choices throughout the research process, integrating new ideas into daily activities. The group process used during debriefs introduced participants to the elements of co-operative inquiry;

Cooperative inquiry involves two or more people researching a topic through their own experience of it, using a series of cycles in which they move between this experience and reflecting together on it (Heron, 1996, p. 1).

This blend of oral reflective journaling and co-operative inquiry during the debrief sessions satisfied our goal to be informal in our approach and to promote ease and comfort among the participants so that practical issues could be discussed. Creating a relaxed and safe environment encourages honesty and the open exchange of concerns, issues, and new ideas. The sessions were unstructured, allowing participants to provide regular updates to one another and to discuss emerging project issues. At the same time, the facilitator had participants focus on recurring themes. It is important to note that the position of the facilitator, who was familiar with the issues and research approach but not directly involved with the project, proved to be a valuable asset to the process and outcomes. Detailed clarification on actions, issues, strategies, and resolutions was achieved by asking who, why, and how questions of participants. These probes promoted intra-group communication and encouraged personal reflection by participants.

On average, the debrief sessions lasted one hour with a range of 43 to 67 minutes. All sessions were voice recorded to document both the discussion content and process. The facilitator uploaded the voice recorded sessions to a secure computer and transcribed them for further analysis. The following debrief transcripts were summarized using the key issues identified in the project’s needs and readiness assessment (Fletcher, Hibbert, Robertson, & Asselin, 2013):

  1. Barriers and successes in community-university partnerships:
    1. the importance of having a community-specific approach to research
    2. differences among team members (campus/community divide)
    3. reducing the burden of participation among community members
    4. university and funder policies and procedures
  2. Stories of change in training youth facilitators

Early in the analysis of the initial debrief sessions, it became apparent to the facilitator that the debrief sessions were also an opportunity to document insights leading to suggestions and considerations for future planning. The debrief summaries served three purposes. First, they were sent to the PM so that immediate concerns about youth facilitator training, implementation, and evaluation could be addressed. Second, lessons learned about the project, program design, and budgeting were noted for future consideration. Third, debrief summaries were filed with all project documents, ensuring that they would be readily accessible for knowledge mobilization activities, including reports to funders, research publications, and community presentations.

In order to further contribute to the project’s formative evaluation, the debrief summaries were then analyzed using an inductive qualitative approach in order to identify emerging themes (Thomas, 2006). Seven non-mutually exclusive themes were identified: community service delivery (or project management) vs. research; relationship building; roles and responsibilities; assumptions; youth facilitator training; staff hired to train the facilitators in their camp leader roles; and success of the first year. In total, 16 debriefs were held from May 8 to November 7, 2013, allowing participants to reflect on the entire pilot implementation process. This period encompassed facilitator training and implementation for two life skills summer camp programs for 7–10 year olds at two Métis Settlements in Alberta. The debrief session time period also included discussions about program evaluation through pre/post camp surveys with the campers, focus groups with campers and youth facilitators, and interviews with key team members involved in the delivery of these programs. At the conclusion of the debrief sessions in November, the three participants were asked to write their own summary and reflection on the process and submit it to the debrief facilitator. This was done to provide a summative evaluation sample with the goal of informing the overall formative process and future program planning.

Emergent Theme: Balancing the Ideals of CBPR with the Realities of CBPR

Community capacity building has been one of the guiding principles of CBPR and community-engaged scholarship (Horowitz, Robinson, & Seifer, 2009; Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 2001; Jones & Pomeroy, 2009). Chino and DeBruyn (2006) note that the concepts and terms of CBPR, including capacity building, are brought to Indigenous communities by mainstream academics and call for an indigenous informed approach. In response, the authors of this article have adopted the term co-learning, feeling it abandons a deficit based approach and more adequately captures the “important component of research among Native American communities” (LaVeaux & Christopher, 2009, p. 8) that recognizes individual expertise and community strength. The following comment from the first debrief session illustrates the tension created by the language of capacity building versus co-learning, a tension that has ripple effects on the CBPR ideal of equal community involvement and participation throughout the project:

Yes, there are principles that are supposed to guide your work and your actions, right? And we’ve already, in working up to this point said, you know what? It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to contribute to every aspect and we’re going to use all our strengths and bring all our strengths together in the best way. What’s interesting is the idea of building capacity in individuals is enviable but to do so without patronizing is challenging. (PI)

This passage highlights a potentially problematic assumption in conducting CBPR, and one that researchers are often hesitant to openly discuss and report on: that the community and its members will actively engage in every aspect of the project. As the research team identified in their needs and readiness assessment (Fletcher et al., 2013), it is often difficult to get community members to participate in focus groups designed to collect their input and engage them in a collaborative process. While it is important to obtain Settlement Council’s support for the program, they are not the individuals in the community that are tasked to do the everyday work required for the project to be successful. Council may support the project in their community but the level of commitment and the capacity to participate may not be the same for the community members involved in the day-to-day activities.
The research team reduced the responsibilities of individual community members, especially volunteers, by acting as the central project managers tasked with the day-to-day administration and serving as the buffer between the university and funding institutions. While, ideally, CBPR seeks to incorporate community input into all phases of a project, that breadth of input can be difficult to motivate; the project management team is required to move forward based on what they do know, as the following quote suggests: “You can try to call meetings to gather input [into these] and if you get it that’s great but if you don’t, your only option is to do it based on what you know from your community relationships.” (PI) This illustrates that some communities, although they are aware of the issues and may provide strategies, are also overwhelmed by day-to-day responsibilities, or may not (yet) see the important and valuable insight they may contribute to resolving specific issues.

The debrief sessions revealed that community stakeholders were not interested in taking on particular tasks often associated with capacity-building (as well as the distribution of power), such as handling budgets and reporting or taking on supervision of co-workers in community. Furthermore, community members appreciated having people with the appropriate expertise to take on responsibility for some of these administrative and supervisory tasks. One debrief participant shared that community members she spoke with were “happy to have people from the [university], or wherever, who have expertise in certain areas to come out during camp and lead camp, that would be fine.” (PM) The PI reinforced this position in a later debrief session, stating:

This group has strongly said if you can bring someone from outside the community that has the skills, they actually encouraged that. And we can see that as now we are doing this two-way capacity building, we’re not being isolationists; we’re saying we have strengths as non-community folks that we can bring in.

The PI noted that this experience with the Métis Settlements was distinct from earlier experiences; they exhibited a keen willingness to have “outsiders” enter their community to assist in roles that members knew they did not have the expertise or desire to perform. A community member employed by the project reiterated this when she shared her belief that if a community is serious about change among their youth, they need to be willing to work positively with external partners. The team leaders were more comfortable with the decision to bring additional non-community employees to the project knowing that the community not only encouraged it, but also began to see themselves as mentors to university students, who would have an opportunity to learn about their communities. We were gradually coming to a shared and clear commitment to co-learning between not just the research team but between settlement and post-secondary youth.

The excerpts from debriefs highlight the importance of building relationships through a process of co-learning that takes place over time. Time allows us to recognize the assets that individuals can contribute to the shared goal. It may be less about addressing perceived deficits in capacity and more about building social infrastructure, as the PI said: “Building capacity isn’t [only] building the skills in the community but the relationships and the networks.”

Emerging Theme: Community Service Delivery vs. Research

Inductive analysis confirmed a challenge apparent early in the debrief sessions: the complexity of managing a project that encompasses the creation, implementation, delivery, and evaluation of a community service while upholding the expectations of a research intensive university and multiple funding agencies. Despite the growing recognition of CBPR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 2008), priority given to connecting scholarship to the pressing issues and concerns of communities (Barker, 2004; Sandmann, 2006), and expectations for community university collaboration (Community Campus Partnerships for Health, n.d.; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, n.d.), the structures intended to serve the research mandate of the university do not easily accommodate service delivery or attend to the realities of the community. As a result, CBPR researchers often find themselves in the difficult position of satisfying both community priorities and university and funders’ policies. For example, the primary focus of the team leaders was to develop and implement — with community input — a program that would have a positive impact, making use of funding for the maximum benefit to the community. This is the direct result of a research team, representing community and university, that has achieved a similar understanding of community university engagement. The program must fit the needs of the community first, not the research goals of the university. To better understand some of the challenges of negotiating between service delivery and the research goals experienced, we present in more detail two ongoing foci of negotiation to achieve a balance of service and research: 1) barriers created by institutional (university and funding agency) policies and procedures, and 2) communication barriers created by language use and terminology.

Barriers Created by Institutional Policies and Procedures

The financial agreement between the funder and the PI’s institution was spoken of in 12 of the 16 debriefs, making it the most frequent topic of discussion. This speaks to its significance in achieving both the service delivery and research goals of the project. Openly discussing barriers that result from the policies and procedures of researchers’ institutions or funding agencies may be considered risky for researchers whose livelihood and reputation rely on funding to conduct research. Jeopardizing those grants or approvals by speaking about the challenges they present is not done lightly. However, the lessons learned in doing so may be the difference between future success or failure in maintaining community engagement while meeting community expectations for service delivery and adhering to the principles of CBPR.

The community service delivery side of the project required funds to pay for community facilitator training, summer camp supplies, community transportation, and food services. Project funding was also required to hire community members as staff to assist in the development of the program content and graduate research assistants to complete data collection, evaluation, and analysis.

By the 12th debrief, the summer camp program was complete and research data collected, yet the primary source of funding had not been secured with a signed contract. The ongoing challenges and subsequent success of managing the facilitator training and running the summer camps speak to the creativity and hard work from the project team leaders to essentially complete the first nine months of a 12-month agreement before money was transferred from the funder. It also speaks to the extra time, energy, and stress that was required to manage and successfully deliver a community service project, “If we didn’t have these funding issues, my [goodness] our lives would be so easy.” (PC) It is worth noting that this comment came from the first debrief session and not the 12th.
Were it not for interim funding provided by the PI’s faculty while agreements were written and re-written, all the activities needed to maintain the community trust and project momentum would have been interrupted. When so much time is invested in overcoming historical mistrust, the ability to support activities the community has prioritized (service programs) that also have a research and evaluation component is critical. The potential negative impacts of extremely delayed sign-off of contracts and agreements are a serious threat to successful engagement and CBPR.

The difficulty in signing agreements stemmed from the fact that the funding priority was service delivery, but the credibility and evaluative expertise the university brought to the project was valued by the funder. As a result, the principal funding agency used a service delivery template for the agreement. In short, this contract implied that the project team from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension was providing a service program to the community and that the funder would “own” the program and any and all data generated from that program. Being a research-intensive post secondary institute, the University of Alberta office responsible for research contracts and agreements identified a number of issues regarding intellectual property and ownership. This arrangement would prove unacceptable to the PI and the university as it undermined the research relationship with the community as well as the university’s policies on intellectual property. More importantly, it undermines one of the key tenets of CBPR with Aboriginal people (retaining ownership and control of research outputs) and the decision by the community to make resources open access for settlements throughout Alberta.

The grant agreement reflected funding for service delivery rather than a research program; the intent of the project team was to receive funds for both elements. This again highlights the challenges of delivering a community service program with the research objectives and parameters of university and funder guidelines. The individuals involved in writing legal grant agreements have no social connection to the people involved in the proposed projects. Their obligation is to meet the legal requirements for the institutions they represent. Health care funders and universities are increasingly recognizing the value of qualitative research to long term health benefits for a community. Yet, this example illustrates how funding agencies and communities are often not on the same page. Many of the challenges and frustrations from the first year (tight timelines, training new staff, finding team members with the desired expertise, communication issues, making assumptions, limiting travel to the community, learning on the go) were acknowledged by the team leaders as arising from delays in securing a contract with the primary funder. “The more that we can get funding settled, the more I don’t have to be constantly worried about it.” (PM) Despite these uncertainties and frustration with the funding contract delays, the frequency of their discussion in the debrief sessions allowed the participants to develop a sense of humor around them, “We already think it’s hilarious that we have completely done year one of the program without money.” (PC) A sense of humor, while not on the checklist for professorial evaluation, comes in handy when engaging with community in CBPR projects.

You Say Potato, I Say Potäto: Language Use and Terminology

CBPR is an approach designed to bridge the gap between university and community. This includes the challenge of straddling two linguistic worlds. The terms theory of change, most significant change, outcome mapping, community-university partnerships, engaged scholarship, scholarship of engagement, and their acronyms TOC, MOC, OM, CUP, ES, SOE, considered useful in scholarly publications and academic discussions, have little or no relevance to community members. The project team learned to listen and speak in different languages: the language of the community (regardless of linguistic dialect) and the language of academia. While labels and terms as noted above may serve to position the researcher as expert in the project, they are not likely to foster community engagement and may, in contrast, alienate community partners. Establishing a common language in CBPR is fundamental to respectful and equitable relationships.The language used to engage community members, like the project itself, must be relevant to the community.

In addition, the full complement of the team represented a variety of academic disciplines, also notorious for promoting their own terminology as part of their distinct expertise. Negotiating the service delivery/research balance as well as interdisciplinarity requires finding a common or shared communication style, language use, and terminology.

The community service delivery contract also used the troubling term “clients” to describe community members participating in the various facets of the project:

… they always want to list clients, like on the report, how many clients did you affect. The new funding … we’re not a research project but kind of a service – they are still listed as clients. So at some point I have to report on our clients and what we have done with them. (PM)

To combat this, reports to funders typically contain the terms “participants” for research participants and “partners” for all other community members involved in the project. We strictly avoid the use of the term “clients” in all reports, publications, and presentations, and have not to date received any backlash for doing so.
Regular debrief sessions over the duration of the MSLSJ development and delivery enabled the team leaders to discuss communication issues early and implement immediate corrective measures for community members as well as the expanded program service delivery and research team. Agreeing on accessible terms and labels, and clarifying their meanings, contributes to open communication.

Conversely, data, information, findings, interpretations, and meaning are often not readily accepted in academic circles and publications until given a discipline-accepted label. As the title of this paper — “We know we are doing something good, but what is it?” — is meant to suggest, the struggle to find an appropriate label to capture the first year experiences of the project is at the heart of negotiating a service delivery program with research objectives in a CBPR project. More succinctly, how do you measure the value of the relationships built and the deep meaning conveyed by those relationships? Through regular debriefs, participants, discussed, debated, and reflected on the many issues that arose during the first year of the project and received feedback on their individual activities on a regular basis. Lessons learned while the project was ongoing allowed for adjustments without affecting the research integrity of the overall project, “So we’re doing this constant formative evaluation with a very participatory approach.” (PI)

Lessons Learned

One of the first lessons was the importance of adopting a “learn as you go” attitude when engaging with communities in CBPR projects. As a result, in the discussion that follows, we have chosen to present an example, followed by the lesson learned and then a suggested way to meet the guidelines of CBPR. As managers of service delivery and researchers, you need to be open and adaptable to inter- and intra-community differences and politics and not be overwhelmed when the ideals of CBPR are unattainable. Even the most basic assumptions require more attention than originally planned for. For example, there was an assumption that community members who applied in response to a job posting for camp facilitator positions would understand that a) they would be responsible for teaching children basic life skills in a day camp setting and b) the commitment was to full time work from May through August. Early recognition of differing expectations regarding roles and responsibilities allowed for change to be implemented quickly. For example, schedules were adjusted to accommodate shorter work days and four-day work weeks, rules were set regarding the use of personal cell phone during work time, and more in depth discussions of their role as camp facilitator were incorporated in the training.

Despite extensive CBPR experience with communities believed to have similar dynamics, it was impossible to anticipate how assumptions shaped by previous experiences would be “tested.” In other words, every service delivery and research project will test what we think we know. As we became more familiar with the community members and community dynamics, it was clear that research questions and methods should be revised to get to the root of the challenges faced in delivering the life skills program. We also took in stride the unpredictability of participant attendance and adjusted data collection methods — down to the number of evaluation assistants present and physical location of the children in groups — as required. Flexibility and the ability to improvise on the go are essential skills in this work, as well as the ability to think innovatively about conventional principles of CBPR. Facilitators, being community members, knew the children and brought community knowledge and unique expertise. They also recognized themselves that they did not have the depth of expertise to handle everything that occurred at camp and welcomed more outside supervision from the university team members. The regular debrief sessions allowed the team leaders to address these types of issues immediately, assess the options, and take immediate action as required. This process encouraged creative solutions to specific issues while reducing the burden of individual team members having to make quick decisions on their own.

A second key lesson had to do with the assumptions regarding the composition and size of research team required to achieve the service delivery and research goals. The MSLSJ program proved too complex and multi-layered for the team leaders to manage all details. Subject matter experts from physical education and recreation were hired to give community facilitators the skills and knowledge to teach life skills through play. Research assistants were hired to assist in data collection and analysis. However, hiring undergraduate and graduate students with different disciplinary backgrounds meant that not all of the team members were familiar with the fundamental principles of CBPR and community engagement. This lack of grounding in CBPR is reflected in this comment:

I think the naivete of people entering into community based work [without prior experience] and thinking that – it kind of sounded like we were doing tokenistic community engagement. It was revealing of a lack of understanding possibly and newness to…community based research. (PI)

Co-learning and relationship building among the academic research team deserves as much attention as is given to co-learning and relationship building between the university and the community. Being self-reflective and analytical, while not always a comfortable process, has proven to be essential to serving the needs of the overall project and community partners.

Timely summaries of the debrief sessions enabled the PM to consider lessons learned while in the midst of planning the next year’s program budget and schedule. For example, the following decisions were made with regard to:

  1. Project Management
    1. training should occur in the communities
    2. the PC will teach facilitators, linking life skills concepts and activities
    3. we will hire a camp director who is responsible for supervising facilitators
    4. recruitment will be revised to strengthen the hiring of facilitators
    5. we will enforce clear expectations and consequences for facilitator performance
  2. Research
    1. participant observation during the summer camps would be valuable
    2. if we feel that a relationship with a partner is weak (based on our understanding of community readiness), the program will not run with that community
    3. outside guests make camp more fun, so plan for more to participate
    4. acilitators would benefit from a peer mentorship design with university students
    5. project outcomes could be improved if all members of the team, facilitators in particular, were taught basic principles of CBPR and the project goals

By discussing and reflecting on the program activities while they were happening, the team leaders came to recognize the importance of identifying the daily small ripples of change which could lead to more significant stories of change for future research purposes. They also learned to be realistic in their expectations for the project such as expecting only small ripples of change in the children after a two week summer camp. Teaching life skills and building resiliency is a long term project. It is also impossible to plan for all contingencies when engaged in community-based projects. The significance of using the debriefs to learn lessons is echoed in this statement by the PI: “Well, it informs what we are going to do for next year; definitely it’s changing our strategy and plan for next year.” Subsequent implementation years would have higher quality due to these lessons learned through debrief sessions.

Moving Forward

Regular debrief sessions were acknowledged by the team leaders as a more comfortable and efficient method for reflective analysis than individual journaling; they allow for a place and time to vent frustrations and brainstorm solutions. They were an opportunity to confront assumptions and challenge ideologies and practices, some of those “elephants in the room” that are often not discussed and documented. They were a successful strategy for documenting process and insights for future reference. “So often conversations happen and they are totally forgotten. Like a year from now, some of them [the same issues] will be happening again.” (PI)
The debriefs were a way to recognize and celebrate the many small successes that occurred, sometimes on a daily basis. The regular acknowledgement of positive events or moments served as validation to the team leaders that they were “doing something good” and provided motivation to continue to move forward despite the challenges of balancing a community service delivery program with the rigors of research objectives. This reinforced the idea that motivation should be one of the shared goals for the project and that helping to motivate community members, to see the value of the changes they wish to make in their community, is a critical component of co-learning. Capacity is built by creating networks for community members to use once the university exits the community; simply running the summer camps could build relationships in the community.

The debriefs were an effective way to promote regular information updates, to collect data for formative assessments of the program delivery and research, and to test the potential of co-operative inquiry as a novel and valuable tool for ES and SOE:

You do need to lay out your questions and your methods, all of those pieces that create academic rigor that people are looking for. But we are really trying to explore those other aspects of doing this work that are about the engagement and that do allow the work to make a difference… . That’s the real richness in these [debriefs]. (PI)

The debrief process was a positive experience for participants and contributed to the overall project goals. The team will use the debrief process for the second year of program implementation and evaluation. In addition, a community team member will join the team leaders debriefs and separate debriefs will be held with camp facilitators. The expansion of this debrief approach in our own engaged scholarship and scholarship of engagement is increasingly plausible as the relationship with individuals from the community and the community as a whole strengthens.


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About the Authors

All three authors are with the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Fay Fletcher is an associate professor and academic director of Community Engagement Studies, Brent Hammer is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant, and Alicia Hibbert is a research project manager.

Confronting Resistance: Addressing Issues of Race and Class During Community-Based Research

Detris Honora Adelabu


Community partnerships have the potential to empower and arm students with the tools to positively engage with all members of society. In this study, the author explores how race and class shaped students’ experiences with community-based research. Participants included 44 social science majors enrolled in an undergraduate research methods course. Students partnered with two community non-profits that served socioeconomically and ethnically distinct communities. Findings suggest that although students expressed varying levels of early resistance toward each partnership, they gained a raised awareness of their feelings toward and their unconscious reactions to race and class and began to work through initial resistance.

In the past 20 years, colleges and universities have worked more aggressively to engage students in community-based partnerships aimed at facilitating racial and cultural understanding and at helping students gain a sense of civic engagement (Buch & Harden, 2011; Hogan & Bailey, 2010). While the outcomes of such community engagement activities have been challenged by researchers as further contributing to students’ feelings of power and privilege and, in many cases, of building students’ self-esteem on the backs of the disenfranchised, research also suggests that a socially conscious approach to community partnerships instills in students a greater awareness of societal and structural inequalities and has a tendency to positively shift previously held negative attitudes and stereotypes toward traditionally marginalized groups (Boyle-Baise & Langford, 2004; Conley & Hamlin, 2009; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Marichal, 2010). Buch and Harden (2011) invited university students to engage in a community project working with the homeless and found that by the end of the semester, students reported fewer negative stereotypes regarding the homeless and indicated a greater desire to get involved in efforts aimed at helping the homeless. Similarly, Fenzel and Dean (2011), through a semester long community-based child psychology initiative, reported positive shifts in students attitudes toward race and social justice. At the end of the semester, students reported a greater awareness of white privilege and the existence of racism, and a greater likelihood to engage in social justice work. Ladson-Billings (2006) suggests that by confronting social and structural inequities firsthand students gain broader social awareness.

Community-based research (CBR), a socially conscious approach to the generation of new ideas, is one critical approach to community engagement (Polanyi & Cockburn, 2003; Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003; Willis, Peresie, Waldref, & Stockmann, 2003). CBR, defined as “collaborative, change-oriented research, engages faculty members, students, and community members in partnerships that address a community-identified need” (Strand et al., 2003, p. 5). CBR prioritizes the research needs and interests of the community over traditional academic research while still meeting the academic needs of the higher education community. In keeping with the theoretical work of Dewey (1944), CBR advocates for a civic engagement model of education that moves higher education beyond the notion of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” toward work grounded in social action and transformation. What distinguishes CBR from traditional research and from historical ideas of charity-based community work is that it engages colleges/universities and communities in reciprocal, egalitarian partnerships where all participants are both teacher and learner. Successful CBR partnerships reconcile what Friere (1993) recognized as the teacher-student pole of contradiction so that all are simultaneously teacher and student.

In an effort to transform students’ understanding of and relationships with power and privilege, CBR uses teaching and learning practices that both confront and destabilize power differentials in society (Conley & Hamlin, 2009). While this justice-based approach to teaching and learning has potential to positively impact all stakeholders, students who engage in CBR particularly benefit. Authentic CBR learning experiences increase students’ awareness of social injustice and enhance their civic engagement and responsibility. Students move from a charity orientation of working in communities toward a socially just orientation of working with communities (Morton, 1995). In a study assessing undergraduates’ beliefs about the benefits of CBR, students indicated that “involvement in CBR allowed us to redefine our education, our communities, and our roles in them” (Willis, et al., 2003, p. 41). Students believed that CBR 1) enriched their traditional academic coursework, 2) empowered them to work with rather than simply serve communities, 3) enhanced their knowledge of social problems and the myriad structural factors that contribute to them, and 4) allowed for successful, authentic integration of academics and community work (Willis, et al., 2003).

With an increasing number of higher education institutions attempting to build authentic community-based learning experiences for students, experiences that are often in communities socioeconomically and ethnically different from the higher education campus community, it is imperative we continue to study the impact of such partnerships on student development. This study examines how race and class shaped students’ experiences with CBR across two community partnerships.

The Course: Community-Based Research Methods

CBR was integrated into two sections of my undergraduate research methods course, a course designed to enhance students’ basic knowledge and understanding of social science research and required of all department majors. A prerequisite to research methods is completion of a year-long introductory human growth and development course. In the year-long course, students complete two 30-hour field placements with a community organization. Therefore, the CBR experience was not the first introduction to community-based learning for my students.

An objective of the community-based research methods course was to help students demonstrate and apply knowledge of diversity (cultural, linguistic, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, racial, sexual orientation) and to help students consider how their social location might influence the design, implementation, and interpretation of social science research. I believe, like many educators, that education should transform academia and be made relevant to the lives of students. Shor (1987) suggests it is naive “to see the classroom as a world apart where inequality, ideology, and economic policy don’t affect learning” (p. 14). Students “bring with them their cultural expectations, their experiences of social discrimination and life pressures, and their strengths in surviving” (Wallerstein, 1987, p. 33). This suggest that as researchers we bring our whole selves to the research experience, our personal experiences, culture, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and more — all of which can help to shape our research interest as well as how we design and carry out our research.

To better support the objectives of the course, students from two sections of Research Methods entered the diverse communities surrounding my institution. Discussions were held with four community non-profits to assess their research and evaluation needs. Two of the four community non-profits were selected as partners prior to the start of the semester. Each community organization provided students with two to three research and evaluation topics to collectively discuss and choose from. Students were informed of the partnerships and of potential research topics for each section of research methods prior to enrollment. Students worked with each community partner to co-create research questions, to design and implement the study, and to engage in data collection and analysis. Ideally, students would have taken part in choosing a community partner; however, due to timing our community partners were chosen prior to course enrollment.

The CBR partnerships were designed to support the needs of the community non-profits, to enhance students’ knowledge of research and evaluation, and to support students’ personal and professional growth and development. The CBR partnerships aimed to support students’ personal and professional growth and development by better preparing students to work with diverse communities, by providing students with real-world experiences and approaches to social change, and by empowering students to establish reciprocal, egalitarian partnerships with ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities.

Partnership One: Museum Partnership

Section one of Research Methods partnered with a local museum. Students and museum staff received the same readings for the course. On second day of the course, we began meeting with representatives from the museum. As a group we traveled to the museum for a tour and to spend time getting to know the space and the museum community (staff and visitors). On the third day, we began the process of co-creating a research plan to evaluate an exhibit designed to encourage children and their families to make healthy lifestyle choices regarding physical activity and nutrition. Five small groups emerged, with each group examining the exhibit though the use of different research techniques (qualitative and/or quantitative). Projects examined the extent to which families 1) have fun, engage with the exhibit and engage with each other, 2) are aware of the messages communicated by the exhibit, 3) make connections between the messages communicated in the exhibit and their own lives, and 4) how families from different backgrounds (ethnic, socioeconomic, educational) experience the exhibit.
Over 50% of our regular class sessions were held at the museum. Additional visits occurred on Fridays from 5–9 p.m., a time when the museum attracts more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse families.

Partnership Two: Community Center Partnership

Students enrolled in section two of Research Methods partnered with a local community center. Center staff was in the early stages of program development and wanted to learn more about programs/services currently operating in their geographic area and about the types of services community members wanted to see integrated into the new center. The center was to be built in a community where two-thirds of its families live below the self-sufficiency living standard with a median family income of just under $21,000 per year. Prior to partnering with us, the community center held over 100 small and large group meetings in the community to gain support and input. On the second day of class, community center representatives and students came together to discuss background information on the center and to discuss ideas to get more community input regarding the design and operation of the proposed community center. (Community center representatives met us on campus since the community center had not been constructed.) We co-created a plan to conduct a needs assessment of the local community that would help our community center partner identify and understand existing community-based programs providing services within a one-mile radius of where the center was to be constructed. Five small group projects emerged from the partnership. Groups examined the extent to which existing community programs were open to partnering with the new center. They also examined membership structures that support family participation, security needs of families that would enhance engagement with the center, mechanisms to support community volunteerism at the center, and the types of services families were interested in participating in at the center.
Over 50% of class sessions were held in the community. Due to the type of research projects designed for this partnership (projects that required students to survey and interview adults in the community) and since the center had not been constructed, students carried out their projects at a number of locations in the community, including the public library, local schools, and at existing community non-profits. This led to more logistical issues to sort through with the community center partnership than with the museum partnership.



Forty-four undergraduate students enrolled in two sections of Research Methods at a small private college participated in the research. There were 21 students enrolled in section one and 23 students enrolled in section two of the undergraduate Research Methods course. Participants included mostly juniors and seniors majoring in the social sciences. At the time of the study 18% of the students enrolled at the college identified as students of color and 82% identified as white/Caucasian. Both sections of the course were taught by the author, a tenured African American professor who has taught research methods at the college for over seven years.

Data Sources

Data were collected via anonymous pre and post course evaluations, an anonymous mid-semester check-in, journal notes and observations. In addition, ongoing meetings were held with community partners where minutes were taken and one community partner maintained a journal.

Data Analysis

To better understand how race and class shape students’ experiences with CBR, a content analysis was conducted on students’ pre, post and mid-semester evaluations and journal entries. Initial patterns in the data evolved from three readings of each data source by the author and readings by two independent readers (Creswell, 2008; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Patterns yielded evidence of varying experiences/responses to race and class across the two partnerships. Patterns were found regarding students’ attitudes toward the CBR partnerships and toward the value placed on those partnerships.

Students who partnered with the museum engaged with participants who were mostly middle to upper-income and white. Community center partners engaged with participants who where mostly lower-income or working class and of color. Although visitors to the museum were mostly white and economically advantaged, the research developed for the museum had as one of its goals to better understand how families from diverse backgrounds (socioeconomic, educational, and ethnic) experience the museum.


Embedded throughout the CBR experience was a discussion of racial and cultural identities and of the roles race and class can play in the design, implementation, and interpretation of social science research. In essence, I wanted my students to be mindful that we bring our whole selves to the interactions and activities within which we participate, even in the scientific field of research. Like Vygotsky (1978), I believe learning is inherently linked to our interactions with others and should, as Friere suggests, provoke “conceptual inquiry into self and society and into the very disciplines under study” (as quoted in Shor, 1987, p. 24).
The majority of students enrolled in Research Methods had completed or were currently enrolled in a racial and cultural identities course, a course designed to introduce the critical study of race, culture, and identity and to encourage students to examine their own socialization and understanding of race, ethnicity, culture, and identity. Still, race and class helped to shape students’ attitudes toward each community partnership.

Recognizing and Working through Early Resistance

Students enrolled in each section of research methods expressed resistance to CBR. However, differences were found in how resistance toward CBR manifested among students working with each community partner. For example, student museum partners were required to visit the museum on Friday nights (5–9 p.m.) during a time when more families from ethnically and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds tend to visit the museum. As one might imagine, not many college students want to give up a Friday night to conduct research at a museum. A student indicated, “I wish I could visit the museum on Wednesdays. I have a free block that day.” Similarly, another stated, “We should be able to visit the museum anytime it’s open.”

To help students understand the importance of the Friday night visits, during one of our first trips to the museum, 1:00 p.m. on a Thursday, students were asked to simply walk around and observe. Students were again asked to visit the museum, but this time on a Friday night. After the Friday night visit, we engaged in discussion about our overall impressions of the museum. Students saw the diverse representation of families during their Friday night visit and they “got it.” As a student indicated, “I was a little upset with the 5–9 p.m. schedule for the museum. After our Thursday and Friday visits, now I get it.”

The Friday night visit provided a powerful visual representation of how the demographics of the museum shift on Friday nights between 5–9 p.m. when families pay $1 instead of the regular $12 admission fee and when working families have time to attend. Students openly shared their observations and began to critically examine and discuss how economics can contribute to the gaps we see in student achievement — how economic privilege plays a role in creating structural inequalities in students’ learning experiences. The 5–9 p.m. influx of families of color and working class families to the museum suggested to students that these families are interested in and value the museum experience, and that these families attend when the cost of admission is within their financial reach. Student observations led to an even broader discussion about the educational opportunities of lower income and working class families. Students suggested that just as families have affordable access to the quality informal learning experiences provided by the museum, they should have similar access to a quality education for their children, an education not reliant on a lottery, where one lives, or a family’s socioeconomic status.

Following the Friday night visit and reflection exercise, students recognized the value of Friday night visits and no longer expressed this as a concern. Students came to understand that by failing to visit on Friday nights, we would exclude the voices of many ethnically and socioeconomically diverse museum visitors from our research.
Student community center partners also expressed initial concern for their CBR work. However, their concerns were often directed negatively toward the community, with some implying that such a partnership in this predominately lower-income and working class community was a waste of student time and effort. One student indicated, “I don’t think the people will use the center when it is built, so I think they are wasting money on a center in that community.”

It is interesting to note that the community center neighborhood was located within the same city as our college, less than three miles from our classroom and in closer proximity than the museum. Yet, a student indicated, “I really don’t have a connection to the Urbandale (a pseudonym) community because I’ve never heard of the city before.”

I asked my students to map directions to the Urbandale community and students saw the community’s close proximity to the college. We learned that at least two students in the course had completed a field placement in Urbandale and could share their experiences with the class. As a class, we then began the process of assets mapping to engage in discussion of the many positive efforts occurring in Urbandale. Students had the opportunity to learn about a number of community non-profits, two that were nationally recognized for their efforts on behalf of those placed at an economic disadvantage. Students indicated:

The assets map helped me see what Urbandale had to offer. There are good things happening.

I was feeling some discomfort about going into the Urbandale community. … I was surprised by the number of agencies there and their willingness to help.

Students exhibited additional elements of early resistance to CBR as evidenced by their responses to logistical matters regarding the partnership. Both partnerships required students to travel via public transportation. Students traveled in groups to each location.

Transportation worked well for student museum partners. They traveled as a research team to the museum during class time and for Friday night visits. Transportation for the student community center partners was more complicated. Since the community center had not been constructed, students engaged with agencies near the future location of the center. This created logistical challenges for the partnership and sometimes hindered students’ ability to connect with center staff. However, even prior to the start of data collection, student community center partners expressed fear and concern about traveling to the community center neighborhood. The Urbandale community seemed distant, remote. However, distance was not raised as a concern for museum partners even though the museum was farther in distance from campus than the Urbandale community (but perhaps believed by my students to be closer, more similar in ethnicity and socioeconomics). Faculty colleagues also expressed concern for students’ safety traveling via public transportation to the nearby Urbandale community. Due to expressed concerns for student safety, I used the college’s van to carpool students to Urbandale. Implementing the carpool process did not alleviate fears or shift negative perceptions of the partnership. Students commented:

I would rather do research in a place that I’m more comfortable with… . The project as a whole is pointless and stupid in my mind.

Can’t we just do it by email?

This project is a WASTE of MY TIME!

Confronting Race and Class

Appropriate scaffolding, defined as intentional facilitation of students’ learning, helped my students begin to recognize their initial resistance to CBR and helped them move forward. Their feelings were in some ways normal, a knee-jerk reaction to fear. A student commented, “I was scared first, but talking in class and the assets map helped.” From my perspective, it was okay that my students exhibited initial discomfort toward their work in the community. However, it was not okay for them to stay in a place of fear, of resistance. Growth is in working through the discomfort — getting past the knee-jerk, unconscious reaction to resist.

Jones, Gilbride-Brown, and Gasiorski (2005) describe the often unconscious reactions displayed by my students as “a process of struggle, negotiation, and meaning-making” (p. 7), a place where students are attempting to make sense not only of the communities within which they are attempting to engage, but are also attempting to make sense of their personal reactions to working with the community. Events that occurred with each community partnership encouraged my students to consider how race and class influence their interactions with and their openness to engage with individuals from ethnic, and sometimes socioeconomic, backgrounds different from their own. For instance, during one Friday night visit to the museum — just as the demographics began to shift — a small group of six early elementary school aged children of color (children who looked African American/black and or Latino/a by appearance) entered a play space in the museum where children, mostly white, were dancing on a large dance floor. As the children of color entered the dance floor, several white parents who were present in the exhibit began to direct their children away from the dance floor. One parent indicated that the dance floor was “not safe, scary.” One of my students walked over to me and repeated the comment as if she also believed the dance floor had become unsafe. I observed my students in the small group step away from the dance floor as if to coward from the experience. This interaction led to a rich discussion about the role of race and class in our day-to-day interactions. I asked students to describe their observation of what they saw prior to the children of color arriving on the dance floor. They were asked to describe in detail what they saw the white children doing and to describe in detail what they saw the children of color doing and to compare their responses. Students came to see that the behaviors had been the same for both groups – they saw children dancing, no pushing, no yelling – yet people responded differently to the children of color. Somehow the movements, the very presence of the children of color in a space that until 5:00 p.m. had been predominately white conjured up feelings of fear and lack of safety in the minds of some white parents and some of my white students. How we as educators respond to such observations during CBR is critical since these experiences provide opportunities to engage students in critical discourse around the ways in which power and privilege can create fear and contribute to ongoing inequities in society (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Delpit, 2006; Espino & Lee, 2011; Fenzel & Dean, 2011). These are experiences my students will encounter in their future roles as teachers, social workers, and youth advocates, experiences that I could not have created within the context of my classroom. The experience allowed me and my students to confront and destabilize their knee-jerk reactions to the children of color joining the dance floor, allowing my students to recognize their unintended, unconscious personal responses to race and class. This critical reflection component of CBR is vital to helping students gain deeper meaning from their community-based experience and to enhancing students’ development (Strand, et al., 2003; Toews & Cerny, 2005; Wasserman, 2010)

Student community center partners engaged with a community that has a large Portuguese speaking population. The fact that we were a mostly English only speaking group partnering with a linguistically diverse community was discussed as a limitation early on in our partnership. We were missing the opportunity to learn from a significant part of the community due to our limited proficiency in Portuguese. However, students saw the language differences as a limitation of the community, not of our skills as researchers. This led to a discussion of who owns the limitation, we as researchers or the Portuguese- speaking members of the community? After all, we had entered as non-Portuguese speakers into a community with a large Portuguese speaking population. These community members had not asked for us and therefore, the limitation was ours. Comments made by students led to a discussion of the roles power and privilege play in defining literacy. What does it mean to view the dominant use of Portuguese as a limitation? For a class of mostly teacher educators, how might our view of Portuguese speakers in Urbandale relate to how we view English language learners in the classroom? Should we all adapt a mainstream discourse of reading, speaking, writing? What does a mainstream discourse look and sound like, and who defines it?

Moving Beyond Resistance

Moving beyond knee-jerk responses to fear and to the less familiar is challenging and ongoing; yet it appears students made some progress in learning how to recognize and confront personal challenges with race and class in their CBR work. Findings suggest shifts in students’ opinions regarding CBR and in their opinions of the communities in which they engaged. These shifts are supported by previous research that has found changes in students’ awareness of issues of race, class, and social justice after just one-semester of community engagement (Buch & Harden, 2011; Fenzel & Dean, 2011; Wasserman, 2010). A student indicated,

I didn’t see why we had to go off campus. I wished I had taken research last semester with someone else. I had heard a lot about Urbandale community — not good. I was scared. …It felt good to learn about the good work of offices in the community. It made me want to do more.

Similarly, a student reflecting on the dance floor incident at the museum, stated,

I never really thought about my social location until that night at the museum. When we talked about the dance floor – at first I didn’t think anything. Now I see what even little things can mean.

However, not all students moved beyond their initial resistance. Six students continued to exhibit profiles of what Jones, Gilbride-Brown and Gasiorski (2005) referred to as politely frustrated volunteers or active resisters in that they tended to only document their opposition to CBR through written work or they openly and actively opposed their CBR experience throughout the course. A student, characterized as a Politely Frustrated Volunteer, wrote, “Race is not a class. It’s not something people can be taught, not a subject. I took the class because it was required to learn about research not about race.” Similarly, a student who can be characterized as an Active Resister, attempted to convince her group that their interactions with the community could be done via email or web-based data collection and that there was no need to enter the community. The student indicated, “What can happen to us? She [the professor] can’t force us to go.”

Missing from the analysis is a better understanding of factors that would have shifted the perspective of the six students who were less interested in engaging in future community-based research. What could have enhanced their experience and encouraged them to shift their perspectives of CBR and of engaging with the community?


CBR encouraged my students to consider the roles of race and class in their work and I believe made a significant difference in the lives of my students. Findings suggest that through critical reflection and analysis of their community-based experiences, students made progress toward recognizing and working through their fears and negative perceptions about working with our community partners. Such CBR experiences provide teaching and learning opportunities that cannot be gained by sitting in a classroom. Students learned that “knowledge is rooted in social relations and most powerful when produced collaboratively through action” (Fine, Torre, Boudin, Bowen, Clark, Hylton, Martinez, Rivera, Roberts, Smart, & Upegui, 2001, p. 173). Studies have indicated that working alongside faculty and community partners provide students a sense of empowerment and an increased willingness to impact society (Willis et al., 2003).

Students articulated the inherent challenges of CBR – that it is time consuming, at many times messy and uncomfortable, and that CBR took them far outside their comfort zone. Yet, 38 of 44 students indicated that if given the opportunity they would engage in another CBR partnership. A student commented,

I feel the experience opened the doors to engaging with families from Urbandale and even elsewhere. It helped me build my confidence in myself to work with the community and maybe even lead a community partnership one day.

As a full participant in the CBR process, I was challenged to help my students come to understand that the work we engage in with communities is critical to their (and my) personal and professional growth as teachers, social workers, and youth advocates. However, while I observed significant growth in my students, this study is limited in that it does not assess the sustained impact of CBR on students’ development. Future studies should assess the long-term impact of community-based research on students’ development. While there are many challenges to such a partnership, such as varying levels of student readiness to work with diverse communities and the enormous time commitment on the part of faculty and students, the importance of partnerships of this nature is the empowerment that results from the learning associated with the experience. Partnerships of this nature have the ability to change how students see themselves relative to the world and to encourage students to become agents of change.


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About the Author

Detris Honora Adelabu is an associate professor of Psychology and Human Development at Wheelock College in Boston, MA.

Challenging Contextual Factors in University-Community Partnerships

Beth Archer-Kuhn and Jill Grant

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement can be a tension for universities as they attempt to navigate their many roles (Fisher, Fabricant, & Simons, 2004) and address contextual factors, including partnership process and stakeholder groups, which influence the outcome of the partnership and require particular attention at the outset of the partnership.

Civic engagement is a process of learning, involving engagement between the University and the community agency. Contrary to Fish’s (2005) position that institutions of higher learning should not participate in service learning or civic engagement, many authors believe that university researchers can successfully collaborate with agencies in a relationship of mutual respect for strengths to support the application of evidence-based practice (Bellamy, Bledsoe, Mullen, Fang, & Manuel, 2008). We reflect on lessons learned from this civic engagement experience and look forward to future projects.

The Project

This university-community partnership developed from a mutual need with goals that were clear to the partners (Varcoe, 2006). The agency was in need of the expertise provided by the university and the university was in need of expanding its community partnerships. The agency collected consumer data through two provincially mandated evidence-based assessment tools (in addition to consumer demographic data) as a part of the agency’s regular practice. Analysis of the data was required to inform service delivery after being informed by the funder that funding increases were not forthcoming. Thus, the partnership in this paper began in response to government (funder) messaging to navigate scarce resources with creativity and independence.

A day treatment program (institutional setting) and a school-based program (community school setting) were offered by the center to elementary age children with comparable consumer demographic and clinical profiles.
The second author completed data analysis and reported findings that both programs were effective back to the agency. The agency used the results of the data analysis to inform program changes to reduce the number of children in the day treatment program and increase the number of children receiving service in the school-based program. The decision would effectively achieve the goal of the funder: no reduction in service, while maintaining the financial status quo. It also supported the agency’s mission and vision to provide the least intrusive services possible to children and families, allowing children to maintain their ties to community schools. The agency met with the funder to discuss the data analysis outcome and proposed changes in service planning. The report was well received by the funder, who encouraged the agency to present the findings to the local children’s mental health community.

Jill Grant presented the findings to the agency’s closest partners. At this stage, there was reaction to the presentation of data analysis and proposed changes for service planning, both in favor and opposed. The oppositional views were spoken most loudly. The negative reaction from some partners was viewed by the university-community partnership as a normal reaction to proposed change. Given that the funder supported the proposed changes, little attention from the partnership was given to the negative reaction by some partners and this turned out to be a significant contextual factor. Suarez-Herrera (2009) suggests that resistance to intentional change can be mitigated through educating people about the research process. This would have needed to occur prior to our project beginning, which is challenging when the data collection is a normal part of an organization’s practice.
The next step was a presentation to the broader children’s mental health community. Unknown to the partnership, discussions had occurred between the members of the first and second group prior to this second presentation. The strength of the negative reaction to the presentation was completely unexpected by the partnership. With the passing of time and presentation of the experience at a national conference, we have begun to counter the reactions. As a first step, we consulted the literature.

Review of the Literature

The literature review begins with a discussion of some recent provincial policy papers in the field of children’s mental health through the lens of Canadian social welfare analysts’ prediction that government would use self-deception to address inadequate funding for agencies (Baines, 2004). The literature review concludes with a review of community and conflict assessment related to the partnership process.


The province of Ontario has recently experienced regionalization of health and mental health care services, the last province in Canada to move to regionalization. All other provinces in Canada made this shift in the 1980s and 1990s (Church & Barker, 1998; Simpson, 2011). Justification for regionalization includes better coordination, reduction in expenditures, and citizen participation in decision-making. Church and Barker (1998) identified a number of significant challenges to regionalization, including the integration and coordination of services, the difficulties gaining access to reliable epidemiological data, citizen participation in decision-making, and increased costs. A study by Weaver (2006) suggests that regionalization in British Columbia could not be described as an effective reform, with information gathering the only success. Baines (2004) predicted that smaller non-profit organizations would have to increase fundraising and conform to accreditation standards, eventually being taken over by larger organizations. She further predicted that the result of downsizing would be an increase in service provision by the private sector, an uncommon situation in the Canadian social welfare context.

Ontario Children’s Mental Health

In 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services presented its policy framework. Included as one of the five principles for the framework is that the mental health system for children should be evidence-based and accountable. The first goal identified in the policy report called for collaboration, integration, and shared responsibility (Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 2006). Children’s Mental Health Ontario (2011) also supports evidence-informed practices, promotion of effectiveness, and efficiency and promotion of accountability to all stakeholders. The recommendations are intended to improve service effectiveness for consumers.
Agencies trying to navigate the higher demands for service accountability with fewer resources have turned to evidence-based programs as they are perceived to be accepted by government funders and provide the tools to encourage confidence in accountability, for example, well-packaged materials, staff training, and technical assistance (Small, Cooney, & O’Connor, 2009).

Partnership Types

Fisher et al. (2004) describe four types of civic engagement: service learning, local economic development, community-based research, and social work initiatives. This project most closely resembles community-based research, although it is more accurately described as data analysis. The agency did not have the internal capacity to do a thorough program evaluation and wanted the results of data analysis of two programs: day treatment and school based children’s intervention program. The partnership with the second author allowed for data analysis of the agency’s regularly collected data.

Partnership types can be dependent on the relationship between the researcher and community partner; here, a trusting and respectful relationship developed through transparency, communication, and respect for diversity and for the culture of the organization (Suarez-Balcazar et al., 2005). The partners were transparent about the purposes for the partnership: service and community connection (for Dr. Grant), and a means to inform service delivery decisions at a time of financial pressures (agency director).


Social capital, bonding and bridging are identified by Putnam (2000) as relevant factors in university-community partnerships. Social capital has both a private and a public face, meaning the relationships that are gained from partnerships can have benefits for both the person and the larger community. Bonding refers to how the partners will get by or how they need to work together to get things done, while bridging reflects a more future-oriented benefit of getting ahead.

The agency was seeking connections for their own benefit (bonding) to have their programs evaluated; yet they suspected and anticipated that the outcome would have benefits for the wider community of children’s services and children’s mental health. The university was aware of the partnership’s future potential in addition to the immediate connection. Capacity building occurs when systems such as a university and community agency come together in ways that can lead to community development through the coalescence of capacities (Homan, 2011). For example, social networks of each partner have value and that value is enhanced through the reciprocity and trustworthiness inherent in those networks.

Nelson, Prilleltensky, and MacGillivary (2001) envision university-community partnerships as value-based, striving to advance caring, compassion, community, health, self-determination, participation, power sharing, human diversity, and social justice for oppressed groups. Shared values between the university and the agency drove our process: We developed a collective vision of this partnership from the beginning. The community of children’s mental health and the community of children’s services are systems that also have values. For this university-community partnership truly to start with shared values, we now understand, a wider scope may have been required when considering the value-holders.

The value of relationship in partnerships cannot be overstated, and successful partnerships can take time to develop (Baum, 2000). Homan (2011) discusses the power of relationships that requires communication, trust, and mutual interest. The process of this project provided opportunity for dialogue between the agency and university regarding these issues and allowed relationships to take root as collaborative partners. In addition to what Homan (2011) notes as requirements of relationships, these partners brought with them a number of additional attributes that helped to facilitate mutual learning, including power addressed from a perspective of strengths (Grant & Cadell, 2009), an acceptance of difference, a belief in partnership and collaborations, and a willingness to risk.

Partnership Principles

Hudson and Hardy (2002) identify six principles in university-community partnerships: 1) acknowledgement of the need for partnership; 2) clarity and realism of purpose; 3) commitment and ownership; 4) development and maintenance of trust; 5) establishment of clear and robust partnership arrangements; and 6) monitoring, review, and organizational learning. In the initial meeting of our partnership, we established the first three principles. We acknowledged the mutual benefit in that the agency would realize data analysis for service planning while the university would provide a service-learning experience to a graduate student and would also have the use of the data. In addition to the service-learning experience of the graduate student, front-line social workers and managers were involved in the partnership through discussions at the planning stage and data entry. This illustrates both the partnership values of power sharing (Nelson et al., 2001) and the realities of scarce resources within not-for- profit organizations.

Partnership Principle 4, development and maintenance of trust, developed both from the process and from the values of the individuals involved in the process. The process was clearly delineated from the initial meeting, identifying responsibilities and accountabilities for each of the partners (Principle 5) and, as the project proceeded with each partner reliably completing their agreed upon tasks, trust in the partnership was maintained. We acknowledged the strengths of each partner, providing a perception of equal status within the partnership (Hudson & Hardy, 2002). There were a number of agency learnings starting with the outcome of the data analysis. Beyond that, the university-community partnership was further nurtured through the dissemination of the data at an international Children’s Mental Health conference (Grant, Kuhn, & Roper, 2010). Power was further shared in this example, when Dr. Grant encouraged the agency and research assistant to be the disseminators of knowledge at the conference, taking her out of the role of expert.

The role of the expert was shared in additional ways. The partners each possess personal and professional maturity and experience, and a belief in many ways of knowing and many kinds of knowledge. The role of expert can and did shift between the partners at various points in the partnership.

Defining the partners in this university-community partnership as the university and agency meant that our lens was narrow. Within that narrow view, our evaluation of the project is perceived as picture perfect, according to Hudson and Hardy’s (2002) partnership principles. Later, however, we reflected on the challenges inherent in the contextual factors that affected our project.

Partnership Process and Conflict

The literature on community assessment suggests that partnerships begin with a community needs assessment as a form of research (Beverly, 2005; Craig, 2011; Suarez-Herrara, 2009; Norris & Schwartz, 2009). Community needs assessments are perceived as a collaborative, dialectical process, engaging multiple stakeholders including funders, service providers, and service users. It is understood that these varied stakeholders may bring conflicting perspectives; yet there is a belief that the collaborative nature of this approach can increase cooperation through mutual interaction (Suarez-Herrera, 2009). Community needs assessments identify service needs and barriers and illuminate a community’s capacity to meet the needs of its citizens (Beverly, 2005; Norris & Schwartz, 2009). This networking opportunity provides numerous benefits for the community as a whole despite the additional costs and is one of the reasons Beverly (2005) promotes an inclusive stakeholder group.

Participatory evaluations or needs assessments present challenges. For example, when decision-making processes of an organization restrict participation of stakeholders, there may be increased resistance to intentional change by stakeholders (Suarez-Herrera, 2009). For this reason, Suarez-Herrera suggests a process called capacity building for evaluative research (CBER), a means of providing education about research-based evaluation. Weber (2007) identifies vertical (hierarchical) and horizontal (interdependent and collaborative) dimensions of relationships. He concludes that communities require a combination of vertical and horizontal capacity dimensions to develop and maintain relationships of trust toward the achievement of partnership goals.

Conflict may be inevitable in projects that bring together multiple stakeholders. Including stakeholders in collaborative, transparent planning processes is considered an important dimension in managing tensions (Lobosco & Kaufman, 1989; Reilly, 1994; Seghezzo, Volante, Paruelo, Somma, Bulubasich, Rodriguez, Gagnon, & Hufty, (2011). It is vital to recognize that government and other institutions may have a great impact when striking partnerships with the social service sector, either through funding or policy decisions (Bornstein, 2010), particularly in Canada, where three levels of government may be involved.

Bornstein (2010) recommends the use of a peace and conflict impact assessment to assist in identifying interventions that contribute to either peace-building or to conflict. Organizations will then have a better understanding of the impact of their proposed activities. At the same time, community building processes begin through the inclusive nature of this evaluation, particularly when used as part of a strategic planning process.

Partnership Analysis

Having reviewed the literature related to partnerships, we analyze our partnership. Figure 1 demonstrates the three stages of the analysis. Stage 1 is the analysis of existing data and data management suggestions, when Dr. Grant understood the project as the university joining with the agency and therefore having responsibility to the agency. Without realizing it, Dr. Grant was caught in the middle of a process much larger than the original university-community partnership agreement.

Reflections on that process provided important learning for Dr. Grant that now inform future projects and that help to continue to develop our understanding of university-community partnerships. In particular, asking “who else needs to be at the table?” even when just analyzing internal data for an agency, has been clarified as an essential step. Similarly, what starts as an internal project can very easily become influential or conflictual in a broader community context. This is obvious when one is conducting research, but when asked to analyze already collected data, it is similarly important. A community needs assessment may have flagged this conflict and provided a process for dialogue about the project.

Stage 2 involved the presentation of findings: to the agency staff, then the agency’s closest partners, and then the broader children’s mental health community. This stage reflects the nature of the vertical capacity dimension operating in our community whereby the agency responded to the hierarchical processes of the funder/agency relationship rather than relying on a more horizontal capacity dimension. Additionally, the inclusiveness of the stakeholder groups is limited.

Stage 3 includes the presentation to the agency of the report itself. This stage reflects what could have been the beginning of an ongoing collaborative partnership to assist the agency in program evaluation and research and planning. Instead, conflict within the community based on competition for resources made this very difficult. The use of a peace and conflict impact assessment could have illuminated the potential impact of conflict that resulted from our process (Figure 1).

Part of the process of understanding the reactions from the broader community relates to understanding the importance of timing when plans for change are announced. It is always complex to imagine the reactions of stakeholders to new information that one group has been working with for a long time. The reactions we experienced were a good reminder of the importance of carefully thinking through how and when to announce findings and changes. The agency was now requesting something more of the university-community partnership than was originally negotiated. The agency no longer just required the outcome of the project but also needed the support of the university in putting forward a new discourse. At this point, the university partner realized that the situation was much more complex than originally understood.

The definition of university-community partnerships and the identity of the community may help to inform the initial consultation process of partnerships. The development of trust and acquaintance with the setting and culture may well need to include outside stakeholders The process of disseminating the outcome of the project to the stakeholders through local presentations and conferences did not allow for the stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process at the beginning stages of the project for a broader collaboration (Suarez-Balcazar et al., 2005). This may have been predicted had we considered the literature on conflict assessment and instead included peace-building strategies (Bornstein, 2010), ensuring the inclusiveness of a broad range of stakeholders (Lobosco & Kaufman, 1989; Reilly, 1994; Seghezzo et al., 2011). We also needed to consider a more sophisticated analysis of power.

Figure 1. Partnership Analysis
Figure 1. Partnership Analysis


Some researchers support a position that power imbalances are inherent in university-community partnerships (Fisher, Fabricant, & Simmons, 2004). Others suggest that many partnerships maintain their power imbalances, never becoming transformative. This project provided a number of examples of shared power experiences (Nelson et al., 2001). Generally, the power dynamic between the university and community partners appears to vary depending on each partner’s sense of their own power and how the researcher is viewed (Carrick, Mitchell, & Lloyd, 2001). In our project, power was managed in the partnership through sharing and shifting. Power shifted depending on the particular stage of the project.

Michel Foucault analyzed power as a process contained within a relationship, as something that is exercised and not possessed in the traditional discourse of power (Foote, 1986). Foucault also viewed power as a positive and productive process in addition to the traditional view of power as negative and repressive. Foucault’s position about power from this point of view provided opportunity for change, control, and empowerment.

Power can be used to dominate, collaborate, or educate. It has the capacity to move people in a direction to accomplish a desired end (Homan, 2004) and by its nature can be gained or lost (Carrick, Mitchell, & Lloyd, 2001). In our project, the partners had the implicit intent to use power to collaborate and educate by joining together for the purposes of data analysis. The desired end in this situation included the completion of the data analysis, the possibility of future collaborations, introducing research practices, or the shifting of service provision to a less intrusive service for children and families.

Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz (cited in Lukes, 2005) discuss power from a dominant/subservient perspective, noting that there is an assumption that conflict must always be present with power. The argument they put forward is “the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising in the first place” (Lukes, 2005, pp. 26–27). This statement supports the hypothesis that power is value-based or value-dependent and, as a result, the use of power is predetermined by societal value.

Power, then, can be positive, productive, and mobilizing, or negative and repressive. In our project, the process had aspects of power that were both. The fact that the partnership ignored the broader community in our project may represent a dominant/subservient position of power. Another view of this might be that the larger children’s mental health community partners dominated the smaller children’s mental health agency when the changes were not in line with their values and plans for the future. These differences might be supported by the predetermined societal values, placing some community partners at a power advantage over the other (Lukes, 2005).

The intended use of power by the partnership in this project fits better with Foucault’s description in that each partner used power as a way to make change and empower, to produce something more than either partner could produce alone. Power was silent, not as a means of creating barriers, but rather to mobilize or to help the agency move forward.

There were many contextual factors that influenced power in this project, extending outside the partnership and local community to include political, structural, and cultural factors. Some of these include the messaging from policy papers, the inadequate funding capacities, competition resulting from regionalization, and the unknown values on a community level regarding power sharing.

Homan (2011) reminds us that the base of power of the actor must be larger than the issue the actor is working on. In this example, the desired end was not discussed with the community as a whole and some partners had differing ideas about what the end should be. The relationship between the university and agency was solid but less solid were the relationships within the practice community. Interestingly enough, the relationship between some community partners strengthened significantly while rallying against this university-community partnership in an attempt to block the proposed changes. This latent use of power as described by Shermer and Schmid (2007) may result in influencing others even if it may mean a conflict with their own interest.

Within our partnership, the agency was seeking to move forward in challenging fiscal times and we made the assumption that others shared our vision. A community of agencies that share a horizontal capacity dimension may share a common vision and provide opportunity to mobilize communities (Norris & Schwatz, 2009). We considered only a micro analysis of the agency, ignoring the macro analysis and attention to “local capacity and will” (Lobosco & Kaufman, 1989, p. 142), again relying on our assumptions noted above.

Model for Developing University-Community Partnerships

The model developed by Suarez-Balcazar et al. (2005) can be used to understand our university-community partnership experience when considering the two central partners (Figure 2). Using the language of the university-community partnership model, our partnership developed trust and mutual respect as discussed in the partnership principles (Hudson & Hardy, 2002). The model also demonstrated respect for human diversity and, through our planning and implementation, established adequate communication. We were in the process of developing a culture of learning through our project work, as discussed in the section on partnership principles put forward by Hudson and Hardy (2002) and developing an action agenda based on the outcome of the data analysis when we became aware of the challenges inherent in excluding the community partners in our initial planning. Respecting the culture of the setting and the community was an oversight. Our assumption about a pre-existing shared vision in line with the funder’s strategic plan was just that: an assumption.

Our experience calls into question the meaning of university-community partnerships. Diamond (2004) states that power differences will remain within and between organizations. If this is true, we require further consideration of managing power within the broader community, and particularly within multi-agency partnerships. How then, is power shared and collaboration achieved through university-community partnerships, when there are competing conceptions of need within communities, differing professional discourses, varying decision-making abilities and capacities to control information flow (Diamond, 2004)? The literature on community assessment suggests community engagement and community planning is required beyond individual agencies, starting with a needs assessments (Craig, 2011; Norris & Schwartz, 2009; Suarez-Herrera, 2009) to help mobilize communities and gain social capital (Weber, 2007). It could be a parallel process to that which we experienced in our project but on a much broader scale increasing complexity and requiring attention to a common vision. After this experience, the assumption that an entire community of multiple stakeholders and multiple agencies could have a common vision challenges us.

Figure 2. University-Community Partnership
Figure 2. University-Community Partnership

Lessons Learned

As we reflect upon this civic engagement experience, we have come to appreciate the many learnings from our partnership. One of the learnings for both the agency and Dr. Grant was that the relationships beyond the dyad were not explored, (as Putnam, 2000, calls bridging) to more fully understand the complexities of the contextual factors. In retrospect, it is clearer that the partnership would have benefited from broader consultation with the partner agencies. Neglect of the community’s contextual factors played a significant role in the outcome of this project. The peripheral partners’ values turned out to be a significant oversight, and our experience taught us the value of questioning who the partners are in a university-community partnership. Implementation of a process similar to that suggested by Bornstein (2010) may have enabled us to more clearly see the potential for conflict.
From this experience emerged an understanding of the importance of exploring fully the range of stakeholders and their potential reactions. Again, this is common practice in community-based research; yet this experience highlights the importance of this step even when one is simply analyzing data for a community partner. The most important learning was an increased awareness of the need to take time to discuss the other stakeholders who will be affected by potential outcomes of university-community partnerships.

A final learning from this experience is that, because the partnership did not consider the potential impact on the broader community at the initial stage of the project, the synergy of potential between the university and community agency in this project could not be realized. This experience has taught us that there needs to be at least knowledge, through consultation, with other community partners.

Our work has highlighted that a whole new set and level of negotiations may need to occur between the university and community, depending on how wide the lens extends with the following questions in mind:

  • What does the culture of community mean when you include a broad community?
  • Who does the community include? How do you know and who decides?
  • To what extent can you know if you have included all of the potential partners?
  • Considering that each community partner will have their own independent set of partners, is it possible to manage such a large, seemingly endless system?

Our questions lead us to consider the university-community partnership process going forward. An exploration with agencies having the intention of identifying key stakeholders will provide a basis for understanding the scope of the project from the agency’s perspective. At a minimum, the dialogue will allow the agency to reflect on potential outcomes of not including a large stakeholder group. Inclusion of a broad range of stakeholders, such as funders, service providers, and citizens may help to capture a more reasonable community reality and improve stakeholder relationships through understanding and dialogue. The same university-community partnership model (Figure 2) used to describe this project can be applied to projects with larger stakeholder scope: developing trust and mutual respect, respecting human diversity, establishing adequate communication, establishing a culture of learning, respecting the culture of the setting and the community, and developing an action agenda. A number of ideas from the community assessment and conflict assessment literature can assist in this process.

Bornstein (2010) highlights the significance of ensuring consistency between policy and practice. Stakeholder groups, then, need to begin with the decision-makers at each level, or example, policy makers and funders, agency managers, front-line staff and service users. Trust and mutual respect can be achieved when collaborative processes are transparent. The capacity building for evaluative research process put forward by Suarez-Herrera (2009) is intended to establish a culture of learning and can be used to educate the stakeholders at the beginning of the project. This capacity-building process provides stakeholders opportunity “to question agency goals, strategies and assumptions” (p. 334) and gain a better understanding of and commitment to the inter-relatedness of the service system because inherent in this research is an understanding that all participants are evaluators through a critical and reflective process.

The peace and conflict impact assessment (Bornstein, 2010) can be utilized at the beginning stage to highlight potential conflicts to the process and illuminate peace-building strategies. A collaborative process of identifying community needs through a community needs assessment can begin to illuminate the varying stakeholder values and agendas, respecting diversity of stakeholder groups. Bringing together stakeholders at various levels to address the disparities in policy and practice can be part of the community needs assessment. Addressing the challenge of impoverished resources can become a shared responsibility. Through this collaborative process, the stages of Suarez-Balcazar’s (2009) model can be identified by the university partner and tracked throughout the partnership to consider, for example, how trust and mutual respect are being honored. The outcome of this empowering community process can lead to a more effective action plan, one in which stakeholders have a vested interest in the success for each individual agency as part of a larger community plan.


University civic engagement provides opportunity for sharing of resources between a community agency and university while also creating potential challenges inherent in this sort of collaboration.
Our project highlighted the complexity of the process involved in university-community partnerships. Considering partnership types, partnerships, partnership principles, and the partnership project, this paper illuminates the need to consider partnerships from a broadened perspective, including the process of the partnership. It became clear to the community and agency partners through this project that there remains a need to engage community partners in dialogue about service visions and funding challenges.

This suggested approach to university-community partnerships requires clarity of partners and process on a much wider scale than is typically used in a small agency-specific data analysis project. The challenge is for communities to agree on a common vision or perhaps to work across differences when considering a set of values for working with the university and the management of power relations and resources (Ostrander, 2004). The university will need to consider the amount of time and energy that will be required to generate the partnerships they seek. The exercise of mining for common values may involve a larger group and require extended time to ensure all community voices are heard. The model by Suarez-Balcazar et al. (2005) for developing university community partnerships can be used to guide broader partnerships.


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About the Authors

Beth Archer-Kuhn is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Work at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. Jill Grant is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Windsor.

Predicting Community Engagement? The Carnegie Foundation’s Elective Classification

Andrew J. Pearl


The Carnegie Foundation’s elective Community Engagement classification is valuable for colleges and universities seeking to demonstrate a mutually beneficial relationship with the community. This study uses logistic regression analysis to identify predictive institutional characteristics for applying for and receiving the Community Engagement classification. The findings suggest that publicly available institutional financial variables are not predictive of an institution applying for and receiving the classification.


In 2006, the first set of institutions was granted the elective Community Engagement classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Community Engagement classification represents the first of a proposed line of elective classifications that are intended to serve a descriptive purpose for colleges and universities. The traditional Carnegie classification system was originally developed to aid researchers in higher education, but has since been used for a variety of other purposes not directly related to objective research, including rankings of institutions (McCormick & Zhao, 2005). The Carnegie Foundation has continuously evolved the classification system to keep with the original purpose of objectively providing information for research, but the drive for maintaining and moving up the rankings has made this difficult. To move the classification system forward, the Carnegie Foundation sought to “fill some of the gaps in the national data” by developing elective classifications to capture more of the work done by colleges and universities (McCormick & Zhao, 2005, p. 56).

The community engagement classification was the first of these elective classifications and was intended to “respect the diversity of institutions and their approaches to community engagement; engage institutions in a process of inquiry, reflection, and self-assessment; and honor institutions’ achievements while promoting the ongoing development of their programs” (Driscoll, 2008, p. 39). In other words, this elective classification process was designed to bring a greater degree of nuance to how colleges and universities report their activities. The institutions that choose to participate in this elective classification process would have a Carnegie-sponsored endorsement of their engagement with the community. The institutional applications are evaluated by a National Advisory Panel made up of leading experts in the field of community engagement.

The first group of institutions to receive the elective classification was named in 2006, with a second round coming in 2008. In these first two cohorts, institutions could be classified as community engaged through curricular engagement, outreach and partnerships, or both (Carnegie Foundation, 2012). Curricular engagement refers to the integration of community engagement with the institution’s teaching and learning. Outreach and partnerships required documentation of established and productive partnerships with the community. Applicants could choose to apply for either or both subcategories. The next time the classification was awarded, 2010, there were no longer subcategories; institutions had to demonstrate community engagement at all levels of the institution. In 2015, the institutions that were awarded the community engagement classification in either 2006 or 2008 will be required to reapply to maintain their classification, and the institutions that received the classification in 2010 will reapply in 2020. In addition to receiving the formal designation, the process of applying has shown to be instructive on many campuses, serving as a self-assessment tool. This has helped institutions to identify opportunities for improvement of their community engagement practices (Zuiches, 2008).

In order for colleges and universities to either continue with their community-engaged classification or to become classified for the first time, it is important for them to understand what is necessary for a successful application. The application form requires institutions to document and report their community-engaged activities. These applications are thoroughly evaluated by a review committee with regard to how well community engagement has been institutionalized. The purpose of this study is to examine elements related to community engagement on campus that are not reported on the Carnegie Foundation’s documentation form. Specifically, this study examines publicly available financial data that are theoretically related to community engagement to determine whether those indicators can be predictive of an institution being awarded the classification.

Conceptual Framework

This study is guided using multiple theoretical and conceptual lenses. First, the scholarship of engagement explains how community-engaged work is viewed in higher education. The scholarship of engagement sets the stage for the community-engaged relationship that the Carnegie Foundation is seeking to reward. Second, this study examines how resources are allocated in higher education, relying primarily on the process described by Massey (1996). According to Massey, resources are in part allocated where they will do the most good and where the institution places its priorities. However, universities undertake complex processes in order to judiciously allocate resources. This theory will partially help to explain how institutions decide how much money to allocate to engagement initiatives. Finally, academic capitalism (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997) plays a role in the allocation of resources. Academic capitalism describes how colleges and universities have taken on characteristics of the market in order to remain competitive. These market forces have largely led to an increased emphasis on research and other activities that increase institutional prestige in higher education.

The Scholarship of Engagement

In Scholarship Reconsidered, Boyer (1990) outlined four areas of scholarship in higher education. The scholarship of discovery is associated with advancing new knowledge through research. The scholarship of teaching is associated with the transmission of knowledge from an expert (the professor or instructor) to a novice (the student). The scholarship of integration refers to scholars reaching across disciplinary lines in order to bring new perspectives to solving academic problems. Finally, the scholarship of application means answering the question, “How can knowledge be responsibly applied to consequential problems? How can it be useful to the individual as well as institutions” (p. 21). In other words, how can colleges and universities use their collective resources beyond the ivory tower and move beyond basic research that advances knowledge for the pure sake of advancing knowledge?

Boyer continued to develop his ideas regarding the scholarship of application, and the concept is now more commonly referred to as the scholarship of engagement (Boyer, 1996). Engagement extended what Boyer discussed with application. Whereas application refers to institutional resources being applied to consequential community problems, engagement takes this idea further and involves a greater role for the community in identifying and solving the problem. The scholarship of engagement means, “Connecting the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems…creating a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other” (pp. 19–20). The key transition was the movement from the idea of the university doing work for the community, and instead doing work with the community. An engaged relationship between the institution and the community is now also seen as mutually beneficial (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2002). It is this type of engaged relationship that the Carnegie Foundation is interested in recognizing through the elective Community Engagement classification. For an official definition, the Carnegie Foundation states that “community engagement describes 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” (Carnegie Foundation, 2012).

Resource Allocation in Higher Education

Massey (1996) discussed the fact that the allocation of funds in higher education goes beyond simply investing in the programs the institutions believe are the most important. While this is a simple solution, the practice of allocating resources is a process that involves actors with expertise and knowledge making informed decisions about the priorities of the institution. The actual process that is followed has a significant impact on where resources are allocated, and can provide insight into where the institution places its priorities. The process can help a college or university align its institutional mission and purpose with the demands of the market. Both of these elements are of crucial importance to the university: Proper response to the markets allows for an institution to remain competitive for the best students and the best faculty and staff, leading to greater rewards in terms of more diversified streams and increased prestige. Keeping consistent with its mission allows the university to remain true to its core values and many of the factors that make the institution unique.

According to Massey (1996), budgeting and allocating resources is often used strategically by universities and colleges. This framework applies to this particular study because of the decision-making process that is necessary when deciding the extent of the institution’s financial commitment to community engagement. While receiving the Community Engagement classification may align with the institution’s commitment to its mission, the amount of money may not necessarily reflect that commitment. Institutions can employ multiple strategies of resource allocation, and because of this, there are several paths available for institutions to be able to engage with their respective communities.

Academic Capitalism

The process of resource allocation has been influenced by the growing trend of academic capitalism, which is the theory that guides higher education’s growing involvement in markets and market-like behaviors, with diversified streams of revenue (Rhoades & Slaughter, 1997; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997). This idea of academic capitalism stems from resource dependency, which dictates that an organization is beholden to its environment and the resources that environment makes available (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978). In the current higher education landscape, research has often become the mechanism for increased institutional prestige, and investment in this arena has often come at the expense of other areas seen as less prestigious, or that generate less revenue.

Public service activities have not traditionally been seen as activities that increase the prestige of the institution, and are therefore slighted when institutions prepare their annual budgets as they decide how to allocate financial resources as the tendency toward academic capitalism increases (Jaeger & Thornton, 2005). As public service work (of which community-engaged work is a part) continues to take on an increasingly diminished role in higher education, the funding continues to decrease. This is a troubling trend, as stable funding is seen as crucial to maintaining a community-engaged institution (Kellogg Commission, 1999). If institutions are dedicated to community engagement to the degree that they are applying for the Community Engagement classification, then it should follow that the financial support of public service and community-engaged work is sufficiently supportive. In this study, financial variables associated with public service and community-engaged work are examined in order to see if they can serve as predictors of an institution receiving the Community Engagement classification. This study asks are market-like trends in fact diverting funding away from public service and community engagement, and are institutions still able to perform work the Carnegie Foundation deems worthy of the Community Engagement classification?

Within these conceptual frameworks, this study addresses the following research question: Can financial variables (both in terms of revenue and expenses) serve as significant predictors of whether an institution applies for and receives the Carnegie Foundation’s elective Community Engagement classification?

Review of the Relevant Literature

In 2009, a special issue of New Directions for Higher Education was dedicated to lessons learned from the first group of institutions receiving the Carnegie Community Engagement classification (Sandmann, Thornton, & Jaeger, 2009). The articles in this compilation addressed issues related to leadership and engagement (Sandmann & Plater, 2009), rewards associated with community-engaged scholarship (Saltmarsh, Giles, Ward, & Buglione, 2009), improving service-learning and other curricular-based engagement (Bringle & Hatcher, 2009), benchmarking and assessment (Furco & Miller, 2009), enhancing partnerships (Beere, 2009), engagement and institutional advancement (Weerts & Hudson, 2009), institutional understanding of engagement (Thornton & Zuiches, 2009), and the future of community engagement in higher education (Holland, 2009). However, these are not research studies per se, and rely primarily on the authors’ experience and expertise with the institutions classified as community engaged to provide a set of best practices and theoretical implications for readers. Those who worked on successful Community Engagement applications have shared lessons that they learned during the application process (Zuiches, 2008), but those reports are largely anecdotal in nature and do not include empirical tests.

There have been multiple qualitative research studies involving the Community Engagement classification. For example, researchers have examined issues such as the adoption of engagement in higher education, how institutional characteristics and control influence approaches to engagement, and external understanding and evaluation of engagement (Weerts & Sandmann, 2008). Researchers have also qualitatively examined promotion and tenure policies as reported in the 2006 Carnegie Community Engagement classification applications (Saltmarsh, Giles, O’Meara, Sandmann, Ward, & Buglione, 2009). The Community Engagement classification has also been used to provide insight and commentary on how health collaborations have been encouraged in higher education (Sandmann & Driscoll, 2011).

While these qualitative studies and essays have been useful resources for those seeking to understand more about the elective Community Engagement classification, there is a paucity of quantitative research studies on the subject. This is understandable from the perspective that the application and documentation form largely requires narrative descriptions of programs that demonstrate connections and partnerships with the community as well as institutional commitment. However, in order to gain a different perspective of the Community Engagement classification, quantitative analysis should also be employed in order to begin to identify national and generalizable trends. This study seeks to begin to fill that gap in the literature by analyzing publicly available institutional data to determine whether these indicators are predictive of institutions receiving the Community Engagement classification.


This study employs logistic regression to determine whether a set of publicly available institutional financial characteristics can be predictive of the maximum likelihood of an institution applying for and receiving the Carnegie Community Engagement classification. The information provided in this study will lend insight as to whether there are factors other than the reporting application at play in the granting of the Community Engagement classification.


The institutions selected for this study are all four-year public colleges and universities. This study examines a cross-sectional sample of data from the academic year 2009 and uses that data to examine institutions that received the Community Engagement classification as a part of the 2010 cohort. The final sample includes 366 institutions, 47 of which received the Community Engagement classification and 319 which did not. Institutions that had previously received the designation in either 2006 or 2008 were omitted.

Variable Selection

The data for this study are publicly available from the Delta Cost Project (http://www.deltacostproject.org/), which was initiated to help researchers learn more about the spending and revenue practices of colleges and universities. Specifically for this study, several measures related to public service spending are examined as independent variables to determine whether they are potential predictors of the Carnegie Community Engagement classification.

Dependent variable. The dependent variable for this study is whether an institution was awarded the elective 2010 Carnegie Community Engagement classification. Institutions had to go through a rigorous application process in order to be considered. This study is only able to account for institutions that applied for and received the classification.

Independent variables. All independent variables used for this study are from the academic year 2009, which would have been the current academic year as the institutions were applying for the classification. The first independent variable used for this analysis is a categorical determination of whether the institution is a land-grant college or university. Leaders at land-grant colleges and universities have been working to return their institutions to their roots and give back to the state and communities in which they exist (Kellogg Commission, 1999; National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 2008). Land-grant institutions have a traditional commitment and service to their states and communities, and therefore, land-grant colleges and universities may be more likely to be awarded the Community Engagement classification.

One independent variable is related to revenue; however, there are no national measures of institutional revenue directly related to community engagement. To fill this gap, this study examines state appropriations to institutions. State appropriations are related to community engagement because links have been established between institutional commitment to outreach and engagement and state appropriations (Weerts & Ronca, 2006). To control for differences in total revenue among institutions, state appropriations as a share of total revenue will be examined. Initial analyses also included state appropriations per full-time equivalent student as an independent variable, but this was later dropped due to a high correlation (0.85) with public service spending per full-time equivalent student.

Two independent variables will be examined that are related to spending. While no national data exist that are dedicated solely to community engagement, the Delta Cost Project does have data related to overall public service spending. Community-engaged activities are public service activities, so they will generally be included in these data. To control for variances in enrollment, public service spending will be examined per full-time equivalent student. Public service spending as a share of total spending was initially examined, but omitted from the final analysis due to high correlations with other variables. The Delta Cost Project also has data that track costs related to public service. The final independent variable related to public service spending is devoted to human resources. This variable is the proportion of total public service expenditures that are spent on salaries and wages.

The descriptive statistics for each variable are shown in Table 1. The Pearson correlation matrix for the independent variables is shown in Table 2. Spearman’s rank correlation test was also run, but the results are consistent with the Pearson correlations and are not reported. Table 3 provides mean comparisons between the classified and non-classified institutions for the independent variables. As shown, the differences between the means for these independent variables are all insignificant.

Based on the variables, multiple logistic regression models were used to estimate whether an institution is classified as Community Engaged. Stepwise regression analysis was utilized to build toward the final model. The first model included the public service spending, the second model added the two variables related to state appropriations, the third model added the spending related to human resources, and the final model included land-grant status. The progression of the four models is shown below:


Several other independent variables available from the Delta Cost Project were also initially examined, but were not used in the final analysis because very high correlations were found. These variables were eliminated in order to prevent multicollinearity (Menard, 2002).

Methods of Analysis

Logistic regression is the primary, and appropriate, method of analysis for this study because the dependent variable is dichotomous (Hosmer & Lemeshow, 2000). The goal of logistic regression is to determine a maximum likelihood fit for the data. In other words, the independent variables are used to predict the maximum likelihood of the dependent variable in the sample of data being observed being true (joint probability of Y1…YN).

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics

For this study, the following null and alternative hypotheses for the entire logistic model are designated below:

H0: β1 = … = βk = 0
HA: At least one of the k coefficients is non-zero

The two-tailed hypotheses tests for each of the individual j-th variables determine if the independent variables have a significant effect on the dependent variable holding all other independent variables constant. For each j-th variable, the null and alternative hypotheses are shown below:

H0: βj = 0
HA: βj ≠ 0


For the purposes of comparison, the findings from both logistic regression models are shown. Table 4 shows the results from the four logistic regression models, built stepwise toward the final model as described above. Results are presented in terms of b coefficients as well as odds ratios. As shown in Table 4, the results are consistent in terms of the significance of the findings.

The most striking result from the logistic regression analysis is that none of the models as designed for this study are good fits for finding the maximum likelihood of whether an institution was awarded the Carnegie Community Engagement classification (p > 0.05 in all four cases). Even in the final model, only about 2% of the maximum likelihood is explained, as shown with the progressive pseudo R2 values. In addition, none of the subsequent models represents an improvement over the previous model, as none of the chi-square values were statistically significant. In addition to the entire model being statistically insignificant, each individual variable was also insignificant in each progression of the model. The Delta P method was used to approximate the probabilities of the variables for each model. The Delta P method estimates the overall change in the dependent variable (Cabrera, 1994). The Delta P estimates are shown in Table 5.

Based on the Delta P estimates, several elements stand out. First, in both models, the independent variable with the greatest impact is state appropriations per full-time equivalent student, although it is important to reiterate that this variable is not statistically significant in any of the models. Delta P estimates are useful for understanding the impact of independent variables in a logistic regression model; however, in this study, none of the independent variables are statistically significant in any of the models, so it is imprudent to use the Delta P estimates to say anything definitive about the independent variables’ impact on whether an institution is classified as community engaged.

Table 2. Pearson Correlation
Table 2. Pearson Correlation
Table 3. Carnegie Classified Institutions
Table 3. Carnegie Classified Institutions
Table 4. Logistic Regression Findings
Table 4. Logistic Regression Findings
Table 5. Delta P Estimates (Final Model)
Table 5. Delta P Estimates (Final Model)

Discussion and Implications of the Findings

The findings of this study indicate that the logistic regression models developed are not predictive of an institution applying for and receiving the Carnegie Foundation’s elective Community Engagement classification. These findings can have several important implications for policies at the Carnegie Foundation, institutions of higher education, and the state systems of higher education.

For the Carnegie Foundation, these findings indicate that a great deal of emphasis is placed in the documentation and reporting form. The application form is focused primarily on the actual practice of community-engaged work, not on the amount of money that has been allocated. Financial indicators and other quantitative measures play a role in the all-inclusive Carnegie classification system, but the elective classifications are intended to provide an additional level of insight into what colleges and universities do and “recognize important aspects of institutional mission and action that are not represented in the national data” (Carnegie Foundation, 2012). From this perspective, the initial findings suggest that the Carnegie Foundation has achieved this goal to a degree. By and large, the nationally available data do not appear to serve a predictive function for an institution receiving the Community Engagement classification. It is largely the practice of community engagement that leads to being awarded the elective classification.

For the institution, there are also important implications that can be drawn from the findings. First among these is that those involved in community-engaged activities are often asked by the institution to do more good work with fewer financial resources. There is no clear and consistent connection between financial indicators and being rewarded for community-engaged activity by the Carnegie Foundation elective classification.

The Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement classification is just one way for a college or university to demonstrate its commitment to its community. Simply spending more money at the state level or the institution level does not necessarily mean that the institution is taking the necessary steps to fully commit to community engagement. For institutionalization to occur, engagement must become a priority on campus with a fully developed plan for achieving this goal that includes interdisciplinary activity and proper incentives for faculty involvement (Kellogg Commission, 1999). This study indicates that among the sample, more is at work in higher education community engagement than finances, and that institutions may be working toward achieving institutionalization at multiple levels.

Limitations of the Study

This study is limited by several factors. First, the Carnegie Foundation makes it clear that the Community Engagement classification is not intended to be comprehensive, largely because it is a voluntary classification (Carnegie Foundation, 2012). Institutions are not required to document their community-engaged work and apply for the classification. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that many colleges and universities are engaged with their communities, but have not taken the initiative to apply for the classification. This lack of comprehensiveness is further emphasized by the relative newness of the classification. The first cohort of colleges and universities designated as Community Engaged was named in 2006, and there have only been two subsequent classifications since then. As the Community Engagement classification gains traction in higher education, it is possible that more institutions engaged with their communities will apply for the classification. In addition, information is only available for institutions that applied for and received the classification. The Carnegie Foundation does not make available the institutions that began the process but did not submit a completed application, or the institutions that completed the process but did not receive the designation.

This study is also limited by the national data available for analysis. There are no national measures of community engagement, so this study utilized variables that are theoretically linked to public service, but may not paint a complete picture. For example, public service spending includes community-engaged work, but also a variety of other activities related to serving the public. Institutions may also have different reporting structures, and community-engaged work may not always be reported as public service work in the national data. Until there is mandatory national data available, a study like this will be limited by the availability of data.

Finally, this study is limited by the sample. Only investigating public four-year institutions leaves out private institutions and community colleges (and other two-year schools) that participate in community-engaged work. Many of these institutions have been awarded the Community Engagement classification, but because of the inherent structural differences, it is difficult to make comparisons, especially when examining spending and revenue sources.


The Carnegie Foundation’s elective Community Engagement classification is an important first step in recognizing a greater variety of the work done in higher education that is not encompassed in the general Carnegie Foundation classification. It is an encouraging sign that the national data available through the Delta Cost Project is not predictive of an institution receiving the classification. This implies that the elective classification is indeed serving its purpose of telling a more complete picture of colleges and universities. If the national data were predictive, the Community Engagement classification would simply be telling the same story in a different way. Telling the complete story of higher education is important. Without being able to effectively communicate the full range of university activity with all stakeholders, institutional competitiveness can suffer, and mission drift can occur.


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About the Author

Andrew J. Pearl is a doctoral candidate in the Institute of Higher Education and a graduate assistant in the Office of Service-Learning at the University of Georgia.


An earlier version of this research was presented at the 2012 National Outreach Scholarship Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The author would like to thank Dr. Robert Toutkoushian and the anonymous peer reviewers for their valuable feedback and helpful comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.

Community as Agency: Community Partner Experiences with Service Learning

Paula Gerstenblatt


The bulk of research on service learning has focused on student outcomes; however, there is a scarcity of research examining the lived experiences of community partners. Additionally, the few studies that exist to date involve agencies and have not included informal networks and civically active citizens. This study consisted of interviews with nine community partners, a combination of agency employees, and active citizens. All of the partners resided in a rural Southern town that worked with a network of service-learning classes on a variety of community-identified projects. The current study supports the contribution of service learning to communities, the importance of investing in reciprocal relationships, and the value added of including community partners who are members of informal networks and civically active residents. Recommendations for further research and strategies to support reciprocal and meaningful community engagement are discussed.

Service learning and its core principles of study, reciprocity, and reflection has gained prominence in higher education as a signature pedagogy that places equal value on mutually beneficial outcomes for students and community partners. (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Eyler, Giles, & Astin, 1999; Harkavy, 2004). Service learning is one of the most valuable ways to support community-university partnerships and requires an investment in relationship building as part of collaborative problem solving (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002). The bulk of research on service leaning has focused on student outcomes, with little attention given to the communities with which they work (Cress, Burack, Giles, Elkins, & Stevens, 2010). Additionally, existing research on community partners does not include the perspective of informal networks or individual residents involved with service-learning students (Cress et al., 2010; Driscoll, Holland, Gelmon, & Kerrigan, 1996; Gray, Ondaatje, Fricker, Campbell, Rosenblatt, Geschwind, Kaganoff, Robyn, Sundt, Vogelgesang, & Klein, 1998; Littlepage, Gazley, & Bennett, 2012; Sandy & Holland, 2006). To address this gap in the literature, a hermeneutic phenomenological approach was used to examine the experience of community members who worked with students on a variety of service-learning projects in a rural community.

The lived experiences of community members involved with service-learning students can assist in the further development of best practices that support mutually beneficial community-university partnerships.The research question that guided the study was: What was the lived experience of community members working with university service-learning classes? Phenomenology is a method that seeks to understand the meaning and essence of a phenomenon (Grbich, 2007). Therefore, this method is well suited to a study investigating the common experience of community members who worked with university students on projects to improve the conditions of their town.


Very few empirical studies have focused on the impact of service learning on community outcomes or the identified community partner (Bringle & Steinberg, 2010). Research done to date indicates positive outcomes for the agencies involved with service programs; however, the literature is scant and dated and does not include informal networks or individual civically active citizens. Driscoll et al. (1996) conducted a comprehensive case study of four service-learning classes at Portland State University that used both qualitative and quantitative methods including surveys, interviews, and focus groups with community partners. As a result of participation in service-learning programs, community agencies perceived a positive effect on their capacity to serve clients, felt they had received economic and social benefits, and were satisfied with student interactions.

Sandy and Holland (2006) conducted a qualitative study of focus groups with 99 community partners across eight California campuses. Partners discussed their perceptions regarding benefits to the academic institutions, the organization’s impact on student learning, and ways to improve the partnership. Community agencies identified ways that service-learning students contributed to client outcomes and the increased capacity of the agency to take on new projects. The community partners also expressed a dedication to student learning as a reason for their participation with service-learning classes (Sandy & Holland, 2006).

In a quantitative study, Littlepage et al. (2012) surveyed non-profit and religious agencies in two Indiana counties to learn about the ways community agencies use volunteer management tools and how they differentiate various forms of student involvement, including service learning. Service-learning students required more agency time than other volunteers because of the expectation of reciprocal benefits to students and the agency; however, they also reported the students brought other benefits such as increased visibility and client outcomes. Results also showed a willingness to continue to work with service-learning students (Littlepage et al., 2012). Similarly, in a mixed methods study by Gray et al. (1998), a majority of community organizations gave high marks to student volunteers and felt the benefits of working with students outweighed the costs.

One critique of service learning has been that the benefits to students outweigh those of the community (Beran & Lubin, 2012; Butin, 2010). Yet, research engaging the experiences of community partners working with service- learning students is scarce. This study addresses gaps in the literature by investigating the lived experiences of community partners that included both agency staff and individual residents who worked with university students.


The interviews were conducted with community members who partnered with university students on a variety of projects. In this study I was a participant observer, co-instructor of one of the service-learning courses, the founder and director of a community development initiative, and family member by marriage to several extended family members residing in the town. Located two hours away from our campus, the rural community has an estimated median household income of $32,000, a per capita income of $15,050, with 21% of the residents’ income below the poverty level. District wide, 74% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged and 39.8% of children under 18 are living below the federal poverty level. While many residents contend with poverty and unemployment concerns, the African American neighborhood, still referred to as “black folk’s town,” has suffered the consequence of the economic decline more severely. The legacy of segregation is evident in the lack of African American representation in city government, community boards, businesses, and the school district where there are no African American teachers or administrators. In addition to the overall economic decline, there are few civic, cultural, or recreational engagement opportunities for youth and residents other than a variety of sports events. Youth centers and programs that provide social or recreational activities for young people are largely absent. Similarly, the elderly lack crucial support services, and there is no public transportation to the nearest major city 20 miles away.

The network of courses included electives in social work, writing and rhetoric, and art at a major university. Over a two-year period approximately 130 students from a range of disciplines worked in the town including social work, psychology, English, government, film, theater, engineering, political science, architecture, and art. Projects included a campaign to restore a historical building, a community garden, supporting an art co-op, a high school essay workshop, a teen social support group, writing a National Endowment of the Arts grant, a youth art exhibit, a public transportation project, establishing a subcommittee with residents and the City Council, an oral history project, design mapping projects, multimedia documentaries, public art projects, and a cultural enrichment program for young African American girls. Students worked with the library board, school district, churches, local artists, civically involved residents, and the African American Prince Hall Masons.

Interviews were conducted over a 4-month period. Hermeneutic phenomenology was selected as a method of analysis to gain descriptions of the lived experience of the community members working with a steady stream of university students — a first time experience for the town. Hermeneutic phenomenology focuses on the interpretive role of the researcher. To address this, researchers are expected to contextualize the factors that influence their interpretations through a candid and rigorous process that includes descriptive audit trails, documenting assumptions and relevant experiences, peer readers, and extensive interviewing (Grbich, 2007). Having multiple roles in this project and town, adhering to these procedures in a transparent manner was important to maintain integrity. Phenomenology provides a rich and descriptive source of data and is well suited to better understand the meaning of the experiences of community members though their words and descriptions (Creswell, 2007). Phenomenological inquiry helps researchers gain understanding of the essential meaning of lived experiences from participants’ perspective and descriptions; therefore, this method was employed in this study.


Criterion sampling was used in this study. The criterion was residency in the town and involvement with university students in at least one project over the course of one semester (n=9). Community partners worked with students on a variety of projects, often more than one at a time, and for more than one semester. The sample included the school district superintendent, high school principal, two high school teachers, a pastor/city councilman, local newspaper editor, and three civically active residents. The breakdown by gender and ethnicity was 67% female, 33% male, 56% white, and 44% African American.


A semi-structured interview guide was designed to gather the community member’s description of the experience of working with the university students. The questions were drawn from the literature as well as my experience as a participant observer and comprised of nine items about the community member’s experience working with university students (see Table 1). I conducted the interviews, which lasted between 25–45 minutes and immediately after each interview I wrote field notes. The university Institutional Review Board for research with human subjects approved this study as part of a larger investigation of the impact of the community-university partnership in this town.

Table 1. Interview Schedule
Table 1. Interview Schedule

Data Analysis

All audio recordings of the interviews were transcribed verbatim. Procedures associated with phenomenological analysis (Creswell, 2007; Moustakas, 1994) were used in the analysis. As a participant observer, I focused on the lived experiences of community members working with students. However, my position as the founder of the community development initiative, co-instructor of the service-learning course, and family member was taken into account through the phenomenological procedures of writing assumption statements, bracketing, writing field notes throughout the analysis process, and peer review. The steps of phenomenological analysis were as follows: (1) recording a list of assumptions about the community partners and their experience working with students; (2) bracketing my experience working in the community; (3) conducting a naive reading to absorb the entirety of the data; (4) reducing and eliminating data that did not pertain to the lived experience of working with university students; (5) creating meaning units from the significant statements (Table 2); (6) eliminating repetitive and overlapping meaning units; (7) categorizing meaning units into clusters of meaning (themes); and (8) testimg themes against the entirety of data (validated by the full text of transcripts). The reliability of themes was assessed with two peer readers familiar with the methods and topic.

Table 2. Example of Significant Statements and Meaning Units
Table 2. Example of Significant Statements and Meaning Units
Table 3. Example of a cluster and associated meaning units
Table 3. Example of a cluster and associated meaning units

The clusters of meaning resulted in the five essential themes. Table 3 contains an example of a theme cluster that emerged from their meaning units. The validated themes were used to write a textural description or “what” the participants experienced. Additionally, the themes were used to write a structural description of the setting and context — also referred to as the “how” participants experienced the phenomenon (Creswell, 2007). From the integration of the textural and structural descriptions, a composite description of the essence of the phenomena was constructed, synthesizing the common experiences of the group as a whole (Table 4). Social construction provided a wider frame for this analysis and is well suited for phenomenological research (Grbich, 2007). Humans are constructing meaning through interaction and experiences with their environment, inclusive of a historic and social perspective (Crotty, 1998). Constructionist research assumes subjectivity and that reality is not fixed, rather it is always in flux and experienced differently depending on the person and their perception (Grbich, 2007). Recognition and insight into the meaning making of the community participants contributes valuable knowledge for building effective service-learning practices and pedagogy.

Table 4. Synthesis of Community Partners' Experience
Table 4. Synthesis of Community Partners’ Experience


Five essential themes emerged from the interviews: (1) encouraging community involvement; (2) students as inspiration; (3) community learning; (4) community response to students; and (5) lasting imprint of students in the community.

Theme 1: Encouraging Community Involvement

As a result of working with the students on specific projects, community partners increased their involvement in the town’s revitalization and attempted to enlist others to do so as well. They discussed determination to overcome obstacles and use their social capital to ensure projects were successful. Participants in the study remarked on how their relationships with students had engaged them and others in the community; however, they expressed a desire to “see more residents involved in the community.” They also described how the demands of their lives at times prevented them from working with the students, for example, one said: “Due to health reasons I have been kind of out of touch. I am not in contact with what’s in the now. I want to catch up on things.” One community member spoke of his conflicting obligations and yet he still made time to work with students, saying:

[I haven’t] been able to go as much as I would like to due to work and activities. I have put as much as I can; I stop by and support and try to get people to go out and support what is going on. (Bill, pastor and city council member)

For some community partners, their involvement increased their determination to overcome obstacles,

After two years, I am the one looking for the different ways to make things work… . I don’t want them [students] to hit a roadblock now and I am the one trying to get them around the corner. (Jim, school superintendent)

The community partners recognized the value of relationships in encouraging community involvement, particularly in a small town, as one noted by saying: “They have done a really good job of working and interacting with people. That’s not easy. There is a natural distrust that’s overcome now, I really believe that.” The local newspaper editor spoke of using her position and platform to publicize the students and projects, saying, “I always promote them and help them. I am very positive as to what they are doing for us.”

Theme 2: Students as Inspiration

Community partners felt students inspired them to become more civically active, try new things, awaken the possibly of higher education for youth, believe in positive change, generate new energy and ideas, meet new people, and be more proactive. Community partners in the study described a newfound optimism for positive change. According community partner: “I see that we have something to build on; they [students] have shown us ways we can improve and how we can get things to happen for the city.” One community partner spoke of how the students helped her recognize the potential of maximizing existing social capital, saying: “If you want {things to get better], there are plenty of people here that can make it better. I think the students and the whole program shows [the community] that.”

One resident spoke of how the students inspired her to “get out of her rut” and try new things:

If they never came I probably would never have gotten into this stuff here. I would just see myself coming home and cooking and just looking at TV. Makes you get up and go, constantly keeping you going…whereas when they came I enjoyed getting out because there were new people and I got to learn different things. (Sara, stay at home parent)

A community member described her renewed commitment to the community:

I couldn’t believe it myself because I am the change; these people have inspired [me] to where I know I am the change. There was a time I felt like I needed to get the hell away from here, married or not, because there was nothing here, dead, nothing here. But seeing the students come in with different ideas and listening to students here [in the town], seeing the smiles on their faces, changed my mind, saying you need to stay and do what you can. (Iris, community advocate)

Students working in the town inspired fresh ideas and new approaches. A community partner from the school district spoke of the “new perspectives” that students brought and the “propensity to be stagnant when you don’t have people from the outside come in and provide some input. Yeah, I think it stirred my thoughts.” All of the participants in the study spoke of how the university students inspired youth in the community to consider higher education as well as expose them to a world beyond the town. The high school principal described the university students as “a very positive impact to our students to say, no you can do it, you can go on to college.”
The local newspaper editor articulated her decision to involve her work more directly with the students:

I [began to] think that my energy and my thinking could actually make a difference of changing something, trying to revive the chamber and do some projects, get some younger people into town. A lot of my deciding that it was possible to do has to do with my meeting the students and seeing they are interested in helping the [town]. (Carrie, local newspaper editor)

Theme 3: Community Learning

Community partners in the study described a number of ways they learned and grew as a result of working with the university students including meeting new people, becoming a better community advocate, youth learning about life outside of the town and the possibilities for college, technology, art activities, and teaching techniques. For example:

I grew from it. How I grew was getting to be around different types of people and get well versed in what they do, and just pick up on things. I have learned by looking and listen and seeing what’s going on. (Bill, pastor and City Council member)

For older community partners there was an opportunity to learn as well: “Even at my age I learned some things…experience I had was great.” Another active citizen spoke about becoming “more patient” at City Council meetings “because these things didn’t come about overnight, and they are not going to go away overnight, so I have learned patience.” A school district official noted: “I have learned a lot from the resilience of these students who come here.” School district staff and residents spoke repeatedly about the learning benefits of youth in town, specifically about working side by side with university students and visiting the campus. They all felt that the relationships they formed, participating in projects, and having local high school students visit the university campus exposed the youth in town to the possibility of attending college, and “allowed students to be on a university campus that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity.” Another area of learning that was attributed to the university students was knowledge about technology, particularly for school district staff, for example:

I am just now embracing technology in education for the classroom. To also realize that it is here to stay, and that we might as well now set up Facebook for high school is from listening to [the university student] and just knowing that it’s here to stay. He helped me get rid of some of my fears of technologies. (Lori, high school principal)

A high school teacher described his professional development as a result of working with the university students:

When you are a school teacher you spend so much of your time within these four walls … it was neat to get out and see what’s happening beyond here, some of the new trends, particularly talking with [the university student] about the digital revolution and media. … I was really impressed with the energy that the university students brought to the town. The whole concept of the blog … . I know on our campus we have a couple of teachers who are incorporating blogging into the curriculum. (Brad, high school teacher)

Increased civic mindedness was not only for the adults in the community. As one said, “It’s given them [youth] outlets for their creativity and their particular skills and they are thinking in terms of public service and higher education, when perhaps before they might not have.” Another teacher who worked with a university graduate student in her classroom over the course of an academic year spoke of her professional growth: “If nothing else, it gave me a few more tools in my arsenal to teach. It was really good.”

Theme 4: Community Response to the Students

When asked about the community’s response to the students, participants in this study described a mostly welcoming and favorable reception; however, an element of resistance was also identified. This resistance was explained differently depending on the community partner. The explanations ranged from power struggles, lack of awareness of the students and projects, and general mistrust of outsiders and change. The participants in this study expressed appreciation and a hope that students will continue to come to the town, and felt most of the community was in agreement. According to one, “I think they were received by most that I know with an open heart, open head, gracious and friendly.”

A member of the City Council spoke of those in power feeling their position compromised by the students’ presence and infusion of new ideas:

It shifts the balance all the way around. Everything should be on an even keel, but some people don’t see it that way. They felt like we allowed these people to come in and make things better and then others will be able to progress; then they will lose power. It’s a power struggle type thing, and it’s an ego type thing. (Bill, pastor and City Council member)

Resistance was expressed in a number of ways. For example, a school district employee talked of anticipating resistance from certain sectors in the community when he was first approached about the prospect of service-learning projects and a new university presence in town, saying, “I knew they [people with power] would be apprehensive and unhelpful. I think they were and they still are, and the people that I thought would be open and ready for some change and hope were.” Despite what one community partner described as “naysayers,” the resistance to new ideas was something participants in this study saw being chipped away over time as trust was built. When asked what made the partnership and projects successful, one participant replied, “I would have to say trust.” Another community partner felt a permanent space would address resistance and increase involvement:

The one failure that we have had, and there is nothing we can do about it, I talked about this from the onset … I wanted a permanent home, a permanent base for this project downtown, so that when new students came, it … didn’t matter… . If [certain] people could see some type of permanence, I think the people who are skeptical would be less so. (Jim, school superintendent)

Overall, there was a deep sense of gratitude expressed by the community partners in this study for the commitment and contribution of the university students:

I haven’t seen anything really negative. It’s gotten people thinking, maybe even ideas that didn’t take hold, ideas that were mentioned at a city council meeting or chamber of commerce meeting I thought was wonderful that people from outside were actually giving us ideas that could actually be implemented here. (Brad, high school teacher)

A retired teacher who was active in several projects described her experience with the students, saying: “The students were there and we had a good time. They were up at the school working with the kids. We think that that was a wonderful thing.”

Theme 5: Lasting Imprint of Students in the Community

Participants spoke of student projects having a “lasting effect” that continues to live on. They also discussed the need for community members to “carry on, keep up the work” and “get enough people to fill in the gap” to ensure continuity after the semester concluded. There was a strong belief that “If you can reach a few people, it’s worth the time,” particularly when it came to the youth. The school superintendent spoke of the long lasting impact the university students had made on the school district students:

You know they are going to leave so it’s not a shock, but you don’t really leave when you leave the impression. You stay infinitely and you put thoughts in the minds of kids, things they would not have been exposed to. I think that you leave a little bit of a legacy when you reach a kid. (Jim, School Superintendent)

When high school students visited the university campus, school district staff and other community partners in the study spoke of the imprint it made on those who participated, for example:

They went to the campus and that made [for] a memorable experience to them. If we impact one it’s a success. Just that there is world outside the town — not that it is bad, but to really be a productive citizen, viable citizen, you have to broaden your horizons and experiences and that’s one of the avenues this program has offered kids that would not have the opportunity. That’s the essence of it. (Lori, high school principal)

A social support group started by university students for high school youth was a program frequently mentioned in these interviews as a successful program. Examples: “Students are still asking me today that were part of that group if they were ever going to start it back up.” “I have seen a smile on their faces [when they] talk about how their participation was [in the group].” “I would love to see that [social support] program continue, that really made an impression…it really made an impact.”

Youth frequently asked the community partners, particularly school district staff who interacted with university students, if the students would be back. They were told: “I just say next year is next year and there are budget issues we are dealing with them, and I said I can’t make any guarantees. There was a void though, knowing that it’s gone.” A high school teacher who worked with one university student over the course of the academic year spoke of having to explain to her students why university students would not return:

I do know that the students would [ask] when is she coming back, and I would say she’s not coming and they would say “What? Why not?” and wanted to know why she wasn’t coming back because she had become a part of them. (Susan, high school teacher)

The participants in the study spoke of a sense of loss they felt when the students left: “I miss them terribly when they go on and look forward to them being here every year. I will be extremely sad if you decide not to come.” Community partners expressed hope that a designated space for students would ensure their return: “I would love to see us use that space somehow to have you guys come in all the time.” Another community partner who worked on a variety of projects reflected on his experience with the students:

It’s just been a good journey. It could have been better, wish it would have been, with more support from people that have authority and able to financially help. All together it’s been good; I would do it all again. If we started from scratch I would be right there on board. No matter that it’s a cliché, an old psalm they used to sing, “Ain’t no stopping us now.” (Bill, pastor and City Council member)


A core principle of service learning is the establishment of reciprocal relationships that result in mutually beneficial outcomes for both communities and students (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). Research on service learning has primarily focused on student outcomes with very few studies examining the community’s experience (Cress et al., 2010). The relatively few studies to date are informed by agency staff and have not explored the involvement of informal networks or individuals who are active in their community; therefore, this study engaged a wide range of community partners, school staff, civic organizations, agencies, and civically involved residents.

While previous studies that include community partners focused on their perception of the effect of service-learning students on their organization, clients, and the students themselves (Driscoll et al., 1996), agency satisfaction with students and ways to improve the partnerships (Gray et al., 1998; Littlepage et al., 2012; Sandy & Holland, 2006), this study was concerned with the community partner’s lived experience and the meaning of having university students involved in their community. Findings from the current study suggest that communities partnering with service-learning students receive a range of potential benefits including increased civic participation, the opportunity to gain knowledge, inspiration to try new things, an infusion of fresh ideas and energy, and experience a lasting positive effect beyond the students’ time in the community.

The study’s results are limited to nine participants who were very involved in the partnership; however, there were many other residents who engaged with the students over the course of the three years. Restrictions of time and resources prevented increasing the number of participants, a second round of interviews, or focus groups. Future studies would benefit from a larger sample of involved community partners, and a longitudinal study to track the long-term impact of service learning and community-university partnerships.

The community in which this study took place is a small, rural town that has experienced a severe economic decline that has taken its toll on both the quality of life and infrastructure. Many residents lament the passing of a more prosperous time when the town was a thriving railroad and agricultural hub, and the condition of the infrastructure was attractive. Power, class, and racial divides run deep throughout generations, and often include a distrust of outsiders and their motives. The distrust expressed by some residents when we began this partnership has been discussed in the literature that indicates the benefits of service learning are focused more on the best interests of students and the university over the community (Ringstad, Leyva, Garcia, & Jasek-Rysdahl, 2012; Sandy & Holland, 2006; Stoecker, Loving, Reddy, & Bollig, 2010). The arrival of the first cohort of university students was met with mixed reactions from a warm welcome and a feeling that help was on the way to skepticism and worry about broken promises. Over the course of two years, relationships were built and trust evolved. While participants acknowledged challenges such as the time limitations of the semester, the difficulties of enlisting community participation, and a void once students left, they felt the benefits outweighed the shortcomings.

Community members in the study increased their involvement as a result of working with students and made efforts to engage others in projects they worked on with students. One of the reasons they felt the projects and students were successful in engaging the community was the relationships students built with them and other residents. These relationships developed over time and eventually helped to minimize distrust and skepticism toward the students and the motives of university involvement. Participants in the study leveraged their position and social capital to encourage other residents to work on projects with the students. While students made consistent efforts to publicize projects and invite community participation, the community partners felt they were in a stronger position to convince neighbors, friends, and colleagues to get involved.

Students working in the community inspired participants to “get out of a rut” to try new things and meet new people. As a result, community partners forged new relationships and became more optimistic about the possibility of positive change. They saw themselves building on the energy and commitment of the students, and “becoming the change.” The intention of service learning is not to do for but to do with. Through collaboration with the students, community partners began to see themselves as the ultimate change agents whose bore responsibility for carrying on the work. Participants in the study were most impressed with how the university students exposed youth in the town to the possibility of attending college and venturing beyond the rural town through project activities, including visits to the campus.

While research has demonstrated a variety of ways students grow and learn as a result of participation in service-learning experiences (Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009; Eyler, Giles, & Braxton, 1997; Finley, 2012), the current study suggests non-student participants increase knowledge and personal growth as a result of engagement with university service-learning programs. For some it was overcoming a fear of technology and learning new skills they applied in their professional and personal life. Teachers discussed new pedagogical methods modeled by the university students that they later employed in their classrooms, such as blogging, communication exercises, and technology. In addition to learning new skills and techniques, participants spoke of improving their ability to advocate through their work with the students, particularly by developing more patience and resilience.
While the participants in this study expressed appreciation for the university students, and generally felt the town’s reception to them was welcoming, they spoke of a resistance toward the students by certain members of the community. Resistance was attributed to fear of the unknown, lack of awareness, long-standing power disputes, and small town mistrust of outsiders. There was a degree of anger and frustration when the participants spoke of the resistance; however, it was not unexpected or something they had not encountered before in other civic or professional efforts. Despite the resistance, participants overall felt the town welcomed the students and valued the projects’ contributions, particularly for the youth.

One of the challenges of service learning is the eventual departure of students when a semester concludes; however, the duration of a relationship is not always the indication of its value (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002). Participants in the study responded to questions about the semester timeframe and the number of students coming and going, specifically if it was worth them being there even though they would leave at some point. While they recognized the drawbacks of forming attachments with students and the possibility that much needed programs may not continue, participants felt the work and presence of the students lived on in a positive way. For participants in this study the value of working with university students transcended a particular set of outcomes; rather they spoke of an imprint that could positively shape one’s life or even the direction of the town. Participant comments also speak to several related criticisms of the artificial timeframe of the semester, including insufficient time to engage with community partners, lack of ability to transfer knowledge (Tyron, Stoecker, Martin, Seblonka, Hilgendorf, & Nellis, 2008), trails of unfulfilled promises, and a sense of abandonment in the community (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002; Stoeker, Loving, Reddy, & Bollig, 2010). This study suggests that community members felt engaged with the students, having learned enough from the experience to go forward, realized a sense of completion, and with an understanding of the fitness of the students’ departure.


The current study supports the value service learning offers communities and underscores the importance of investing in relationships with community partners. Additionally, the study also elucidates the potential value added of including community partners who are members of informal networks and civically active residents to service-learning experiences and research. Further research is needed to build a useful understanding of the lived experience of community participants in service-learning projects, and might include focus groups, arts-based methods and multimedia documentation, and longitudinal studies to explore the long-term effect of this type of community-university partnership. Qualitative research methods that utilize a variety of data points, including personal and archival documents, allow for in depth investigation that captures nuance and provides social, cultural, and historic context. This is especially important in working with diverse populations that have been marginalized and overlooked.

The study supports the importance of relationship building with a range of community partners and paves the way for future research that delves into the meaning and impact of relationships between students and their community partners and the potential for sustainable civic engagement despite the inevitable departure of students at the end of the semester. Additionally, the findings make a case for long-term investment in the time consuming activities required to develop reciprocal and authentic partnerships. Such understandings will assist in the development and support of best practices for engaging the community in service learning programs and address gaps in research about community partners.

The results of this study suggest that the community gained direct benefits when students engaged informally with individual community members in addition to the formal institutional/agency based engagement. Those benefits included increased civic participation, gaining new knowledge and skills, inspiration to try new things, new ideas and energy, and recognizing a positive effect beyond the students’ time in the community. Additionally, this study can inform service-learning pedagogy by encouraging faculty to dedicate sufficient time to exploring the pitfalls as well as advantages of working in communities. This implies not focusing solely on project outcomes or learning objectives, but rather on how the value community members place on getting to know students and the inspiration and impetus they provide can last after the semester is over. Recommendations for increasing the benefits of service learning for community-university relationships include the intentional provision of opportunities for informal relationships between community members and students, as well as recognition of the meaning making of community partners as an important project resource.


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About the Author

Paula Gerstenblatt is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Maine at Portland.

University and high school students are shown here working on a variety of mapping projects in an art and design class. The high school students traveled to the university and the university students traveled to the town (an hour and a half away) several times over the semester to on work on joint projects.
University and high school students are shown here working on a variety of mapping projects in an art and design class. The high school students traveled to the university and the university students traveled to the town (an hour and a half away) several times over the semester to on work on joint projects.

Planting the Seeds for Change: A Case Study from York University’s Knowledge Mobilization Graduate Student Internship Program

Naomi Nichols, David Phipps, and Walter Johnstone


This practice-based article describes the academic and non-academic outputs and outcomes of community-academic research collaboration. The collaboration began with a university-sponsored knowledge mobilication internship. A doctoral student spent four months as a knowledge mobilization intern with a youth shelter. With additional funding, the internship evolved into a multi-year collaboration that positively influenced employment opportunities for local youth workers, the shelter’s economic stability and reputation in the local community, young people’s sustained transitions out of the shelter, and academic growth and development on the part of the doctoral student.

There is consensus in the literature on community-engaged scholarship that community-academic collaborations have the potential to stimulate positive social change (Pearlman & Bilodeau, 1999; Roche, 2008; Research Triangle Park, 2004; Office of Community-Based Research, 2009). The term “engaged scholarship” encompasses any strategy or activity that fosters engagement or collaborative relations across academic and non-academic settings. Community-informed, collaborative, and participatory research approaches are central to engaged scholarship, but engagement – in its broadest sense – is not limited to research-related activities. Service-learning opportunities, bridging organizations, resource and asset-sharing structures, community-academic colloquia and knowledge sharing ventures, capacity-building opportunities, shared advocacy initiatives, and public forums/debates represent other activities that can contribute to mutual learning and engagement across institutional settings.

The literature is less clear about how specific engagement strategies engender positive social, cultural, economic, or environmental change. For example, while the implementation of a service-learning component in a post-secondary education program is seen as a way to institutionalise a partnership between an academic institution and a community organization (Eckerle-Curwood, 2011; Vazquez Jacobus, Baskett, & Bechsteinb, 2011), questions remain about the impact of students’ short-term involvement in community settings. Service-learning opportunities require significant investments (for training and supervision) on the part of community organizations. A short-term commitment between a student and an organization does not necessarily engender the conditions of mutual trust (Pearlman & Bilodeau, 1999) that are required to support impactful change (Northmore & Hart, 2011).

For senior graduate students (e.g., doctoral students embarking on their dissertation research), however, short-term involvement with a community organization can set the stage for ongoing collaborative research and the generation of mutually beneficial knowledge. With sufficient funding (Austin, 2003; Cherry & Shefner, 2004; Flicker & Savan, 2006; Israel, Schultz, Parker, Becker, & Adam, 1998; Lantz, Viruell-Fuentes, Isreal, Softley, & Guzman, 2001) and support from a community outreach partnership center or community engagement office (Cherry & Shefner, 2004; Hart & Northmore, 2011; Northmore & Hart, 2011), collaborative relationships between graduate students and community professionals can indeed influence positive social change.

This article explores the impacts of a 16-month (2007–2008) research and knowledge mobilization partnership between an emergency shelter for youth and a doctoral student at York University. The collaboration began with a four-month knowledge mobilication internship, which was coordinated and sponsored by York University’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit. Subsequently, the doctoral student received a Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which allowed the collaboration to continue beyond the initial internship.

York University’s knowledge mobilication internship is distinct from traditional service-learning opportunities. The internship has an explicit emphasis on the co-production of knowledge relevant to community and academic purposes (Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006); it is a paid work opportunity, rather than a credit-based learning opportunity; and it expressly targets graduate students. While the internship program differs from traditional service-learning opportunities, it also seeks to accomplish some of the same objectives. The internship program provides graduate students with an opportunity to: apply theoretical and/or research knowledge in a workplace setting, provide a service to the community, and learn with/from community professionals and community members (Hynie, Jensen, Johnny, Wedlock, & Phipps, 2011). While service-learning opportunities and paid internships both fall under the umbrella of engaged scholarship, they employ distinctive mechanisms in support of engagement between community and academic stakeholders.

The Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York University provides services to faculty, students, and their non-academic research partners that support collaborations and the co-production of research so that research can inform decisions about public policy and professional practice (Phipps, Jensen, & Meyers, 2012; Phipps, 2011). The staff recognises that the long-term impacts of knowledge mobilization are not always immediately visible to stakeholders. In order to capture the wider impacts of the knowledge mobilication internship program, staff members have been following up with internship participants in order to engage them in discussion about the immediate and longer-term effects of their collaborative activities. One key observation from these follow-up discussions is, while internships have resulted in scholarly outputs (e.g., conference presentations and academic articles) on the part of graduate students, the outcomes (i.e., local changes) and impacts (i.e., broad social changes) of collaborative activities are experienced in the communities where the internships were situated. The internships represent one of a number of drivers of a particular social change. As such, qualitative research conversations are an effective means for capturing the various social, economic, and political context features, which also influence the efficacy of any collaborative endeavor.

This paper conveys the non-academic and academic outcomes of a knowledge mobilication internship and subsequent collaboration between Nichols (York University) and Walter Johnstone, executive director of the Youth Emergency Shelter of Peterborough in Ontario, Canada. It explores the wider influence of the collaboration on the economic stability of the shelter, training opportunities for community college and undergraduate university students, labor market conditions in the youth sector, and life outcomes among young people who are homeless or precariously housed. It concludes with key recommendations for a) graduate students; b) leaders of community-based organizations; and c) university knowledge mobilization or engaged scholarship units.

Assessing the Impacts of Knowledge Mobilization

Traditionally, knowledge transfer refers to the dissemination and uptake of research knowledge in policy or practice – that is non-research – settings. More recent conceptualizations of knowledge mobilization reference the multidirectional exchange of knowledge between diverse stakeholders (e.g., institutional decision makers, researchers, community members, policy makers) (Bennett & Bennett, 2008; Nutley, Walter, & Davis, 2007; Cooper & Levin, 2010). The York University knowledge mobilication internship program was intended to facilitate learning and knowledge exchange processes between faculty members, graduate students, and people who work in community, non-profit, or non-governmental organizations. The organization also brokers relationships with government and private sector organizations.

The knowledge mobilication internship program has been in existence since 2007. Each year, the university funds a number of these graduate student internships in community and non-profit organizations, hospitals, public institutions, and environmental organizations. The goal is to develop students’ research and knowledge mobilization capacities, while simultaneously fulfilling the knowledge needs of various non-academic sectors. To date, the internship program has supported 40 graduate student internships in a wide variety of organizations. A recent evaluation of the university’s knowledge mobilization programs (Hynie et al., 2011) indicates evidence of knowledge co-creation between faculty, students, and non-academic partners. Non-academic partners increased research skills as a result of partnership activities. Students report gaining a variety of new skills and, in some instances, increased labor market participation. The increasing numbers of applicants for the internship program indicate increased interest in knowledge mobilization among academic and non-academic partners. Moving forward, evaluation participants expect to see further returns from their participation in the internship.
A review of the literature on assessing and supporting university-community engagement reveals few standardized assessment tools or outcomes-focused evaluations (Hart & Northmore, 2011). While university benchmarks and performance indicators have been developed to measure socio-economic and cultural contributions, these have not yet been linked to a systematic evaluation of community-engagement strategies/activities. Further, the benchmarks fail to adequately capture community perspectives on evaluation activities. Hart and Northmore (2011) suggest that the paucity of outcomes-based evaluation of engagement may be linked to timing. A long-term timescale would be required to capture higher-level institutional outcomes and broader social or community-level impacts.

In contrast to community development, which is understood as service to/for the community, community engagement is a reciprocal relationship based on reciprocal social, political, and institutional relations (Pearce, Pearson, & Cameron, 2007). As such, evaluating engagement requires more than a quantitative (numeric or economic) measure of the work. Pearce et al. (2007) suggest that rigorous qualitative methods (i.e. interviews, focus group discussions, participant observation, and questionnaires) as well as the implementation of simple output data-collection systems can be effectively used to track engagement outputs over time.

In order to explore the longer-term effects of the knowledge mobilication internship program, the executive director of Research & Innovation Services at York University (Phipps) has been conducting follow-up telephone interviews with former knowledge mobilization interns and the community, non-governmental, or non-profit agencies with whom they worked. In June 2012, Phipps, Johnstone, and Nichols engaged in a conference call to talk about Nichols’ 2007 knowledge mobilication internship with the Youth Emergency Shelter. The focus of this conversation was the changes, which Johnstone and Nichols observed as a result of their collaborative activities. Subsequent sections of this paper explore the various changes Johnstone and Nichols attribute to the internship and the additional 12 months of collaboration that followed it.

Shared Goals for Collaboration

A clear description of the internship’s central problematic – that is, the research and knowledge mobilization issues it sought to address – is central to our ability to convey the project’s impacts. In Ontario, Canada young people are considered “independent minors” when they live outside the care of parents or guardians and are between 16 and 18 years of age. Until they are 16 years of age, the province’s child protection system is responsible for providing care and guardianship to young people who require permanent or temporary care outside their familial homes. Once they are 18 years of age, they are no longer considered minors. The two-year gap – between 16 and 18 years of age – is a particularly vulnerable time for young people.

Services for youth have been designed for young people who live with, or have the support of caregivers; services for adults are not designed to accommodate the learning curves of newly independent youth nor their urgent and evolving service needs. Where services for independent minors exist (e.g., the Ontario Works [OW] social assistance system has an application process designed for approving and monitoring funding for applicants/beneficiaries who are between 16 and 18 years of age and live outside the care of a parent or guardian), the application and monitoring processes require considerable institutional literacy on the part of applicants. Further, service utilization requires that young people adhere to strict eligibility criteria and engage in relations of compliance with service delivery organizations. For example, in order for young people to maintain their eligibility for OW, their school attendance records and bank accounts are monitored to ensure ongoing eligibility for benefits. In addition, they must attend regular meetings with an OW worker as well as bi-weekly monitoring meetings with a community service worker (Nichols, 2008; forthcoming).

Establishing Grounds for Collaboration

Nichols started doctoral studies in 2006. She wanted to engage young people in a social change-oriented investigation of public and social services, which began with their experiences living as independent minors in the community. Her goal was for young people to engage in participatory research in the institutional settings where they were actively attempting to get their needs met. In this way, they would learn how the different systems worked and point to specific policies and programs that do not work for youth living independently in the community. When a call for applications for a four-month knowledge mobilication internship came across her faculty listserv, Nichols decided to look for an institutional partner with whom to submit an application.

Having just returned to live in the small city where she was raised, Nichols had limited familiarity with the human service sector and relied on social networks to make a connection to a local youth-serving agency. A family friend and professional colleague offered to introduce her to the executive director (Johnstone) of the local youth shelter (The Youth Emergency Shelter [YES]). Nichols met with Johnstone and explained the nature of the internship. She shared her own research interests and asked whether Johnstone had research, policy, or program needs that a knowledge mobilication internship could support.

Right from the start Johnstone and Nichols sought to identify mutually beneficial target outcomes – that is outcomes that would satisfy Nichols’ research interests and doctoral program requirements, Johnstone’s fund-seeking needs, and their shared desire to influence better institutional outcomes for young people living outside the care of parents or guardians. Young people’s ineffective engagement with human service institutions is an issue that many youth-serving professionals identify impacting the life outcomes of young people who are homeless, street involved, and/or precariously housed. In addition, staff at the shelter had been collecting demographic data during shelter intake processes (i.e., where a young person requests admittance at the shelter), but these data had not been collated or analyzed. As such, the data were not being used to support the shelter’s ongoing fund-seeking work. Johnstone identified that the organization and analysis of internal data would be an additional outcome he would like to see from a knowledge mobilication internship.

Nichols went home that night and began writing a research and knowledge mobilization plan that would address the following questions: 1.Who is accessing the Youth Emergency Shelter, and for how long? 2. What other institutions are shelter residents engaging? 3. What knowledge do residents have about accessing social, public, and community services? How can this knowledge inform service provision? 4. What knowledge do residents need to more positively facilitate their engagement with social services and/or various public institutions?
The internship was intended to generate knowledge that would increase the efficacy of young people’s engagement with human service organizations. Johnstone and Nichols hoped the internship would be a catalyst for knowledge mobilization among young people and between young people and service providers. The ultimate goal was to use this knowledge to support better social outcomes among young people who are homeless or precariously housed.

Collaboration Facilitators: Funding and institutional support

Johnstone and Nichols were awarded four months of internship funding in the spring of 2007. Also in the spring, Nichols received a three year doctoral fellowship, which would begin that fall. In order to support Nichols’ ongoing academic writing and conference participation and the time needed for her to establish trusting relationships with shelter staff and youth, she and Johnstone planned for her to spend three days per week at the shelter for four months and then continue to spend two or three days per week throughout the fall term.
In the end, the partnership proved so fruitful that Nichols remained deeply involved in shelter activities as a volunteer researcher, grant-writer, program-developer, and staff educator until the end of the following summer, 2008. At this point, Nichols began a two-year term as a volunteer board member on the shelter’s board of directors. In the next sections, we recount the details of partnership activities – that is, the collaborative process – and explain how these activities led to key outcomes and ultimately created impact in the community.

Collaborative Activities

Collaborative activities began with relationship building between Nichols and shelter staff, youth, and administration. Nichols shadowed the shelter workers and learned from them about their interactions with youth. She participated in the shelter’s recreation program, going climbing at the local climbing gym with youth and serving as a volunteer lifeguard for a youth summer day program. The first four months enabled participant observation and key informant research on the part of Nichols. All of these research activities were grounded in ongoing discussions with Johnstone and other professional leaders in the community (e.g., senior leaders at the local Youth Services Organization).

During interviews with shelter workers, Nichols discovered that one of the workers was already aggregating the shelter’s intake data. These data were then made available to Johnstone for his fund-seeking purposes. Interviews with shelter workers also fundamentally shaped how research findings were mobilized. Shelter workers expressed concerns that the shelter no longer provided programming to support life-skills learning among youth. As such, they observed what they described as a “revolving door syndrome,” where the same youth cycled through the city’s social services. Nichols discussed this finding with Johnstone, who explained how municipal funding formulas shape the shelter’s ongoing economic difficulties and precluded a solution within the shelter’s existing funding programs.

Using Research to Identify Knowledge Mobilization Needs and Resources

The shelter’s funding relationship with Ontario Works and the city means that it receives all of its funding on a per diem basis (i.e., when a bed is full). Further, the funds that it receives only cover two-thirds of the cost of an occupied bed. A relationship with the local child protection agency (the Children’s Aid Society or CAS) makes up for much of this funding shortfall. At the time of the internship and subsequent collaboration, the shelter provided temporary and semi-permanent housing to the region’s “hardest to house” youth in CAS care. In order to reserve the shelter’s entire first floor for CAS-involved youth, CAS paid for the beds whether they were occupied or not. The relatively stable nature of this funding allowed the shelter to ensure that there were at least two paid shelter staff at all times. But neither CAS, nor Ontario Works funding were enough to pay for programming for youth. As such, placement students from the local college or university, volunteers, and other local service providers (e.g., public health nurses) offered programs and activities on an ad hoc basis.

All of the shelters across the province are funded using the same formula (although most will not have the additional influx of funds from child protective services). In order to provide more than a bed and a meal, shelters have to engage in extensive program-based fund-seeking work. Given that Nichols had studied Revenue Canada legislation for charitable organizations and Ontario’s non-profit funding regimes as part of her master’s thesis work, she and Johnstone determined that they should collaborate on a research proposal to the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The goal was to seek support for a life-skills learning program for shelter youth, a need identified by the shelter staff as previously mentioned.

Nichols began by examining existing programs and assessment devices. In most instances, standardized paper-based life skills evaluation tools were used to assess young people’s knowledge of predetermined life skills (e.g., whether a youth knew the correct temperature for ironing a cotton shirt). Given Nichols’ preliminary research (e.g., participant observation and in-depth interviews) with youth at the shelter, she could see that existing assessment devices would not elicit robust descriptions of young people’s knowledge. A multi-paged, pen and paper-based assessment would have been excruciating for most of the youth who used the shelter. Many had not progressed very far in school and school participation became even more difficult when they were experiencing periods of homelessness or housing instability (e.g., when they had to leave the city where they were attending school to stay at the only youth shelter in the five county area it serves). A number also reported having learning disabilities. More troubling, however, was that the standardized indicators of life skills knowledge did not account for the diversity of non-standard knowledge and skills young people brought to the table, nor did they allow them to self-determine their learning goals.In terms of existing life skills programming, most programs used a group-learning model. As with the standardized assessment protocols, instructors predetermined life skills learning objectives, and they did not take into account the diverse experiences/needs of participants. Some youth had been feeding their families since they were themselves young children. Others had been caring for younger siblings. Still others were exceptional managers of small budgets (ending up at the shelter after an eviction for other reasons, e.g., drug use). The content of the life skills programs Nichols observed did not take young people’s prior learning into account; nor did the program processes attempt to mobilize knowledge among youth.

Working collaboratively with an educational assistant at the alternative school, which adjoins the shelter, Nichols drafted a summer program to support life skills learning among youth in the care of CAS. This program was rooted in the principles of experiential and peer-to-peer learning. Young people had substantial opportunity to collectively determine the specific foci of their program. Ultimately, the outline for this summer program was transformed into the Transitioning Life Skills program, an individualized life skills program designed for each youth and carried out between a young person and his or her mentor
The assessment process involved an interview with a program coordinator, a role Nichols took for the first few months. The interview revolved around a series of conversation topics. Young people were invited to share their prior learning, experience, and goals for a number of life skills areas (e.g., education, healthy relationships, housing, cooking, and healthy eating). The content of these interviews informed the development of individualized life skills plans for each youth.

Seeking Funds

In order to implement the program, Nichols sought three years of seed funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a grant-making agency of the Government of Canada. As a former educator, Nichols was confident in her ability to develop a sound social-educational program, but required Johnstone’s considerable financial management experiences and institutional leadership to devise an appropriate financial plan for the program. A key component of the application is the development of an itemized budget and a compelling budget justification.
Working collaboratively – and with input from a Trillium granting officer – Johnstone and Nichols developed a financial structure intended to produce a self-sustaining program within three years. The shelter would sell the program to local youth serving organizations (like CAS), using a fee-for-service structure. A fee-for-service structure requires other youth serving organizations to purchase the program for their young clients and would not only provide services to other clients but also provide a revenue stream to YES.

With sufficient enrollment, the program was designed to operate on a cost recovery basis. The program needed to generate enough revenue to pay for the youth mentors as well as a program coordinator. At the time of Nichols’ research, the shelter had no frontline leadership positions. There were frontline staff and an executive director, but given the executive director’s involvement in fund-seeking and managerial work, there was little ongoing professional development and mentoring of frontline staff. The Transitioning Life Skills Program was designed to a) support young people’s sustained transitions out of the shelter (i.e., reduce shelter recidivism); b) provide an additional income stream for the shelter; and c) create a frontline leadership position and ensure ongoing training for staff.

Collaborative Outputs and Outcomes

Non-academic Outputs and Outcomes

In 2008, the Ontario Trillium Foundation awarded the shelter $130,000 over three years to support the development and implementation of the Transitioning Life Skills Program. Johnstone and Nichols requested diminishing funding over the three years to support their goal of creating a self-sustaining program (due to increased numbers of fee-for-service clients) by year three of operation. In 2008, a program coordinator was hired, and fee-for-service contracts were established with the local CAS. Over the next four years, Ontario Works, the John Howard Society, Peterborough Youth Services, and other CAS agencies purchased the program for their young clients, effectively turning the Youth Emergency Shelter into a social enterprise. The Transitioning Life Skills Program and a work skills development program led to the shelter being named one of the province’s success stories in the 2008 Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Service’s, Breaking the Cycle, Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (http://www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/breakingthecycle/index.aspx).

A 2007/2008 Shelter Newsletter featured an article on the Transitioning Life Skills Program with excerpts from an interview with one of the first youth (Max ) to participate in the program. In the article Max describes how he and Nichols – who was voluntarily acting as the program coordinator – “talked about whether I knew how to cook, if I knew about budgeting, if I had all the things I would need when I moved out.” Max explained that he “already knew about most of those things”; he went on to identify that what he “really need[ed] to know is how to keep my friends out of my house.” As such, he and his mentor created a plan for how to deal with someone who doesn’t want to leave his place. If his plan doesn’t work, he can call his mentor. “There is support there when I need it,” Max said, which was different from other programs he has participated in.
Although the program coordinator position has not been able to be sustained beyond the three years that were funded by Trillium, the shelter has employed program leaders, who act as youth mentors as well as team leaders, but without all of the additional responsibilities of the coordinator’s role. Fifteen youth workers (graduates from local community college programs) have been employed as mentors in the program, and the program has served 120 youth to date. These youth workers gain meaningful one-on-one youth work experience – experience that differs considerably from much entry-level frontline work with youth (e.g. traditional shelter work and group home work).

The shelter has not evaluated the outcomes of the program, but Johnstone indicates that he has observed two central changes resulting from implementation of the program. The first change is that young people develop close relationships with shelter staff in general, and their mentors in particular, that support their positive navigation of life’s “hiccups.” While the Transitioning Life Skills Program did not end recidivism, it has created a framework for supporting young people’s sustained transitions out of the shelter. It also reduced the average length of stay in the shelter from 37 to 28 days. While former shelter residents do contact the shelter in a crisis situation (e.g., seeking respite from an abusive partner), this brief stay or meeting is seen by the youth as one piece of a larger plan to remain living independently in the community. Johnstone notes that the goal of ending recidivism came from staff; youth, on the other hand, want caring adults and community supports that they can access over the long term. The program has addressed youth’s desires for accessible supports and caring adults. The second change is in the quality of the staff seeking employment opportunities at the shelter. Many child and youth work positions offer limited opportunities for youth workers to engage one-on-one with youth. Yet it is in the context of their one-to-one relationships with youth that youth workers describe observing the biggest changes among their clients. As such, child and youth workers with considerable experience have elected to work in the Transitioning Life Skills Program as a way to connect meaningfully with youth and see the day-to-day effects of their work. Recognizing the value of these opportunities for staff, Johnstone sought to include placement students from the local college social services programs in the Transitioning Life Skills Program.

The placement students job-shadow youth mentors, develop and lead programs and workshops, and participate in staff meetings. Upon graduation, the strongest placement students are offered employment opportunities as paid mentors within the program. In this way YES has created a training ground for potential future employees who are more prepared for shelter and youth work and has created a pool of more highly qualified personnel, benefiting not only YES but other social service agencies as well.

Academic Outputs

During her doctoral studies, Nichols published three article that convey findings from her research at the youth shelter. In 2011 she defended her doctoral research – an applied institutional ethnographic research project on service provision for homeless youth – and her dissertation won her faculty’s annual award for Best Doctoral Dissertation. Since then the research has informed an additional article, which has been submitted for peer review, as well as two forthcoming chapters in edited volumes. She also has a forthcoming book with the University of Toronto Press. Her doctoral research findings inform her teaching practice as an instructor of pre-service teachers and shape her her continued research on the coordination of education and other services for at-risk youth and community academic research collaborations.

Contributions to Social Impact

The collaborative relationship between Johnstone and Nichols, supported first by York University and later by the government of Canada, led to the creation of a social entrepreneurial venture that contributes to the shelter’s ability to hire and retain talented staff.It has also increased its public profile as a key provider of education and social supports – not just a bed and a meal – for homeless youth. YES has recently received $60,000 funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities for the program, and Johnstone is currently undertaking discussions with another agency in Ottawa about the possibility of replicating the program there. The program has opened up a new funding stream for YES beyond the OW funding.

Additionally, the program offers young people a structure through which to pursue ongoing learning in the context of their rapidly evolving lives. Because of the close relationships they develop with their one-on-one mentors and other shelter staff, young people return to the shelter throughout their adolescence and early adulthood, often just dropping in to say hello or phoning to convey an update. The presence of stable and caring adults in their lives contributes to their abilities to live independently in the community, particularly when they encounter a hurdle or just need to talk. Furthermore, the program’s flexible and responsive structure has proven to be particularly effective with the community’s “hardest to serve” and “hardest to house” youth. These are young people with complex social-emotional, physical, and/or learning needs. Increasingly Johnstone observes that service providing agencies are paying to have these young people participate in the shelter’s holistic and individualized life skills program. This further contributes to the success of the shelter as a social enterprise. According to Johnstone, “None of this would have been possible without Nichols and the support of York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit.”

Conclusions and Recommendations

Working in partnership, community organizations and institutions of post secondary education build capacity for knowledge mobilization among graduate students. An explicit focus on learning to engage knowledge mobilization processes enables graduate students to develop skills (e.g., communication, research application, and non-profit grant-writing) that further their scholarly careers and/or prepare them for labor market participation outside of academia. At the same time, the community organizations that host the internship benefit from the additional capacity to support areas such as research, data-analysis, and/or writing where they may not have sufficient capacity in-house.

While a four-month knowledge mobilication internship may not provide collaborators with enough time to enact a mutually beneficial knowledge exchange and social change agenda, it does provide a structure for ongoing collaborative activities at the inter-institutional level – that is, between a university and a community organization. Viewed from this perspective, individual knowledge mobilication internships represent phases of collaborative activities between the university and the community. Graduate students have an opportunity to apply their academic training and theoretical knowledge, and community organizations benefit from the students’ grounding in current theoretical knowledge and/or increase their organization’s capacity to generate/apply research.

As this article illustrates, internships also contribute to significant collaborative benefit when the collaboration extends beyond the four months of the paid internship. For graduate students hoping to engage in community development work or community-based research, the knowledge mobilication internship is a way to build relationships with various community leaders, learn about community members and practitioners’ research needs/desires, and co-develop a collaborative research agenda. For community organizations wanting to engage in evidence-based program development and/or grant-writing, a long-term relationship with a senior level graduate student can generate fruitful outcomes.

This article concludes with key recommendations for a) graduate students; b) leaders of community-based organizations; and c) university knowledge mobilization or engaged scholarship units.

Graduate Students

  • Be prepared to compromise. In order to meet the needs of a community agency, the people it serves, and your university’s degree requirements, you will need to be flexible in your research plans, timelines, and deliverables.
  • You will learn more than you teach. Practice humility and openness in your interactions with community members, practitioners, and organizational leaders. They have much to teach you.
  • If you want to pursue a community-engaged research agenda, consider doing an internship as a pilot project or a relationship building exercise with a community organization.

Leaders of Community-based, Non-profit, or Non-governmental Organizations

  • Take seriously this opportunity to mentor the next generation of community-based researchers and knowledge mobilizers. Graduate students are primed for learning. A service-learning or internship opportunity represents a chance to train graduate students to work respectfully and responsively with community and provides access to potential future employees.
  • Each discreet internship or service-learning circumstance represents an opportunity to build and sustain links between a community organization and an institute of post-secondary education. Rather than viewing an internship or service-learning opportunity as a one-off activity, these activities are more fruitfully understood as opportunities for ongoing collaboration for mutual benefit.
  • Feel free to engage directly with your local university engagement unit and find out about the types of services it offers and opportunities for participation in knowledge exchange activities.
  • Knowledge mobilization activities including internships is a way of accessing academic research to inform new programs and services and contribute to improving the lives of your stakeholders and constituents.

University Knowledge Mobilization Units

  • Paid internships are important opportunities for graduate students to apply their academic training in non-academic settings. Research assistantships support graduate student development as researchers; knowledge mobilication internships support their development as users and translators of research knowledge and prepares them for valuable careers outside of academia.
  • he coordination and oversight of a successful internship program is paramount to its success. A productive internship process is facilitated when the university offers training and supports for graduate students, coordinates payment, and ensures accountability to knowledge mobilization work plans.
  • Knowledge mobilization is a process that supports research and knowledge based collaborations. Some of those collaborations produce innovative outcomes that have a beneficial impact on the lives of clients. Knowledge mobilization is a process that enables social innovation.


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About the Authors

Naomi Nichols is a research associate at York University and an applied scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada. David Phipps is executive director, Research and Innovation Services at York University. Walter Johnstone is executive director of the Youth Emergency Shelter of Peterborough in Ontario, Canada.

Girls’ Development in Tanzania: Empowering Girls Through Creative Exploration

Rachel Hagues and Hunter Parker


In 2009, we went to a remote Tanzanian island to lead a program for adolescent girls. The purpose of the program was to educate girls on their rights and provide them with support in overcoming many of the disparities they face. Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal, 1979), one tool used, was adapted to fit the girls’ needs. It proved to be useful across cultural and language barriers. Programs such as this that empower girls to value themselves and discover solutions to challenges is one way to begin bringing gender equality to the community level. Herein, we discuss the program and lessons learned as graduate students from the West working in a developing country.

Two dark-skinned, lanky, attractive teenage girls stroll past the fishing village. They are supposed to be in school. The fishermen cannot resist taking notice of the girls’ full figures. They strut over to the girls, their words full of flattery and compliments, bringing them fish as gifts. The ultimate goal of these fishermen is to take advantage of the seemingly naive girls. To the fishermen’s dismay, the girls reject the gifts and stand up for themselves. Later, the girls meet some of their friends, who advise them to return to school and avoid walking past the fishing village. They declare: “A girl without an education is nothing.” (An example of a skit developed by Tanzanian girls we worked with, summer 2009.)

In the summer of 2009, we headed to a remote part of Tanzania to complete a service-learning project. As graduate students from the University of Georgia (UGA), we collaborated with local women leaders to implement a program for adolescent girls. Our work there originated out of the University’s partnership with Ambassador Gertrude Mongella, former district representative to Tanzania’s Parliament and past-president of the Pan-African Union Parliament. Ambassador Mongella began this partnership after receiving The Delta Prize for Global Understanding (http://deltaprize.uga.edu/), an award from UGA that recognized her as a strong advocate for world peace and one whose initiatives have brought greater understanding and cooperation between cultures and states.

Ambassador Mongella and the Tanzanian community identified several priorities in advance. The ultimate goal was that the community and the university participants would establish a long-term sense of trust and continue working together. Ideally, the local people would identify a need, and someone from the university with expertise in that area would agree to partner with the community to create a solution together. Students would also be part of the solution-development process, applying what they learned in the classroom to people in the real world.

Some of Ambassador Mongella’s priorities included girls’ educational achievement, career awareness, and personal development (Nickols, Mullen, & Moshi, 2009). We addressed those priorities through a service-learning project designed with a specific purpose: to provide adolescent girls with a safe place to discuss some of their personal challenges, ensure that girls understand their rights, make connections with other girls and women in their community, and together, develop ways to overcome some of the challenges they identified. A goal of service-learning is that it empowers participants to determine and meet their needs (Marullo & Edwards, 2008). Students do not simply enter the community, do a good deed, and leave; this ultimately changes nothing and likely benefits no one long-term. We approached the partnership from a critical service-learning perspective, recognizing that we could contribute to social change and that this experience could potentially prompt a community response to injustice we were uncovering (Mitchell, 2008). Critical service-learning also possesses the mindset that community partners should be actively engaged in the design of the service-learning experience (Mitchell, 2008). We used Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to accomplish some of these goals, despite time constraints and language and cultural barriers. In this article we present some of the challenges faced by the local girls, barriers to working internationally, and finally, the usefulness of Theatre of the Oppressed for development work, particularly from a social work perspective. Also presented are lessons we learned as graduate students from the West working in a developing country.

Historical Background: Why Girls Are a Priority

In Tanzania for years, women and girls have not been valued or guaranteed the same rights as men. Historically, children were to be sources of help to their parents, and girls in particular were supposed to help their mothers with household duties and chores. As girls grew older, they were married off to “bring wealth to the family by way of bride price” (Omatseye & Omatseye, 2008, p. 163). Legally in Tanzania today, women are supposed to be equals, but in reality, women and girls are not yet treated equally in all aspects of society. Cultural practice still lags behind the law at multiple levels. For example, Ishengoma (2004) studied accessibility of resources by gender in the Morogoro region and found that “male dominance and control of resources limits women’s decision making, efficacy and productivity at household and societal levels” (p. 55). In another study, Muganyizi, Kilewo, and Moshiro (2004) reported that of 1,004 women interviewed in Dar es Salaam, 20% had previously been raped and that known perpetrators were responsible for 92% of those rapes (2004). Additionally, 50.5% of those raped reported a repeated rape.

One area where girls’ opportunities still lag behind boys’ is in their access to education. Girls are often required to take on a greater amount of household chores than boys due to cultural expectations of gender roles (Evans, 2005). This results in girls starting school at a later age than boys typically do, or girls not being able to attend school regularly, or not having sufficient time to study due to their heavy load of chores. This has a negative effect on girls’ educational performance. Sometimes girls are taken out of school at an early age, either to get married or because of an early pregnancy (Gilbert, 2004).

Huisman and Smits (2009) studied household- and district-level determinants of primary school enrollment for 220,000 children in 30 developing countries within 340 districts. They found that in most of the countries observed, there has been an increase in enrollment from the second half of the 1970s to the second half of the 1990s. However, of the countries studied, Tanzania was one of three where the opposite occurred. The situation in Tanzania worsened in the 1990s, with 14.3% of primary school aged boys and 24.8% of primary school aged girls out of school during the mid-90s. In 2000, an estimated 3 million, out of almost 7 million children were not enrolled in school (Ward, Bourne, Penny, & Poston, 2003). In 2002, the rate of females completing primary school in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro area was only 62% (Vavrus, 2002). The problems facing primary education vary among regions but include “shortage of essential resources, irrelevant curriculum, late school enrollment, and lack of qualified teachers…poor learning environment and lack of confidence among parents in the relevancy and quality of primary education” (Education For All Report, 2000).

In response to such gloomy statistics, Tanzania developed the 2002 Primary Education Development Plan, creating strategies with a focus on enrollment expansion in primary school. By 2007, enrollment had reached 97% for girls and 97.6% for boys. However, this data do not take into account the very high dropout and repetition rates (Okklin, Lehtomaki, & Bhalalusesa, 2008). From 2000 to 2005, according to Woods (2007), repetition increased more than three-fold for students in Standard 1 (first grade). Yet, Tanzania’s secondary education sector “has been one of the smallest in sub-Saharan Africa,” (Okklin et al., 2008, p. 66). Woods (2007) claimed the transition from primary to secondary school in Tanzania was the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. As well, after truancy, pregnancy was the second leading cause of dropping out of secondary school (Okklin et al., 2008). Finally, as the education level increased, so did the level of disparity between boys’ and girls’ achievements (Okklin et al., 2008; Woods, 2007). For example, in 2004, 75.7% of boys passed the Form 2 (secondary school) examination, while only 56.8% of girls passed (Woods, 2007).

Poverty is a major inhibitor of children’s secondary school attendance (Ward et al., 2003; Woods, 2007). One of the reasons for poor performance in Tanzania’s education sector is that between 40% and 50% of the population live in severe poverty (Ward et al., 2003). According to Tanzania’s Education For All (EFA) report the poverty rate in the rural areas was as high as 60% (EFA Report, 2000). Sometimes children are withdrawn from school early to help contribute to the family income, or so that money going to school fees or supplies could be applied to other family needs (Gilbert, 2004).

But poverty does not impact all children the same way. When a household suffers from poverty or economic pressure, girls are usually the first to be withdrawn from school, especially secondary aged girls (Evans, 2002). World Bank researchers (Beegle, Dehejia, Gatti, & Krutikova, 2008) used longitudinal data collected in the Kagera Region of Tanzania (the western part, near Uganda) from the Kagera Health and Development Survey to study children’s behaviors. They found that girls do an average of 2.5 hours more chores each day than boys. This difference becomes more pronounced as the girls age. They also found that participation in childhood labor caused a significant increase in the likelihood of girls’ marrying young.

Finally, in some school settings in Tanzania, as is the case all over the world, male teachers are guilty of sexually harassing their female students. “A girl’s refusal to have sex can lead to public humiliation, unfairly low marks, exclusion from class or corporal punishment” (Evans, 2002, p. 57). This creates a learning environment for girls that is more than just unfriendly: Girls are sometimes insulted, teased, discriminated against, and even beaten. This inequity and harassment clearly breaches girls’ rights to education (Evans, 2002).
Legislation alone cannot bring true gender equity. Along with legislation, discriminatory mental and social attitudes toward the rights of women and girls can and need to be eradicated at the community level through advocacy, communication, education, and information (Annan-Yao, 2004). Society must see women and girls as equal in status to men and boys if girls are going to find equal opportunity in education, and ultimately in life.

As research indicates, many factors inhibit girls’ success in school and their ability to obtain their right to be educated. In the current project, we wanted to empower the local girls to challenge those factors. As stated, the purpose of our activities with the girls was to provide a safe place to discuss some of their personal challenges, make connections with other girls and women in their community, and together, develop ways to overcome some of the challenges.


Context, Setting, Etc.

The program was centered on an extremely isolated island located in Lake Victoria. Only two ferries visit each day. A ride from the mainland takes more than three hours.

We partnered with local women leaders to implement the program in an already existing club that focused on encouraging the positive development of girls. We conducted informal, unstructured interviews with some of the women leaders to gain a deeper understanding of the community and the practical issues the girls regularly face. Feedback from the women, along with the previous year’s experience, subsequently informed the service-learning program. Additionally, we were not sure exactly what “personal development” included, but it was one of Ambassador Mongella’s specific priorities. The informal interviews helped us understand much of what was meant by “personal development” in the community; the women seemed to consider it to mean that girls would be prepared to know what to do when faced with many of their daily challenges (e.g., saying “no” to sexual advances of older men, staying in and working hard in school).

The women reported that one of the most common issues for girls in this community is early sexual activity, sometimes beginning as young as 12 years old (personal communication, June 1, 2009). Teen pregnancy is a common problem in secondary school, and once pregnancy occurs, girls commonly leave school and never return. Often, girls drop out of school due to too many chores, which do not leave enough time for school. According to the women, some girls drop out as young as age 10. It is also common for girls who become orphans to drop out. Once orphaned, survival becomes more important than an education.

The monetary investment it takes to be enrolled in school is another reason children drop out (personal communication, June 1, 2009). Though the government did away with school fees for primary school, students still have to purchase a standard school uniform and any supplies they might need. And all children have to pay secondary school feels. Some families cannot afford those fees.

The Team

We, graduate students from different disciplines, collaborated to implement the program. Hagues had her master’s degree in social work and was earning her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Science. She had experience working with youth at summer camps and working with girls in impoverished neighborhoods in her hometown. As a young researcher, she was broadly interested in poverty and policy. Parker had formerly been a high school theatre arts teacher but had gone back to school to earn her master’s degree in Fine Arts and Dramatic Media. Our combination of skills was unique because of our varied, yet overlapping backgrounds and experience in working with adolescent girls. The background of both collaborators blended an integral mix of research and practice.

The Girls

The girls who participated in the program were from impoverished families. According to statistics from the World Bank, the Gross National Income in Tanzania was only $430 (U.S. ) in 2008, and this likely was less for the people on the island because of their isolation. They only began to get electricity in 2005, and in 2009, the schools still did not have any. The participants had many responsibilities at home. Many had to walk a long distance to participate in the program, but every day they came. Some days more than 60 girls participated. They made sacrifices to be there. Ranging from as young as 7 years to as old as 18, most were in primary school, but a few secondary school girls participated. All wore long dresses or skirts and all except for a few of the older girls kept their hair closely shaven to their heads. Because of the short haircuts, it was often the dress that let us know that the younger ones were girls since they had not yet gone through puberty. Most of the girls at the beginning of the week were quiet and seemed shy, but a few were outgoing and sometimes even goofy. These girls helped lighten the atmosphere, which helped some of the other, shyer girls relax. All of the participants were recruited by the women leaders with whom we were working. The program took place on the campus of a local school; school was not in session because the schools were on a short summer break.

There are strengths in the community that benefit the girls. Specifically, women leaders were meeting with the girls on a regular basis. Girls were valued, encouraged, and uplifted by these women. More and more strong female leaders are emerging from the community, some of whom have gone on to become teachers and politicians (such as Ambassador Mongella). The girls look to these women as role models.

The Program

In the summer of 2008, Hagues spent two and a half weeks with many of the same girls and women co-leading a similar program in 2009. Other students from UGA spent up to four weeks with the women and girls in 2008, so trust was already established with the women leaders and many of the girls before the 2009 program began. In contrast to the 2009 program, the 2008 program was adult designed and driven, and much of it was shaped before we arrived. The 2009 program was based on the needs the girls identified, using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques (described later), and thus, allowed them to have a stronger voice in the program structure. For example, we asked open-ended questions such as, “Describe your life as a girl living in this community.” Many of the things the girls identified were challenges. Recognizing they were the experts on their lives and the changes they would like to see, we followed-up by asking, “What is something about life for girls in this community that you would like to see different? What needs to happen for that change to take place?” We wanted the girls to identify these changes; the girls knew their lives better than we did and we did not want to bring in a “West is best” attitude.

Girls wrote their ideas down together in groups, and then would be asked to demonstrate, through the creation of a short performance, both the current situation and the change they envisioned. The initial 2008 program laid a foundation that allowed much more to be accomplished in 2009 than would have been possible if we had just shown up in the community for the first time,implemented the service-learning program in a week’s time, and left.

The girl participants were adolescents. They were not only physically changing, but were making decisions that would impact the rest of their lives. The majority of participants ranged from as young as 10 to as old as 18. While growing up in a developing country may limit some of the choices these girls are able to make (due to lack of options, cultural expectations, etc.), some choices remain universal for all adolescents. During adolescence, a young person develops the capacity to think in new ways. She begins to think systemically about hypothetical situations, imagining the possibilities of who she can be, and develop the capacity to think futuristically, to plan, and to consider the consequences of her actions (Steinberg, 2005). Yet, an adolescent sometimes needs an adult’s assistance to imagine what is possible.

As the ability to reason, plan, and consider one’s self begins changing, adolescents are entering a stage of moratorium. This is the time when an adolescent is trying out different identity options (Low, Akande, & Hill, 2005). During moratorium, an adolescent may experiment with values, roles, ideas, etc., in an attempt to decide what is right for her. At the end of this time, an adolescent is thought to have achieved her identity (Low et al., 2005).

The adolescent stage of moratorium is an ideal time for adults to implement interventions into the lives of at-risk adolescents. Adults can provide adolescents with a safe place to “try on” the various identity options they may be considering. Providing a safe place for the girls to work through some of their challenges was one of the major goals of the service-learning program. Theatre of the Oppressed was used as a framework for doing that.

Theatre of the Oppressed

Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed encourages the use of drama and theatre techniques to “give people an alternative language to discuss, analyze, and resolve oppressions” (Low et al., 2005, p. 220). Use of Theatre of the Oppressed is compatible with service-learning in that both see the community members as experts on their own lives and the best people to develop solutions to their challenges. Those in the community who are there to serve may bring expertise or knowledge to the situation, but they are primarily there to collaborate with community members, not to bring their own outside solutions. Some would call this service-learning that is focused on “doing with” not “doing for” (Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2000).

Theatre can be a mode of life rehearsal (Boal, 1992). Using techniques such as Image Theatre, Invisible Theatre, and Forum Theatre, Boal encouraged the people with whom he worked to reflect and evaluate as they learned about themselves, each other, and established community. These techniques invite participants to act out experiences, concerns, and cultural and community issues that may be more difficult to put into words (Blair & Fletcher, 2010). Our goal was to get the girls actively thinking about possible solutions to these issues, and either act them out, journal about them, or describe them to their audience (the other girls) after acting out the scene. According to Low et al. (2005), “…participants come to understand that if people want to make change, they must engage the problem and find solutions” (p. 220). Boal used drama as an expressive and communicative tool for various groups of people from a plethora of backgrounds who desired to bring change to a situation in which they were living. His methods remove any need for prior experience in performance, and sometimes are more effective when used with persons that are not skilled or trained actors. Many of his most practical methods and exercises are laid out in his book Games for Actors and Non-Actors (2002), which proves a highly useful and relatable guide for facilitators from different disciplinary backgrounds.

Michael Rohd is a theatre artist and educator who believes “education is dialogue” (Rohd, 1998). Many Boalian techniques and games are incorporated into his own book, Theatre for Community, Conflict, and Dialogue: The Hope is Vital Training Method (1998). While preparing for the program, we had the chance to speak with Rohd about using his techniques with the girls in Tanzania. His advice was to remain flexible and start by getting to know the girls and giving them a chance to get to know us before moving onto the issues or scenarios. Rohd mentioned that listening to the issues the girls brought up to find a way into a conversation about these issues, rather than imposing ideas and discussions, would build trust (M. Rohd, personal communication, April 29, 2009). This is what we were aiming to do. The program in Tanzania was designed using Rohd’s framework as presented in his book, which outlines specific games and exercises to use over the course of a week-long workshop in a manner that builds trust and ensemble skills before creating what he terms “activating material” that sparks problem-solving dialogue and positive change. Trust is the basis for any group — and this was no exception. The girls had to learn to trust each other, the women leaders, and us in order to feel comfortable opening up about some very personal issues. The majority of the first day and beginning of each subsequent day began with playing games as a group, allowing the girls a rare opportunity to laugh together and have fun. After a certain comfort level was established, girls were able to open up about serious topics, at which point drama became a tool for the adolescents to use to explore possibilities, talk about issues they were dealing with, and find solutions to challenges they faced. While the girls were assisted in thinking about their options, ultimately they were in charge of the topics and the potential outcomes.

Boal’s and Rohd’s ideas can be used to provide adolescents with tools and opportunities to explore themselves in a safe place. Boal developed many games meant to build trust and develop group cohesiveness. Many of these games were used and sometimes tweaked to be suitable for the Tanzanian adolescents, such as “Columbian Hypnosis” and “Apple Dance” (modified to “Orange Dance”). For example, in Columbian hypnosis, partner A and partner B take turns exchanging roles as the “mirror.” The mirror must follow the leader’s motions and facial expressions. Both partners should take a turn at being the leader and being the mirror. In the orange dance (modified from apple dance), two partners put an orange between their bodies (arms, back, forehead, etc.) and dance or move. The goal is to keep the orange from falling to the ground.

These games focus on building relationships, getting to know each other, and establishing trust. They helped ease anxiety in the group so the girls could be themselves and have the freedom to communicate openly and honestly about their lives. Girls were also led to create journals where they could express themselves and respond to regular assigned journal topics that directed their thoughts and prepared them for the next days’ activities. Games, activities, and journaling also gave insight into the expressive possibilities of the group. They were able to form ideas that served as the basis for short skits and songs they eagerly developed and shared at the end of the week.


The first day of the program, the girls were asked to write in their journals about things they liked about school, things that they feared at school, and some of the challenges they faced in attending school. The following day they discussed their responses in small groups and then reported to the larger group. Girls willingly shared challenges such as: male teachers “falling in love” with girl students and soliciting them for sex, lack of teachers or materials, receiving harsh punishment, and getting pregnant and as a result, being expelled from school. The girls were then divided into teams and asked to use these topics to develop a short skit that would tell the entire group about the challenge. It was only on the second day of the program that the girls developed these skits. They were able to do this because they were willing to be honest — and even vulnerable — in front of their peers and the women. This allowed us to not only talk about sensitive issues, but gave the girls the opportunity to take charge of issues they regularly faced and work through these issues to find solutions.

As the week drew to a close, the girls were again divided into groups and asked to develop skits that focused on changes they would like to see in their community. With a wide-open topic area and very little guidance, the girls came up with powerful messages to communicate to each other. For example:

  • A girl begins the habit of skipping school. However, her friends track her down and encourage her to come back and to stay in school. The lesson communicated was: “good friends are those that give you good advice.”
  • A woman challenges her husband because he is not able to meet the needs of his family, so he leaves home to look for food. While he is gone, the woman goes to look for money. In the process, several men pursue her, and she invites them (on separate occasions) into her home. Her husband finally comes home drunk, but the other men happen to be there and he discovers what his wife has done. The lessons the skit conveyed were that married women should be faithful to their husband and not cheat on them, and married men should care for and provide for their families, not squandering their money on alcohol and not leaving their wives destitute.
  • A girl is doing poorly at school. At the same time, older boys approach her with money for sexual favors. She refuses them on multiple occasions. During this time, she also realizes that she is not studying enough and decides to work harder in school. Her grades immediately go up once she decides to work hard. The lesson was do not be distracted by others, but focus on your education and you will succeed.


The girls were willing to talk about heavy issues because they were in a supportive environment; they cultivated relationships with each other and with the women leaders who were present, and because of the established sense of trust from the previous year. Such success could not have happened if all of these factors had not been in place.

Many Lessons Learned

We went into the community expecting to primarily serve and teach, but came away with our own lessons learned. First, we did not expect that the women and girls would already be meeting together and be so well organized. Several local women were (and continue to be) heavily invested in working with the girls. The women even had officer positions (president, secretary, etc.) and designated duties. In the past, these women have given the girls lessons on HIV/AIDS, have taught them about the dangers of having sex with older men, and have encouraged them to continue in school. Because of the women’s investment, the girls already had a good foundation of knowledge that equipped them to think and strategize about how to overcome some of their daily challenges and face some of their trials.

We were also encouraged to see that drama is a very usable, effective, and empowering tool in programs designed to foster leadership and personal development with youth. In particular, when informed by Theatre of the Oppressed and given a safe place to express themselves, these school-aged girls were not only willing to share information about their lives, but were also able to develop and articulate solutions without much assistance from anyone besides each other. The girls identified with games involving rhythm and movement, and particularly enjoyed working in groups. In smaller groups, they readily disclosed many of the pertinent issues in their lives, and successfully illuminated them through improvisation, songs, and rehearsed performances.

Not only did drama prove to be an effective tool, but also a practical tool across language barriers. Though we had a translator from the community (with strong relationships with the local girls), there were days when, with only basic instructions, the girls were able to produce amazingly realistic, compelling skits that communicated a message, where language was not necessary.

Journaling was also a special activity for the girls. We brought paper, colored pencils, and supplies that the girls used to make journals. Because school supplies are expensive and hard to come by on the island, the girls treasured these homemade journals. Journaling gave the girls the freedom to express their ideas in writing which gave them a starting point when working in groups.

One surprise was how much the women leaders (who came regularly to watch and assist) respected us as graduate students. The secretary of their group came daily to take notes and document what was done. This was intimidating in many ways, but at the same time, it was extremely humbling. The women wanted to keep a record of what was done so that they could use some of the same tools later.
We were careful to include the women as partners, asking for their advice and input in the open-ended questions we asked in responding to the skits created. We recognized that while we were in the community short-term, ultimately these women who were invested in the lives of the girls were the ones who needed to be upheld as role models and mentors.

We would have been better prepared if we had studied issues of power across class, race, economic status, and in particular, taking into account colonialism and the perceptions of “the Other” that are still held on both sides – those of former colonialists and the colonized. This would have better equipped us to consider our own perceived power and would have helped us recognize preconceived frameworks from which the women may have been operating (Heron, 2004). Such power, both given by the community and assumed by the students, may have had the unintended consequence of quieting some of the needs of the girls.

The last day of the program, the girls performed for the women leaders and us. The final performances were transparent and revealed some of the realities of their lives. While the language barriers may have hindered us from completely understanding what was said, the basic messages the girls conveyed through their performances were complex and understandable despite the language barriers. This depth of engagement and dialogue exchange was not anticipated due to the relatively short program length, but was a rewarding outcome that will serve as an impetus for future program success.

Potential Long-Term Impacts

This program could potentially impact the girls for years to come. It allowed them to build relationships that required them to work together to come up with solutions to common problems. If they maintain these relationships, the girls will likely be able to continue supporting each other to overcome challenges many of them face, such as resisting the sexual advances of older men. This could result in a delayed age for pregnancies, an ability to stay in school longer, a more highly educated female population, and ultimately could boost Tanzania’s economy as women are able to obtain higher paying jobs.

While on the island, we were able to visit several politicians and government workers. Each welcomed us and strongly encouraged us to come back and bring more students. We are hopeful that partnerships between this community and the University of Georgia will be further bridged in the future.

Implications for Future Programs and Research

Theatre of the Oppressed is a practical tool that could be used by other practitioners where language and cultural barriers exist. Not only is it usable, but it is also a method that can be easily taught to community members that they can continue to use on their own. It does not cost money so it may be used in communities with little monetary resources. Many of the tools and techniques can be used by laypersons with only a little practice. Books by Augusto Boal, who first created this method, are readily available at any university library.

For social workers or other helping professions, Theatre of the Oppressed is a tool one could take into any setting. Besides being useful internationally, it can be used in community development work, family counseling, schools, and could be adapted to use with individuals. The point is that it empowers clients to think about the challenges they are facing, envision their desired solution, and figure out how to make that solution happen. Additionally, Theatre of the Oppressed aligns with social work values, as the facilitator recognizes that the clients or community members are experts on their own lives and are often seeking to overcome injustice.


Although this partnership initially had much support from University administration as well as from this Tanzanian community, with the economic crisis in the United States it has been hard to maintain the same level of commitment. While the University would likely otherwise have stayed committed, the budget and lack of affordability of travel to and from Tanzania on the part of students has been a hindrance. We have continued to remain involved with this community (both authors returned in 2010 for a longer period of time and one again in 2012 for a nearly six-month stint) are hopeful that the University as a whole will be able to renew its commitment to this community in the future.

There are, of course, additional limitations (such as language and cultural barriers, limited time in the community, etc.) but university buy-in seems to be the most pertinent. Communities where universities are engaged need to know that the universities will do what they say they will do. University follow-through breeds a deeper level of trust on both ends and is helpful rather than harmful in the communities long-term. Donaldson and Daughtery (2011) would go so far as to say that the university’s responsibility to the community after the service-learning project is over is one that needs to be addressed as an ethical issue. What is the extent of the relationship? Will it be a single project or an ongoing partnership? These are things that need to be discussed and agreed upon in the planning stages. One additional limitation that needs to be addressed is the short amount of time we were able to spend in the community. Despite the advantage we had since Hagues already knew many of the women and girls and was familiar with the community, a deeper level of understanding could have been obtained if we could have been there for a longer period of time.


Programs such as this one that empower girls to value themselves and discover solutions to challenges is one way to begin bringing about gender equality at the community level. The work of justice, we are reminded, includes an educational component as part of the empowerment process where the community partners are treated as equal partners in determining the need and the solution (Marullo & Edwards, 2000). In this case, both the partners and the graduate students were empowered through this service-learning experience the girl participants recognized cases of injustice they experience and were able to define their solutions, while the graduate students were empowered to lead. This program demonstrates the possibility for development when partnerships are embraced through creative dialogue. As well, when students are given opportunities to lead such programs, they gain a greater grasp of the needs of impoverished communities on an international scale, and become more equipped to address those needs as they become the leaders of the next generation.


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About the Authors

Rachel Hagues received her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Science from the University of Georgia. Hunter Parker earned her M.F.A. in Dramatic Media from the University of Georgia and is currently the director of education for training at the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community in Richmond, Va.


The authors would like to recognize Dr. Mick Coleman, Dr. Lioba Moshi, Dr. Sharon Nickols, and the women and girls of Ukerewe, as well as Ambassador Gertrude “Mama” Mongella. The project was made possible by funding from vice president of UGA’s Public Service and Outreach, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, African Studies Institute, Ideas for Creative Exploration, and Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Community Engagement in Social Work

Jessica Herald, L. Faye Perkins, and Hannah Powers

As first year Master of Social Work students, we were introduced to community engagement through our Communities and Organizations practice course. Our class participated in the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project (MSPP), housed at Northern Kentucky University. We focused on a local community, and ultimately awarded $4,000 to nonprofit agencies serving that community.

The MSPP seeks to educate students about service and nonprofit organizations in the community through hands-on service-learning, with the goals of fostering a student commitment to community service that persists beyond graduation, and developing a mutually beneficial relationship between the university and the community. The MSPP is funded by a grant from the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation and other community donors. Faculty members apply for MSPP funding through the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU. The application process is designed to mentor and support faculty and students, and involves syllabus and course content review and planned meetings with community agency representatives and other engaged faculty. Each class selected to participate is given a sum of money to award as a grant to a community nonprofit agency that the class deems most deserving of the award. Under the guidance of the class instructor, students visit nonprofit organizations of their choosing and meet with agency staff to learn about the various programs. Students are involved in requesting and evaluating grant proposals from these agencies to assess which agency will make the best use of the grant funds. Following critical analysis of the proposals and debate among the class, the students determine to which agency the grant will be awarded. Each section of our class was given $2,000 to award to the organizations we felt would best meet the community needs.

In order to research and select appropriate community nonprofit agencies, we needed to understand the needs of our chosen community, Census Tract 505, the westside neighborhood of Newport, Kentucky. The first step in this process was a walking tour of the region, organized by students and guided by the leader of the neighborhood coalition. This walking tour enabled us to gain a greater appreciation of the area’s physical characteristics, community needs, and residents. The community is home to approximately 6,000 residents within an area of less than 3 square miles. Despite a rich history of industry and a wealth of architecturally beautiful buildings, this neighborhood struggles with generational poverty, drug abuse, and crime. Over 15% of the housing units are vacant, and of that number, almost half are abandoned (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Children living within the area attend a school district with the highest rate of poverty in Northern Kentucky and a graduation rate below the statewide average (Kentucky Department of Education, 2013). Despite these weaknesses, we discovered that one of the major strengths of this community is a wealth of nonprofit agencies that serve its residents.

The process of awarding the funds involved many steps, guided by assignments provided by our instructor. Students were organized into teams, each of which selected three nonprofits on which to focus our research. We personally visited these organizations and interviewed the staff regarding the agency history, mission, structure, budget, and nature of services. For many, these agency visits were the highlight of the course, as we were able to witness firsthand the passion these agency staff have for the individuals and community they serve.

Our teams then issued requests for proposals to each of the agencies we visited. Teams used a standard rating tool provided by our instructor to review the proposals, and narrowed the candidates to one agency per team. At that point, representatives from each agency were invited to present their grant proposal to our class section. Each team was able to advocate for their chosen agency, which resulted in lively debate among our classmates. In addition to advocating for an agency based on the organization’s missions and goals, students discussed the sustainability of the proposed projects, the number of individuals served and the ways in which they would be served by the projects, and the current funding structure and budget of the agencies. Finally, each section selected the community agencies we determined most worthy of the grant funding.

In total, between the two classes, $3,000 was awarded to the Henry Hosea House. Founded in 1991, the Hosea House is located in the heart of Census Tract 505 and has been the only soup kitchen in Northern Kentucky to serve an evening meal seven days a week, 365 days a year. Each night they serve approximately 175 hot meals to individuals and families of all ages and backgrounds. The money awarded to the Hosea House contributed to the creation of a garden in an effort to lessen the problem of nutritional poverty in the community. Due to a combination of factors, Census Tract 505 is considered a food desert. Lack of financial resources, transportation, and fresh food retailers in close proximity prohibits many residents from accessing a nutritionally balanced diet.

With the help of the MSPP, Henry Hosea House has treated the soil of the garden and has planted a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as a “living fence” of greenery to surround the garden. Two tons of fresh produce were cultivated and distributed to Hosea House patrons in the first year. According to Hosea House Executive Director Karen Yates, “The plants include blueberry bushes that were planted where our guests sit and wait to come in. They loved being able to sit there and eat right off the bush as they waited.” One client was surprised to learn he liked blueberries, as he had never been exposed to them before they were grown at Hosea House. This year, they expect to double the harvest of the previous year, as they reserved some of the Mayerson funds for additional plants this summer.

The remaining $1,000 grant was awarded to Brighton Recovery Center for Women (BRCW), located in Florence, Kentucky. BRCW is a 100-bed residential substance abuse recovery facility serving adult females who experience substance abuse, poverty, and homelessness. While it is not physically located within Census Tract 505, it serves the community directly; many of BRCW’s clients are residents of Newport, Kentucky. BRCW utilizes a peer-driven model for recovery that seeks to help women maintain sobriety and to reintegrate clients successfully as productive members of their communities. The $1,000 grant awarded to BRCW was used to fund medical services and prescriptions for clients. With the grant funds, numerous residents will be able to access individual mental health counseling services, dental services, prescription medications, and other necessary medical services.

Participation in the MSPP greatly enhanced our learning experience in several meaningful ways. We had the opportunity to engage in charitable giving and were inspired by the investment made in our community through student philanthropy. We were exposed to nonprofit structure and operations, and we participated in the solicitation and review of grant proposals. We expanded our knowledge of nonprofit agencies and their services within our community and were able to advocate among our peers for agencies whose missions are important to us. Many of us maintain a connection to these agencies and have volunteered our time or made monetary donations as a result of this project. This hands-on approach to learning has provided us with an experience we will remember long after our graduate studies are complete.


American FactFinder, U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.) 2006–2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/.
Commonwealth of Kentucky. (n.d.). School Report Card: 2011-2012 Academic Year, Newport High School. Retrieved from http://applications.education.ky.gov/src/.


The authors would like to thank Dr. Jessica Averitt Taylor for her support and guidance throughout this project.

About the Authors

The authors are students in the Master of Social Work program at Northern Kentucky University. Faye Perkins received her B.A. in psychology from the University of Kentucky. Hannah Powers received her B.A. in psychology from Northern Kentucky University. Jessica Herald received her B.A. in psychology from Miami University.

Art to Life: The Preservation of Personhood

Emily Broman

A sawmiller, veteran, and father from Pickens County, Alabama, Lester Potts was a practical man grounded in his faith and love for his family. But the handiness and helpfulness that had been the hallmark of his persona began to diminish with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease at age 70. In the midst of his cognitive impairment and physical debilitation, Lester was losing elements of personal autonomy and sense of self. Because of his condition it was suggested to his family that he visit Caring Days, an adult daycare center specializing in artistic therapies. Lester was reluctant to do so and was only acquiesced into a visit under the impression he would be performing manual labor. And then, Lester Potts began to paint.

As someone who had never before held a paintbrush, his creativity blossomed, and the disinhibition of his cognitive impairment unleashed a previously untapped artistic ability. Memories lost in conventional communication manifested through depictions embedded in Lester’s artwork, idiosyncratically familiar objects representing themes within his own life story. His work has since been displayed in galleries across the United States, including the David W. Streets Gallery in Beverly Hills. But more importantly, the artistic process provided a mechanism through which Lester could again participate in the core components of the human experience: learning and engaging in dignifying activity and self expression.

Inspired by his father’s transformative experience, Dr. Daniel Potts founded the nonprofit organization Cognitive Dynamics, which focuses on bringing artistic therapies to those with dementia and cognitive impairment. In search of a vector through which a volunteer program could be established, Cognitive Dynamics partnered with the University of Alabama Honors College. Pillars of the Honors College include civic engagement and innovative scholarship, and thus the idea for a service learning course came to fruition as Art to Life, pairing Honors College students with dementia patients who learn to tell their story through original artwork. In order to prepare for their volunteer experience, students enroll in a semester-long three credit hour seminar. Lectures in this seminar range from symptoms and underlying mechanisms of dementia to theories of art therapy and principles of effective caregiving. Relevant readings and writing assignments provide benchmark opportunities for reference and reflection. One of the primary preparation experiences is the Virtual Dementia Tour®, during which we undergo a dementia simulation to grasp the physical impairments of the adult participants. Appropriately frightening, the simulation is critical to encourage sensitive interactions in order to understand a dementia patient’s sensory experience. After five weeks of training, weekly lectures are supplemented with an eight-week art therapy experience, during which we are paired with an adult participant in the community for weekly sessions facilitated by a licensed art therapist employed through the Honors College. Maintaining participant dignity is of the utmost importance; to this end, age-appropriate art materials such as oil pastels, watercolor paints, and clay are utilized as opposed to colored pencils and crayons.

The culmination of our course is a final project in the form of a synthesized life story. Created as a DVD or a story book, the life story project compiles shared memories that surfaced through art therapy as well as family input and personal memorabilia. During the art therapy portion of the semester, lectures focus on life story extraction, authorization, and production. Ultimately, we present our projects to our adult participants and their families in a celebratory dinner at the end of the semester.

Adult participants are identified in partnership with Dr. Potts, as the neurologist from whose patient pool our adults are recruited. As the course director, Dr. Potts also conducts a majority of the lectures and guides course content, while other partners speak to artistic therapies, elements of life story creation, and practices for effective caregiving. Additional partners from the Telecommunications and Film Department — associate professor Dr. Rachel Raimist and a team of student interns — have taught the basics of documentary film making and relevant technology to design projects of the highest quality. In fall 2012, these film students worked in conjunction with Art to Life to produce a documentary and promotional materials. To handle student recruitment, course logistics, and scheduling, I serve as the course facilitator on behalf of the Honors College; I inherited this role as a previous student, profoundly inspired by my experience.

As a pre-med freshman, I gravitated toward this course in hopes of gaining invaluable patient interactions and an enhanced understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. But full engagement in Art to Life required my elevated and truly personal investment in my participant’s life story; I exercised vulnerability to a new degree in learning to speak with utmost sensitivity and immerse myself into the world of a dementia patient’s wishful perceptions and cruel realities. Such experiential learning unequivocally promoted empathy, distanced from the self-promoting learning in a typical classroom and yet uniquely preparing me for a future in healthcare. Truthfully, though our goal remains to validate our adult participants, as a student I felt validated knowing my involvement held transitive value: bending the trajectory of a life toward the dignity of human experience and honoring an individual’s present identity.

Because of the multi-faceted nature of the course, Art to Life attracts students of all disciplines. Aside from the student partners from the Telecommunications and Film Department, my classmates’ areas of interest range from medicine and nursing to dance and art history. Ultimately, every student background is valued as each experience functions as a ground upon which they can relate to another individual. As the course director and course facilitator, Dr. Potts and I conduct interviews with prospective students, such that all participating students understand the wholehearted commitment and mature interpersonal skills required to participate.

The course embodies engaged scholarship in that students learn to exercise communication skills and utilize scientific and artistic preparations to fully actualize service potential. Additionally, we are solidifying a research component so that students might reciprocally augment their outreach experience by better understanding the cognitive and behavioral effects of art therapy and the life story preservation uniquely characteristic of Art to Life. Presently, the research employs a pre- and post-quantitative survey assessment from the vantage point of the caregivers, concerning four relevant parameters of interest: care partner emotions, care partner behaviors, care partner affect, and caregiver responsibility. In identifying the true efficacy of Art to Life, optimizing course components or improving elements of the experience will facilitate a continually dignifying and enriching experience for all involved.

Of course, not all participants will undergo the transformation characteristic of Lester’s story, and until valid outcomes can be ascertained, we measure the success of Art to Life on the grounds that participant feedback is marked by a renewed sense of self and enjoyment in connecting with students. And while our adult participants regain some autonomy and livelihood in the process of art therapy, I feel the students remain the ultimate beneficiaries. In our crucially formative undergraduate experience, we practice the art of listening to life stories, assimilating into a new community, and connecting in intergenerational relationships. Ultimately, it is through the investment in promoting awareness and effective caregiving tools to younger generations that Art to Life can continue to advocate for those with Alzheimer’s disease.

About the Author

Emily Broman was a University Fellow majoring in Chemical Engineering and Psychology on the premedical track at The University of Alabama when she submitted this article. She is now a student in the Boston University School of Medicine.

Advancing Intercultural Understanding and Personal Development Outcomes Through Service-Learning: Insights from an International Student

Neivin M. Shalabi

Knowledge, experience, and reflection are mutually dependent and interconnected. The things people do comprise their experiences which then become the source of their knowledge. Unless people reflect on their experiences, they are less likely to learn from them (McCarthy, 2003). With this in mind, this essay is a critical reflection account of my experience in a service-learning course I took as a graduate student in a U.S research-based university. The essay is organized into four main sections. The first provides an operational definition of service learning and briefly discusses past research pertaining to the effects of this pedagogy on student service-learners. The second describes my experience, introducing the goal, nature, and structure of the service-learning course. The third highlights my engagement in the service-learning experience, providing examples of the course activities. The final section of the essay discusses the significance of this service-learning experience, elaborating on some academic, social, and personal gains.

Service-Learning: Definition and Impact

There exist many definitions for service-learning (e.g., Eyler & Giles, 1999; Furco, 2003; Jacoby, 1996); each definition emphasizes a specific orientation or aspect of this pedagogy (Bringle, 2013). In this essay, service-learning is defined as

course-based, credit bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995, p. 112).

Research documents a wide range of academic, social, and personal gains of service-learning for the student service-learner. On the academic side, there is evidence that service-learning has positive impacts on students’ learning outcomes (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Strage, 2000; Vogelgesang & Astin, 2000) and it is positively associated with increased ability to apply course concepts to new situations (Eyler & Giles). At the social level, Astin and Sax (1998) reported that participation in service-learning positively affects students’ civic responsibility: increased commitment to serve the community, interest in influencing the political structure, and helping others in difficulty. With respect to students’ personal development, studies suggest positive impacts of service-learning on students’ sense of personal efficacy, personal identity, spiritual growth, and moral development (Astin & Sax; Eyler & Giles; Vogelgesang & Astin). The following sections describe the service-learning course and my engagement in this experience.

Service-Learning Course

The service-learning experience under examination in this essay was part of my graduate studies. In particular, I took this course to fulfill a part of the requirements of my cognate that focused on not-for-profit organizations management. The overarching goal of the course was to enable students to acquire practical knowledge and experience on successful management of not-for-profit organizations. To that end, the course addressed several management issues as they relate to not-for-profit organizations, including organizational vision and mission, strategic planning, goal setting, program evaluation, leadership, and the co-ordination of staff and volunteers.

In the beginning of the course, the instructor presented the class with study proposals from not-for-profits addressing several causes, asking that students form groups based on their selected organizations. Given my interest in youth issues and prior volunteer experience with disadvantaged members of this age group in Egypt, I chose a youth-based organization. Two other classmates chose the same organization, and thus we formed a group. Structured reflection was integrated in the course; the instructor encouraged student teams to reflect on their service-learning experiences at the end of class sessions. Additionally, each student developed an individual reflection paper to fulfill part of the course assignments. The service component of the course was designed to allow students to apply the knowledge gained in the course in addressing the issues facing and/or enhancing the opportunities presented to a not-for-profit organization in the local community. Specifically, groups of students were charged with providing consultancy services in the form of written and oral reports to the management of their respective organizations. Each report included a summary of the study process, an explanation of the major findings, and a list of the recommendations and their rationale. The following section briefly describes the selected organization.

Overview of the Organization

The youth-based not-for-profit was a small organization whose mission was to provide experiential and outdoor learning opportunities that encourage personal empowerment, leadership, and community participation so that clients reach their potential at home, in school, and within their community. The organization’s activities were targeted to middle- and high-school students from low-income and racial minority backgrounds. To break the economic barrier to students’ participation, the organization offered its services with no fees. Examples of the organization’s activities, included swimming, rock climbing, and hiking training sessions in addition to assistance with homework. Besides these activities, the organization arranged a weekend wilderness adventure once a month.

Engagement with the Service-Learning Course

After a series of discussions with the organization’s director, my team decided to conduct an evaluation that could be used for developing a letter of analysis and recommendations. Examples of our work included conducting field trips; interviewing the executive director; developing a survey questionnaire to assess clients’ perception of the organization; examining and analyzing documents pertaining to the not-for profit, such as its mission, bylaws, board members’ rights and responsibilities; and reviewing the organization’s website.

Using the collected data, we conducted a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWAT) analysis. The outcomes of our research and analysis indicated that the major challenge was how to strike a balance between expanding the organization financially and programmatically while enhancing its visibility in the neighboring community. Accordingly, my team focused its work on three major areas: marketing, volunteer recruitment, and board of directors. By the end of the course, we submitted a report including recommendations pertaining to these areas and rationales for each suggestion to the not-for-profit management. Additionally, we presented our work in class.

Critical Reflections on the Value of the Service-Learning Experience

This service-learning course was distinct. Before discussing my gains from this experience, I would like to stress that this course was more engaging and enjoyable to me than courses that focus solely on theory within the walls of the classroom. The practical nature of this educational experience was instrumental in making it exciting. I especially enjoyed the field trips my team made to the not-for-profit. Additionally, this experience was significant to me in other ways. First, while the course materials increased my knowledge base of the third sector (not-for-profit organizations), the study process and the development of the team report enabled me to gain practical experience in addressing issues pertaining to the management of not-for-profit organizations. Equally important, the structured reflection activities throughout the course afforded me valuable opportunities to reflect on the whole experience and draw lessons that have informed my attitudes and practices since then.

Second, I very much appreciated the opportunity to apply already learned materials in completing the assignments of this course and enriching my teamwork experience. For example, I utilized my research skills in designing the survey used to gauge clients’ perception of the not-for-profit. Also, I used my specialized academic knowledge on diversity to offer recommendations for diversifying the organization’s Board of Directors, thus attracting members who reflect the demographics of its clients. These gains support research indicating that service-learning enhances students’ ability to apply what they have learned in the real world (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Moreover, this experience consolidated my previously gained knowledge about the value of experiential learning and reflection, thus strengthening my commitment to incorporating active learning and reflection activities into my teaching practices to enhance student learning and build their characters.

Third, this experience led me to change some of my preconceived notions about life conditions in the United States. Given the U.S. common image in Egyptian media as a prosperous country, I, as an outsider based on my status as international student in the U.S., was under the impression that everyone in the U.S. leads an easy life and enjoys prosperity. But, this experience opened my eyes that despite the overall prosperous nature of the U.S., poverty still exists in the nation. Specifically, I was surprised upon seeing the not-for-profit facility, which was housed in a basement of a small building. The facility was disorganized, dusty, gloomy, under-equipped, and understaffed. Although I saw several grassroots organizations in Egypt, it was difficult for me to believe that such a modest space existed in the United States. The physical appearance of the facility was so striking to me that I kept recalling the sharp contrast between the reality of what I saw at the organization and the typical pictures portrayed in Egyptian media about the prevailing conditions in the U.S.

Experience Changed Perceptions

Beyond the perplexity I felt upon seeing the physical appearance facility, I came to realize that not everyone in the United States, as I used to think, enjoys “the good life” life. Rather, there exist disadvantaged populations who struggle in their daily life in a country commonly known as the land of opportunity. Specifically, I came to see how minority youth suffer from lack of quality educational services, among other issues, similar to their Egyptian counterparts. Furthermore, my direct contacts with the organization’s multiple constituents allowed me an invaluable opportunity to realize how people, irrespective of their demographic characteristics and geographic locations, have many things in common. For example, during reading youth completed survey forms, I was struck by the similarity between these young people’s thoughts and those of the disadvantaged youths with whom I interacted in Egypt before starting my graduate studies in the U.S. My newfound understanding of the realities of life in the U.S. consolidates previous findings that service-learning has a positive effect on reducing stereotypes and facilitating cross-cultural understanding (Baldwin, Buchanan, & Rudisill, 2007; Berry, 1990; Boyle-Baise, 1998).

I felt privileged to have gone through this and other genuine experiences that enriched my intercultural experiences. Unfortunately, however, such opportunities are not afforded to all international scholars. As such, I offer this experience to higher education professionals, urging them to maximize service-learning opportunities for students, both domestic and international. These activities, though, should be well-designed such that they incorporate sufficient preparation; reflection; and intervention plans during the experience and adequate debriefing after the experience (Bringle, 2011; Lou & Bosley, 2008; Vande Berg, 2007). Through such thoughtful opportunities, students are more likely to challenge their preconceptions, form more complete and realistic picture about others from different backgrounds, and develop feelings of empathy for people with different values and lifestyles. Significantly, such service-learning projects could enable students to help make a positive difference in the global community while honing their multicultural competencies through interacting directly and adequately with diverse community members.

International Students’ Importance in Promoting Intercultural Understanding

While offering these opportunities to college students in general is a good practice, attracting international students to such activities is especially crucial. Given the privilege and uniqueness of this body of students in several aspects, including possessing multilingual skills and the likelihood for them to hold positions in international arenas, international students are better situated than their domestic peers to promote intercultural understanding between their native and host cultures. They could serve in formal and/or informal capacities as ambassadors who spread the values of mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence and stress how people, regardless of their cultural background, relate to each other as members in the global community. Therefore, concerted attention should be paid to engage international students in well-designed service-learning projects. These efforts are especially important given Deardorff and Edwards’ (2013) claim that “the human race must confront in the twenty-first century” (p. 178).

Contribution to Personal Development

In addition to promoting my intercultural understanding, this service-learning course contributed to my personal development in several ways. Specifically, it provided me with practical opportunities to exercise my leadership and professional communication skills while playing the role of a consultant, strengthening previous research findings that demonstrate positive effects for service-learning on leadership and communication skills development (Astin & Sax, 1998; Dugan, 2006; Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001). Also, this experience was instrumental in shaping my identity as a team player and enhancing my collaboration skills. In particular, it afforded me a valuable opportunity to practice the process of coordinating the schedules of and handling conflicts among team members. Furthermore, my work with two classmates enabled me to learn strategies for successful collaborations among diverse team members. For example, I recognized the value of discussing the goals of the group and the responsibilities of each member for achieving these goals at the initial phase of collaboration. Also, I realized the importance of agreeing on the channels of communication among group members, and between the group and external stakeholders in ensuring timely and effective communication among all involved parties. Additionally, I appreciated the value of distributing responsibilities among group members based on the unique skills and talents each member possesses in order to benefit from their diverse resources for achieving the team’s goals and maximizing its success. Moreover, I better understood the importance of providing constructive and timely feedback for team members and showing appreciation for them in establishing good working relationships, generating a positive atmosphere, and energizing team members to exert more effort while enjoying the work. This experience really helped me grow as a collaborator and enabled me to better understand the opportunities and challenges presented by collaborative work. Given my academic, social, and personal gains from this course, I strongly advise college students to engage in service-learning opportunities as an effort to get the optimal benefit from their collegiate experience.


The intent of this essay was to reflect on my service-learning experience as a graduate student. The first section revealed that service-learning is a type of experiential education that aims to connect classroom instruction with its application in the real world. It also showed that reflection is a key component of this pedagogy. The second section described the service-learning course under examination. This part showed that the service-learning course aimed to familiarize students with management issues facing not-for-profits and prepare them to successfully lead such organizations. It also explained that the course was designed for students to work in teams to provide consultancy services to management and reflect on their overall experience through structured opportunities for reflection throughout the course. The third section outlined the service activities associated with this experience, providing examples of the research and analysis activities my team conducted. This part indicated that my team focused primarily on exploring strategies for enhancing the organization’s visibility in the community, attract more volunteers, and increase the effectiveness of its Board of Directors. The final section discussed the personal impact of the course on me. This section presented examples of my academic, social, and personal gains from this experience. For example, it deepened my understanding of the not-for-profit world and affected my sense of efficacy in that I had an increased sense that I could address issues facing not-for profits and make a concrete effort toward their improvement. This effect is especially important given Bandura’s (1995) remark that beliefs about one’s efficacy are crucial to social change. Also, it showed how this experience informed my teaching philosophy such that it reinforced my plans to integrate experiential learning into my teaching practice and offer opportunities for students to reflect on their learning experiences, and practice outdoor activities. Additionally, this experience afforded me valuable opportunities to exercise and advance my leadership, communication, and collaboration skills.

Significantly, how this service-learning influenced me is consistent with past research exploring the impacts of service-learning on student participants. For example, similar to my experience, prior research suggested positive impacts of service-learning on self efficacy (Stewart, 2009), developing students’ interpersonal development, communication, and leadership skills (Astin & Sax, 1998; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Keen & Keen, 1998). Since my reflections reinforce outcomes of past research on the positive effects of service-learning on students, it is my hope that these reflections add evidence for the value of service-learning to college students, thereby encouraging faculty members to integrate it into their mainstream teaching practice and urging institutions of higher education to reconsider faculty reward structures such that they recognize the faculty who engage students in addressing authentic community issues while advancing their learning in the classroom.


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Astin, A.W., Sax, L.J., & Avalos, J. (1999). Long term effects of volunteerism during the undergraduate years. Review of Higher Education 22(2), 187–202.
Baldwin, S., Buchanan, A., & Rudisill, M. (2007). What teacher candidates learned about diversity, social justice, and themselves from service learning experiences. Journal of Teacher Education, 58, 315–327.
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About the Author

Neivin M. Shalabi is a lecturer in the Basic Sciences Department at Delta University for Science and Technology, Gamasa, El-Dakahlia, Egypt.

Book Reviews

Ninth Volume in Service-Learning Series Focuses on Identity and Integration

Reviewed by Kajsa Larson

Creating Our Identities in Service-Learning and Community Engagement. B.E. Moely, S.H. Billig, and B.A. Holland (Eds.). IAP-Information Age Publishing: Charlotte, NC, 2009, 282 pages. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-60752-289-8

As the ninth volume of the Advances in Service-Learning Research series, an initiative that began in 2002, Creating Our Identities in Service-Learning and Community Engagement addresses an area of research that has not been widely discussed: the topic of identity in relation to service-learning and community engagement. Each of the authors of this edited volume touches upon different aspects of identity theory, described as “an organizing concept around which the individual is able to integrate varied aspects of the self and aim for consistency in behavior” (p. x). This volume appeals to a wide readership, including university faculty and staff, community partners, students, or any other service-learning stakeholder that is interested in the topic of creating and sustaining identity through service-learning and civic engagement partnerships.

The book is organized into four parts. The three chapters in Part I examine the role of service-learning in higher education institutional identity through the examination of promotion and tenure guidelines, institutional websites, and critical reflection mechanisms developed by faculty. Chapter 1 analyzes survey responses to the 2006 applications for the Elective Classification for Community Engagement from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The authors found that most of these institutions place community engagement in the category of service in the evaluation of promotion and tenure. In Chapter 2, the authors reviewed online websites of 25 “research-extensive” universities to see how engaged scholarship was promoted. Then, the authors developed a matrix of this material to stimulate a national effort to collect, maintain, and share information about programs, activities, and policies to grow the field of practice. Chapter 3 utilizes case study methodology to examine data from a faculty initiative using the DEAL Model of Critical Reflection (Description, Examination, Articulation of the Learning). The conclusion of this case study points to the benefits that faculty gained through collaboration and how their “pedagogy” was transformed. Six themes also emerged: the role of institutional support; the rationale for using reflective writing; the importance of structuring assignments; the necessity of facilitating feedback to students; evidence of effectiveness; and challenges for faculty. The studies in this section suggest that universities are more widely recognizing service-learning initiatives but this approach is not often fully integrated into the system.

The two chapters of Part II explore the topic of partnership identity through the lens of the community partner. In Chapter 4, the research of five cases seeks to address whether faculty-community partnerships are capable of developing organizational identities, guided by the principles of partnership: “a shared understanding of ‘who we are’ as a [partnership] entity” (p. 75). Through the analysis of the organizational attitudes about partnership (the mission, organizational structure, expectations), the author concludes that partnership identity may help those organizations make sense of what it means to be a partner with each other. Chapter 5 discusses the results of a questionnaire sent to campus and community partners, as well as interviews that were conducted about university-community partnerships, in order to show how to create and sustain meaningful relationships between these two entities. The authors discuss the success and pitfalls of partnerships and point to the importance of frequent communication and that the vision, mission, purposes, and expectations of the partnership should be formalized in writing. The authors of both chapters conclude that a mutual identity can be achieved through service-learning initiatives between university and community partners through open communication and dialogue.

The three chapters of Part III focus on the student perspective through comparative studies of student performance between learners who engaged in service-learning and those who did not. Chapter 6 provides a literature review on this topic and then presents an analysis of the K–12 standards associated with middle and high school programs implemented in a school district in Philadelphia, along with the positive outcomes. The results of the study pointed to how students involved in service-learning had higher test scores and had improved behavior. In Chapter 7, the authors present a two-year investigation of an after-school mentoring project through a middle school-university partnership. The study addresses both the perspective of the mentor and that of the student and compares group mentoring with one-on-one mentoring. The results show that middle school youth improved both emotionally and academically and benefited the most from group mentoring. Mentors felt that they developed teaching skills, knowledge of youth, and community understanding. Chapter 8 addresses “cultural-based service-learning,” defined as “a pedagogical approach that intentionally integrates race- or diversity-related content with community service by providing students with opportunities to learn about social disparities associated with diverse communities” (p. 190). By administering a pretest and posttest to an albeit demographically homogenous group of students, the authors found positive changes over the semester in their problem-solving skills, awareness of racial privilege and blatant racial issues, ethnic identity, and racial attitudes. From the research presented in this section, readers can see that students benefit from community or service-learning projects that take place during and after school.

The four chapters in Part IV provide a synopsis about the past, current, and future research initiatives of service-learning and civic engagement, including the international perspective of scholars from several countries and the differences between research in K–12 and university settings. Chapter 9 examines the interdisciplinary nature of service-learning through library and information science research. The authors examined literature represented in journals such as the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning and the Advances in Service-Learning Research series, as well as masters’ theses and dissertations on service learning published between 2004 and 2006. The results show a wide range of departmental affiliation of service-learning scholars and diversity in the research from which they draw. The authors noted differences between those writing theses and dissertations versus those writing articles. The conclusions of the study point to the importance of cross-collaboration among disciplines as an opportunity for tapping a wider range of sources.

Chapters 10 and 11 are transcriptions of presentations given at service-learning conferences. In Chapter 10, Lori J. Vogelgesang gave a plenary address at an unnamed service-learning conference. Vogelgesang suggests that motivation is a strong reason for faculty commitment to service-learning and offers five tips for researchers to help them address the interconnectedness of service learning and what it means to live in a multicultural world: network, do good work, practice what you preach, publish and disseminate your work. Chapter 11 consists of a transcription of a plenary panel session during the Eighth International Research Conference. The speakers represented the United States, South Africa, Mexico, Australia, and Canada. They were asked to discuss and provide tips about service-learning and community engagement research. All of the panelists were in agreement about the importance of building community and being mindful of the context where this research takes place. An analysis of the individual presentations reveals both commonalities and differences among panelist responses. Chapter 12 summarizes the process by which K–12 standards for service-learning were developed with the end goal of encouraging the development of similar standards in the realm of higher education. The authors reconfirm several important themes from other chapters: the usefulness of interdisciplinary collaboration, the need to foster a shared sense of community through service-learning and community engagement, and developing standards for this type of work. The authors address the ways in which research can better inform practice: “As the field develops, researchers need to develop broader research questions that go beyond program evaluation” (p. 275).

The investigative aspect of service-learning takes precedence in this volume, with the most amount of material found in Part IV. Part II, on partnership identity, has the fewest chapters. Nonetheless, the authors of this compilation provide excellent literature reviews on service-learning and identity theory by citing both influential scholars in the field (Boyer, 1996) as well as more recent studies about the long-term effects of service learning and identity (Spring, Dietz & Grimm, 2006). Most of the chapters also include information about research limitations. Those most commonly discussed were the small number of institutions or partnerships that were studied, demographic or geographic limitations of the research participants, or a narrow research scope (web-based only or for a brief amount of time).

This volume provides an engaging and inspiring assessment of the interplay between service-learning and identity from all angles, thus paving the way for enriched conversations about the impact of community engagement on self, other, and collective. It can be placed within a larger trajectory, ranging from John Dewey’s seminal works about identity, service, and democracy (1916; 1927) to Saltmarsh and Hartley’s recent compilation To Serve a Larger Purpose: Engagement and Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education (2011).


Boyer, E.L. (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach, 1(1), 11–20.
Dewey, J. (1916), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. Chicago: Swallow Press.
Saltmarsh, J., & Hartley, M. (Eds.), (2011). To serve a larger purpose: Engagement and democracy and the transformation of higher education. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Spring K., Dietz N., & Grimm, R. (2006). Youth Helping America—Education for active citizenship: Service-learning, school-based service and youth civic engagement. Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service.

About the Reviewer

Kajsa Larson is an assistant professor of Spanish at Northern Kentucky University.

Canadian Scholars’ Book Moves Engagement from “How to” to Socio-Political Aspects

Reviewed by Marc Felizzi

Engaged Scholarship: The Politics of Engagement and Disengagement. Lynette Shultz and Tania Kajner (Eds.). Sense Publishers: Boston, MA, 2013. IAP-Information Age Publishing: Charlotte, NC, 2009, 200 pages. Hardcover. ISBN 978-94-6209-290-7.

Rather than dryly delineating what community engagement is and should be, editors Lynette Shultz and Tania Kajner add life to this concept in their wide ranging compilation Engaged Scholarship: The Politics of Engagement and Disengagement. The editors attempt to move the discussion of academy involvement in the community from a description of how to engage the citizenry to one of how to comprehend and develop awareness of the socio-political aspects of the community, as well as the importance of service-learning and the scholarship of engagement. Shultz, an associate professor and co-director of the Centre for Global Citizenship Education and Research at the University of Alberta, and Kajner, a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta, have extensive experience in the scholarship of engagement, global policy, and international education. Shultz and Kajner have included contributions from writers in the areas of global citizenship, community engagement, educational policy, sociology, anthropology, and human services to produce a compilation of studies and essays that address various perspectives of community engagement, service-learning, educational policy, media studies, deliberative democracy, and more in a lively and incisive book.

They offer articles that review the community engagement movement of the past 20 years. Struggling under a constant push and pull to define the ethereal concepts of community engagement, both editors hold that effective engagement requires a move away from an economy of knowledge (often held within the halls of higher learning) to a citizenship of knowledge, whereby the public contributes heartily to scholarship and academia.

This concept of knowledge as a privilege has been addressed in earlier literature, for example, Whitford and Strom (2013), state that “…engaging with communities is not the way universities have functioned traditionally. More often universities have been physically embedded in the geography of the local communities, but not in the real world lives of their residents. This split, sometimes referred to as the ‘town and gown’ separation, was often a reflection (and cause) of mutual distrust and dislike” p. 73). Shultz and Kajner attempt to address this ideological gulf by providing active examples of not just engaging through pedagogy, but of learning from community members, which in turn enhances praxis and builds relationships between universities and communities.

Several chapters were particularly intriguing and thought provoking. In “Beyond the Binary,” Kajner challenges the assertion that most scholarship is the primary fiefdom of the university. She asserts that scholarship must be viewed in the context of a new paradigm, one that encompasses Boyer’s (1990) “four interlocking functions of the scholar;” discovery, integration of these discoveries in the larger social and intellectual contexts, sharing of discovery, and application of this knowledge to the problems faced by individuals and society. Consistent with the perspectives on engaged scholarship articulated by other (Boyer, 1990; Frey & Carragee, 2007; Peterson, 2009). Kajner elaborates on her concept of a citizenship of knowledge by stating that information gathered and shared experiences in the community is research owned by the academy and the participating citizens and students, not solely the university. Kajner’s concept of community engagement extends beyond a unidirectional focus of outreach to fully embrace the idea that engagement is an exchange of ideas, data, and knowledge, a bi-directional flow of learning, not simply telling the community what is best.

To wit, in order to bridge the academy- community gap, Su-Ming Khoo asserts in her chapter, “Between Engagement and Citizenship,” that there indeed is a space between the two, and this space is best crossed by integrating a service component into university curriculums by encouraging and expecting students to disseminate what they have learned into the community. This expectation of sharing what is learned builds upon the reflexive component and opens the learning process to enable students to learn from one another and from those to whom they deliver newfound information. Additionally, Khoo contends that such a paradigm allows students and universities in developing countries to promote the use of digital technology in learning and pedagogy and allows universities to work with groups that may be especially interested in engaged scholarhip, specifically non-traditional and geographically isolated students.

Co-editor Shultz, in her article “Engaged Scholarship in a Time of the Corporatization of the University and Distrust of the Public Sphere,” addressed the trend of the “commercialization of learning” often promoted by multinational corporate interests. Shultz maintains that research emanating from corporate sponsored departments is often, not surprisingly, driven by the agenda of the funding conglomerate. Such research may be suspect, and Shultz contends that desires by universities to ally with corporations is troubling and may lead to an over commercialization of knowledge and a colonization of communities. Indeed, if the university is providing resources, data, and knowledge driven by a corporate agenda, how can the community truly benefit or remain independent? Shultz discusses various corporations that have disrupted local communities and environments, in the name of “furthering education.” She asserts that in order to be truly engaged, the scholar must push back and “disrupt the logics of discipline pressing corporatism onto the universities” (p. 43) by engaging in scholarship within a paradigm of “pluralversality,” which enables the university to attend to the options of a true global vision.

Several chapters address civic and community engagement in both sub-Saharan and South Africa. Both Ali Abdi and Catherine Odora Hoppers examine the role of the university in deconstructing colonialist and apartheid-based epistemologies in the African community. The potential to merge the concepts of African thought and ontologies into an educational system that encompasses traditional and emerging beliefs is unlimited. Abdi mentions that despite the best efforts of developed countries, the educational systems foisted upon African nations may have done more damage, and may have caused more civic disengagement than engagement. These essays are strengthened by Makkawi’s (2013) assertion that “In post-apartheid South Africa, many university departments have been intensively involved in community engagement initiatives, devoting their academic knowledge and expertise to various community-focused development and processes of reconciliation and reconstruction in a post-conflict society” (p. 91). This statement is reinforced by Catherine Odora Hoppers’ work, which discusses the creation of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) in order to develop a more community engaged and knowledge based pool of instructors and students in South Africa. Hoppers analyzes the role of SARChI in creating such learners and teachers and discusses what South Africa’s universities must do in order to engage the richness of their village and tribal culture into their curriculums. Rather than relying on new technology to promote the university, Hoppers writes that “the information revolution is not a revolution of technology, machinery or techniques, software or speed, but a revolution in CONCEPTS and thus THE WAY WE THINK” (p. 150).

Linda Herrera and Peter Mayo in “Digital Youth, the Arab Revolution and the Challenge of Education of Work,” provide vivid and intimate portraits of the protagonists of a revolution that toppled several oppressive regimes in the Middle East. The editors included this powerful essay to describe engagement in a larger sense, in this case, a revolution that was largely created and fashioned out of the use of social media and digital technology.

The role of social and electronic media in pedagogy and engagement is addressed in Paul Carr’s essay “The Mediazation of Democracy.” While most universities promote the idea of critical thinking and the development of students who use such skills to analyze society and history, Carr maintains that modern media is actively engaged with democracy and education, and therefore, the media play a role achieving more evolved and ethical forms of self-government in the community. Rather than negatively criticize social media and downplay its utility, Carr writes that society should embrace it as a vessel to promote democracy and to engage, enlighten, and energize the community at large.

Shultz and Kajner have done an admirable job in presenting the work of a diverse group of scholars and writers who together add a critical piece to the epistemology of pedagogy and community engagement. The articles within this collection bring forth many questions and opportunities for rich and stimulating discourse both in the classroom and community.


Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Frey, L.R., & Carragee, K.M. (2007). Communication activism as engaged scholarship. In Communication Activism, Vol. 1, pp. 1–64. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Makkawi, I. (2013). Community engagement from the margin: Zionism and the case of the Palestinian student movement in the Israeli universities. Arab Studies Quarterly, 35(2), 91–109.
Peterson, T.H. (2009). Engaged scholarship: Reflections and research on the pedagogy of social change. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(5), 541–552.
Whitford, L., & Strom, E. (2013). Building community engagement and public scholarship into the university. Annals of Anthropological Practice 37(1), 72–89.

About the Reviewer

Marc Felizzi is an assistant professor of Social Work at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Authors Make Case for Engaged Scholarship in Social Work Research Methods Guide

Reviewed by Kala Chakradhar

Qualitative Methods for Practice Research (Pocket Guides to Social Work Research Methods). Jeffrey Longhofer, Jerry Floersch, and Janet Hoy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 216 pages. ISBN 9780195398472.

Qualitative Methods for Practice Research is a pocket book guide to social work research methods, one of a series of two dozen pocket guides written by various authors covering a variety of topics on research methods. This particular book is co-authored by Jeffrey Longhofer and Jerry Floersch, both associate professors of social work at the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers, and Janet Hoy, assistant professor of social work at the University of Toledo. In coproducing this 200–page 8.5 x 5.5 easy-to-carry guide, the authors offer beginning and experienced social work practitioners a way to understand the qualitative research process of knowledge-building and meaningful application to the practice context of which they are a part. This collaborative work also offers academic researchers ways to sensitize themselves to the practice contexts and the stakeholders in the various client systems. The authors make a strong case for engaged scholarship in which the researcher-practitioner interaction is interdependent and there is an ongoing dialogue toward knowledge advancement and mutually beneficial ends.

A search for the origins of the idea of engaged scholarship leads to Boyer’s seminal work (1990) calling for a reconsideration of the definition of scholarship in academe. In taking a critical look at the reward system for faculty in higher education primarily through research and publishing, he laments the isolated nature of this academic endeavor. As he described in later years, (Boyer, 1996): “The scholarship of engagement also means creating a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other, helping to enlarge what anthropologist Clifford Geetz describes as the universe of human discourse and enriching the quality of life for all of us” (p. 20). What began as a serious recommendation for scholarship within universities to be connected to the realities of the world outside has today culminated in several disciplines working toward strengthening the research-practice interface. The creation of knowledge that can be suitably applied to real world practice settings is increasingly being recognized as an interactive process between the researcher and practitioner through the phases of problem formulation, conceptualization, creating a design for investigation, executing the study, and utilizing the results (Calleson, Jordan & Seifer, 2005; Hughes, Bence, Grisoni,O’Regan, & Wornham, 2011; Kielhofner, 2005; Wilson, 2006).

Longhofer, Floersch, and Hoy, in this innovative piece on qualitative research methods, exemplify this researcher-practitioner partnership and the value of engaged scholarship in social work practice settings. They subscribe to Van de Ven’s (2007) framework for engaged scholarship where knowledge is to be coproduced through collaborative work and challenging, differing perspectives through an interactive evolving process called arbitrage. The authors foresee this form of engaged scholarship as ushering in a new era in social work research, interdependent as opposed to autonomous and parallel. Besides the introductory chapter, which sets the stage for the purpose and focus of the book, there are five chapters. A “Notes” section gives a chapter-wise elaboration of some of the implicit content. The book ends with a glossary of the conceptual terms used as well as a list of references.

The philosophy of critical realism is introduced and discussed in detail in Chapter 1 wherein attention is drawn to what goes on in the open systems in which social workers practice. The authors see critical realism as best suited for engaged scholarship. A distinction is made between empirical, actual, and real domains where the real is beyond what knowledge can explain and fathom and is part of the complex experience of the practitioner’s discoveries through reflection in practice situations. In the same vein, the contrasts drawn between brute and institutional (contextual) facts, closed and open systems, downward and emergent causation, and the necessary and contingent demonstrate what constitutes critical realism. In enlightening the struggle that exists in connecting theory and practice, deductive and inductive processes, the concept of phenomenological practice gap (PPG) is elaborated. By the authors’ own admission, this chapter makes for challenging reading but does admirably address the limits of variables-based research, especially when critically looking at the process of implementing evidence-based interventions in mental health practice settings. The authors’ interpretation of the critical realist perspective to causation in social work practice situations is worth a read.

The second chapter illustrates the use of qualitative methods in projects involving engaged scholarship beginning with problem formulation, framing aims and questions to data collection and analysis. Interspersed with examples from practice situations as well as day-to-day experiences, the narrative offers clarity in understanding the stages of research including sampling, recruitment of participants, and the role of the Institutional Review Board. The chapter explains the nature of qualitative data including use of audio-visual media, describes three analytic strategies (thematic, grounded theory, and narrative), and also offers a simplified introduction to the data analysis software, Atlas.ti. By providing screenshot illustrations of sample data and preliminary coding instructions, the authors give readers an opportunity to get started right away. All this is brought together at the end with a case illustration of youth and psychotropic medication retracing the steps from formulation to findings.

Institutional ethnography as a qualitative method was developed by sociologist Dorothy Smith in the third chapter. The focus of this method is on the web of social processes and relationships in a practice context. This method specifically lends itself to the study of the effects of policy or interventions where, in reality, multiple dynamics come into play and multiple networks of individuals are impacted in different ways. The application of this method is illustrated by the effects of policy on the everyday experience of case managers and clients in community mental health settings. Coproduction of knowledge through researcher-practitioner engagement and identification of PPG is also demonstrated through the illustration.

Chapter 4 discusses how an engaged scholarship approach is used to adapt evidence-based interventions. The authors offer examples from literature where such adaptations were made to incorporate the strengths and needs of the context, which they term positive variance. In examining seven of these adaptations, the authors draw their inferences on the iterative adaptive process and the methods used. An illustration of a jail setting is used to especially affirm the need to anticipate the “particularity” of the setting and the “nature of open systems” (p. 137). The inevitability of phenomenological practice gaps is underscored and practitioners are urged to “reject the premise that experts make knowledge and transfer it downward” (p. 137).

In the final chapter, the multiple aspects of engaged scholarship are tied together by what the authors exalt as the single most important concept in social work practice and research namely “reflexivity” (p. 139). These “internal conversations” (p. 140) or reflections in relation to the contexts are discussed in terms of how they are processed. In addition seven components of reflexivity suited to engaged scholarship are detailed.

The authors’ effort in the form of this concise guide to qualitative research is indeed commendable. The presentation of the rationale to pursue knowledge building in mental health practice settings informed by critical realism and engaged partnerships is a novel perspective in bridging the gap between researchers and practitioners. As the authors envision, this does open up the potential for collaborative research and learning. The real world practice illustrations make for ease in understanding the range of possibilities in the qualitative research process. A unique feature is the inclusion of resource links and references within the narrative of the chapters. At the same time, however, qualitative research today has gained its own level of sophistication such that the initial chapters make for challenging reading and comprehension. Although the authors have made an effort to integrate the concepts in their illustrations, these concepts do beg for more clarity and depth of explanation.

Professional social workers, in their role of intervening with individual, groups, and communities, are not only governed by the profession’s ethics but also by a set of expected competencies. One key competency is practice that is evidence-based and guided by research and in turn informs research (Lietz & Zayas, 2010). This book and its philosophical orientation supports this expectation. Lastly, the companion site for the Oxford University Press Pocket Guides to Social Work Research Methods offers additional links and resources related to the content of this book (Pocket Guides to Social Work, n.d). Longhofer and Floersch offer readers a good experience in qualitative research and a worthy read in the understanding of the intricacies of the researcher-practitioner interface.


Boyer, E.L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation.
Boyer, E.L. (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach, 1(1), 11–20.
Calleson, D.C., Jordan, C., & Seifer, S.D. (2005). Community-engaged scholarship: Is faculty work in communities a true academic enterprise? Academic Medicine, 80(4), 317–321
Hughes, T., Bence, D., Grisoni, L., O’Regan, N., & Wornham, D. (2011). Scholarship that matters: Academic-practitioner engagement in business and management, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10(1), 40–57.
Kielhofner, G. (2005). Scholarship and practice: Bridging the divide. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 59(2), 231–239.
Leitz, C.A., & Zayas, L.E. (2010). Evaluating qualitative research for social work practitioners,.Advances in Social Work, 11(2), 188–202.
Pocket Guides to Social Work Research Methods (n.d). Retrieved from http://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/umbrella/pocketguides/.
Van De Ven, A.H.( 2007). Engaged scholarship: A guide for organizational and social research. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, E.J., III (2006). Engaged scholars and thoughtful practitioners: Enhancing their dialogue in the knowledge society. Information Technologies and International Development, 2(4), 89–92.

About the Author

Kala Chakradhar is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Leadership and Human Services, College of Education and Human Services, Murray State University.

Digital Storytelling: A Technological Approach

Reviewed by Katherine E. Perone

Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community. Joe Lambert. Routledge: New York, N.Y., 2013, 206 pages, ISBN: 978-0-415-62703-0.

Lambert’s Digital Storytelling emphasizes the use of storytelling as a cultural artifact and tool for personal growth and community support. Communicating thoughts and emotions through stories strengthens the ability to engage individuals, groups, organizations, and communities worldwide. Storytelling creates an environment where language is power. Combining technology and storytelling to create digital storytelling results in a new medium to interrelate with others.

Digital Storytelling describes the use of technology to tell one’s story. Throughout the book, Lambert challenges the reader to think about the questions “What shapes our stories?” and “How can we tell our stories in today’s technological world?” An additional question to consider when reading the book is “What is the value of digital storytelling?” These questions address Lambert’s central themes and he answers these questions throughout the book by sharing stories told by “common” individuals. Chapters 1 through 4 provides excellent examples of stories that shape one’s life. His examples include stories about obstacles, achievements, people who have made a difference in one’s life, and life changes. Many of his chapters conclude with a personal story followed by the author’s interaction with the storyteller. This subtle but powerful tool engages the reader in the phenomenological experience of the collaboration involved in the process of creating digital stories. These personal stories describe the “soul of community” and how the story can be used to invoke community activism and education (Sandercock & Attili, 2010). Chapters 5 through 11 describe the tools used to tell stories using modern technology and address the question regarding how to tell a story through the use of technology. These tools include pictures, storyboards, and audio programs. The value of digital storytelling is depicted throughout the book but chapters 14 and 15 detail specific uses of digital storytelling.

Readers from diverse backgrounds will enjoy Lambert’s easy to read instructional approach. Chapter 5 illustrates this approach by explaining the seven elements needed, as determined by the author. These elements include ownership of insights, ownership of emotions, finding the moment, seeing the story, hearing the story, assembling the story, and sharing the story. These elements would not be considered evidence based, but a reflection of the author’s lived experience of facilitating digital storytelling workshops over the past two decades. This chapter gives the reader an excellent recipe for digital storytelling, including the emotions evoked, the importance of visual, audio and tactile response, and the methods to tell the story. To illustrate the importance of the audience in sharing the story, Lambert describes how the “permanency story” of foster children can be used in social work training. Lambert’s seven elements provide the reader with diverse approaches to digital storytelling, which includes audio, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles. Also included in this chapter is scholarly information about copyright issues when using other authors’ material and providing useful information to academicians as well as lay people.

Lambert’s mastery of storytelling and the rationale for digital storytelling is evident throughout the book. Although his examples are taken from his workshop participants, the reader gains a sense of how useful digital storytelling is in other arenas such as education, community activism, counseling, and healthcare. Chapter 14 is devoted to the application of digital storytelling in a healthcare setting. In this chapter, he describes a program called Patient Voices, which uses storytelling to advocate change in health care, and he incorporates a question and answer session with the founders of the program. They describe the value of digital storytelling in end of life care. This chapter demonstrates how digital storytelling gives terminal patients control to decide what story they want to share and what visual aids will be used to tell the story. Used in this way, this medium can provide closure for the patient and family.

The use of digital storytelling in higher education is discussed in the last chapter of the book. The chapter is authored by academicians from four state universities representing the East and Midwest. The chapter’s authors provide examples of how digital storytelling can be used in the classroom as well as with faculty development. For example, Jacobs describes how digital storytelling strategies used in his course “Digital Storytelling in and with Communities of Color,” required students “to think about the ways that the media had represented them and their communities” (p. 177) and to “speak back to those representations, to make their own representations about themselves and their communities” (p. 177). The chapter engages and challenges readers to brainstorm ideas on the use of digital storytelling in program coursework. Current articles written about digital storytelling emphasize the significance of the tool in education (Czarnecki, 2009; Morgan, 2014), and although the chapter was specific to higher education, digital storytelling can be used in all educational settings (Czarnecki, 2009; Morgan, 2014).

Links between theory and practice are a limitation of the book, especially for those who may wish to delve more deeply into the epistemological and methodological frameworks connected to digital storytelling pedagogy and outcomes. Lambert’s descriptive terminology postulates narrative theoretical perspectives. These concepts include constructing and reconstructing one’s story based on his or her worldview (White & Epston, 1990). Descriptive terms from narrative theory such as co-constructed, reframing, and identity construction to explain the importance of storytelling within the community framework are used within the book. Narrative theory gained prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bruner, 1987; Polkinghorne, 1988; White & Epston, 1990) and is a framework that encompasses the use of story as a tool of empowerment (White & Epston, 1990). Narrative theory is built on the idea that people’s lives and relationships to others are shaped by their life stories. The uniqueness of the person is defined by his or her story and the interpretation of their stories. Issues related to self-concept, interpersonal relationships, and personal growth are explored, deconstructed, and reconstructed to develop a new story (White & Epston, 1990). This storytelling approach mimics the book’s design and linking the theory to his chapters would have strengthened the book’s framework.

Another limitation of the book is its ongoing reference to the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS). CDS is a non-profit organization that provides workshops on digital storytelling. Chapter 6 is devoted to the CDS workshop model, and although relevant to the topic, the redundancy to the author’s proprietorship may limit the reader in seeing digital storytelling beyond this particular framework (see Alexander, 2011, and Ohler, 2013, for example, for media and education-oriented perspectives on digital storytelling). If the reader can look beyond the strict adherence to the CDS model of digital storytelling, the book provides readers the tools needed to tell a story enmeshed in emotion, logic, and reflection.


Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Bruner, J. (1987). Life as narrative. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 54(2), 11–32.
Czarnecki, K. (2009). How digital storytelling builds 21st century skills. Library Technology Reports, 45(7), 15–19.
Morgan, H. (2014). Using digital story projects to help students improve in reading and writing. Reading Improvement, 51(1), 20–26.
Ohler, J.B. (2013). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning and creativity (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Sandercock, L., & Attili, G. (2010). Digital ethnography as planning praxis: An experiment with film as social research, community engagement and policy dialogue
Planning Theory & Practice, 11(1), 23–45. doi: 10.1080/1464350903538012.
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

About the Author

Katherine E. Perone is an assistant professor/director of field education of Social Work at Western Illinois University.

From the Associate Editor: Connecting with Community Partners and Student Scholars

Nick Sanyal, Ph.D.

As a board member and reviewer I had read many compelling manuscripts each with the potential to make significant contributions to the practice and scholarship of engagement. This has encouraged me, as associate editor, to see more first-time authors, particularly students and community partners, published in JCES. While JCES has always been responsive to the needs of communities, community partners, and students, issue 7.1 is a significant new step toward enhancing the connections between our professional knowledge and practice and our community partners and student scholars.

Our Community Voices essay is unique because it’s a community piece written by a student, Jason Merrick. Jason, a third year social work major at Northern Kentucky University, is the voluntary chairman for the Northern Kentucky chapter of a grassroots community organization known as People Advocating Recovery (PAR). PAR’s mission is to remove the barriers to long-term recovery from the disease of drug addiction, and to address the stigma and discrimination associated with addiction. He also works part time at Transition’s Grateful Life Center, a 100-bed inpatient long-term men’s recovery center. He’s a very impressive young man who has already accomplished a lot. His essay is written from his perspective as a community activist.

Service-learning is all about becoming better citizens. By engaging ourselves with a community through service- learning, we develop first-hand knowledge, an understanding of the intricacies of real world, small-town social and power systems, and we are enriched with a fuller appreciation of the relationships between community and academy. Our Student Voices paper is a collaboration between four undergraduate students and their faculty advisor from the University of Virginia. While the paper itself is a compelling account of how their work in South Africa helped improve a community and expand their own intellectual and practical horizons, it is their transference of that knowledge that will help us create a more inclusive platform for the larger community of scholars. This paper is significant too; it is the first article reviewed by members of our student editorial board-SCOPE (Scholars for Community Outreach, Partnership and Engagement).

SCOPE membership is currently limited to University of Alabama undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines. Graduate students who are members of SCOPE are recognized as SCOPE Fellows and are offered the opportunity to serve on the JCES Editorial Review Board as reviewers of manuscripts for the Student Voices section of JCES, under the guidance of Editorial Liaison Dr. Melanie Miller and Editorial Assistant Vicky Carter. The use of SCOPE Fellows as Student Voices reviewers is the brainchild of JCES Editor Dr. Cassie Simon. It is her vision to expand this board to include student reviewers at other universities in the near future. Our thanks to our first three reviewers; their comments made this a far better and more useful paper.

The remainder of this issue is an alluring blend of cutting-edge engagement research, collaborations, and innovative pedagogies. Paige Bray and her associates share a deliberation guide to successful collaborative partnerships between parents and families and schools. Chaebong Nam discusses a youth asset mapping project conducted by a group of African American youth, who investigated local assets available for teens to create a map using digital media tools in order to develop and share information. David Dunbar and his team present their analysis of a model for designing and conducting an interdisciplinary team-taught community-based research course employing instructors with different disciplinary backgrounds and areas of expertise.

Sarah Banks and her co-authors introduce us to the advantages of using co-inquiry to design and manage projects and in the process they provide critical new insights into the process of collaboration. Sharon Paynter shares a provocative discussion on how engaged scholarship and applied research intersect and forces us to reconsider many strongly held beliefs about the work we do. Melissa Simon and her team describe what we believe is the first community-based participatory research study to elicit perceptions of research within an underserved suburban community. They examined community members’ knowledge and attitudes about research as a way to improve our understanding of and participation in research within rapidly growing, underserved suburban populations. Finally, Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz and Leda Cooks demonstrate how increased cultural competencies could be learned as a result of improved intergroup understanding, interaction, and dialogue in their adaptation of asset mapping.

Collaborative Action Inquiry: A Tool for, and Result of, Parent Learning and Leadership

Paige M. Bray, Joan Pedro, Eric M. Kenney, and Mary Gannotti


This parent information project is grounded in the notion of parental involvement as advocacy that benefits children in the community. Supported by a state-level early childhood foundation in a learning partnership with a national, non-partisan research foundation, this project engaged parent leaders from five communities as co-researchers in identifying assets, listening to citizens, capacity building, and knowledge development. University researchers engaged with co-researchers as essential collaborators enacting this participatory action-oriented project in order to gain insights on family involvement and community action contributing to thriving children, birth to age 8. Creation of a deliberation guide was a tangible product of an iterative cycle of inquiry and grassroots, collaborative process to promote change and empowerment. Co-researcher insights and observations, formally captured in an intentional focus group, are presented with equal importance as author voices. The use of face-to-face time and virtual space is addressed. Implications for parent leadership, transformative knowledge production, and educational change are explored.


There is overwhelming support for engaging parents and families in the education of their children as parent involvement is linked to positive learning outcomes. When families are engaged in the educational decisions for their children, the research shows better student achievement and retention in school (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Jeynes, 2005). Parents and professionals working together on a consistent basis provide an opportunity for each group to gain a better understanding of the other. This information underscores an urgent need to engage in reflective dialogue (Stein & Gewivtzman, 2003). The Parent Information Action Research (PIAR), funded by the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, was grounded in the theoretical foundations of parental involvement as advocacy that benefits children in the community. The work of Bronfenbrenner (1979) undergirds the work that took place in this partnership with the parent leaders, who contributed as co-researchers. Additionally, the concepts of family systems, self-efficacy, and agency were also underlying assumptions that were explored as the PIAR team undertook and completed the project.

The project was supported by a state-level early childhood foundation in a learning partnership with a national, non-partisan research foundation devoted to finding ways to increase citizen participation in American society. University researchers enacted this project, collaborating with parent co-researchers to create an Issue Guide. This participatory action-oriented project methodology uniquely engaged parent co-researchers in a leadership capacity in order to document insights on family involvement contributing to thriving children, birth to 8. The outcome of this research in an accessible Issue Guide is gained insights into key issues in family involvement and community collaboration all presented in a format that fosters seeking strategies to ensure early childhood success. The goals of this research were to: a) engage parents as co-researchers in a participatory action-oriented research process for their own knowledge development, b) create an Issue Guide grounded in actual parent and citizen concerns, and, c) capture the specific vantage point of the parents via focus groups.

The PIAR project emphasis was intentionally on children birth to age 8 and their communities. While not a prescribed relationship between children or parents and schools, the early care and education of children across the early childhood span meant attending to the roles of family as well as informal and formal institutional education in the young child’s life. When talking about children or student “education” we are inclusive of early care and education addressing birth through grade 3. The educational aspects of child, parent, and community are layered throughout the PIAR project.

For the purpose of this research parent education is defined as the tools and resources that parents need to pursue new knowledge (Frusciante, 2010). In addition, parent engagement through parent education is understood to be the incredible power the early care and early childhood education needs to harness. Through directly attending to the child in the context of the family, as well as by supporting comprehensive community resources and systemic support for parenting, we can realize national goals for more children in more families in more neighborhoods in America.

Our participatory PIAR team consisted of 10 parent co-researcher leaders from five communities engaging with the university lead researcher and research assistant in action research to identify issues in community-oriented parent leadership. Not new to parenting, the co-researchers were used to being active members in their community and had either formalized leadership training or communitybased leadership experience previously. During this project, the parent co-researchers, drawing from what they heard parents and citizens in their home communities articulate, identified their own questions and practical outcomes, which are expressed in our Issue Guide. The Kettering Foundation Issue Guide, or Issue Book as they are also called, is “for forums that encourage serious deliberation on hard policy choices facing the public” (http://www.cpn.org/partners/Kettering. html). The National Issues Forum (Muse, 2009) typically produces and disseminates three such documents each year. The creation of the PIAR Issue Guide is a tangible product of grassroots community work in collaboration with university, state, and national agencies to promote change and empowerment.

The process of developing our particular Issue Guide was intentionally structured to parallel the iterative action research inquiry cycles. Our Issue Guide has been disseminated both regionally and nationally. Drawing from selected literature, we now examine theories explaining the value of community context, what significance there is to the concept of capacity building, and lessons learned from partnerships involving parents and families.

Individuals Drawing on Community Context

The relational understanding of family and community (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) paired with self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977) sets the overarching theoretical orientation for this project. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 2005) ecological perspective highlights that families are the most influential factor in child development, centering the socialization of the child within the nested contexts of family and community. Work with parents can be grounded in the Bronfenbrenner ecological model, which acknowledges that the most important setting for a young child is the family unit because it has the most emotional influence on the child. Bronfenbrenner further contends that all of these contexts can be thought of as environments or settings that hold people, which influence each other and are influenced by culture. Understanding that a child affects as well as is affected by the settings in which that child spends time, the child is at the center. The number and quality of the connections between the settings in which a young child spends time also have important implications for his/her development.

An innovation from the current literature that is deemed to be successful in the United States is the Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) initiative launched by the Kellogg Foundation. This project was developed to promote permanent improvement in the systems that affect early learning, particularly for children ages 3 to 8. This initiative invited parent engagement, public will, culture, and a coordinated service delivery and has partnerships as an important component (Berkley, 2010).

In another of his works, “Rebuilding The Nest,” Bronfenbrenner (1990) lays out five propositions that describe the processes that foster the development of human competence and character. At the core of these principles is a child’s emotional, physical, intellectual, and social need for ongoing, mutual interaction with a caring adult, and preferably with many adults. The effective functioning of child-rearing processes in the family and other child settings requires public policies and practices that provide place, time, stability, status, recognition, belief systems, customs, and actions in support of child-rearing activities not only on the part of parents, caregivers, teachers, and other professional personnel, but also relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, communities, and the major economic, social, and political institutions of the entire society (Bronfenbrenner, 1990). Bronfenbrenner (1979) states, “Whether parents can perform effectively in their child-rearing roles within the family depends on the role demands, stresses, and supports emanating from other settings…”(p. 7).

This social ecological model is most broadly understood to be the study of the influence of people on one another in a particular environment (Hawley, 1950). When looking at adults, the individual’s roles and the interpersonal features of a group have been explored further (Gregson, 2001). In contemporary use of this model, Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, & Rinderle (2006) inquire about the role of technology as one of many layers of interactions integrated into our lives.

Capacity Building: To What End?

The family systems theory offers an additional lens on parental involvement and information. It emphasizes the inter-relationships between family members and how a family’s psychological and physical health affects the care they give their children with special needs (Odom, Yoder, & Hill, 1988). The family systems (Olson, Sprenkle, & Russell, 1979), family stress (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983), and family life-cycle theory (Turnbull, Summers, & Bortherson, 1986) have all contributed greatly to our understanding of family function. Family stress model (Conger, Rueter & Conger, 2000) demonstrates how stressors the parents experience can cause conflict and disrupt parenting and interactions between the parent and the child, leading to poor outcomes.

There is a great deal of diversity among and within families in how people cope with and deal with different life circumstances. However, there is a body of literature to support specific child and family characteristics as being associated with greater stress. For example, families of children with special health care needs, in general, experience more stress than families of typically developing children (Barlow, Cullen-Powell, & Chesire, 2006). English as a second language, poverty, and level of education are related to increased parental stress and depression, and are associated with child behavior problems (Patcher, Auinger, Palmer, & Weitzeman, 2006). PIAR by design kept the complexities of families’ lives at the forefront of the work in order to have applied outcomes.

Most of the work on self-efficacy has been conducted by Bandura, who defined self-efficacy relatively broadly as “people’s judgments of their capacities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance” (Bandura, 1986, p. 391). He argues that efficacy is a “generative capacity in which cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral sub-skills must be organized and effectively orchestrated to serve innumerable purposes” (Bandura, 1997, p. 36). He defined perceived self-efficacy as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves, and behave. Such beliefs produce these diverse effects through four major processes. They include cognitive, motivational, affective, and selection processes (Bandura, 1994). Thus what matters to perceived self-efficacy is not the number of skills people have, but rather what people believe they can do with those skills under certain circumstances. This concept is most central to people’s everyday lives (Bandura, 1989).

Self-efficacy is understood to operate throughout a family system, in both the parents and the children. Bandura (1986) states that children make choices based on the influence of self-efficacy. Persistence, such as how long children persist when they confront obstacles or failures, is also related to self-efficacy in the ability to define a goal, persevere, and see oneself as capable. Parents and other adults can help children develop selfefficacy by reinforcing their strengths and helping them identify steps or paths to achieve their goals. Witte (2000) defines self-efficacy as “beliefs about one’s ability to perform the recommended response to avert the threat” (p. 20). A lack of skills, selfconfidence, knowledge, and access are common barriers to performance. Social cognitive theory has outlined two major components of self-efficacy: establishment of goals and the ability to organize necessary skills to achieve the goals. The goals, whether explicitly stated or implicitly harbored, provide major motivations for people to execute their skills. While taking on impossible tasks can dampen self-efficacy, goals too easy to accomplish do not benefit self-efficacy either. Thus helping people to establish appropriate goals or appropriate perception of goals is a good starting point. Bandura (1986) also emphasizes that self-efficacy is behavior and context specific. Therefore the skills recommended should be related to specific target behaviors in the target context. Designed as both modeling and experiential learning through action research, PIAR drew on and built upon the adult parent co-researchers’ individual and collective skills and capacities. Community development and knowledge creation, specifically through the development of the skills and capacities of parents, are powerful tools that community organizations, institutions of higher education, and philanthropic institutions can invest in.

Knopf and Swick (2007) share that involving families capitalizes on family strengths to develop an empowering relationship with the families. Empowerment can be defined as a multidimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives (Page & Czuba, 1999).

When empowered, people see their skills and capacities and in turn see themselves as knowledge creators as well as critical consumers with the ability to change or grow. A dynamic agency (Bray, 2008) is the development of self-identified capacities that are created in the actions of using talents in multiple contexts. When educational institutions learn about families and develop programs that would encourage parent and family involvement, there are successful efforts to engage public will, culture, and coordinated service delivery (Berkley, 2010).

Methodology: Parent Co-Researchers as Essential Collaborators By Design

What we call community-based action research is methodology that incorporates commitments and practices that put parent coresearchers at the center of PIAR as engaged knowledge-makers instead of as more traditional, passive research participants. Rather than seek answers for more traditional, pre-determined research questions, this research project captures the lived co-constructed experiences of the parent co-researchers (Collins, 2000) and their reflections on this experience, in their own words (Rossman & Rallis, 2003; Seidman, 2006).

As articulated in the PIAR Issue Guide, the focus statement is: Connecting parents, who are those with primary responsibility for a young child, and others in the community to information about early childhood is key to the success of young children. Parents who have access to quality information and the supports to use that information can make better decisions regarding children. The Issue Guide is a tangible outcome of this research using a communitybased (Greenwood & Levin, 2000; Horton, 1998; Stringer, 1999, 2008), participatory action research model (Freire, 1970; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000; Maguire, 1987). The model, our methodology, and the Issues Guide are located in an explicit set of social values and assumptions including:

a) engaging “with” people in a process, not “for” or “on” research subjects; b) a democratic, inclusive process that enables participation of all parent co-researchers while developing critical consciousness; c) an equitable process recognizing human capacity and an individual’s ability to contribute; and, d) a liberating and life enhancing activity with the express commitment to practical outcomes that transform structures and relationships.

Process of Community Partners Selection

The PIAR project was funded through parent co-researcher stipends, researcher time, and community honoraria in five Discovery Network communities (http://discovery.wcgmf.org), a decade long initiative of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. The community selection process was designed to encourage Discovery communities to propose and support parent co-researchers in their communities and to provide a grounded leadership development experience so that those parent teams could help in both understanding and addressing parent information needs in communities. Eligible communities were those designated as having a completed community plan for early care and education. In the application process, communities needed to demonstrate that they had at least two parents interested in working on the project and willing to make a multi-year commitment. The communities also were asked to describe how the notion of parent information fit within their community blueprint plan and what their interest was in working on action research with university support.

The parent co-researcher team consisted of nine women and one man from five distinct communities. Of the co-researchers nine were parents and one a grandparent in the role of primary care providers of a child or children. The co-researchers’ children ranged in age from early childhood to adulthood. The parent co-researchers self-identified as African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, and multiracial. All co-researchers reside in urban areas, be that a large urban center or more isolated city with rural surrounding, and suburban communities in Connecticut.

Process of Parent Co-researcher Selection and Training

The knowledge development and capacity building opportunities for parents have driven the design of this project. True to the legacy of the methodology, this project was designed to inform and provide multiple opportunities to act on and internalize new information with the support of the project team. The PIAR Issue Guide is the first concrete product resulting from the parent co-researchers being in the role of knowledge producers.

The 10 parent co-researchers represented five communities located across Connecticut. Team interactions were designed to a) transmit key training information and knowledge-building experiences, b) foster collaborative exchange among and between team members, and c) provide supported practice for new skills with a problem solving lens. Distance and time concerns made frequent PIAR team meetings of the parent co-researchers, the primary university researcher, and research assistant impractical. A virtual space was created to augment the monthly PIAR team meetings. This web space included basic project information, contact information, and a discussion board with technical assistance and monitoring by the research assistant. The specific discussion board feature allowed for the constant contact of parent co-researchers with one another as well as priority access to the lead researcher and research assistant. In addition, the primary researcher, often with the research assistant, would travel to each community specifically to meet with each community team in between the larger group meetings. Given the generative nature of the project, the consistent face-to-face contact, the coming to know each other through collaboration, and the virtual space discussion board, there was a relatively uninterrupted stream of communication for parent co-researchers to discuss process and grapple with producing tangible outcomes.

In addition, the discussion board was used as a capacity building forum for co-researchers. Weekly discussion board assignments included introduction to action research models, reflections on various stages of the project, and other related topics. The discussion board quickly became a sounding board for all co-researchers, allowing them to support one another in various stages of the project and continually reflect on the action research process. Additional particulars about parent co-researcher training are explicated in the data collection and documentation section that follows.

The lead university researcher/primary facilitator had credibility with the parent coresearchers as a parent, as an early childhood educator, and as a linked community member. While a central and visible presence in the work, by design the facilitator role evolved from central to marginal as part of parent capacity building in ways that are sustaining and sustainable. As a team we found that the greatest challenge of this participatory, collaborative approach was the tyranny of time.

Data Collection and Documentation—Iterative Cycles of Inquiry

The pages that follow capture the chronological sequence of the first year of the PIAR project:

a) learning the landscape: listening to parents and community members, b) moving from process to product, and c) reflection on process and the Issue Guide production. In the next section, the results, including themes and parent co-researcher insights, are explored.

Learning the Landscape: Listening to Parents and Community Members

The first task before embarking on creating the Issue Guide was to listen to parents and citizens in each of the five communities about their concerns. Before one-on-one conversations and small group discussions, each parent co-researcher was trained in community interaction and individual approach. Community interaction training consisted of naming, locating, and engaging with key individuals and entities in one-on-one meetings or in a group setting. Co-researchers were then given the opportunity to role-play concern gathering interactions (Kelley, 2008). In addition, the group brainstormed various venues where the concern gathering might happen: Where would such a discussion be fruitful? Where would time and context allow for forthright answers? What locations would provide a cross section of the community or how many specific locations would be needed to capture a cross-section of the community? After cross-examination of locations, the consideration of which stakeholders, and sub-groups, would be approached was fully vetted by the PIAR team.

Each pair of parent co-researchers went back to their communities to listen and gather information, perspective and options from various individuals, some already established community committees or collaborative-related groups, and a crosssection of stakeholders. The question presented to each interviewee was: What concerns you about nurturing young children (birth to age 8)? Parent co-researchers documented the responses, which in turn informed the content of the Issue Guide.

Through our virtual space discussion board format co-researchers were able to discuss the process, post successes, and offer support to each other around challenges related to concern gathering. The concern gathering was a two-fold capacity-building opportunity. First, the coresearchers gained communication experience by listening to others—not just talking to others— around the issues for young children. Second, the co-researchers learned to collaborate with each other. Both of these capacities were overtly introduced and then consistently modeled by the primary researcher/facilitator in the face-to-face meetings complementing the agreed upon group norms and anticipating transfer to the virtual space.

The first capacity building experience in communication not only expanded and affirmed the co-researchers’ understanding of the issues around young children but also formalized the act of listening and talking with community members. The validation of listening to everyday citizens as a form of contextualizing inquiry and valuable data gathering was critical at this initial stage. This validation then integrated into the co-researchers’ understanding of their own knowledge, possessed and newly acquired, as valuable. The second capacity, collaboration with each other, could be understood as key contributions from each individual and to the success of the team of co-researchers as well as to the shape of the project with the subsequent completion of the Issue Guide work. The power of collaboration was further underscored by grounding of the community-based nature of the concern gathering and linkage to strategic community work. These understandings would not have been possible without the virtual space discussion board complementing the face-to-face team meetings.

Process to Product

After one month of intensive listening to over 100 citizens’ concerns, the co-researchers came back together to report what they heard. Each co-researcher shared the concerns expressed in their community. Then, as a full PIAR team, including the parent co-researchers, the University of Hartford lead researcher and research assistant, the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund Knowledge Development officer, and the Kettering Foundation facilitators’ coach in the Issue Guide production, reviewed the concerns and grouped them based on relative themes. This naming and framing process (Kelley, 2008) looked for common patterns and themes among the concerns and across communities. By the end of the session three distinct components for the Issue Guide were identified: parental responsibility, systemic problems, and societal value of parenting.

These three distinct components were utilized to develop the Issue Guide grid, a visual summary of the identified components with three action options. Each action option considers the stakeholders and possible action locations along with the inevitable drawbacks that come with any possible action or solution (http://discovery. wcgmf.org/lookingforanswerstogether).

The grid development enabled citizen member checking of the ideas and iterations of the concepts without becoming bogged down in lengthy text. In most cases the draft grid was presented to the same individuals who expressed the concerns during the concern gathering. Once again, forums were typically semi-structured response group opportunities created by existing committees, organizations, or ad-hoc community events. Each semi-structured response group was designed to gather feedback on the grid including word choice, questions regarding the action options or stakeholders, and any concerns not heard or represented by the grid. The information gathered was used to reshape the grid, clarifying statements and reworking concerns.

The culmination of this multi-month iterative process was a restructured, well-vetted Issue Guide grid used in a statewide structured focus group forum. This three-hour statewide event drawing 28 people from 8 communities and inclusive of parents, concerned citizens, early care educators, community service providers, and activists engaged people with the grid. This forum was facilitated by the project’s lead researcher and was audio recorded with participant permission via an IRB-approved informed consent. The initial portion offered a sample forum for how the grid might be used in a community to promote discussion and link people to information. The rest of the forum was used to respond directly to the grid word choice, clarification of options and drawbacks, and any concerns that arose. Thus this forum utilized the grid in the intended capacity, to foster discussion related to concerns of nurturing young children.

Ultimately the lead university researcher, consulting with a journalist experienced in the Issue Guide format, wrote the Issue Guide text that was brought back to the parent co-researchers and funders for multiple rounds of vetting. The foundation-to-foundation learning agreement enabled this multi-layered collaboration.

Reflection on Process and Issue Guide Production

Intentionally and by design, this first year was modeling the iterative process of action research and engaging the parent coresearchers in the experience of data collection and documentation for the Issue Guide in preparation for their own future communityspecific work. This initial “performing” has led to a negotiated experience, or what Daiute (2004) calls “contesting” of the norms and moving toward a process-end “centering”, which is at least the integration of the new knowledge if not a completely transformative event resulting from engagement.

A parent co-researcher specific focus group was conducted in December 2011 as an opportunity to reflect on the first year of the project. Parent coresearchers were presented with specific questions and offered the opportunity to reflect and chart responses for the group. The initial questions presented by the primary researcher for this focus group were: Reflecting on the last months, what have you learned? What skills, capacity, knowledge, confidence have you gained? What continues to be a challenge? Some overview is provided here and fuller capturing of parent co-researcher themes are found in the results section that follows.

After eight months of engaging in this new work, parent co-researchers relayed a newly found appreciation for working in the action inquiry process and how the process demands slowing down to reflect throughout the action research cycles. “Taking time doesn’t mean you’re behind,” stated Carmen. Another parent co-researcher, Rubis, reflected that she had learned to push herself, to go out and get connected with the community, and make things change. William stated what he gained most from the first year was the coaching, the direct training, and time to practice what he learned. Collectively, the PIAR team was experiencing the acquisition of information as power gained. This developing understanding informed a deepening meaning of the parent information project itself. In addition, co-researchers commented that they appreciated the opportunity to work with other communities throughout the state. The specific community resources and project support structures served as models for each co-researcher and across the five communities. Discussion and collaboration provided insight and input on the various methods and sources. Finally, the valuing of collaboration and the strong relationships built among team members was overwhelmingly identified when responding to “what have you gained?”

Challenges of the project reflected frustration by some with the ambiguity of time and lack of formula or prescription for the action research process. The act of learning the action research process while engaging in the research was irritating to some co-researchers, especially those who favor looking ahead and knowing the final outcome at the beginning or what we came to name as degrees of tolerance for the “process-product tension.”

A related but distinctive challenge was coresearchers managing their time. For the coresearchers having boundaries about the amount of time given to the project, precisely because the work was compelling, became an on-going howdo-we-manage-this conversation. Precisely because the project activities related to real concerns and linked directly to known community faces and articulated community struggles, the coresearchers engaged in an ongoing struggle to balance responsiveness and self-care. From the beginning of PIAR, the expectations of 12 hours per month over the course of 18 months for the co-researcher were clear and documented. The desire for bounded work in the complex lives of the parent co-researchers was often in direct competition with doing-what-it-takes to address community and project needs. From the outset it was clear the co-researchers would be fundamental to the creation of the Issue Guide.

While it was anticipated the co-researchers would find common ground and rallying points in their communities, the full understanding of how individuals impacted the work was intensely experienced. What we came to call “pivot people” or key stakeholders, were those who could change the course of events by either being “blockers,” “facilitators,” or both. The extent that some projects threatened certain stakeholders in a community and their attempts to “shut-up” or shut-down co-researchers was not fully expected. Since not an issue of paramount danger, it was unforeseen affirmation of the co-researchers getting to the weighty issues. And as a co-researcher articulated, “…that just makes me keep moving forward and keep going.”

While community involvement and interaction is ideal, it is not always easy with busy schedules for parents and children. In particular, Carmen spoke of the challenge of realizing there were at least four distinct sub-sections of her city all struggling in different ways and needing different responses. The challenge of balancing home, work, family, and the project made realities of the depth and scope of the work overwhelming at times. This challenge was echoed by many of the parents, often noted to include the intensity of the listening and responding required by the work. These demands were empathized with and understood by the university researchers.

In combating the intense depth and scope of need, the project design supported both physical meetings and trainings as well as the virtual space interactions, including the project discussion board. Responding to all participatory attempts by using physical and virtual spaces created a different challenge along with the intense 18-month time commitment. Parents at different points contested the need for systematic documentation and data collection throughout the process, stating it was often frustrating and too time consuming. While the discussion board in virtual space clearly enabled communication that strengthened team collaboration, the time to attend to high volume posts on the discussion board could be a burdensome project demand. The essential integration of this virtual layer became a conflict between assisting communication and a burden of time the access created.

As part of the dissemination and roll-out of the Issue Guide, conversations are under way about how to continue the work with parents as lead facilitators and respond to requests from other Connecticut communities wanting to engage in a forum. In keeping with the project’s commitment to access, English and Spanish versions of the Issue Guide are accessible online as well as in print form (http://www.hartford.edu/parentii). This project’s process and the Issue Guide product are compelling for the continued learning about the experience of parents working with other parents in communities in the development of parent leadership and to improve outcomes for all children.

Results and Co-Researcher Reflections

The parent co-researchers are core contributors to the content of this work. This results section addresses themes from the first year of the project illuminating how the process connected individuals to a deeper understanding of the notion of participatory research and prompted the team to continue inquiries of community action. Thus of equal importance as our author voices are the insights and observations of the co-researchers as they reflected on the first year of the project in the December 2011 formal focus group. This focus group was audio recorded with the informed consent granted by each co-researcher. The themes around the collaborative inquiry experience illuminated by the parent co-researchers are presented in Table 1.

At the end of the first year, the co-researchers accomplished a tangible outcome of their collaborative participatory action.

Discussion of Implications

This project is unique for the grassroots grounding fostered and funded by a state-based foundation committed to early childhood improvement. The state-based foundation partnering with a national foundation championing democratic deliberation and a university for research methodologies and rigor make the project not only unique, but a compelling project for replication. The layers of engagement, the iterative cycles of action, and the parent co-researcher contributions while building capacity make this project translatable to endless contexts and topics. Due to the process-to-product progression, there is a perpetuating momentum that builds during the life of the project, a desirable energy in any community change action project. Finally, the sustainability of investment is quite high as the knowledge acquired and capacity built are located within the individual co-researchers and carried forward with them into the work. Possessing the tools of inquiry, the discipline of documentation, and the capacity to articulate the knowledge produced, the co-researchers turned to application through action projects in their specific communities.

PIAR underscores the importance of participatory work occurring over time in locations at least familiar to if not “owned” by the parent leaders such as the 10 co-researchers on this project. For the parent co-researchers to draw upon their possessed leadership skills and community connections, the work needed to be located in physical places that honored their efforts and contexts that made visible their existing knowledge. The project design deliberately balanced the validating of the parent co-researcher expertise in their community, building their self-efficacy, with the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. The project facilitator consistently modeled skills as well as made visible individuals’ talents to the team. The responsive pacing of capacity-building exercises and scaffolding product requirements were intended to optimize internalization.

Implications for methodological choices and community change

PIAR makes visible the repercussions of research design and methodological choices enacted. The transformational nature of this work occurs when efforts go beyond transactional researcher engagement with a community. The commitment to cycles of engagement that authentically build levels of individual parent leadership capacity is paramount. The subsequent fostering of a dynamic agency (the active interplay among and between entities) was not only through interaction with the methodology but also the capturing of the individual’s power to transform the community institutions, practices and norms.

This project draws on the legacy of communitychange work, understanding that sustained change occurs from the individual and his/her interactions with the layers of community and institution (as seen with the individual at the center of the ecological model). The process of engaging parent co-researchers in a participatory, iterative process offers not only experience but also the acquisition of tools by which one utilizes the capacity built in additional contexts. The conceptualization and two distinctive applications of this methodology engaged parent stakeholders as contributors not observers. Uniquely, each individual saw himself/ herself as participating in pivotal, not marginalized, ways as knowledge producers.


Implications for Transformative Knowledge Production

From the beginning when parent coresearchers engaged in performance of tasks, the group norm supported the ubiquitous contesting of assumptions. The nuances in the methodology were then contested as particular context realities demanded questioning and re-examination. The practice-oriented performance tasks and the norm of contesting were pivotal in the knowledge productions being transformative and integrated.

Dissemination has included the parent coresearchers making their first public sharing of their community-specific action projects in March 2012 at a regional early childhood conversation conference drawing parents and providers as well as a subsequent state-wide parent and community network conference in October 2012. The parent co-researchers’ learning that has occurred in particular communities will be shared across multiple communities via multiple forums over the remaining time of the project by the co-researchers themselves. The necessity for ownership and a dynamic, responsive process informs the notions of replication of this work.

Implications for Educational Change

This research informs current educators and educational leaders by capturing work with parent co-researchers as community leaders. Of significance is using this research as a means for pre-service teachers and early care educators to see parent capacity in action. This research is informing the preparation of teachers in one university teacher preparation program with a long legacy of early childhood education, a field understood to engage children, their families, and the community. Further dissemination of this research to educational leadership doctoral students as a methodological example contributes to the understanding of application and use. Engaged research with parent co-researchers gives texture to the rhetoric of why educators need parents to engage in the early education process in and out of schools. This research contributes to the literature linking parent involvement to positive child outcomes and the power of a supportive, nurtured, and informed citizenry both shaping and being shaped by our nation’s living democracy.


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This work was supported by the William Casper Graustein Memorial Fund, the Kettering Foundation, and the parent co-researchers of the Parent Inquiry Initiative (http://www.hartford. edu/parentii).

About the Author

Paige M. Bray is assistant professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Education and Human service at the University of Hartford. Joan Pedro is associate dean in the College of Education, Nursing and Health Professions at the University of Hartford. Erin M. Kenney is project coordinator and research assistant at the University of Hartford. Mary Gannotti is an associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Hartford.

Crossing Through the Invisible Gate, Mapping Our Neighborhood: The Engaging and Empowering Project (E2Y)

Chaebong Nam


This paper discusses a youth asset mapping project, the Engaging and Empowering Youth Project (E2Y), conducted by a group of African American youth. The youth mappers investigated local assets available for teens and created a map using digital media tools in order to develop and share information; as part of this project they engaged in a wide variety of activities, including canvassing, interviews, making videos, and public presentations. These activities helped the youth mappers to cultivate positive perceptions of the community, as well as develop social skills and digital literacy skills. The work conducted by the youth mappers also addressed practical community needs and challenged the deficit view of the community. This paper describes how the project took place, what the experience of the youth mappers was like, and the legacy of this project. I use community inquiry as the overarching contextualizing framework to help illuminate the nature and significances of this project.

Community Asset Mapping as Community Inquiry

Community Inquiry

Community inquiry is a social and educational practice that connects learning with lived experiences in various everyday social contexts (Bishop & Bruce, 2008). The term “community inquiry” is not associated exclusively with one particular field but is widely used in many disciplines and with varying traditions of usage. The notion of community inquiry in this paper has its origins in progressive education. Progressivists such as John Dewey and Jane Addams highlighted the connection between learning and lived experience. They maintained that students should be connected with real life situations interwoven with community, work, social norms, culture, and other parts of lived experience. In view of this, it is important that students understand the world as a whole and learn to handle complexities, which can help them grow into engaged and critical citizens who participate in a collective effort to serve a public good (Bishop & Bruce, 2008).

Hull House was a good example of how community inquiry could produce critical and engaged intelligence. The people of Hull House actively participated in collective efforts to address issues of health, education, childcare, labor, and other critical matters in the community (Addams, 1999; Bruce, 2008; Longo, 2007). Their communal/social practice enabled them to acquire local, historical, and political knowledge, governance skills, critical perspectives, and democratic values in a holistic manner. As such, it was as Addams noted “a protest against a restricted view of education” (Addams, 1999, p. 253).

Community inquiry is also reflected in the various of community-based learning that highlight  the connection between learning and the ordinary experiences of community life. Benson, Harkavy, and Puckett (2007) underline the importance of partnerships between universities, public schools, and a broad range of community organizations in envisioning community schools. Teachers and students in community schools often 1) use resources, people, and places in their community as the focus of courses, 2) open school programming to all community members, and 3) connect schools closely to the community. These things help realize Dewey’s recommendation that school should be the center of educational life in the community. Ritzo, Nam, and Bruce (2009) shed light on the role of public libraries as another key agency in the creation of meaningful university-community partnerships that allow people to educate and empower one another. Art is another important way community inquiry takes place: In discussing a community-based art project intertwining the history of social movements and art, Kim and Miyamoto (2013) stress the importance of community-based arts for engaged learning that connects arts to the common and ordinary experiences in the community. Using the arts, individuals make sense of their experiences of everyday life, express themselves creatively, produce local knowledge, and empower each other. Technology also has an integral role in shaping the ways people communicate, think, make sense of experience, and act in the world. Bishop and Bruce (2008) examined deep connections among literacy, learning, technology, and community as fundamental to the idea of community inquiry. They discuss how individuals appropriate tools and technologies into various literate activities arising out of lived experiences in the community, including dimensions of social justice and morality. Similarly, in Bruce and Lin (2009), young immigrant students created audiovisual podcasts that reflected their cultural backgrounds and presented important community issues. This inquiry-based learning using digital technology inspired not only students’ personal growth in media skills and inquiry skills, but also demonstrated the potential of community action.

In brief, although there are different approaches (art, technology, community-university partnerships) in exploring community inquiry, the common ground—connection with lived experience, concrete activities for inquiry and action, and respect for the values and perspectives of various groups and people of the community— remains the same across those differences.

The Inquiry Cycle

Dewey (1938) defines inquiry as “the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation” (p. 104). Indeterminate situations are those that expose the gap between current needs and realities, and are characterized as troubled, ambiguous, confused, full of conflicting tendencies and the like. Inquiry begins with a desire to resolve these issues of indeterminate situations, a desire which is a natural feature of human cognition.

Bishop and Bruce (2008) broke down inquiry into the following five steps: Ask, Investigate, Create, Discuss, and Reflect. In the Ask stage, people facing an indeterminate situation raise questions and identify problems. In the Investigate stage the inquirer engages in a variety of activities, searching out new factual conditions. This involves opportunities for people to learn diverse, authentic, and challenging materials and problems. The Investigate stage typically requires people to interact with other people, encounter new social environments, communicate, and negotiate. New factual conditions or ideas obtained from investigation are then represented in concrete ways. In the Create stage, people produce specific observable and unobservable products. The Discuss stage is where participants listen to others’ opinions, examine the new ideas, and articulate their understandings. In this way, personal learning experiences become a social enterprise. The Reflect stage involves a meaningmaking process that includes judging whether the original indeterminate situation has really been transformed into a determinate and unified whole. In this stage people look back at the initial question, the investigation path, and the products and conclusions, as a whole. This reflection process may initiate new questions, leading to continuing inquiry.

These steps of inquiry overlap with each other, do not have sharp boundaries, and do not necessarily occur in order. In practice, inquiry entails multiple cycles without definitive end points, and involves embodied action to transform situations beyond merely thinking and intellectual play (Bruce, 2009; Bruce & Bishop, 2002). Finally, it is important to recognize that inquiry-based learning is not a method or an option to consider for teaching and learning; instead, it is what actually happens when people do learn (Bishop & Bruce, 2008).

Community inquiry expands the agency of inquiry from an individual to groups of people, organizations, and the community at large. Everyone who has knowledge of the situation should, ideally, participate in the communal effort to solve the problem. People from diverse backgrounds must be able to express their thoughts and ideas without any fear of judgment or prejudice. Their perspectives should be equally respected, and fair communication and negotiation processes should always be encouraged. This participatory dimension supports a democratic approach to knowledge production in community inquiry (Bruce & Bloch, 2013).

Community Asset Mapping

Community asset mapping exemplifies community inquiry. This activity, which begins with discovering the existing resources and strengths of a community rather than its deficits, is rooted in the asset-based community development model (ABCD) (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993, 1996). It aims at achieving sustainable community development from the inside out, and is an effective strategy for the visualization and sharing of information with the members of the community. The map creation process entails active participation of community members in raising questions and collaborative investigation, echoing the participatory knowledge production of community inquiry.

Many disciplines, including community development, public health, youth development, K–12 education, and teacher education, use the asset-mapping approach for community-driven development. In Aronson, Wallis, O’Camp, and Schafer (2007), the members of the community contributed to a map about a community-based urban infant mortality prevention program, in collaboration with researchers. This work identified neighborhood conditions and resources related to issues of interest to the community residents and encouraged them to seek resources available near to them. This information could be an important tool for program staff and policy makers as they decide where and how to focus and improve resources and effort. In Ordonez-Jasis and MyckWayne (2012), teacher candidates uncovered resources and assets for young children and their families, including children with disabilities, and reported that they became more knowledgeable about the rich educational resources of the area. At the same time, they began to look critically at the lack of equal access available to children at risk or with disabilities, which prompted them to broaden their practices beyond the classroom and to consider collaboration with families and other educators.

Youth participation in community-asset mapping is receiving increasing attention. In Santilli, Carroll-Scott, Wong, and Ickovics (2011), urban youth working as community health workers collected geocoding data of access to nutritious foods and green spaces in the neighborhoods, which formed part of a chronic disease prevention initiative. In Handy, Rodgers and Schwieterman (2011), youth were partnered with adults and investigated available resources that promote positive youth development. This research underlined positive adult-youth partnership as a key factor for the youth’s successful participation. In K–12 education, community-asset mapping is also being used as a helpful pedagogical tool for engaged and inquiry-based learning. Students and teachers utilized geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) in order to investigate various topics of the community (Andersen, 2011). Students in social studies class were also encouraged to think critically about the unequal distribution of resources with regards to the historical, cultural, and political aspects of the community (Munoz, 2003). These examples among others reveal that community-asset mapping is gaining ground as a powerful tool for encouraging youth to take part in addressing the real issues in the community and cultivating critical understanding of resource distribution, as well as learning positive facts about the community.

Although the studies discussed above did not use the term “community inquiry,” the ways they looked at the community—from a positive rather than a deficit point of view—and the involvement of individuals and community groups working together to address important community issues clearly reflect the key ideas of community inquiry.

Community asset mapping entails many different types of activities, such as walk-through, data collection, interviews, and map creation. Some studies applied traditional methods; others used new methods and tools, such as geospatial technology (GIS and GPS). Youth partnerships varied across situations where the projects were taking place. The youth had different levels of involvement in map-making as well. In some cases, they participated in the data collection stage, but did not participate in the actual map creation; adult researchers and partners used professional software and presented the data in visual form.

These differences in the activities and media practices, youth-adult partnerships, and the social context involved in the project play a key role in constructing youth experience. There is still little research in this area, however, especially concerning the usage of youth-friendly media tools and approaches. In the following sections, I discuss how E2Y youth mappers employed traditional methods and digital media tools, what their participation was like, how it has changed their view of the community and of themselves, and what the implications are for future youth community engagement projects.

The Engaging and Empowering Youth Project

E2Y arose from the desire to challenge the historical town and gown separation in a university town and, in particular, deficit views of the community. This community, northern Champaign, IL, has historically been populated by working-class African Americans, and, despite its proximity to the university, it has remained socially and culturally separated from it. Patricia Avery, who was the director of ChampaignUrbana Area Project (CUAP) and had worked for youth and their families in the community for 40 years, noted African American youth from lower income families in northern Champaign felt the university was “gated” to them and did not dare to cross a certain geographic boundary.

Recognizing this gap in the fall of 2008, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois formed a collaboration with three community organizations: CUAP, Peer Ambassadors, and Illinois Public Media. The aim of this campuscommunity partnership was to provide youth who lived in the communities north of the university with an opportunity to cross the imaginary border and investigate resources and assets available for them locally, such as job opportunities for teens, youth programs, recreation centers, and more. It was expected that the new project would encourage youth to actively engage in the community and empower them to see the community from a positive perspective, in the face of any negative views of African American youth and communities. The project title, “Engaging and Empowering Youth (E2Y),” originated from this goal. Most of the youth participants were recruited through the Empowering Black Youth Network established by Illinois Public Media in Northern Champaign.


This study took a qualitative approach. I played a dual role in this project: one as an adult partner who worked with youth, and one as a participant observer. Data were collected from observations, interviews, informal conversations, and artifacts. From January 2009 through February 2010, I observed youth participating in trainings, interviews, lab sessions, presentations, and other activities. The first youth interviews were videorecorded by Illinois Public Media. Each of these first interviews lasted 10 minutes and covered the youth’s motivation for participation and their purpose in the project. I later conducted two group interviews with the five youth mappers in October 2009 and January 2010 respectively, and one interview with the adult community partners (December 2009). The interviews lasted about 50 minutes each, and the questions concerned the youth mappers’ backgrounds and personal involvement in the mapping project, reflections on the products of the project (such as the E2Y map, data directory entries, interview video clips), challenges, and rewards.

An insufficient number of interviews with youth mappers was one of the major limitations of this study. However, as I worked closely with the youth mappers throughout the project, I was able to obtain many informal opportunities to talk with them about their experience in the project. The important quotations and issues from the conversation were documented in my observation notes. The notes also included information on the youth activities and accomplishment, and reflection on project activities: preliminary training, canvassing, lab sessions, youth interviews, group discussion sessions, public presentations and talks. Some of the presentations and talks were audio or video recorded.

Artifacts included the E2Y map containing the data directory entries that the youth created; the interview videos; the Youthworks curriculum; a press release; and the project website (http:// illinoisyouthmedia.org/projects/e2y). For the analysis, the initial focus was on social skills, new media skills, and positive perceptions of the community. As the project progressed, consistent themes emerged from the notes, informal conversations, and formal interviews, for example, varied interests and learning capacities among the youth, passion for interviews, positive perception of the community, self-confidence, collaborative learning, and challenges in learning technical tasks.


Youth Participants

Five        youth       mappers—Raisha,          Clorisa,

Christina, Dave, and Ian, all high school students— completed E2Y, which lasted from the beginning of 2009 to the spring of 2010. Raisha and Christina, both 16, and Clorisa, Raisha’s younger sister, had been close friends for a long time, and had previously conducted a multimedia project with the Youth Community Informatics Project (YCI) of GSLIS. The two boys, Dave and Ian, were 15 and were new to YCI and GSLIS. These youth were recruited through the Empowering Black Youth Network or by personal recommendation.

Adult Partners

Seven to twelve adult partners from community organizations and the university participated in the project. They worked with youth in various stages of the project, and with different levels of involvement. The adult partners included staff members, community members, graduate students, and formal representatives of each institution, including Kimberlie Kranich, Patricia Avery, and Ann Bishop, representing Illinois Public Media, CUAP, and GSLIS, respectively. The primary focus of this section will be on the youth experience with the project, although the adult partners also played an important role.

Youth Activities in Mapping

Below is the description of how E2Y progressed in following the inquiry cycle introduced above: Ask, Investigate, Create, Discuss, and Reflect. As mentioned earlier, the boundaries between steps in the cycle are fuzzy, and so framing the project with these steps may over-simplify the activities that were in actuality performed in more complicated ways.


E2Y grew out of a concern about the deficit view of the community and the local youth who lived in northern Champaign. Part of the assumption was that not enough information existed about resources available for youth in the area, including locations, contact information, kinds of services, and more. E2Y intended to counteract the deficit view by creating an assetmap actively addressing this indeterminate situation. Among the main questions were: What resources are available to youth in our community? How do we effectively support youth community engagement and learning? And, more broadly, How can we contribute to a better understanding between African American youth and Champaign-Urbana residents? These questions were initially shaped by adult partners who initiated the campus-community partnership, and they guided the youth mappers to explore the next steps of inquiry.


In the next stage, the youth mappers engaged in many different activities in order to discover the local assets. These activities included door-todoor canvassing, interviews, and trainings. These were planned by adult partners, and this stage represented the most intensive fieldwork of the project.

Prior to the fieldwork, the youth mappers underwent training where they acquired the knowledge and skills needed for fieldwork. For the basic learning module of the project, E2Y adapted Youthworks (2007), which was a curriculum about youth mapping previously developed by the university’s Illinois Rural Families program. E2Y brought Youthworks into the digital era, as we customized its guidelines to fit our purposes and relied on computers, GPS, digital cameras, and the Internet in designing interviews, creating entry standards for each organization profiled, processing the data gathered, and disseminating what was learned.

  1. During the summer of 2009, the project conducted preliminary canvassing in northern Champaign in order to cast a wide net for new information about local youth assets. The canvassing consisted of passing out flyers to inform people about E2Y and requests for information on local assets people knew of. In canvassing, the youth mappers and adult partners distributed a thousand flyers informing residents of the purpose of the project in northern Champaign. Incorporating inputs of the members of the neighborhoods, the project team created a new list of youth serving agencies. At this stage, the youth mappers’ participation in decision-making was slight, but as the project went on, the youth mappers voiced their thoughts on the project and made good suggestions for improvement.

Interviews. The youth mappers began interviewing the youth-serving agencies listed in the newly created directory at the end of August 2009. This was the part of the project that interested the youth mappers the most. Prior to the actual interviews, the youth mappers conducted mock interviews with adult partners, learning what is expected in a real interview and how they could effectively deliver their messages. They practiced each component of the interview, including greetings and introductions, asking questions, writing down answers, and taking video. A professional staff member of Illinois Public Media (one of the adult partners) helped the youth with operating the cameras and maintaining good camera angles. The adult partners provided constructive feedback on all aspects of the interview process.

For the interviews, the adult partners prepared templates of an organizational profile and an interview questionnaire. Adopted from Youthworks, the templates were customized to E2Y based on feedback from both the adult partners and the youth mappers. The organizational profile was a simple form displaying brief information about the agency, and the interview questionnaires included more in-depth questions. Through the interview, the youth mappers were able to apply in the real world the skills and knowledge they had learned. They visited different places and organizations in the community for the interviews. The youth mappers said the interviews taught them much about their community and community programs they had not known before. The community agencies that the youth mappers interviewed included the Champaign-Urbana Park District, Parkland Community College, Girl Scouts, Housing Authority of Champaign County, National Council of African American Men, Urbana Neighborhood Connection Center, Freedom School, the Champaign-Urbana Area Project, and more.


The Create stage focused on the questions How do we share new information about local assets with others? and What are the effective ways to do so? Digital technology was integral to the way E2Y gathered and presented the data. The youth’s keen interest in digital technology—apparent throughout the project—was the major motivation for their participation in the project, and the effort to support youth motivation naturally led E2Y to utilize youth-friendly media tools that would potentially also be easily available for the general public. For this purpose, Google Maps was chosen.

The youth mappers gathered at the Saturday lab sessions from August through mid-November of 2009. During the lab sessions, chiefly run by me, the youth mappers edited their interview videos, uploaded them to YouTube, and typed their interview answers and organizational profiles in Google Documents. After finishing these preliminary tasks, the youth mappers created the E2Y map via Google Maps, and edited the info windows for the location markers of the youthserving agencies they had interviewed. These info windows allowed the youth mappers to include hyperlinks to the interview questions and to the agencies’ organizational profiles; videos of the interviews; and brief descriptions of the agencies. Although the youth mappers found editing the info windows to be very challenging due to the complicated process involved, they were very proud of their final product. The complete E2Y map displayed metadata of the local assets, as it offered information on multiple aspects of the youthserving agencies in the community. This map was accessible through both the official E2Y website (http://illinoisyouthmedia.org/e2y), hosted by Illinois Public Media, and the YCI website.

Discuss and Reflect

In principle, Discuss and Reflect are separate stages, but in the project, the two seemed inseparable from each other, and, to some extent, inseparable from the other stages as well. As they became engaged in the main part of project, the youth mappers began to more actively express their thoughts about the project and experience. Closely working with the youth mappers, I had many chances to have conversations about the project and tried to turn these conversations into meaningful reflection. The topics covered in these conversations included what they learned, what challenged or interested them the most, what other effective ways to advertise the map might be, and so on. Moreover, youth mappers became outspoken about certain setbacks in the project (e.g., the delayed schedule) and made suggestions for improvement.

In mid-October, the whole E2Y team, including both the youth mappers and the adult partners, held a group reflection session to listen more carefully to the voices of the youth mappers. Both adult partners and youth mappers reflected on where they were, what the youth mappers had learned so far, and what improvements were needed. The three girls, Christina, Raisha, and Clorisa, made good suggestions for improving the project. These suggestions included having a concrete contract with the youth mappers about hours and responsibilities, additional staff recruitment, effective canvassing, training time reduction, youth-led fundraising, and more. These insightful voices from the youth mappers taught the adult partners important lessons on the project, which they otherwise would have missed.

Among the important reflective activities was a public presentation. Upon completion of the E2Y map, the youth mappers began presenting it. The first presentation took place at the closing ceremony of E2Y held at Illinois Public Media in December 2009. Before their parents and the adult partners, youth mappers presented their favorite “balloons” (the info windows of the community agencies they interviewed) on the E2Y map. They talked about why they liked these specific balloons, what the agency was about, and what they had learned from the project. This presentation experience prepared the youth mappers for the upcoming public presentations.

On February 3, 2010, the youth mappers gave a talk at the YCI workshop sessions of the fifth annual iConference. At this conference, they presented the E2Y map, shared their experiences with the conference participants, and led a small lab session to teach others how to edit Google Maps. Afterwards, some of the youth mappers (Christina, Raisha, and Clorisa) were also invited to graduate courses of GSLIS and to several meetings to talk about their experiences with E2Y. As they gave more talks, the youth mappers became more eloquent and confident in their presentation. It appeared that many questions they were asked helped them reflect on their practice from multiple perspectives.

The reflection stage also prompted the participants (both youth mappers and adult partners) to think about how E2Y would make a difference in the community. Or, in Dewey’s terminology, it raised the issue of how the project would contribute to transformation of the initial “indeterminate situation” (the lack of information on local resources available for teens) into the improved determinate situation. This led to reflections on the project from a broader perspective, not only centering on the final project and its potential impact but also reflections on the nature of the community inquiry practice as a whole. This process brought about new questions and suggestions for future projects, which could initiate a new inquiry in turn. I discuss this issue further after reviewing what youth learned from the project in the next section.

Youth Learning Outcomes

Learning about the Community: “We really didn’t know that our community had such resources.”

The youth mappers said that E2Y helped them learn much about their community in multiple ways. Despite the physical challenge of canvassing, the youth mappers regarded it as worthwhile in improving their geographical knowledge of their neighborhoods, calling their attention to street names, signs, and the locations of community organizations. It was also through canvassing that they first gained attention from classmates in school. Some classmates of the three girls recognized them on the E2Y flyer, bringing it to school to ask about the project and their roles in it. Clorisa talked about this experience in the second interview:

I learned about the different areas in the neighborhoods, know what streets I am on, pay attention to signs… . I met people who have done good in the community and other youth will be interested in. Some of our friends saw us in the newspaper about E2Y. It was really cool.

Most importantly, the youth mappers were surprised at the rich resources for teens their community offered, which they had not known of before. It is certain that interviews with community agencies provided the youth mappers with a vital community learning experience. For instance, Christina emphasized how much she enjoyed the two-and-a-half-hour interview with Mr. Cordell of the National Council of African American Men. Christina said that the actual interview was done within a half hour; Mr. Cordell talked about his personal history and the history of African Americans in Champaign for the rest of the time. She reported that his story was not boring at all, but that rather she had learned a lot about the community. An interview with a community organization for kids with Down syndrome was another favorite of hers. She said that the interview had made her aware of Down syndrome and the social prejudices faced by people with the condition.

The interview experiences played a pivotal role in helping the youth get to know the community better and recognize its positive aspects. It is important to note that in addition to the interviews, a wide range of interactions with various groups of people in the local media center, community organizations, and the university contributed to the youth mappers’ positive learning experiences about their community as well. For these youth mappers, this project was one of the few opportunities to interact with adults from different backgrounds who cared for the community, respected youth’s voice, and appreciated their dedication to this project.

Interviewing and Social Skills

The youth mappers gained interview and communication skills, as well as social confidence. They learned how to interview people, how to avoid being shy, and how to be polite to people even when confronted with rudeness during the canvassing and interviews. The youth mappers said that they were very nervous in their first interviews, but as they conducted more interviews, they became more relaxed and learned to enjoy them. For instance, in Christina’s final interview, she made a smooth transition from one question to another (having memorized all the interview questions) and maintained healthy eye contact, as well as creating her own questions to probe further into issues. On the way home from that interview, Christina said, “I just wanted to know more about the program and its services. That was really important to other youth.”

Raisha reported learning social skills: “I learned how to interview people, how to talk to people, how not to be scared when I hand out flyers.” She added, “I learned how to be more respectful to people and even if they be rude to you, but just be respectful and say, ‘Thanks.’”

Ian also testified that he had improved both his ability to interact with others and his ability to explain a project to adults through this mapping project. Ian was usually quiet and shy during the project, but his presentation at the iConference was full of wit and humor, eliciting laughter. Further, the three girls connected their acquired interview skills to their future job interview preparations. Raisha said,:

I want to be a nurse in the future. When I get an interview, I know what to say, since I used to be an interviewer and I know how to interview. I know how to say something back positive. I know how to, like…[Clorisa turned as if to whisper to Raisha], have a good conversation with a person.

Learning New Media Skills

New technology skills constituted a big chunk of the youth mappers’ learning outcome (see Figure 1). Given their own Flip Video cameras, the youth mappers were also passionate about playing with cameras and making videos throughout the whole project. They learned from Illinois Public Media professional staff members important basic film skills such as setting up tripods, getting good camera angles, and avoiding backlight, in addition to video editing skills.

Youth mappers also learned skills using video editing software and various online tools such as Google Maps, YouTube, Google Docs, Flickr, and more. They achieved different levels of mastery and interest in these technological skills according to individual differences in interest in and aptitude for technology. Dave had a particular interest in learning new technology skills, and Ian impressed the team with his consistent passion for learning new skills and sharing his experiences. Christina and Clorisa, who were relatively quick to grasp new skills, took the role of interns among the team and taught their peers to finish their tasks successfully. I respected the youth mappers’ own pace for learning, and emphasized collaboration and mutual support during the lab sessions. Ian talked about his achievement at the iConference: “I was too far away from the computer at first…but we actually posted something on the Web. I learned to type better now and find stuff on Google. At first, it was very hard.” Ian had a low level of technological skill in the beginning, but he kept pushing himself to learn about the new technology at his own pace.

Taken together, E2Y was not just about mapping, but about holistic community learning and action for change. Their work addressed a practical need of the community: producing information about local resources available for teens. The youth  mappers crossed the invisible gate and participated in campus-community activities; they learned to work with other adult and youth partners,  communicate with members of the community, and inquire into important local issues using various tools and methods.

Figure 1. Students Learn and inquire into Technology Skills As Part of E2Y Experience.


Discussion and Implications

In this section I examine the project from the perspective of the participatory dimension of the community inquiry, and discuss its limitations and implications for future studies. E2Y did not come out of a vacuum, but originated from the participatory culture and long-standing commitment to social justice among the partner organizations of the project. Illinois Pubic Media has made many efforts to reach out to the community and invited local youth to their youth media workshops. CUAP, as introduced earlier, has strived to improve the welfare of families and youth in need of help and support in the area. Since 1993, GSLIS has worked with the surrounding community through community information network projects to promote equity of access to digital resources and teach the skills necessary to access and use these resources. From this background, the partner organizations brought their own expertise and experience in community engagement into E2Y. Several other community organizations also constituted the collaborative nexus for community inquiry of this project by providing interviews, curriculum resources and guidelines, and personnel and financial support, among other things. This collaborative effort to form a space for community inquiry (Ritzo et al., 2009) became a solid foundation for this project and should not be overlooked.

Toward the end of the project, new questions emerged about the potential impact of the project to the community, in particular regarding accessibility and availability of the map among the community members. These questions included: Can people who live in northern Champaign have access to this information? Where would they be able to get information on things such as homes, libraries, schools, community organizations? What are the other effective ways to increase the availability of the map? What types of maps, other than onlinebased maps, would be useful to audiences without immediate access to the Internet? Among the most important issues related to these questions is the choice of representation tools for E2Y. In order to use the E2Y map, which is online-based, access to the Internet and adequate digital literacy skills are required. However, the decision in favor of online-based information distribution may have inadvertently prevented youth and their families who did not have the relevant digital resources and skills from using the E2Y map. This may have even exacerbated existing digital divide problems in the community.

This experience helps us to understand how to strengthen the participatory dimension. In knowledge production, it is important that people with different backgrounds bring diverse perspectives and enagage in conversation and negotiation in order to develop solutions that are more effective and equitable. Encouraging groups of community members to discuss what type of representation would best work for them is therefore essential, and this discussion will inevetiably initiate additional inquires and encourage concrete action toward that goal in the community.

Lastly, I want to draw attention to the issue of the authenticity of youth engagement. The youth mappers in E2Y were not fully included in the decision-making process; instead, adult partners took the lead. Although this was not intentional, the insufficient inclusion of youth mappers’ voices in the project may have kept the project from reaching the goal of authentic youth engagement. Toward the later stages of the project, however, the youth mappers developed a critical understanding, and offered good critiques and suggestions that would improve the project performance and contribute to youth ownership of the project.

The definition and practice of “authenticity” in youth engagement varies according to context. It does not necessarily require the exclusion of adult partner guidance; adult partners can in fact still play a critical role in helping youth learn to share ownership, and then gradually fade away from the power position. With a focus on youthadult relationship dynamics, future projects need to pay more attention to developing models to improve youth ownership based on active and interdependent relationships between youth and adults in their own contexts.

These unexplored and newly emerged issues rendered E2Y an open-ended social experiment. People could exercise their own creativity in performing community inquiry according to their own needs and social contexts. There are many other ways of conducting asset mapping projects. In addition to the topics introduced here, there are many others available: cultural-, historical-, political-, public health-, and eco-friendly- assets, and also resources for senior citizens and young children. Identifying effective tools and technologies, particularly including free, opensource maps that suit the needs of the audience, is essential, especially in the face of the digital divide. Based on lessons learned from the challenges and limitations other projects will be able to develop valuable models and practices that would become instrumental in the long-term community development.

Concluding Remarks

Through their participation in this project, the youth mappers were able to cultivate positive perceptions of the community, as well as develop social skills and digital literacy skills. In addition the work addressed practical community needs and challenged the deficit view of the community. E2Y was thus not just about mapping, but also holistic community learning and action, making the community a better place to live, work, and play. Although there were limitations, they provided important lessons and ideas for improving future projects. The concept of community inquiry proved to be a powerful framework for understanding community engagement, and additional exploratory applications of this “lens” could improve the sophistication of the theory as well as its usefulness and range.


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About the Author

Chaebong Nam is a research fellow at Soongshil University in Seoul, South Korea.

A Cost Benefit Analysis from Instructor, Community Partner, and Student Perspectives: Cabrini College CBR Courses Merge Service, Education, and Research

David Dunbar, Caroline Nielsen, Nancy Watterson, Janice Xu, Melissa Terlecki, Jenna Cardone, Lisa Ratmansky, Christina Medved, Susan Gill, and Owen Owens


Two community-based research (CBR) courses—Watershed Citizenship and Watershed Ecology—were piloted at Cabrini College in southeastern Pennsylvania. The courses connected service, education, and research using a local Pennsylvania stream, Crabby Creek, as the focal point, while working with several community partners. Course feedback using a qualitative student focus group regarding attitudes about environmental awareness, interdisciplinary thinking, and community-based, undergraduate research experiences showed that students gained a better understanding of how different disciplines can collaborate to address a problem in an integrative manner. Students also valued the faculty interdisciplinary teamteaching approach of the courses. We offer a model for designing and conducting an interdisciplinary team-taught CBR course employing instructors with different disciplinary backgrounds and areas of expertise. In this paper we present a case study in which we discuss the benefits and costs of these types of courses offered through the eyes of course instructors, community partners, and students and emphasize lessons learned that should prove helpful for others considering developing similar courses.

Literature Review

In order to share our experience and insights with prospective participants in interdisciplinary CBR projects, we present a case study of two interdisciplinary CBR courses. CBR offers a compelling opportunity for faculty to integrate the research, teaching, and service activities both expected and valued in college and university settings. They also offer faculty a chance to use and transmit professional research skills and scholarly knowledge into projects that directly benefit community partners and whose impact is immediate and relevant (Reardon, 1998; Chapdelaine & Chapman, 1999; Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003; Council on Undergraduate Research, 2004; Hofman & Rosing, 2007). CBR may help instill an attitude or disposition toward engaged citizenship in the next generation of students. Furthermore, because it emphasizes the elements of rigorous research sometimes missing from the direct service model of traditional service-learning, this practice has a level of credibility important for faculty promotion and tenure in many disciplines (see Faculty for the Engaged Campus at http://www.ccph.info/; Ward, 2002). Finally, CBR, undertaken with care and attention, can complement more traditional research agendas by using a partnership approach of mutuality and reciprocity to foreground social change initiatives addressing community-based problems (Reardon, 1998; Stocking & Cutforth, 2006). It does so, moreover, through the application of skills and extension of knowledge while helping to build capacity among diverse stakeholders (Chapdelaine & Chapman, 1999; Sunderland, Catalano, Kendall, McAuliffe, & Chenoweth, 2011).

By its very nature, CBR is interdisciplinary, since it can necessitate research methods in several disciplinary fields based on issues raised by community partners (Strand et al., 2003). One of the primary benefits of interdisciplinary, problembased pedagogy is its ability to help students make profound connections within and across multiple fields and modes of inquiry, while requiring them to develop their knowledge in active, engaged, and contributory ways (Sternberg, 2008; Watterson et al., 2011). Scholars have noted that such approaches accentuate meaningful community-based learning experiences for students (Furco, 2002). Berkes (2004), for example, describes the potential power of interdisciplinary CBR for understanding environmental issues. He highlights the importance of joint undertakings for civic engagement—in this case conjoining natural sciences and social sciences. His findings reveal the interplay of science and local knowledge in enhancing the understanding of multiple parties, offering a particularly useful backdrop for examining students’ experiences of integrating research approaches from both the social and natural sciences in addressing environmental problems.

Such benefits notwithstanding, Strand et al. (2003) describe four major pedagogical challenges inherent in teaching CBR courses. These include finding a disciplinary connection, building CBR into the curriculum, ensuring student readiness for the complex tasks required of CBR, and structuring the experience for students. As indicated by Willis, Peresie, Waldref, & Stockmann (2003), even an enthusiastic student may have difficulty with a CBR project if the student is not skilled in the research method being employed to carry out the project. Stocking and Cutforth (2006) use as a case study two CBR courses to provide a framework for how to overcome some of the pedagogical challenges inherent in teaching these types of courses. They further point out additional factors important for the success of CBR courses. One of these factors includes institutional support, whether in the form of grants and instructor course release and/or a dedicated office of service learning that can ably assist with CBR projects. Another factor for success includes the dissemination of research findings to the community partner and, if acceptable, the broader public. Done well, both the community partners and students benefit in many ways, including students’ gaining valuable skills useful not only for future employers but in their role as citizens as well.

Co-teaching interdisciplinary CBR courses has a number of advantages from a faculty perspective. The fact that course instructors coteach interdisciplinary courses requires constant communication as to course logistics of student work, lesson plans, and research methods. As well, since interdisciplinary teams of faculty must construct course design and craft syllabi together, team-taught courses allow for a more deliberate and robust integration of different disciplines and research methods (Davis, 1995; Wenger & Hornyak, 1999; Sandholtz, 2000). Team teaching interdisciplinary courses can also provide a means of focusing more on the process of learning instead of only on accumulating content knowledge (Shibley, 2006). However, team teaching is resource intensive from an administration level and takes more time and effort than teaching alone (George & Davis, 2000; Sorensen & Wittmer, 1996). On top of this, co-instructors must negotiate with one another which disciplinary-specific research methods should be included and integrated in such ways to make the course truly interdisciplinary (Klein, 2010). Thus, team-taught interdisciplinary CBR courses require a high and consistent level of commitment from all those involved in its implementation.

Our current study builds upon this emerging body of work and sheds light on the rewards and challenges of team-taught intentional interdisciplinary CBR courses from three perspectives: the instructor, community partner, and student. Our case study of two team-taught interdisciplinary CBR courses consists of three sections. The first describes the intentional design and implementation of two team-taught interdisciplinary CBR courses, Watershed Citizenship and Watershed Ecology. The second section outlines the benefits and costs of these types of courses as viewed through the eyes of faculty, community partners, and students. The third section details lessons learned by team teaching interdisciplinary CBR courses that should provide guidance for others attempting to teach these types of CBR courses.


Designing and Implementation of Interdisciplinary

CBR Courses

Six years ago, two faculty at Cabrini College, a biologist and a psychologist, began conducting CBR projects with the Valley Creek Restoration Partnership (VCRP). The VCRP is a coalition of several key stakeholder organizations united around the purpose of protecting and enhancing the Valley Creek watershed located in Southeastern Pennsylvania (Terlecki, Dunbar, Nielsen, Ratmansky, Watterson, McGauley, Hannum, Seidler, Bongiorno, Owens, Goodman, Marshall, Gill, Travers, & Jackson, 2010). The biologist, Dr. David Dunbar, worked with the VCRP and a few dedicated students performing preliminary stream studies on Crabby Creek, an important tributary to Valley Creek. The stream studies were important in establishing baseline stream quality measurements prior to major stream restoration work. Dunbar has formal training as a molecular biologist but has a personal interest in watershed stewardship that evolved from his passion for fly-fishing. Around the same time, the psychologist, Dr. Melissa Terlecki, became involved in developing a community attitude survey in consultation with the VCRP to gauge the community’s awareness of the restoration work being done on Crabby Creek. Terlecki and a few of her dedicated students analyzed the survey results and reported them to members of the VCRP. This work quickly developed into an honors course, Environmental Psychology, co-taught by Dunbar and Terlecki. The course engaged students in research methods in both the social and natural sciences and included a large service-learning component that involved assisting the VCRP in organizing and hosting a Crabby Creek Earth Day event. This event showcased the work of VCRP and served as a vehicle for establishing backyard ecology programs for several area homeowners by presenting best practices in management of storm water runoff. The course offered a minor CBR component by developing storm water management brochures distributed in key locations throughout Crabby Creek Park and students training local residents in water quality testing. Based on student feedback from the initial course, students valued the interdisciplinary nature of the course and stated that they gained value in learning different research methods. However, students also indicated that the course would be even more powerful if they were able to employ research methods learned in the course in more robust CBR projects in conjunction with the community partner.

Because of the success of our initial course offering and its incorporation of some CBR, we desired to offer more robust CBR classroom experiences for our students. This strategy fits well with our current curriculum emphasis at our institution in having more of our service- learning courses with a CBR component. Additionally, CBR has been demonstrated to be an important extension of more traditional service-learning models historically valued at our institution (Watterson et al., 2011; Stoecker, 1997). In addition to students valuing a CBR course taught by two instructors with different areas of expertise, both of the instructors felt that working together in a classroom setting allowed them to align CBR projects more closely with VCRP’s desires; after all, the very nature of co-teaching required more dialogue both between instructors and with members of VCRP. Since both faculty felt somewhat out of their element conducting classroom-based CBR, especially since both were recent practitioners in the field of CBR, we began a dialogue with educators at Stroud Water Research Center (SWRC) about how best to develop interdisciplinary CBR courses incorporating watershed issues with VCRP. The staff at SWRC work in interdisciplinary research teams, blending their individual talents in watershed ecology and ecosystem modeling to study the physical, chemical, and biological processes of streams and rivers, the life histories of individual organisms, and the ecology of watersheds. Their expertise and input into this dialogue quickly led to the development of a NSF-funded grant to implement two related, interdisciplinary CBR courses. The two CBR courses that emerged, Watershed Citizenship and Watershed Ecology, were designed to bring both social and natural science perspectives to environmental issues. Moreover, both courses were intentionally designed to employ a teamtaught interdisciplinary approach using instructors with different disciplinary foci. For instance, the Watershed Citizenship course was co-taught with Dunbar, a molecular biologist by training, and Terlecki, a cognitive psychologist by training, and Dr. Susan Gill, director of education at the SWRC with expertise in environmental planning. The Watershed Ecology course was co-taught by Dunbar, who had previously mastered basic stream study methods, Dr. Caroline Nielsen, whose training primarily lies in terrestrial ecosystems, and Christina Medved, education programs manager at SWRC with expertise in aquatic biology, watershed education, and experience in working with citizen volunteers in stream monitoring groups.

The Watershed Citizenship course emphasizes community-based research as approached from a social science perspective in order to bring that perspective on specific environmental issues of importance to communities. This course thus provides valuable exposure and experience in undergraduate CBR by linking local water quality to land use, and, just as importantly, to the choices people make about managing their local environment. A major CBR component of this course entailed students constructing a community watershed survey in consultation with VCRP. With its focal point on the Valley Creek watershed, Watershed Citizenship complemented its companion Watershed Ecology course by foregrounding the human component: helping students and our community partner gain an appreciation of residents’ perspectives on local watershed issues in order to develop strategic planning for implementation of watershed management practices in the local community.

In the Watershed Ecology course, students not only studied the natural systems that comprise the environment of streams, but also conducted water quality testing and research on Crabby Creek. To assess water quality, students collected water samples, identified the physical and chemical characteristics of the stream, as well as the aquatic macroinvertebrates. Additionally, in conjunction with SWRC, students participated in a larger effort to compile a genetic library of local aquatic fauna by DNA bar-coding. This project provided an exciting opportunity for non-science-major students to participate in groundbreaking national research.

Interdisciplinary both by design and in implementation, the two CBR courses drew on the strengths of the course co-instructors as well as the needs of VCRP. Course planning and implementation involved course instructors, educators from SWRC, and members of VCRP attending joint meetings describing course goals. VCRP members were likewise invited to attend the Cabrini courses throughout the semester, an arrangement that proved valuable in giving course instructors key feedback during the process of conducting the courses. In the Watershed Citizenship course, for example, the chair of VCRP and SWRC partners thought it would be a good idea for us to invite members of other watershed organizations to our class so that students could gain a better appreciation of other dedicated watershed groups and how their members’ views might differ from their own. Gill’s contacts with many regional watershed professionals allowed us to have a broad range of speakers address the class. This exposure, moreover, provided real-world examples of watershed management that added greatly to the students’ understanding of what being a citizen of a watershed entails. Another example occurred during the Watershed Ecology course. Members from VCRP recommended additional stream sampling sites for Crabby Creek as a way to determine the health of the stream in areas outside of the restoration area. Indeed, the recommendation of additional stream sampling sites was later implemented in a future Watershed Ecology course.


To further probe student course evaluations on administered surveys, we conducted focus group interviews with students co-enrolled in both Watershed Ecology and Watershed Citizenship courses. During the subsequent academic semester, a facilitator from Cabrini College’s Center for Teaching & Learning conducted a small student focus group. The focus group lasted approximately one hour. Students’ anonymous responses were audio-taped and transcribed by professional transcription services (students were referred to as “student #1”, etc. during focus group audiotaping). The student focus group was semistructured (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002) with the facilitator asking questions developed by the course instructors.

To analyze students’ focus group responses, we used a directed content analysis of these qualitative data to identify recurring themes (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). Three of the authors coded themes that arose during the focus groups individually after which they compared results and then came to a coding consensus. Thus, we were able to organize focus group results according to specific themes based on the type of questions asked during focus group sessions. Five students participated in one focus group discussion three months after completing both the Watershed Ecology and Watershed Citizenship courses.


Benefits and Costs of Team-Taught Interdisciplinary CBR Courses: A Course Instructor Perspective

From a course instructor perspective, there are several benefits of team teaching interdisciplinary CBR courses. Course instructors are prompted and encouraged to move into new areas of research that sustain the community partnership by meeting their needs. In many instances, this type of innovation may not readily emerge without the catalyst of team teaching CBR courses. For example, Dunbar felt that the interdisciplinary, community planning perspective that Gill brought to the Watershed Citizenship course broadened his own understanding of the multidimensional aspects of community engagement. Another example of this serendipity emerged in the Watershed Ecology course when the community partners expressed a desire to understand the types of bacteria found in a local stream to see whether there was a sewer line break releasing raw sewage into the stream. Developing the Watershed Ecology course, we used one instructor’s ecology expertise (Nielsen) and another’s genetics expertise (Dunbar) to DNA barcode selected bacterial strains that students isolated in the stream. Another example arose in the Watershed Citizenship course. The first two renditions of Watershed Citizenship were co-taught by Terlecki, Dunbar, and Gill. One key aspect of that class was our desire to model collaborative, interdisciplinary problem solving. For the final exam in that course, Gill developed an individual scenario for each student that required her or him to forge a solution to a complex community issue. Students were given one week to complete their answers and were encouraged to brainstorm with their classmates. For the students, this model proved a new and challenging experience. The exciting result of this examination was that even students who had been passive during the class discussion were able to develop nuanced answers to complex questions. During the latest rendition of Watershed Citizenship, the course was cotaught by the same biology professor along with a communications professor, Dr. Janice Xu. Having a communications professor co-teaching the course proved advantageous, for at this time VCRP desired to get a weekly pulse on the students’ perspective of their involvement with the partnership. Xu decided to integrate weekly open access, online blogs where students commented on their interaction and work with VCRP. Based largely on these blogs, the community partner realized a need for video documentaries showcasing their efforts in the community to address storm water management practices. With the assistance of Xu, members of VCRP skilled in video production and a communications student previously enrolled in the course created video documentaries and are currently in the planning stage for airing on local television broadcasts.

It turned out to be advantageous to have the biology professor co-teach the Watershed Citizenship course since later departmental obligations with the psychology professor no longer allowed her to co-teach the course. The biology professor, from the onset, has served as the point person for the collaboration between Cabrini College and VCRP. Yet a third example of benefits is illustrated when the biology professor learned social science research methods from the psychology professor during the initial implementation of the Watershed Citizenship course. These same research methods were later used by the biology instructor in the Watershed Citizenship course when he cotaught with a communications professor; they collaborated in developing, implementing, and analyzing a community survey, a process that again evolved out of a need defined by VCRP as it had expanded its restoration work in a second nearby community and thus found it beneficial to conduct a similar survey.

From an instructor’s viewpoint several powerful outcomes result from co-teaching interdisciplinary CBR courses including that these types of courses attract students from different majors and disciplines. This response was particularly true on our campus since Watershed Ecology satisfied a science requirement for non-science majors and Watershed Citizenship satisfied a core curriculum requirement in the form of a writing intensive course called Engagements in the Common Good (ECG). All students must take ECG courses at Cabrini College, a series of courses that, in the sophomore and junior level, typically embed some service-learning or CBR component. These combined factors made the Watershed Citizenship course particularly well-suited for a team-taught CBR approach. As noted above, interdisciplinary CBR courses introduce many students, faculty, and community members to research methods outside of their primary discipline. Indeed, through feedback from student focus groups, we found that such exposure allowed students to make connections more easily to the importance of interdisciplinary research. One student, for example, was quoted as stating, “I feel like everyone in the classes, students and the faculty, was getting something out of the courses by each faculty member bringing their own unique perspective to it.” Another student coenrolled in both CBR courses indicated that, “Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the linked courses I learned a lot about CBR, DNA barcoding, macroinvertebrates, water regulations, stream conservation, and surveys, just to name a few of the topics covered in the two courses.”

Most faculty come to our institution with little or no experience in CBR, so team teaching interdisciplinary CBR with another more experienced faculty member offers many advantages. For example, junior faculty inexperienced with CBR felt they were less risk averse when team teaching with a senior faculty experienced in CBR courses. Dunbar, as a tenured associate professor, had several years of experience working with VCRP before Nielsen came to Cabrini as an untenured assistant professor. With Dunbar’s guidance during her second year as a faculty member in the science department, Neilsen co-taught Watershed Ecology.

Although there are notable benefits of coteaching an interdisciplinary CBR course, there are costs associated with these types of courses from a faculty perspective. Several course instructors who co-taught the CBR courses share concern that they have not mastered all of the current research methods and techniques currently used in the courses, since many of these procedures are outside their area of immediate expertise. If a situation arises such that one of the courses can no longer be cotaught, it could be difficult for faculty to teach these courses on their own, without additional guidance. For example, in Watershed Ecology, many of the techniques used were developed by SWRC, and the two Cabrini faculty involved in the course still feel that they need some guidance for several of the techniques such as stream macroinvertebrate studies. Another related example comes from the Watershed Citizenship course. Although we successfully constructed and distributed a community attitude survey, we strongly leaned on the assistance of one student, a psychology major who served as a teaching assistant and was skilled in SPSS software.

Another concern for faculty involves negotiating interpersonal matters. There may be the potential for hard feelings to arise among colleagues not involved in co-teaching CBR courses, a situation that could lead to promotion and tenure challenges, particularly for junior faculty. One large concern for faculty, of course, is how team teaching these types of courses will be weighed in tenure and promotion decisions, especially since interdisciplinary, team-taught courses are novel to our institution. Several faculty who are part of teaching these courses are apprehensive that fellow faculty may perceive them as doing less work or investing less time in team teaching the CBR courses, additional time spent in community-based endeavors notwithstanding. Several colleagues not involved with the CBR courses also expressed concern that it is not fair for faculty co-teaching courses to both receive full course credit in terms of course load. The accepted model for faculty co-teaching courses at our institution is for each instructor to receive ½ course credit. Finally, we found that dissonance takes a great deal of effort to manage, particularly if faculty have different teaching styles and expectations for the types of community-based projects connected to courses. In one of the two courses, two instructors had highly divergent teaching styles; hence, the constant tension between them was palpable to others involved in designing and teaching these collaborative courses.

Benefits and Costs of Team-Taught Interdisciplinary CBR Courses: A Community Partner Perspective—the


SWRC educators teach over 2,000 students, from grades 4 and up, annually. With a multidisciplinary approach in their watershed education programs, their hope is that participants will be motivated to become responsible stewards of freshwater resources. The inclusion of SWRC into the CBR courses complemented very well the work Cabrini College was trying to do and what SWRC has done for many years. SWRC has known for years that because watersheds have natural boundaries and are universal in nature, they are ideal models or themes around which science, education, conservation, and public policy can be discussed as all of those topics require an interdisciplinary approach. SWRC saw a benefit to working with Cabrini College in that it expanded their typical audience into the collegiate level, for an entire semester at a time. While engaging the next generation of community members and houseowners, the SWRC educators felt it was important to teach them—as well as the students—about the importance of water bodies in their neighborhoods and how everyday decisions can impact a local stream and why those impacts matter. The partners also recognized that all instructors learned from each other, not only technical information, but also teaching strategies and classroom management techniques. While teaching the courses, instructors were likewise receiving professional development. It was creative and rewarding to utilize instructors’ personal as well as professional interests in the development of the final student projects. For example, the SWRC educator co-teaching the Watershed Ecology class has a master’s degree in communication and was able to provide feedback to students on their public speaking as well as poster presentation and layout to help the students prepare for their presentations to members of the VCRP partnership.

While working at a non-profit is extremely rewarding on many levels—indeed one of the perks is allowance for working on diverse projects—a challenge to all non-profits is being paid for time spent on projects: whether it is time spent teaching, traveling, or grading papers, and in addition, travel/ mileage costs. Packing up gear every week rather than having it at hand in our own laboratory was time consuming, as was the travel to and from Cabrini College, on average a one-hour commute each way. With the type of programming provided at SWRC, the educators are usually not creating or grading homework. This was a great opportunity for them to practice such tasks as well as to receive feedback from co-teachers about rubrics in grading and appropriateness of questions and evaluation given the student audience.

Benefits and Costs of Team-Taught Interdisciplinary

CBR Courses: A Community Partner Perspective—the


From the VCRP perspective, several benefits of team teaching CBR courses stand out. According to the chair of VCRP, Dr. Owen Owens, our interdisciplinary, co-taught CBR courses by definition expanded the intellectual capacity and technical wherewithal of the project. That is, the collaborative composition actually ensured that a range of diverse research methods could more easily be tailored to meet the community partnership’s needs. Bear in mind that most community partners, in every community, are volunteers. Owens indicates that without interdisciplinary teams of course instructors discussing an array of possible watershed projects, it would have been difficult if not impossible for many of their research goals to be carried out. One example Owens pointed out includes the collection and analysis of aquatic macroinvertebrates in a stretch of creek that was stabilized through a grant by VCRP. In his view, VCRP would like to use macroinvertebrate data for long-term assessment on whether the restoration on Crabby Creek contributes to stream health over time. The macroinvertebrate studies carried out with students in the Watershed Ecology course drew upon the knowledge of an educator from the SWRC partnership. Another highlight of such interdisciplinary problem solving includes the environmental and attitudinal surveys that were conducted by residents in the Crabby Creek and Wilson Run watersheds as part of the Watershed Citizenship course. The survey results indicate what level of support VCRP members are likely to have when undertaking a conservation project in the community in which the surveys were conducted. Without the Watershed Citizenship course initially being co-taught by a psychology professor, these surveys would not have been part of the course.

From the VCRP perspective another powerful element of co-teaching CBR courses centers on the constant dialogue between community partners and course instructors. According to one member of VCRP, the dialogue usually sharpens the issue or objectives of the projects undertaken by VCRP. For example, what VCRP learned is that when one instructor (Dunbar) became involved with the partnership, he became a lead or primary partner. VCRP’s thought of partnering with Dunbar had initially trended along biological lines and how to address the issues surrounding water quality; this alliance emerged both because of this one faculty member having received a grant to research this topic and because of his academic status, subject knowledge, and experience. When Dunbar then started to involve other junior faculty in CBR, he then became a bridge between the VCRP and Cabrini College, taking the project beyond the preliminary issues of biology and water quality. In other words, Dunbar became both a partner and a facilitator. His work helped generate additional activity and outcomes for both Cabrini and VCRP beyond what he, acting alone, could have accomplished. This type of personnel investment at Cabrini College required a similar response within the partnership. Because the projects that came out of the classes were multi-disciplinary and multifaceted, they required experienced individuals (partnership members and course instructors alike) to become more involved in order to handle the volume and the scope of activities.

Such developments have other unintended but advantageous consequences, too. One such attribute is the exposure of students to outside professionals and volunteers from different disciplines who have experience in dealing with various watershed issues. As community members, the VCRP partners believe it important to help develop the knowledge and skills of students in the area of watershed management; even if those students do not take future residence in, or study, the local watershed, they will ultimately end up connected in some way to a watershed. The VCRP likewise gained exposure to a much wider audience for their goals and aspirations; at the most obvious level this exposure included relationships with the students enrolled specifically in the CBR courses; but the VCRP also gained added exposure from being on the campus of an institution of higher education with a voice in shaping engaged pedagogies.

Initially, the VCRP hesitated to describe any downsides or costs associated with our CBR courses, but when pressed, several members indicated that it did take some investment in time to get several of the faculty co-teaching the courses “up to speed” in understanding the VCRP’s goals and aspirations. Another cost was the time and transportation required for meetings with Cabrini College faculty. However, VCRP members stressed the advantage of the experiential education format that the course instructors provided in the CBR courses, with the help of SWRC, which went far beyond the type of learning provided in a more standard college classroom. The VCRP also emphasized that student learning may be even more all-encompassing than the course instructors think, involving relationships, real life situations (actions and reactions), as well as the usual basic learning component such as what is a watershed or why macroinvertebrate studies are important in monitoring stream health. One example of a “real life situation” involves a student whose current activity level in social issues revolving around water issues came directly from her passion from working with VCRP in the Watershed Citizenship course. This student is currently an activist against natural gas drilling taking place in Pennsylvania.

Benefits and Costs of Team-Taught Interdisciplinary CBR Courses: A Student Perspective

From a student perspective, several benefits of team-taught interdisciplinary CBR courses deserve a closer look. For example, student focus group data indicate that these types of courses offer far more intensive faculty/student interactions than traditional courses offer. Additionally, there are sustained CBR learning opportunities outside the students’ major fields, discussed later in this paper. Furthermore, seeing faculty willing to explore outside of their disciplinary comfort zones helped students themselves feel more comfortable engaging in research outside their own major. Although different teaching styles were a significant cost for two faculty who were co-teaching one of the two courses, the students consider this diversity a great benefit of the course. Student focus group work suggested that the course succeeded largely because of the faculty’s distinctive styles of teaching. For instance, in the Watershed Citizenship course, one student indicated that “it was a cool concept to have instructors team teaching and then really approaching the same subject from two different standpoints.” The same student went on to explain that “there was constant collaboration between the professors throughout the entire semester” and that “looking at topics from different standpoints enriched the class.” Another student indicated for the same course that the experiential aspect of the course highlighted a different way of thinking, adding, “We just learned about how we can protect our environment by thinking about it differently.”

A third student indicated,

When you brought in the psychological aspect, it actually showed the cognitive dissonance you can have yourself. The knowledge and learning experience that I gained from having three different professors, each with their own unique style, really improved my understanding of the material.

Several students articulated the merits of a team-teaching approach in the Watershed Ecology course as well: “I feel like everyone in the class, students and the faculty, was getting something out of the courses, with each faculty member bringing their own unique perspective to it.”

Another student stated,

I think it was really beneficial to have faculty together team teaching, especially when we were doing the DNA bar coding experiments. If we didn’t have Dr. Dunbar at that point, we would have actually been lost because even the other biology professor, Dr. Nielsen, had never done the DNA bar coding before, and she was learning with us.

Perhaps the most promising benefit of our CBR courses was that of student-acquired academic skills, particularly in the area of research methods, either within or outside of their major or disciplinary focus of their undergraduate studies. As defined by Lichtenstein, Thorme, Cutforth and Tombari (2011), “academic skills pertain to cognitive skills related to academic learning” (p. 12). In their study, the researchers indicate that many students involved in CBR projects increased their applied research method skills within the student’s major area of undergraduate study. Our work using the team-taught CBR courses as a case study shows how several of our students continued their CBR projects working mostly independently and using research methods they had only recently mastered precisely because of their involvement in an interdisciplinary CBR course. For instance, one student, majoring in English, continued to work with Dunbar on DNA barcoding a native crayfish species that was recently discovered in the Valley Creek watershed. The student received science undergraduate research credits for his DNA barcoding project. The student was inspired to take on a crayfish DNA barcoding project as a result of listening to a presentation by the Valley Forge National Historical Park, a partner of VCRP, who discussed the need to acquire as much information on the native crayfish species as possible, for it is an endangered species thought to be important to the Valley Creek watershed ecosystem. This student felt confident he could take on this sophisticated project as an English major, since he had learned and mastered molecular genetics techniques in the Watershed Ecology course. Two additional students, both of whom are business majors, approached the science faculty about conducting additional water chemistry studies on Crabby Creek during a semester in which the Watershed Ecology course was not being taught. They have done so as part of one of their business course community-based service-learning projects with little guidance from science faculty other than lending them necessary equipment and materials they were accustomed to using as part of their CBR project in the Watershed Ecology course. Such yearly stream chemistry data are critical for VCRP. The VCRP needs to determine the results of the restoration to deal with storm water runoff in a section of the creek. The two business students, on their own initiative, also recruited several other business students to assist Valley Forge National Historical Park to help remove an invasive crayfish population from the Valley Creek watershed one year after they had taken Watershed Ecology. Another student, a psychology major, decided to conduct research with Terlecki, examining in further detail the community attitude surveys that were developed, distributed to community members, and analyzed by the students in the Watershed Citizenship course. This student received research credits for her work in the psychology department and presented her findings not only to the VCRP but also at the Cabrini College annual Undergraduate Arts, Research and Scholarship Symposium. Recently, two students, a psychology/English double major and a business major, worked with each other to further analyze the results of a recent survey of a community in a section of Valley Creek located just outside the border of Valley Forge National Historical Park. The two students presented their work to the VCRP with little guidance from any of the course instructors. These students indicate that their CBR course experience, both learning research methods and interacting with the community partner in the Watershed Citizenship course, gave them the added comfort level to sustain their involvement in CBR with little instructor guidance.

In the three short years we offered these CBR courses, seven students continued CBR projects after their course experience and did their work with little guidance from faculty mentors, a true testament to their enhanced academic skills as a direct result of their interdisciplinary, co-taught CBR experience. This is the first reported example at Cabrini of several students willing to sustain CBR projects with faculty outside their disciplinary major. A recent study by Puma, Bennett, Cutforth, Tombari, and Stein (2009) has shown the same transitioning with graduate student CBR from classroom-based to projects that require a much greater degree of independence. Here we demonstrate a similar transition of undergraduate students from course-based CBR to projects that build upon their research skills to more independent CBR initiatives. We feel that students become more comfortable in conducting CBR outside of the majors by removing the mystique of CBR, in part by observing diverse faculty in the team-taught course challenging each other to work outside their areas of expertise. As reported by the students and noted above, students thought it is a rewarding experience seeing faculty learn from other faculty in the courses.

After having a candid conversation with the faculty co-teaching the courses, a cost emerged; namely, the perceived inconsistencies in course expectations between the faculty. According to several students, the main inconsistency regarded assignment grades. Students indicated that faculty from different disciplines have different grading criteria that may be a reflection of a faculty’s disciplinary training. Although faculty co-teaching the course made earnest attempts to “stay on the same page” by discussing grading criteria and sharing their grades on student assignments, the increased chances for miscommunication appears to be a real issue that can arise around these types of interdisciplinary, team-taught classes. Granted, such misperception could be symptomatic of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Yet, given the inherent uncertainty and surprises that regularly arise in many community-based projects that involve multiple partners, it is little surprise that there is heightened need for explicit and regular communication. One idea suggested by the student author of this paper, Jenna Cardone, is for course instructors to devise common grading rubrics for course assignments to ensure instructors are using the same grading criteria and meet more regularly in discussing rubric scoring differences as a way to alleviate this problem.


Lessons Learned of Team-Taught Interdisciplinary CBR Courses

One of the most powerful outcomes of team-taught interdisciplinary CBR courses from a student perspective arises from seeing faculty learn research methods both from one another and alongside community members. Students indicate that working alongside faculty, themselves working outside their comfort zone, and learning with them took away much of their uncertainty about doing CBR and ultimately, for several of them, giving them the confidence to conduct research with faculty outside of the students’ disciplinary focus. Team-taught interdisciplinary CBR courses are thus enriching to students in allowing them to see how different disciplines can work together, in this case on an environmental issue. Faculty participants found learning research methods and problemsolving epistemologies from colleagues in different disciplines to be enriching and providing insights they likely would not have acquired without the intense team-teaching approach. Team teaching interdisciplinary CBR courses allows faculty to be creative in co-designing community-based projects in a mutually informative, reciprocal manner, often in conjunction with multiple community partners; such integrative projects may not have emerged in precisely that fashion without the input of so many constituents. Working closely, faculty are encouraged to think of CBR practices and protocols in ways they would not have had the courses not required constant communication about approaches to teaching and research. This powerful experience of interdisciplinary, teamtaught, CBR courses demonstrates the potential for other institutions to have a similar impact on faculty and student participants, on the institution itself, and on community partners. This model of teaching replicates for students what happens in the real-world with everyday decisions whether it is at the community, state, or federal level or in a corporate boardroom.

Another powerful outcome is that course instructors are capable of moving into new areas of research that sustain the community partnership by meeting community partner needs. This responsiveness allows for greater flexibility for faculty to conduct research with a community partner based on that partner’s wants and needs. All key stakeholders—faculty, students and community partners—were able to draw on each other’s strengths and expertise. Such mutually beneficial interactions from collaboration serve as a stellar example of a synergistic effect in which the results are greater than the sum of the parts. Our institution thus saves time engaging with a partnership as an entity, while the partnership reaps the same benefits working with a college.

Ultimately, our work supports the model articulated by both Mulroy (2004) and Rosing and Hofman (2010) on using multiple CBR courses to institutionalize a CBR project. Our interdisciplinary CBR project has taken on a coordinated model, to use the typology articulated and defined by Mulroy (2004), a coordinated model brings together faculty members and students from different disciplines to work together toward serving the research interests of a community partner. The project initially started with two professors, a biology professor and a psychology professor, working with their students on separate CBR projects but with the same community partner. Both professors worked with one another and with key members of SWRC to integrate their CBR with one another and developed the Watershed Citizenship course. As it evolved, another course emerged, Watershed Ecology, co-developed with the biology professor, a new ecology professor, and with assistance from educators at SWRC.

Interdisciplinary CBR courses such as the ones described here can be viewed instructively as consonant with a wider discussion on interdisciplinarity and integrative learning. In a public report issued by the Integrative Learning Project, a three-year collaboration of the Carnegie

Foundation and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, those involved asserted that “fostering students’ abilities to integrate learning—over time, across courses, and between academic, personal, and community life—is one of the most important goals and challenges of higher education” (http://www.units.muohio. edu/aisorg/). Among the pedagogies that engage students more deeply and thus lead to integrative learning, the most prevalent and prominent are service-learning, problem-based learning, collaborative learning, and experiential learning such as interdisciplinary service-learning/CBR courses. All of these pedagogies of integration, and many more, share certain qualities and elements regardless of the level at which they are used. The Carnegie Foundation’s findings are particularly pertinent, for they acknowledge the realities of a changing world in which disciplinary and curricular isolation are neither feasible nor desirable. In short, interdisciplinary, team-taught CBR courses help to blur the boundaries between areas of expertise, placing teachers, students, and community partners in new cognitive and affective arenas.


Based on our experience, we have several suggestions addressing the challenges of team teaching CBR courses for those considering this powerful but intensive form of pedagogy at other institutions. We recognize institutional barriers to maintaining this high-intensity collaboration so we recommend a model that builds on the relationships that were previously cultivated with faculty and community partners, even if this involves taking baby steps in the initial process of course planning and implementation. Initially, we had two faculty working independently with a few of their students and the community partner. It took over a year of planning for these two faculty to develop and implement an interdisciplinary CBR course called Environmental Psychology. Additionally, we found that the main institutional barrier for faculty co-teaching CBR courses is each of them receiving full course credit. Also, some faculty might enjoy co-teaching a CBR course but find it problematic because of time constraints and/or other course commitments.

One strategy that has worked well for us is to have a valued colleague(s) guest lecture or teach a research method to the class. Building a relationship with a valued colleague might lead to a coteaching CBR course in the future as it has for us in one of our courses. For instance, since we are no longer funded by an NSF grant for our ongoing courses, key members of SWRC can no longer be as involved in our courses as they were during initial course implementation phase. However, SWRC educators are still actively involved in assisting and training faculty teaching the Watershed courses in research methods. SWRC educators also continue to be guest lecturers in our Watershed courses and we find this ongoing collaboration highly valuable to continue to train faculty in research methods outside their areas of expertise. We find it important that at least one faculty team member serve as the primary liaison between the faculty and community partner. This strategy releases some of the burden on additional faculty in attending community partner meetings, setting up meeting times, etc. However, even if one member serves as a primary liaison, we continue to find that it is critically important to maintain collaboration through regular communication among course instructors and the community partner, including occasional face-to-face meetings, even if one member serves as the primary liaison. This not only serves to ensure that all instructor ideas and input are valued but also to ensure that the community partner hears the voices of other instructors.

There were a few instances in which the ideas generated by the community partner and faculty liaison did not reflect the ideas of course co-instructors and created a degree of consternation since the ideas were already being implemented without others having adequate time for valued input.

However, community partner and faculty authors of this paper feel strongly that time invested in interdisciplinary CBR projects is time well spent and that the project took on added meaning with increased investment time with all project stakeholders. We have currently taken what we have learned (both cost and benefits), made adjustment to address the concerns and continue to offer these courses in a way that is sustainable at our campus. Additionally, we are in the proces of replicating these courses at other schools of higher education in southeastern Pennsylvania.


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The authors would like to thank the following faculty members of the Cabrini Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, who were helpful in reviewing the manuscript: John Cordes, Communications, Courtney Smith, History; and Raquel Green, Romance Languages. The authors would also like to thank the American Society of Microbiology’s Biology Scholars Program (NSF Award # 0715777) for helping to develop research ideas incorporated into this manuscript. The Watershed Citizenship Learning Community was funded by a phase I Course, Curriculum, Laboratory Improvement National Science Foundation collaborative grant proposal NSF Award # 0837511 and # 0837757.

About the Authors

All of the authors with exception of Janice Xu, Jenna Cardone, Owen Owens, Susan Gill are faculty members at Cabrini College. David Dunbar is an associate professor of Biology. Caroline Neilsen is an assistant professor of Biology. Nancy Watterson is an associate professor of Social Justice. Janice Xu teaches at Holy Family University in Philadephia. Melissa Terlecki is an associate professor of Psychology. Lisa Ratmansky is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. Jenna Cardone is a graduate student. Owen Owens is chair of the Valley Creek Restoration ProjectSusan Gill is education director of the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania. Christina Medved is Watershed Education director at Roaring Fork Conservancy in Basalt, Colorado.

Using Co-Inquiry to Study Co-Inquiry: Community-University Perspectives on Research

Sarah Banks and Andrea Armstrong, with Mark Booth, Greg Brown, Kathleen Carter, Maurice Clarkson, Lynne Corner, Audley Genus, Rose Gilroy, Tom Henfrey, Kate Hudson, Anna Jenner, Robert Moss, Dermot Roddy, and Andrew Russell


In the context of a rapid development of interest in community-university research partnerships, this article argues for a greater focus on collaborative reflexivity to enhance learning from the research process and contribute toward developing sustainable and ethical research collaborations. Incorporating perspectives of community and university participants, the article offers a case study analysis of a UK-based co-inquiry action research group. This group not only studied examples of community-university research collaborations, but also reflected on its own workings as an example of collaborative research in action—scrutinizing relationships of power, responsibility, and boundaries in the group (collaborative reflexivity). This article argues that research projects might be designed with space designated for co-inquiry action research or similar inquiry groups. These co-inquiry groups would serve as replacements or supplements to more traditional steering or advisory groups.


There is a burgeoning interest in community-university research collaborations and the mutual benefits these can bring for all participants. Over the last decade there has also been a gradual shift from a focus on participatory research where professional researchers design and manage a project with some participation from the people usually regarded as the objects of research. This shift has focused on an ideal of co-production where professional researchers and community partners have equal power and responsibility (Tinkler, 2012). Despite the value placed on equal research partnerships between universities and non-university participants in research, there are relatively few published accounts that combine the perspectives of both parties in reflecting on their experiences of the process of collaboration (examples include Benoit, Jansson, Millar, & Phillips, 2005; Hart & Aumann, 2013; Majnep & Bulmer, 1977; Sullivan, Kone, Senturia, Chrisman, Ciske, & Krieger, 2001).

This article offers an analysis based on perspectives of community and university partners involved in a research collaboration that took the form of a co-inquiry action research (CAR) group set up to examine the nature, challenges, and opportunities of universities and community-based organizations working together on research. It not only offers a range of perspectives on collaboration, but also a chance to get inside what Dumlao and Janke (2012, following Thomson & Perry, 2006) refer to as the black box of little understood processes of collaboration.


The CAR group was established under the aegis of Beacon North East in 2010. Beacon North East was one of six beacons for public engagement in the UK and consisted of a four-year (2008–2011) collaboration between Newcastle and Durham Universities and the Centre for Life (a science center) in North East England with a particular brief to promote public engagement with research. When Beacon North East was established, it characterized its approach to engaged research as co-inquiry. This term was used in a generic sense to refer to collaborative research with both an action orientation and some degree of participation by non-university members.

Toward the end of the second year of Beacon North East, Sarah Banks proposed that a group should be set up, comprising academics and some of the community partners from their current research projects. The purpose of this group would be to study co-inquiry research by means of a co-inquiry group. This proposal arose from the desire of key academics to share experiences and a feeling of lack of clarity about the nature of co-inquiry.

With funding from Beacon North East and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, the CAR project started in January 2010. Its purpose was to share learning from Beacon North East partners about co-inquiry as an approach to community-university research and produce materials (co-inquiry literature review, case studies of co-inquiry research projects, a toolkit, and articles) of use to universities and community partners. The process would involve a series of meetings, a major focus of which would be presentations and discussions of the collaborative research projects with which group members were engaged. This would give everyone a chance to participate in the group and reflect on real life examples from practice.

Co-inquiry Research

Although Beacon North East used the term co-inquiry in a broad sense to refer to collaborative research, the CAR group was modeled on the idea of the co-inquiry group as promoted by Heron and Reason. This approach to research, also called cooperative experiential inquiry, was introduced in the 1970s (Heron, 1971) and developed over the following decades (Heron, 1981, 1996; Heron and Reason, 1997, 2000, 2008; Reason, 1994a). A co-inquiry group involves people coming together to define and explore an issue, problem, or question that is important for them. Co-inquiry groups use and value the knowledge within the group and work in a participatory and egalitarian way. The participants in a co-inquiry group work together as both co-researchers and co-subjects: that is, not only do they all play a role in the planning, process, analysis, and dissemination of the research (co-researchers), they also draw on their own subjective experiences from outside and inside the group as data for discussion and analysis (co-subjects).

Over time Heron and Reason and other colleagues developed a philosophy based on a radical or extended epistemology (particularly valuing knowledge gained through experience), a commitment to principles of equality (valuing and respecting all contributions), participation (active engagement of all members in the group), and a methodology based on cycles of reflection and action. A typical model of working entails a group moving through various phases. A group might start with participants coming together and focusing on purpose. Participants then become co-subjects (recording the processes and outcomes of their own and each other’s experiences), before moving on to being fully immersed and engaged with their experience. Finally, the group comes back to reconsider or reframe the original questions/issues and/or formulate new questions and continue through the cycle again (Reason, 1994b).

The Beacon North East CAR Group

The principles, methods, and process of the CAR group drew on the philosophy and models of co-inquiry groups as developed by Heron and Reason but did not follow their methodology in detail. Since the facilitator had a background in community development, the group also drew on the principles and values of community development work (Community Development Exchange, n.d.; Ledwith,  2011; Ledwith & Springett, 2010), critical community practice (Butcher, Banks, Henderson, & Robertson, 2007), and critical pedagogy (Freire, 1972, 1993, 2001). These share a participatory worldview and egalitarian philosophy, but also emphasize analysis of power relations, challenging oppression, promoting empowerment of individuals and groups, and an action orientation toward transformational change. The working of the CAR group was also informed by principles and methods of dialogical learning, especially as developed in neo-Socratic dialogue, with an emphasis on listening and developing mutual understanding (Saran & Neisser, 2004). The principles listed below were important in setting up and facilitating the group.

  1. Valuing alternative ways of knowing. One of the main aims was to create knowledge through learning from the experiences of participants, all of whose perspectives were regarded as equally valuable. This relates to Heron and Reason’s (2008) argument for an extended or radical epistemology (theory of how we come to know the world) as an alternative to the traditional academic privileging of theoretical, abstract, propositional knowledge (intellectual knowing of ideas and theories, knowing about). This extended epistemology identifies three other types of knowledge in addition to the propositional, namely: experiential (gained though direct face-to-face contact with a person, place, or object, based on empathy and resonance); presentational (grows out of experiential knowing, expressing it through story, movement, drawing, etc); and practical (knowing how to do something, a skill or competence; this brings together the other forms of knowing into action in the world). This is also referred to in other literature as an epistemological shift (Welch, 2002) or a new epistemology (Schön, 1995) that focuses on a reflective and applied approach to research.
  2. Awareness of differing positionalities and power of group participants. While the group was set up with a commitment to an egalitarian philosophy and participatory approach, members were aware of the potential for academic voices and interpretations to dominate. This issue was kept on the agenda throughout the year and one of the main ways of distributing power in the group was through using exercises that gave space for all to contribute (such as rounds and pair work), encouraging serious listening and valuing of each contribution.
  3. Phases of reflection and action. The group was based on a familiar model of experiential learning, alternating between phases of reflection and action (Kolb, 1984; Freire, 1972; Heron, 1996). Members planned future actions of the group and brought case examples for discussion, which then enabled them to reflect on the processes of community-university collaboration. They also continued working in their research collaborations outside the group and reflected on these processes and on the processes of the CAR group itself. The reflections in the group were often dialogical, with group members sharing their perceptions and views, listening to others, identifying commonalities, and developing shared understandings.
  4. Awareness and use of group processes. The group was deliberately set up to mirror the process it was studying—the relationship between community and university participants in collaborative research. This meant that all participants were aware of, and from time to time discussed, the roles people played within and outside the group (especially the distinction between academic and community participants), levels of participation, inclusion and exclusion, and the use of power and language. Reflections on group dynamics provided some of the data for analysis of how community-university research collaborations work, and reflections of members on their own positions and contributions in the group (reflexivity, see Finlay, 2002) were particularly useful in this.
  5. Search for transformational as well as informational outcomes. In addition to finding out how the process of community-university collaboration in research worked, including identification of challenges and elements of good practice, the aim was also to enhance the capacity of group members and others in the wider community and universities to undertake this kind of research. In Heron’s (1996) terminology, the group was seeking both informational and transformational outcomes. In community development terms, it was aiming for individual and collective empowerment to enable participants to work for progressive social change in their communities (Banks & Vickers, 2006; Community Development Exchange, n.d.).

The Organization of the Group

The project was coordinated and meetings facilitated by Banks, with Andrea Armstrong as researcher (responsible for a literature review, collation of materials for case studies, and recording meetings). The group met on six occasions between April 2010 and April 2011. It initially comprised five members of community groups (one paid worker and four voluntary activists), five academics, an academic as facilitator, a researcher, and one staff member from Beacon North East. Participants were selected and invited by Beacon North East staff, with academic participants comprising the Beacon North East theme leaders and the community partners coming from two projects. After the first meeting, one community partner withdrew (for family reasons), leaving four community partners from the same organization.

The six meetings were each three hours long and provided a space to share and develop ideas, comment on presentations from group members, and materials produced by the researcher. Meetings were structured by the facilitator and generally comprised a round of information sharing, a case study presentation, feedback and discussion, pair and small group work, and deciding next steps. Actions to be taken by group members were identified and the researcher collated more materials for the next meeting.

The meetings were audio-recorded and detailed notes were circulated to members to ensure accuracy of reporting. The notes from meetings and additional interviews with CAR group participants by the researcher and evaluation questionnaires completed at the end of the meetings were used to inform this article. These materials formed the basis of toolkits and case studies (www.durham. ac.uk/beacon/socialjustice/toolkits). The writing process was collaborative, with the researcher and facilitator pulling materials together and circulating to members for editing and comments.

Developing a Way of Working

Presenting a literature review: exposing the group to academic jargon

Since part of the brief of the CAR project was for the researcher to produce an initial literature review on co-inquiry and related approaches, it was decided to present this at the first meeting. This overview of the literature was followed by presentation of a case study of a community-university collaboration by members of a community group. Despite attempts to summarize the findings of the literature review in a way that was comprehensible and relevant, this clearly failed, as illustrated by the comments of two community participants:

From the outset it was quite daunting…. For me this was new. The academics genuinely wanted to know our opinions. I must admit that at first I thought it was over my head and at the first meeting, me and a colleague were ready to call it a day. We decided to stick it out for a couple more sessions.

Did not have a clue what to expect or what was expected of me. During the meeting I felt out of my depth and that I could not contribute in any way. The jargon used by others put me off straight away. Having a cigarette break during the meeting, my colleague and I just stood laughing at each other, both having the same thought that we were from another planet.

Presenting case studies: grounding the group in practice

Fortunately, these two community participants stayed, and after the break they presented, with others, their case study on the work of their community organization (Thrive) and their research collaboration with Durham University. This provoked intense interest among other participants, as Thrive had been involved in campaigning and community action in relation to high interest loan companies (www.dur.ac.uk/beacon/socialjustice/ researchprojects/debt_on_teesside). The community participants showed a video they had made to highlight the unethical practices of doorstep lenders and explained how university staff and students were involved in working with them to collect, analyze, and write up supporting research data.

The following three meetings included presentations on research projects in which group members had been involved, followed by discussion and analysis. These presentations served to ground the group in experiential and presentational knowledge, giving different people a space to contribute and enabling the group to compare and contrast experiences and begin to identify common themes and issues. Although the comments from the community participants quoted earlier suggest that the group had a rocky start, it gradually recovered from this as academic jargon and theorizing were put aside and discussions focused on practical experiences and reflections on experiences in a way that all could contribute.

Listening and asking questions: becoming a group

Interestingly, in the presentation of the research based at the community organization, Thrive, the community participants used some specialist terminology from the field of community organizing (www.gamaliel.org; Alinsky, 1969; Pyles, 2009), which some of the academics did not understand—for example “cutting an issue” (choosing an issue on which to campaign), one-on-ones (face-to-face meetings with key people to engage them) and self-interest (individual interests around which a campaign can be mobilized). This first meeting served an important purpose in alerting participants to the potential for the worlds of academia and community action to seem mutually inscrutable. Indeed, it was not only the community participants who felt unsure or excluded at the start. Some of the academics had not met previously and were also hesitant, as comments from three university participants show:

I did have concerns about what I had to offer to the group: whether my own work was relevant, and my capacity to make a useful contribution.

I think I felt a little bit on the outside to begin with…. I was aware some people had well-established relationships… whereas for me I knew no one at the table.

I felt a bit like a fish out of water. It was clear that several of my colleagues were very familiar with co-inquiry research, an approach which to me was very new.

However, like all groups (Brown, 1994; Doel, 2006), this one went through stages and quickly settled down as participants expressed genuine interest in each other’s perspectives, academics tried to avoid jargon and over-intellectualizing, and community participants felt respected and were prepared to challenge and ask questions. As one community participant remarked:

At one meeting we were discussing the problems of engaging with the university and one point was the language or the amount of academic jargon being used. They listened to me and took on board what I said and it was plain sailing from then on.

Reflecting on the group process, two academics commented: “By the end of the process, it felt like we had become something of a team,” and “We became a group rather than a bringing together of people from different disciplines and stakeholders.”

Exploring Together

Once the group was established, its main focus was on discussing and analyzing four case studies of community-university collaborative research projects. These are summarized in Table 1 and were presented by members of the CAR group and explored in detail (for fuller accounts see www.durham.ac.uk/beacon/socialjustice/toolkits/).

The emphasis in the group’s examination of the case studies was not on research findings, but rather on reflecting on the process of academics and community participants working together within the context of their projects and identifying issues, challenges, what worked well, and lessons learned. This allowed members to reflect on their own roles in their research projects and created a space to analyze each other’s accounts in a critical but supportive environment. The process of exploring together highlighted a number of issues and challenges when working collaboratively in co-inquiry groups and/or partnerships.

Reflecting Together on the Challenges of Collaborative Research


Table 1. Case Studies Examined by the CAR Group

At the fifth meeting, the group took stock of the case studies (written up in draft by the researcher) and earlier discussions in order to summarize key challenges in community-university collaborative research and identify points of good practice. The discussion drew on the issues raised by the case studies, and also on analyses of how the CAR group itself functioned as a communityuniversity collaboration. Many issues were identified, a number of which formed the basis of the good practice guidance (Beacon North East, 2011a). There were two challenges upon which the group focused much attention—one raised by community partners and the other by academics. These were: community partners’ concerns about academic language and ways of working (based on experiences in early CAR group meetings) and academics’ interest in how they managed multiple roles and identities, including becoming personally involved and “going native” (based on reflections on the case study presentations).

Community partners’ concerns about academic language and ways of working: “different planets”

On a number of occasions, community participants raised the issue of academic language. Although it was clear that this was about more than just language or the use of jargon, this was a useful focus for an issue that was also about differences in class, status, wealth, and power. It was about the power of academics to set and control agendas and to patronize or exploit (whether consciously or unconsciously) community participants. As one community participant said afterwards: “What appeared to me at the first meeting was a group of learned people having to put up with a commoner like me.” This is the same person who laughed with her colleague at the first meeting, thinking they were “from a different planet.”

However, at later meetings the academic language issue was raised again and university participants took it seriously. It was important to tackle this, not just for the purpose of including community participants, but also because the academic participants were from different disciplines. There was a danger the social sciences and social research methodologies would dominate. Yet it was broader than just language, as the group facilitator commented:

It was also about academic culture and ways of working. It’s hard to put your finger on it, especially when you are immersed in it, but we can easily fall into academic seminar mode if we are not careful. We hear a presentation and then ask questions, which may be in the form of a disguised critique. We minutely analyze and interpret what people say, test out an argument, or link it to a theoretical position. In the CAR group we needed to do something very different: We needed to stay with people’s experiences, communicate clearly, listen to each other very carefully, and build mutual understanding. That is, we needed to engage in dialogue rather than debate.

The group seems to have been successful in this respect. As the same community participant who spoke about being from a different planet commented:

Their jargon and way of speaking could have crushed me within seconds. My response to that would have been to leave, shout, or use expletives. But they treated me as they treated themselves: with courtesy, decorum, and respect. They made me feel an equal with something to contribute. They listened, dissected my argument so I could rethink a better way of explanation. They listened to me when I disagreed with them and explained fully things I did not understand. I joined as an outsider but left as a full equal even though I do not have letters after my name.

The CAR group may not have created a “new world,” but it did create a new space—a common ground where a productive community-university dialogue could take place. This space was not just an artificial bubble with no connection to the worlds outside, as the learning enabled participants to go back to their worlds and work in new and relevant ways, as described in the later section on benefits.

Academics’ multiple roles/identities: Becoming personal and “going native”

The issue of academics occupying more than one role/identity in their research projects was raised as a challenge by the university members of the CAR group. The community partners in the CAR group did not express similar concerns (although there are clearly challenges in taking on researcher roles in their communities), and it is worth considering why this is a recurring challenge for academics.

Negotiation of roles/identities that are not always complementary is perhaps more acutely experienced by university partners because it is often academics who become involved in the settings where community partners work or live (Farquhar & Dobson, 2004). This was the case in the four examples studied by the CAR group (although in the case of the CAR group itself the situation was reversed). Furthermore, university partners may feel the responsibility of the researcher role differently than community partners because that is their main working role. Other roles/identities may evolve unexpectedly for university partners and they may feel less experienced in them. For example, the academic researcher in Case Study 4 said he was “conscious that the role was different to [what I] expected” and one of the CAR group members commented that this academic’s role was “like that of a community development worker.”

In Case Study 3, the academic researcher and master’s student both commented on their multiple roles as researcher (with a funded university project to complete), student (taking courses in permaculture design taught by the community partner) and community activist (involved in local food and transition groups). This also happened in Case Study 1, as academics and students enrolled in training for community organizers and engaged in campaigns and public assemblies alongside their community partners from the community organization, Thrive.

In some situations, then, there is added complexity and potential conflict for the academic partners when their roles become more than researchers and include being advisors or community activists. Being involved in a community project also entails a duty of care and responsibility, and relationships can become personal. CAR group members discussed the issue of conflicting roles, commenting that in Case Study 3, where the community partner was teacher, the academic partner ceded authority to someone else. Comments included: “It [research partnership] can become personal, part of your life and much more than a research interest” and collaborative research can be seen “as (life) long relationships which blur the lines between community/researcher/activist.” One academic member commented on the tensions between commitment and dependency:

there has to be commitment from people who have a passion but you have to know when to draw the line, for example: skills to avoid co-dependency; how to manage expectations and hopes; feel that you can say ‘no’ and have time for yourself and that commitments are defined.

In Case Study 3, the master’s student became so immersed in the project that she said in an interview with the researcher that she had “gone native” (see Gold, 1958):

I have “gone native” and almost become one of the subjects of my own inquiry. The fieldwork has not been an abstracted study about “them,” but rather it has involved striking up real relationships with the people you are working with.

This comment encapsulates a recognized challenge for social science researchers, especially ethnographers playing a participant-observer role of adopting multiple roles/identities in the field (e.g., as researcher and activist). It also highlights the issues raised by being “inside” and “outside” the group that is the focus of the research (see Bachmann, 2011; Eyles, 1988).

Reflections Afterward on the Benefits of Participating in the CAR Group

In February 2012, 10 months after the last meeting, the researcher sent participants questionnaires to evaluate their learning from the group and any outcomes that could be attributed to it. A number of themes emerged, which are elaborated upon below.

  1. Broadening of theoretical knowledge. Several academics reported a greater understanding of the range of approaches to community-based participatory research (CBPR). This was propositional knowledge derived from the academic literature, particularly as presented in the literature review. As two academics commented:
  2. It has broadened my field of vision concerning the wider body of knowledge about action research and public engagement. It has helped me to question how genuinely collaborative—in the co-inquiry sense—my work is or could be.It opened my mind to a whole range of research topics that I had never thought about before …. I spend most of my time working with academics, industrialists, and business people whose background is in the hard sciences and engineering. Co-inquiry research is not commonly used in those circles, which is quite unlike the world that my new social science colleagues appear to inhabit. However, it is very clear to me that many of the serious obstacles to deploying the results of work in the hard sciences stem from a lack of engagement with people. We are probably missing a trick!
  1. Developing practical knowledge. All participants reported developing practical knowledge and skills in how to conduct community-university collaborative research, particularly co-inquiry. For example, an academic commented that he had learned how to conduct a co-inquiry group and the CAR group had provided a platform (through the toolkit) for further co-inquiry projects. One of the community partners said: “My work is now more structured and researched with the right questions being asked. I have also won two awards for my work.” This community partner has taken a lead in developing a toolkit for community partners engaging with universities (Beacon North East, 2012).
  2. Deepening sensitivity. Several participants made comments relating to their greater awareness of the nuances of participatory research, and one academic commented that he had gained:
  3. [A]wareness of language and discursive issues and their relation to inclusion, exclusion, and ethical conduct in research; better appreciation of the nuances and dilemmas implicated in the foregoing.
    The same academic also said that participation in the group had “deepened my appreciation of the issues to consider in working with various types of partners.” Another academic commented: “I now appreciate the degrees of community participation and researcher control and have a deeper insight into complexities of relationships.”
  1. Stimulating reflexivity. As indicated earlier, several community partners were conscious of their class and educational backgrounds and how this influenced their participation in the group. Several academics reported a greater awareness of their role as university researchers, the potential for abuse of power, and conflicts between responsibilities to different organizations or groups. “Reflexivity” was not a term used in the CAR group (it could be regarded as “academic jargon”). However, in reflections afterward it became clear that the concept was useful—referring to the conscious placing of oneself in the picture and an awareness of one’s own position, values, and influence in a group or project. One of the academics mentioned that an effect of the CAR group for her was: “Perhaps being more conscious of my position and that of others.”
  2. Developing self-confidence.Community partners in particular stressed the effect of participation in the group on their self-confidence, as one commented:
  3. It has given me more confidence to express my beliefs and the structure behind them. Also to integrate more in the circles of people who could help my work progress (public speaking engagements, both in university and the community)…. This collaboration has given me a self-esteem I have never had. I refused university when I had the chance and always felt in awe of the people who worked and studied there, but I learnt that I can contribute.
    Academics also reported developing confidence, particularly in relation to contributing to the CAR group, as two participants commented: “Over time I became more confident about offering opinions and perspectives,” and “A generally supportive atmosphere helped me to develop confidence in my own role, and I think this helped me to contribute more often and substantially.”
  1. Leading to further action. When asked how the CAR group had changed what they were doing, several participants commented that they were taking on new projects based on the co-inquiry approach, as well as improving their existing practice. One of the community partners reported that she was:
  2. Taking on bigger projects…. I am working with people to mentor them and become experts in their causes. Because of the CAR group I make things happen, not go with the flow. I am now an educator by experience.
    An academic gave an example of how she had developed a new research project around the viability of co-housing for older people to a brief drawn up by an elders’ council:
    This piece of work is being managed by a steering group that is mainly elders’ council members. This is a new approach in co-inquiry for me, though I have worked with steering groups before, set up by research funders. This was a conscious attempt to ensure that management of the project was not taken away from older people.

Conclusions: Developing Collaborative Reflexivity

The process that the group went through could be described as developing a capacity for collaborative reflexivity—enabling individuals not only to reflect critically on themselves and the influence of their own power and positions in their research projects, but also stimulating a collective process. This included subjecting the structure and dynamics of the group itself to scrutiny and considering how these influenced the work it could do in studying co-inquiry.Much community-university collaborative research focuses on the aims, objectives, and tasks of the research itself, rather than the process of the collaboration—the black box mentioned at the start of this article. The four case study research projects that were the focus of the CAR group deliberations were typical in this respect. The participants were aware of some of the challenges of universities and communities working together, but had rarely talked about the process of collaboration in any detail or made the process a study in its own right. The CAR group showed the value of engaging in exploratory dialogue in a group. Participants were surprised at what they learned from each other and about themselves. They reflected not just on the collaborative processes in their own current and recent research projects and evaluated their roles, strengths, and weaknesses, but also studied themselves in the group and analyzed the workings of the group. This provided a model for how to become more reflective and reflexive in the research process and demonstrated the value of experiential learning.

Reflexivity as mutual collaboration or collaborative reflexivity is one of five types of reflexivity in research identified by Finlay (2002). However, her short sketch of collaborative reflexivity misses some of the dimensions identified in the CAR group. Finlay presents collaborative reflexivity of the type developed in co-inquiry groups as “offering opportunities to hear, and take into account, multiple voices and conflicting positions” (p. 220). However, she remains skeptical of the value of this process, which she suggests may be based on an egalitarian rhetoric disguising essentially unequal relationships. This is a valid point. In the CAR group, with academics in a majority and taking the roles of facilitator and researcher, parity of status was hard to achieve. However, arguably collaborative reflexivity is not just about hearing multiple voices; it is also engaging in critical dialogue so the many voices may position themselves in relation to salient categories such as class, gender, ethnicity, education, and status, consciously reflecting those positions and talking to each other about their positions and reflections. This began to happen in the group and has been taken further in subsequent CAR groups.

The CAR group offered a rare opportunity for reflection and reflexivity in a diverse group on ways of working collaboratively. While a steering group or advisory group is often included within research projects, these are usually task focused and do not allow much time and space for mutual reflection on the research process. There are enormous benefits to integrating a CAR group within a larger research project instead of, or alongside, the more traditional steering/advisory group. A CAR group can not only consider the research findings and how to put them into practice, but also examine the workings of the research project itself and draw out and create learning from the process of collaboration.

This was done on a small scale in a scoping study on ethics in community-based research (funded by a UK research council) that involved some of the same academics and community partners from the CAR group described here undertaking a literature review and participating in a second CAR group (Durham Community Research Team, 2011). This led to the drafting of ethical guidelines for CBPR and ultimately the publication of a guide and case materials as part of a follow-on project (Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University and National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, 2012).

Building in a CAR group, or some other format for stimulating and developing the capacity for collaborative reflexivity, can take community-university collaborative research to a new level, developing stronger and more sustainable partnerships and promoting genuinely transformatory learning for individuals, groups, and communities. In terms of community-university engagement more generally, including university students and staff undertaking community service and community action, the concept of collaborative reflexivity can be a useful focus for stimulating shared learning and improved practice. Building in spaces where different parties can reflect honestly, acknowledging and exploring the impact of differentials in power, status, education, and wealth, can result in stronger partnerships, significant learning for individuals and groups, and stimulation of further collaborations of mutual benefit.


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We are grateful to the UK-based National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and Beacon North East for providing funding for the CAR group and to the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University, UK for facilitating the project.

About the Authors

Sarah Banks is co-director of the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action and professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University, UK. Andrea Armstrong is a research associate in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, UK. Mark Booth is in charge of the development of teaching and research programs in International Health in the School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health, Durham University, UK. Greg Brown is project manager at Thrive, Stockton, UK. Kathleen Carter is a lead community organizer at Thrive. Maurice Clarkson was formerly a volunteer community activist with Thrive. Lynne Corner is director of Engagement-Changing Age, Newcastle University, UK. Audley Genus is YTL Professor of Innovation and Technology Management, Kingston University, London, UK. Rose Gilroy is professor of Ageing Cities and director of Engagement, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, UK. Tom Henfrey is a researcher at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, Bristol, UK. Kate Hudson is engagement manager, Newcastle University, UK. Anna Jenner is student recruitment officer, Newcastle University, UK. Robert Moss is a volunteer with community radio and community activist with Thrive. Dermot Roddy was formerly Science City Professor of Energy at Newcastle University, UK. Andrew Russell is co-director of the Centre of Social Justice and Community Action and reader in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, UK.

Tackling Wicked Problems Through Engaged Scholarship

Sharon Paynter


Engaged scholarship combines the work of universities with that of community partners. The results can be powerful examples of the synergy that arises between theory and practice. By examining engaged scholarship and reflecting on the nuances that exist between it and engaged research, this paper follows the ways that research questions can be explored in a practical application versus in a controlled environment. I examine the benefits of community-engaged scholarship relative to service recipients, scholars, organizations, and communities at large. The academic benefits extend far beyond the universities; engaged scholarship allows for university programs to provide realistic training to students as an example of future work-related duties and assignments and to collaborate with community partners in service delivery. Results of collective collaboration and community-engaged scholarship can lead to a strengthened sense of community in lasting partnerships that increase dialogue surrounding challenging issues.


The Great Recession of 2008 forced many organizations, both public and private, to begin an era of cutback management that will persist for years (Jimenez, 2012; Levine & Scorsone, 2011). Partnerships between public and private entities, including government, nonprofit, and educational organizations, could offer an avenue for maintaining or even re-envisioning service provision during austere budgetary times. Community-engaged scholarship is one way that collaborative partnerships can be created to benefit all stakeholders involved. University faculty can make important contributions to programs while preserving institutional academic missions through partnerships with government and nonprofit organizations.

My analysis explores how community-engaged scholarship benefits service recipients, scholars, organizations, and communities at large. First, I explain community-engaged scholarship and nuances that set it apart from engaged and applied research. I then use this framework to examine a case study bringing together university, nonprofit, government, and private business resources.

The Engaged Scholarship Model

Engaged scholarship differs from engaged research in an important way. Engaged research activities use protocol and frameworks to guide the collection and analysis of data. It is a framework rather than a methodology unto itself (MacQueen, McLellan, Metzger, Kegeles, Strauss, Scotti, Blanchard, & Trotter, 2001). Engaged research is a part of engaged scholarship, a larger concept where scholarly work is disseminated through teaching, research, and service (Boyer, 1990). Colleges and universities undertake both, though engaged scholarship is likely to have a greater impact on the stakeholders who collaborate in both academic and community settings.

Boyer (1990) suggested that scholarship is more than the conduct of original research. In his view, scholarship incorporates discovery with problem solving that assists individuals and institutions, and promotes educational progress. In this depiction scholarship is a dynamic process of building bridges between theory and practice that is accomplished through discovery, integration, application, and teaching.

This is in contrast to traditional academic work where knowledge is built for its own sake. There is a belief that traditional scholarship provides the freedom to explore ideas in creative, innovative ways in a university climate that is generally free from the pressures that come from clients seeking validation for decisions that might impact the fiscal health of the organization or project whose problems are being studied. Yet engaged scholarship can allow researchers to contribute to both the “climate of the university” and “stock of human knowledge” (Boyer, 1990, p. 17–23) by exploring research questions wherever they lead, with no prescribed notion of what the outcome might be.

Engaged scholarship frequently involves researchers from different disciplines and communities who need an interdisciplinary perspective in order to solve problems. Discoveries as important as the structure of life itself came through collaboration between scholars from different fields exploring problems without a preconceived outcome. The value of multidisciplinary research has been evident in the medical field for many years (for example, see Kim, Barnato, Angus, Fleisher, & Kahn, 2010; Rosenfield, 1992). For example, James Watson, an ornithologist, partnered with Francis Crick, a physicist, to uncover the coding pattern of deoxyribonucleic acid, literally discovering the DNA of human beings. In this case, the integration of multidisciplinary collaborations allowed the application of theoretical frameworks from two fields to questions in related fields. Yet some researchers are reluctant to engage in this sort of collaborative, cross disciplinary work because they feel pressure to find publication outlets and establish reputations in their home discipline.

Engaged scholarship allows the application of discovery and integration in community environments. Individuals and institutions benefit from applying the knowledge of research studies in real world environments. Real world dilemmas can even lead academe to broaden research agendas and scholarly investment while contributing to the needs of the larger community surrounding college campuses (Boyer, 1990).

Engaged scholarship is viewed in many ways within academia. For example, it may be considered a type of service, a type that must be distinguished from simply doing good works in a community or serving as committee member, student advisor, work on national boards, editorial boards for peer-reviewed journals, and the like. Many faculty members also work with community groups as advisors, board members, and volunteers. These activities are best described as “citizenship” (Boyer, 1990). When a researcher is able to tie citizenship to his or her area of specialization and professional work through activities that require accountability, rigor, and end with research, this type of service blends scholarship with community work.

The difference in engaged scholarship and research is difficult to pinpoint, though important to note. Many of the activities that make a project engaged research also allow it to be classified as engaged scholarship. Engaged research allows teachers to build bridges and stimulate critical thinking as they involve students in solving community problems if the findings are used in pedagogical settings. The simplest way to understand the distinction, at least in my mind, is to see engaged research as a part of engaged scholarship. That is, one might undertake a research effort that involves partnership with community members, with the aim of mutual benefit, but the effort stops after data are analyzed and findings reported. The expanded activities related to integration, application, and teaching are less emphasized than the research itself.

Engaged research allows for the transference of knowledge born of deeper understanding of theory that is gained through the integrated application of axioms in real world settings. Engaged research is likely to create opportunities for faculty to become better teachers and students better learners because both are able to translate theory through a more relatable lens. But the research itself falls short of being engaged scholarship, a more active and integrated approach that uses the findings in a deliberate effort to integrate theory and practice. In Boyer’s terms, engaged research projects allow faculty to use knowledge gained through serious study, exploration, and understanding to offer students the best opportunity to develop and apply an understanding of the discovery being examined.

But engaged scholarship and applied research are not necessarily synonymous. The use of applied research to bridge the gap between theory and practice is a widely accepted practice (Koliba, 2007), and most often means that researchers take knowledge gained and apply it to community problems that the researcher defines. Engaged scholarship, in contrast, is “user inspired research” where the community defines the problem and in partnership with the researcher looks for a solution (Gibson, 2006).

Most academic units remain bound by the traditional models of scholarship that rely heavily on empirical tests of theory (including applied research) without rewarding faculty for engaging in work with community partners. With limited time, and the pressures of the tenure and promotion process, many faculty members choose to limit activities to conventional teaching, research, and service activities. In doing so the researchers most well trained to study, evaluate, and theorize on real world problems fail to become involved in working to solve the issues about which they write, and some might argue, are unable to meet the broadly defined public service mission of many colleges and universities. In short, the experts are unable to engage in activities that put theory into practice.

The civic engagement movement has prompted some level of tenure and promotion reform within the university community (Marullo, 1996; Kellogg, 1999; Koliba, 2007; Ostrander, 2004). Despite recognition that applied research has value, there are limited outlets for this brand of research in peer-reviewed journals and a lack of understanding of the time intensity engaged scholarship requires.

Hunger as a Platform for Understanding Engagement

Some topics are perfectly suited to bring together actors from many different perspectives. Hunger is one of those issues. Scholars from fields as varied as medicine (Casey, de Cuba, Cook, & Frank, 2010), nutrition (Weaver & Hadley, 2009), public health (Widome, Neumark-Sztainer, Hannan, Haines, & Story, 2009), anthropology (Cormier, 2006), political science (Collier, 2008), economics (Logan, 2009), public administration and policy (Berner, Paynter, & Anderson, 2009), sociology (Coleman-Jenson, 2010), psychology (May, Berry, & Andrade, 2007), and nonprofits (Bade & Daponte (2006) have undertaken work on the causes and effects of hunger across the United States and in other countries. A common thread among all of these examples is that hunger is an important topic.

Hunger and poverty are tightly linked but not all people who experience hunger are poor, according the official poverty guidelines. About 15 percent (46.2 million people) of the total population in the United States including 16.1 million children experienced poverty in 2011 (Carmen, Proctor, & Lee, 2011). In the same year, there were 50.1 million Americans who reported living with food insecurity (not knowing where the next meal will come from), among them 16.7 million children and 1 million seniors living alone (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, & Andrews, 2011).

Public administration and policy is an important lens through which hunger might be studied, and ultimately addressed. Embedded within public administration and policy literature are studies of organizations in the public and governmental sector as well as those that are private, nonprofit agencies. Together agencies providing social programs within these realms make up the social safety net (Grosh, Del, Ninno, Tesliuc, & Ouerghi 2008). As a scholar in a public administration program that is a part of a political science department, I see the interconnectivity between hunger, public policy and management, and other disciplines. As a result, this topic is one way to explore the ideas of engaged scholarship between university and community partners.

Historically, institutions of higher education have been tasked with fostering a learning environment, providing tools that contribute to social mobility and lessen inequality, and to the enculturation of generations that live, learn, and work within a society (Holmwood, 2011). These are the basic tenets of higher education, but since the 1970s universities are taking on a broader mission that includes activities ranging from promoting economic growth to disseminating research across various outlets including, in recent years, through social media (Thrift, 2012). Whether one favors the basics approach or the reinvention strategy, universities are clearly important components of communities. It is equally critical that university campuses engage in collaborations with community partners in active ways, including through scholarship.

Interestingly, though collaboration is an often researched and well reviewed concept in public administration literature (for example see Agranoff, 2007; Agranoff & McGuire, 2003; Clarke & Stewart, 1997; Gazely & Brudney, 2007; Henton, Amsler, & Kopell, 2006; O’Leary, Gerard, & Bingham, 2006), there is little attention given to the nexus between institutions of higher education engaging in work with community partners, especially in the United States. Public administration scholars have written extensively on civic engagement (Ostrander, 2004; Portney, 2005) and participatory governance (Murray & Shaffer, 2004). Two studies issue a call for more research on engagement between public actors and communities with one considering the role of coproduction public services as a way to maximize resources and integrate activities between organizations (Bovaird, 2007) and the other (Boxelaar, Paine, & Beilin, 2006) suggesting that genuine stakeholder participation will be more effective and genuine if a reflexive dialogue between agencies and community members is established.

Certainly there are many instances in the public administration literature where a researcher, or even institution, partnered with governmental agencies or nonprofits in research endeavors, but there is little attention given to how the relationship between partners developed, whether the community had a role in research design, goals, or analysis, or in how results were disseminated for mutual benefit. A notable example of the kind of work that might benefit public administration, engagement, and other social science research is a study of the relationship between the University of Kentucky and community partners who worked together on alternative food resources to address hunger (Tanaka & Mooney, 2010). The partnership I describe in this article is an attempt to shed light on the types of efforts that public administration scholars may be able to document through the lens of engaged scholarship.

Boyer (1996) expanded the concept of scholarship to include engagement with community partners. In doing so he challenged academics to look for partnerships that would allow the academy to work with practitioners to solve the kinds of wicked problems that plague societies. The result is the scholarship of engagement. There has been some guidance provided for university faculty interested in engagement work (Ward, 2003) and establishing the concept as a set of practices (Barker, 2004.) Sandmann (2008) provides a thorough review of the history and evolution of the scholarship of engagement in higher education. Engaged scholars work alongside community participants to address questions relevant to both sets of stakeholders (Barker, 2004). Engaged scholarship can benefit multiple stakeholders as evidenced by the activities and impact of the North Carolina Hunger Project (NCHP).

Using Engaged Research to Develop Engaged Scholarship

The NCHP is an example of the four phases of engaged scholarship, as it incorporates expertise and knowledge from practice and theory into a solution that guides both the strategic plan for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (FBCENC) has resulted in academic publications and has been used in teaching activities at East Carolilna University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Together food bank and academic partners put the Boyer Model of Engaged Scholarship (1996) into practice, as demonstrated in Figure 1.


The work relies on a framework that built on strengths from both the academic and food assistance communities. The partnership drew from issue expertise of food bank staff and volunteers who are “hunger experts,” as well as technical research skills from the academic community.

The transition from engaged research to engaged scholarship has been deliberate. Initial research centered on analyzing trends and using quantitative methods to describe or explain phenomena at the food bank. The missing meals model has been used in a number of ways and environments. For example, it is used within the food bank for strategic planning purposes, as the subject for peer reviewed academic journal articles, as the starting point for conversations among stakeholders (community presentations, addresses to state and national conferences), and as the foundation for classroom instructional activities at the collegiate level. The activities, data, and findings from the missing meals model have given partners in NCHP a way to inform communities in both the public and private sectors through a single project leveraging resources along the way.

The Missing Meals Model: Applied and Engaged Research

To be effective, non-profit organizations need to understand future demand for services and plan accordingly. Most often, social service oriented non-profits use service usage patterns to project demand. This method has an obvious limitation. If the organization was unable to provide sufficient service because of limited financial, human, or physical resources, past service numbers might be underestimated, and consequently the organization would effectively be planning the past rather than projecting the future. That is, if a food pantry ran out of food before all the hungry people were fed, the number would be artificially reduced because the demand outstripped supply.

There is a new movement in modeling demand for social services. These efforts estimate demand by understanding overall need for a service in a community, and then calculating what is available to meet that need—whether resources are provided by the individuals or other private sector providers, government, or non-profits that pick up where government leaves off. The difference between what is needed overall and what is provided is the service “gap.” In the area of hunger, national and regional non-profits are turning to this method to understand unmet need, called “missing meals.”

FBCENC, located in Raleigh, serves 34 counties and more than a third of the total population of the state. This food bank is the largest of the seven in North Carolina. There are more than 800 partner agencies located throughout the agency footprint, delivering upwards of 41 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2009-2010. While the NCHP has relationships with the other food banks in the state, this paper is focused on an effort to estimate missing meals with the FBCENC.

The FBCENC began a strategic planning process in 2009 that carried into 2010. Discussions about service provision, resource utilization, staffing, and other components of organizational management were discussed. Given its mission “…to harness and supply resources so that no one goes hungry in Central and Eastern North

Carolina,” the fact that its affiliates regularly report running out of food before filling all requests for aid troubled the staff and board. In response the FBCENC determined that it needed a reliable estimate of how many more resources would be needed to meet the demand for hunger assistance across the 34-county service area.

The problem was that a thorough, rigorous analysis of estimation techniques was needed to identify the unmet need. The FBCENC had expertise in food assistance practices, but the staff and board lacked training in statistical modeling. The food bank staff sought a partnership with East Carolina University to develop answers to their questions. University faculty were interested in engaging in this research for its potential to be a useful tool in the fight against hunger as well as the possibilities for using the project for academic publications and teaching resources.

An existing relationship with the NCHP offered an opportunity to collaborate on estimating unmet demand for hunger assistance. The board empowered the staff to reach out to community partners at area universities and local businesses to begin the process. The result was a committee comprised of two university faculty members, one research associate, two graduate research assistants, two members of the food bank executive team (directors of operations and agency services), a retired executive from a major information technology firm, and a board member. Together the Missing Meals Committee crafted a methodology based on the academic and best practices literature, experience of human services professionals, and expertise in the private sector. The FBCENC was interested in creating an accurate measure of the number of meals missing in their service area by asking:

1)       How did the methodology used by Food FBCENC compare with that of the national hunger relief nonprofit Feeding America?

2)       Would changes to the methodology improve the accuracy or applicability of the results?

3)       Could a revised methodology be used to estimate the number of missing meals for the FBCENC service area overall as well as at the county level?

Assume a person eats three meals a day and that the person uses a combination of personal resources (e.g., salary), government sponsored programs (e.g., food stamps or free or reduced priced school lunches), or nonprofit assistance (e.g., food pantry boxes) to provide those three meals. The combination of resources should allow a person to achieve the three meals per day goal, or will show how many meals that person is missing because of deficient resources. Food banks across the United States use a calculus similar to this to identify resource gaps. But what if this calculation is not accurate? What if a more reliable formula could be created to produce a more accurate missing meals estimate? These are two of the questions the FBCENC pondered as it began a major strategic planning project in 2010.

The missing meals approach is appropriate to estimate future need for food bank services. The methodology is logical and uses reliable data, although there are some methodological differences in the approaches used within foodbanks across the United States. One food bank of comparable size and scope to the FBCENC is Food Lifeline in western Washington State.

Like FBCENC, Food Lifeline is a member of the national Feeding America network. This extensive hunger relief organization served more than 19 million meals in 2009 through its 300 partner agencies. Because demand for food assistance is difficult to quantify, Food Lifeline worked to create a methodology to increase food availability through government and nonprofit programs as well as to incorporate funds individuals contribute to food acquisition. The result is its Missing Meals Model. The methodology, hereafter described as the Missing Meals Model, was initially developed in 2009 by the Food Lifeline food bank and was considered for adoption by FBCENC as a part of the strategic initiatives it began in 2009.

The Missing Meals Model is based on an estimate of the people at risk of food insecurity. The logic behind the approach is refreshing because it is more holistic. It explicitly includes overall need for food and is easy enough to measure because in the abstract food is an inelastic good. That is, regardless of anything else, people generally need three meals a day to function. The methodology uses inputs from an individual’s ability to buy food for themselves and their families, as well as the more traditional measures of participation in government programs or pounds of food being distributed via food assistance agencies. The model can be used with easily accessible public data (for example, some data sources are American Community Survey; Census 2000 and 2010; wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and various reports from state departments of health and human services administering SNAP or other food assistance programs) in a standard spreadsheet format with simple calculations, though the spreadsheets can be rather large.

With the Missing Meals Model, need for services can be identified across jurisdictions in a relative sense (due to lower incomes and therefore lower self-provision, lower federal program takeup rates, or lower food pantry provision) in each county, and therefore, what local policy effort may produce more meals. Targets can be created for each method on a county by county level in those areas (such as if summer feeding program take-up rates are very low in one county), and the FBCENC could work with the pantries in those areas to adopt plans on how to close the gap, such as a campaign to advertise the summer feeding program and developing local government support for more feeding stations. Performance measures can be set for the pantries, counties and the FBCENC overall, and meal provision via these different methods can be tracked. Longterm efforts can target employment to increase the number of meals self-provided, medium term efforts could focus on program take-up rates, and short-terms efforts can focus on increasing provision of food pantry goods. All efforts can be done simultaneously.

An alternative method, currently used by Feeding America, is based on estimates of the people actually experiencing food insecurity. National and large regional food assistance organizations are actively testing the missing meals approach, having seen the limitations of previous efforts to plan for future demand. The Feeding America Model involves the use of mathematical forecasting techniques which, while used in a relatively straightforward manner, is likely to be beyond the analytical training of most food bank staff. The assumptions necessary to collect data for both models are critical. Changing something as simple as how the number of clients is tabulated can drastically impact the result of the model.

For example, when household income was used to estimate the number of clients needing food assistance, a problem arose. Poverty thresholds are determined by age and household size. Average household size in the United States was about 2.6 people in 2011 varying from about 2.15 (District of Columbia) to 3.13 (Utah) (Census, 2011). The number of people is used in combination with age to determine the poverty threshold, a common measure representing what a family needs to survive. Age data are available so that one might learn how many households had people less than 18 years old, seniors, or other stratifications. The income data are grouped by the U.S. Census Bureau in increments of $5,000 for households earning less than $54,999 per year. The problem is that entitlement programs like SNAP use the poverty line to qualify households for services. Households with more than the poverty threshold can qualify, based on a complicated formula. In North Carolina, for example, some households making as much as 200% of the poverty threshold can be eligible for food stamps. As a result, the income level at which a household needs food assistance can vary and often falls in the middle of an income band. Some income groups, especially those in the lower strata ($25,000 or less) are always food insecure while other households at risk for food insecurity are not actually food insecure (Nord & Brent, 2002). To use the entire population for all income bands that might qualify for public food assistance would lead to an over estimation of need while excluding higher income strata is too conservative. That is, the models are very sensitive to the assumptions, data, and may be biased.

Feeding America uses data from the Economic Research Service Food Security Report conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau as a supplement to the monthly population survey. In this survey respondents were asked 18 questions on food security, among them did they report that they worried that food would run out before they got money to buy more and that they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals. These data are reported for adults as well as children in the household. As a result, Feeding America creates a measure that captures the number of households that reported food insecurity.

The Income-Based Missing Meals Method used by Food Lifeline relies on the number of households at risk for food insecurity. This model assumes all households within a single income band would be included in the estimation of the number of missing meals. This approach would yield a biased estimate for two reasons: 1) not all households below 185 percent of the poverty level are actually food insecure; and 2) not all households above 185 percent of the poverty level are actually food secure.

There has been some work around this issue. Nord and Brent (2002) used data from the Current Population Survey (2000) to consider whether respondents both above and below 185 percent of poverty who reported food insecurity were an anomaly. The study concluded that of all households reporting food insecurity 80 percent were below 185 percent of poverty and 20 percent were above this income level. Nord and Brent also report that of the 57 million households between 185 percent of poverty (approximately $31,000 per year) and $50,000 (about 300 percent of poverty) annually 3.8 percent are food insecure and 1.2 percent food insecure with hunger. As a result the NCHP research staff recommended using the Nord and Brent estimation to correct for the number of at-risk versus actual missing meals.

Alternatively, assumptions underlying service provision are equally important, and equally difficult to pinpoint. The food bank staff was quick to point out that all meals are not equal. The USDA uses four different models to estimate the cost of food. The four models, ranging from least expensive to most are the Thrifty Food Plan, the Low Cost Food Plan, the Moderate Food Plan, and the Liberal Food Plan.

According to the 2010 USDA Thrifty Food Plan, which is the most conservative, three meals cost about $139 per week for a family of four, including two adults age 19 to 50 and two children between the ages of 6 and 11. Comparatively, following the highest cost Liberal Food Plan, the same number of meals for the same family would cost two times as much (see Figure 2).

The costs also vary based on the number as well as the ages of the people included in the calculations. When attempting to calculate the resources necessary to fill the gap between what a household can provide through its income, social services, and nonprofit resources, assumptions incorporated in the calculation are critical to the validity and reliability of the prediction.

The FBCENC staff educated the research team on what sorts of foods are included in each meal plan, what industry standards would be most reasonable to apply to the service area, and what kinds of inventory exist at the food bank. Using these pieces of information, the team determined that using estimates for the Low Cost Food Plan would make the most sense in FBCENC service area.

Figure 2. Cost of Meals According to 2010 USDA Food Plans


The process of developing a methodology for estimating hunger is an example of applied research and most certainly meets the basic test for being an illustration of engaged research.In the end, the team determined that more than 1.1 million people in the service area were at risk for food insecurity. Assuming these individuals require three meals a day and subtracting the total number of meals acquired through a combination of self provision (61.8 percent), government programs (27.3 percent), and the food bank (3 percent) meant that more than 98 million meals were unaccounted for each year. Armed with this information the FBCENC was able to initiate fundraising and programming strategies to narrow the gap.

Turning Toward Engaged Scholarship

The board and executive team used information from the Missing Meals Model to develop a strategic plan that has an impact on operations, outreach, and agency service activities. University partners were asked to attend a number of board meetings to discuss the assumptions and findings from the model and ultimately to move into an advisory role for projects relating utilizing information from the Missing Meals Model. What began as applied research turned into engaged research, and ultimately moved into engaged scholarship where faculty learned about the nuances of the food assistance world through interactions with professionals in the field, and those same professionals were informed through patterns uncovered by faculty trained as professional researchers. These partnerships are ongoing and strong.

Student involvement in the project was also a core component of its success. Over the course of three years, 12 different students were involved in the project. Together they logged more than 5,100 hours, collecting, preparing, and analyzing data, conducting 8 focus group interviews, attending 21 through an outreach ef-

fort called Three Squares for CENC. Food bank staff partnered with county social service agencies to increase education and awareness of the federal food stamp program known nationally as SNAP, and within North Carolina as the Food and Nutrition Services Program (FNS). Three Squares for CENC is being piloted in six counties where need for food assistance is high as determined in part through the Missing Meals Model.

Since Three Squares is a pilot program, FBCENC wanted to evaluate its success as well as the need for expansion to other counties in the service area. One of East Carolina University faculty members designed a graduate course in program evaluation to give students an opportunity to apply theoretical concepts in a real world setting. The food bank allowed the program manager to work in conjunction with the professor to deliver course content, including meetings with students, lectures, and group sessions. Student teams were required to submit needs assessment and program evaluation protocols to evaluate Three Squares. Each team used public datasets such as the 2010 Census and state food stamp participation reports in conjunction with internal food bank data. Though differently conceived and proposed, each team recommended future evaluations rely on focus groups or interviews with key personnel from the food bank as well as social service agencies to pair qualitative data with quantitative analysis as a way to ensure reliability in the analyses.

The evaluation teams had three general program findings. One is that the problem of hunger is substantial, requiring a tighter connection between community actors collaborating on solutions. The second finding was that the food bank needed to clearly identify program goals, key staff responsibilities, and develop performance measures to determine program effectiveness. And finally, the teams recommended providing services in areas where households living on the margins of food insecurity, where poverty was not most rampant and where unemployment was lower than surrounding counties. The logic was that more households fall outside the social safety net in these areas and would not be eligible for government assistance, thus relying more on nonprofit food assistance offered through the food bank system.

Conclusion and Lessons Learned

The NCHP is the joint venture of public universities, a network of private nonprofit food pantries, and other actors including a few private corporations. The project is a multi-faceted study of hunger with an eye toward developing the most effective food assistance programming possible and provided many opportunities for engaged scholarship. Ultimately, the results of the modeling effort led to expanded programming, student projects, and a graduate course in program evaluation. Together these examples demonstrate the value of applied and engaged research as well as the power of engaged scholarship.

University faculty and community partners can learn two things directly from NCHP. The lessons are: 1) to understand the strengths and limitations both partners bring to a project; and 2) to develop a communication strategy that ensures accountability and adherence to deadlines.

The FBCENC adopted the goal of becoming a “trusted leader” as a deliberate part of its current strategic initiative. To accomplish this goal Food FBCENC dedicated resources including staff and funding to developing a reliable strategy for projecting service demand. When FBCENC could not accomplish the goal because its staff lacked technical research skills it sought help from university faculty in the area. In the initial phases of the project FBCENC was unclear about how its staff, board, and volunteers would contribute to developing a better assessment of service demand. As conversations moved forward both the FBCENC and the university faculty working on the project became more aware of the importance practitioner-based knowledge would bring to the reliability and validity of the work. At that point the project became more engagement than community service. The strengths and limitations of the partners were readily apparent.

Establishing a mutually beneficial relationship built on good communication, respect, and expertise is critical. Like any other team-based work, engagement projects can get mired down in meetings that become brainstorming sessions that produce few results. One of the keys to success for the NCHP was a summary list of action items that responsible parties generated at each group session. The list was sent to participants no more than two days after the meeting so that deadlines and commitments were clear. The simple process of project management kept the group on track for important deadlines like board meetings, community presentations, research conferences, and journal submissions.

Engaged scholarship falls outside traditional norms in university settings. In addition to the lessons learned relative to engagement with communities, university faculty can use these sorts of projects to boost student interest, understanding, and application of core concepts. Working in a collaborative environment can benefit organizations in all sectors. Engaged scholarship gives community partners contact with research and issue area expertise that might otherwise be unaffordable or difficult to access. In turn, research faculties are able to use examples, and sometimes partnerships, to enhance teaching and research findings in ways that not only increase reliability and validity of the findings, but also increase the likelihood that the work will actually be put to use, rather than withering on bookshelves. Importantly, this work allowed students in both graduate and undergraduate courses to work with data involving a major public policy issue (hunger) and applying techniques such as program evaluation, cost benefit analysis, survey design, and development of written and visual communication tools. Developing a sense of connection to policy problems gave students a way to better connect to theoretical and technical concepts that were otherwise difficult to understand or relate to. Admittedly, involving students is risky, takes more time, and requires vigilance on the part of instructors; but the payoffs are substantial for all stakeholders concerned. Three of the 12 students working on this project now volunteer with hunger relief agencies and one is working in the field post-graduation.

Engaged scholarship can be a carefully positioned win for all stakeholders involved, and is an enterprise that university and community partners can employ to better leverage scarce resources. While faculty are actively working to discover new ideas and find explanations for phenomena, the work is more difficult to recognize or quantify relative to counting a number of journal articles, books, other publications, or classes taught. Engaged scholarship is not community service alone. It is a more directed effort that blends traditional academic work with practice. As such engaged faculty have a responsibility to educate peers about the value of engaged scholarship as it differs from community service, and as a potential resource for data, teaching examples, and publications. An important part of the process is for university researchers to make clear connections between problems and potential solutions. Engaged scholarship may be a tool used in addressing the problem of hunger. This paper has been an example of how solutions can emerge when community partners work with university faculty, staff, and students. It is a call for linking research, social services, teaching, and learning to develop tools to tackle wicked social policy problems.


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About the Author

Sharon Paynter is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at East Carolina University.

Leveraging a Community-Based Research Approach to Explore Research Perceptions Among Suburban Poor and Underserved Populations

Melissa A. Simon, Daiva M. Ragas, Colin Willis, Nadia Hajjar, XinQi Dong, and Kara Murphy


This qualitative study explored perceptions of research among a rapidly growing underserved population within a suburban community, a setting that has yet to be sufficiently explored using a community-based research (CBR) approach. We recruited community members from community health care agencies in DuPage County, Illinois, and 79 participants were enrolled in the study. Community researchers conducted nine focus groups comprised of agency clients and eight stakeholder interviews to collect community perspectives regarding the meaning of research and its community impact, current and desired channels of research information, and research motives, discrimination, and funding. Findings revealed four major themes: community members 1) often associate research with medical research or community engagement; 2) rely most heavily on the internet for research information; 3) perceive financial barriers, rather than racial or ethnic barriers, as a significant obstacle to receiving the benefits of research; and 4) trust research conducted by academic institutions.

Health disparities research among low-income, minority populations has centered on urban and rural communities (Ansell, Grabler, Whitman, Ferrans, Burgess-Bishop, Murray, Rao, & Marcus, 2009; Corbie-Smith, Akers, Blumenthal, Council, Wynn, Muhammad, & Sith, 2010; Meade, Menard, Luque, Martinez-Tyson, & Gwede, 2011; Williams, Mabiso, Todem, Hammad, Hill-Ashford, Hamade, Palamisono, Robinson-Lockett, & Zambrana, 2011). These communities typically provide affordable residential areas for minority groups, making these areas convenient and meaningful locations for CBR. When successful, CBR fosters community-led initiatives intended to create and sustain improved health and well-being (Ramsden, McKay, & Crowe, 2010). Undergirding CBR is a recognition that communities are rich in assets that, when harnessed, result in impactful social change. Communities must therefore have an active and engaged voice alongside their academic colleagues, in both goal setting and interventions. Unlike traditional methodologies, the researchers, specifically in the case of health care providers, are responsible for facilitating community members to examine their local needs in areas such as personal health and community well-being, and to develop potential strategic solutions in the form of interventions (Ramsden, McKay, & Crowe, 2010). The overall goal of this approach is to develop interventions that are appropriate and meaningful for the particular community context. This ideal could not be achieved without the involvement of community voices and agents in every stage of research.

While previous studies have examined both rural and urban communities within a CBR framework, suburban communities are underrepresented in the literature (Meade, et al., 2011; Rodriguez, Bowie, Frattaroli, & Gielen, 2009; Scarinci, Johnson, Hardy, Marron, & Partridge, 2009). Further, research into the health care challenges and needs of low-income, minority individuals in suburban areas is distinctly lacking, despite evidence of increasing suburbanization of both minority populations and poverty. A dramatic rise in poverty rates in Midwestern and Southern suburban areas, as indicated by the 2006 Brookings Institute Report, has provoked new health care disparities that current research is unequipped to handle (Berube & Kneebone, 2006).

DuPage County is a collar county near Chicago, Illinois in which the population of lowincome, ethnic minority residents has risen swiftly and the number of limited English proficient residents has increased dramatically in recent decades (Barbieri & Iverson, 2005). Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of DuPage County residents living below the federal poverty line rose by 182% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a). Furthermore, over the past two decades, Latinos, African Americans, and Asians in DuPage have increased by 253%, 173%, and 134%, respectively, while the percentage of non-Hispanic Caucasians has declined by 9.6% (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990,

2000, 2010b). Lacking infrastructure to support increased poverty density, suburban low-income, minority populations present novel challenges to health care providers. Many suburbs have limited access to safety net health services like free clinics and federally qualified health centers, with available services exacting higher cost to consumers. Furthermore, suburban facilities are often unequipped to serve non-English speaking and limited English proficient patients. (Marmot, Ryff, Bumpass, Shipley, & Marks, 1997). Together, this environment presents low-income, ethnic minority populations with significant barriers to acquiring adequate health care and culturally appropriate health information.

Derived directly from community-identified needs, this study seeks to bridge a gap in research knowledge, education, and communication by strengthening a budding academic-community partnership between Northwestern University and DuPage Health Coalition, a mature collaboration of 215 health, human service, and governmental partner organizations, coordinating affordable health care for a rapidly growing population of low-income DuPage County residents. Together, the academic and community partner’s recent history of collaboration in community-engaged research lays the foundation for this communitybased research study. Our academic-community partnership leverages the community partner’s local knowledge and engagement with an academic partner’s established record of communityengaged research in underserved populations. This relationship aims to reduce health disparities in DuPage County by improving communication between underserved suburban populations and medical research through partnership with community health care agencies and stakeholders.

To our knowledge, this is the first CBR study to elicit perceptions of research within an underserved suburban community. To drive future research and interventions within this community, we qualitatively examined community members’ knowledge and attitudes about research using focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Our study seeks to strengthen future CBR research implementation, evaluation, and dissemination focused on improving understanding of and participation in research within a rapidly growing, underserved suburban population.


CBR Framework. CBR methodology drives researchers to become intimately involved in the community, which, especially in highly diverse areas, can cause tension (Green, 2004). This quality of CBR, coupled with cultural sensitivity to poor quality or unethical research throughout history, requires a set of principles that provides the tools to navigate potential personal and communal conflicts (Wallerstein & Duran, 2010). We developed this study following the principles and recommendations outlined in Israel, Parker, Rowe, Salvatore, Minkler, López, Butz, Mosley, Coates, Lambert, Potito, Brenner, Rivera, Romero, Thompson, Coronado, and Halstead (2005). Three principles in particular guided this study: 1) a focus on the perspective of the community with regard to local health issues; 2) the mutual learning and empowerment of community partners; and 3) the use of community knowledge to develop respective interventions. Together, these principles provided a foundation to explore perceptions of research within the DuPage County community, allowing for future context-specific and culturally appropriate research and interventions.

The study was initiated in close collaboration with DuPage Health Coalition, the community partner. Academic and community partners both identified the low prevalence of basic research knowledge and education among underserved populations within DuPage County. Building on a desire to enhance the research literacy of the community, the research team, comprised of academicians from Northwestern University and community leaders from DuPage Health Coalition, sought input on study design and implementation from a diverse group of community members using a grassroots approach. Through snowball sampling, we reached out to community leaders representing civic and political sectors, faith and religious institutions, health care, and social and non-profit organizations. We conducted meetings to learn more about the needs of DuPage County residents and to seek recommendations on securing community support and engagement. We discussed the goals of the project, study procedures, expectations of residents, as well as risks and benefits at the individual and community levels. To adequately align scientific goals with community concerns, community members further refined common goals and recommended new avenues of academic pursuit.

Sampling and data collection.Once the interview tool was developed, we recruited participants from a convenience sample of local health and human service agencies, seeking recipients of direct services as well as key community stakeholders (see Table 1). The community partner conducted focus groups and stakeholder interviews on-site at the community agencies from May 2009 to December 2009. To recruit focus group participants, community partners placed flyers in health and social service affiliated local care sites. English or Spanishspeaking DuPage County residents, aged 18 or older, were eligible for focus group participation. Ultimately, nine focus groups formed from eight community agencies represented, with each group consisting of six to eight participants. The Young Parent Group accounted for two of nine focus groups. For the stakeholder interview portion of the study, the community partner personally invited constituents to participate in individual interviews. Invited community leaders were also required to live in the community, and no minors were permitted.


A mixed methods design utilizing a combination of qualitative, semi-structured focus groups and interviews and demographic data collection provided an apt framework to actively engage study participants from the community. The research team developed the interview guide based on a culturally appropriate, communityfocused baseline needs assessment of knowledge and attitudes regarding research in the community. Interview questions prompted participants to discuss community definitions of research, personal topics of interest, areas of interest for future research, the current status and availability of research in the community, and the most trusted sources for research in the community. Additionally, each participant completed a form reporting demographic data.

A bilingual/bicultural, trained community researcher conducted focus groups in English or Spanish on-site at the community agencies, in private spaces sensitive to cultural and social norms congruent with participating groups. A team member accompanied the community researcher to record data and group observations. Stakeholder interviews were recorded in a similar environment; however, a community researcher conducted interviews one-on-one with a particular stakeholder. The academic partner transcribed the audio recordings of each focus group and interview, while the academic partner and community partner collaborated in analyzing the transcripts. Participants provided written informed consent and were moderately reimbursed for their time. The study was approved by the Northwestern University Institutional Review Board.

Data analysis. Following an inductive approach, the data analysts (Willis, Hajjar, and Ragas) analyzed each focus group and stakeholder interview transcript to synthesize data and identify themes, and subsequently organized and summarized transcripts in a qualitative database. Quotations that directly addressed each question and added to discussion were captured in the database. For each question, the research team identified emerging themes, discussed and integrated the main findings, and identified exemplary quotations for the findings. Analysis continued until no new themes emerged and thematic saturation was reached. Status updates on the study and our findings were presented at regularly-held community advisory board committee meetings, and feedback from these meetings influenced the interpretation of the findings.


Sample characteristics. The study sample included eight community stakeholders and 71 clients from eight community health care agencies. Of the 79 community members enrolled in the study, 70.9% were female. Participants’ mean age was 32.9 years (n = 74), with a range of 18 to 80 years old. Participants had lived in DuPage County from five to 50 years and originated from the United States (57.0%), Latin America (Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico; 26.6%), Asia (Pakistan, Philippines, Syria; 11.5%), or Europe (Poland; 2.5%). All stakeholders and 33 agency clients were privately insured. Of participants, 55.7% were employed, 29.1% were unemployed, and 15.2% were students (see Table 2).

Qualitative results. We identified theme categories from larger patterns that emerged from focus groups and stakeholder interviews. These categories include: Understanding Research, community members’ definition of research and its significance; Community Impact, the relationship between a group’s community and its members’ positive or negative perception of research; Research Awareness, community members’ awareness of current research and potential research topics; and Research Intentions/ Prejudice, community members’ perception of bias, prejudice, or discrimination in research. These categories provide a consistent, explicative means to grouping themes that emerged from transcript analysis.

Table 2. Sample Characteristics (N=79)

Understanding of research. Participants were asked to define research and specify, if possible, the differences between “medical” and “scientific” research. All focus groups alluded that research is a process of or a set of tools for gathering information, and most stakeholders elaborated on the formal research process:

…finding the symptoms and solutions to an illness, or the answers to many questions. A research is based on finding the truth and finding answers to many questions that perhaps we don’t have very clear. (Care Connection Group)

…[T]he formal process of either making observations or taking measurements and collecting and aggregating those for different groups along the lines of a formal research study with independent variables and dependent variables … that’s just one model, but to determine if there’s a relationship between those variables, and if so to try to determine to the extent possible if there is a causal relationship or what is the nature of that relationship. Then in common everyday usage, I think people use the term just to mean finding out more information about something. (Stakeholder)

While many participants defined research in the context of advancing general knowledge, some focus groups and most stakeholders set research into the context of health and medicine. The Young Parent and Care Connection Groups focused on research as finding a cure to a disease or improving a standard of care. Of those focus groups that did not mention medicine specifically, responses tended to include aspects of research design such as experiments, statistics, data, and methodology. The Private Insured Group elaborated on the details of research, using terms like “placebo,” “hypothesis,” and “data-driven”. The Young Parent Group agreed upon the following definition:

…[Y]ou start out with a problem or a question. Research is what you do…when you study using surveys, experiments, questions, discussions. There are probably lots of other tools there in order to study health or your problem in order to find a solution to gather information to look for an answer to your problem. (Young Parent Group)

While the notion of scientific research frequently prompted descriptions of laboratories, sophisticated methodologies, and a specific goal or hypothesis, medical research was defined differently. Participants described their understanding of medical research similarly to community engagement; they reported that medical research functioned by assessing individual and community health, involving the community, or interacting with a health care practitioner on a personal level. Focus groups differentiated the personal nature of medical research from scientific research:

I think the difference is with scientific they’re in a lab and they have a set study that they’re working on specifically. In a health study it could be like you come to like a particular group whether it’s a doctor’s office or a lab or whatever that is specifically focused like on the study of say something within diabetes or the thyroid or cancer and you go through a series of certain number of weeks or months for the research to find out whether sub group A has this finding or sub group B has that particular finding. (Community Clinic Group)

Community impact. Participants were asked to consider whether research helped or harmed themselves or their communities, whether research was appropriate for their communities, and whether community values should be considered during research. Most participants, regardless of background, age, or focus group, identified research as beneficial, and examples were most often related to community health. Instances when a family or community member benefited from medical research were frequently reported; otherwise, many participants hoped that future research would ameliorate systemic public health problems, such as smoking and diabetes.

One of the primary benefits research offered this community was access to care: Individuals who might not otherwise qualify for health insurance expressed gratitude for the services medical research provided to them. The Child Enrichment Program Group articulated this benefit of research:

…[A]s Latinos, there are many people that don’t have the means to have medical insurance…..You have a chronic illness and you don’t know where to go. So right now what we’re seeing is that…people like you, that make a lot of research to see who really needs and who’ll get help… Well, it does benefit us.

The Private Insured Group, who recognized the mutually beneficial relationship community engagement creates, extended this notion:


For a long time we thought only certain health research or scientific research are done in this big bubble but now it’s extending to everyday life…and we’re feeling the benefits and…the research community is feeling the benefits that if you’re taking quotes from the people you can get better results…

Furthermore, the group indicated that the community engagement process, actively involving the community in discussion and research, has secondary benefits such as the fortification of personal relationships between the community, health practitioners, and the research team. A participant from the Poverty-Stricken Group reflected:

I think research really helps the community a lot in my opinion because when you really get in there and get enrooted to what the real person, not just something on a piece of paper, is feeling, then you know what you’re writing is something that’s real.

Some participants, however, raised critical opinions regarding research practices and discussed questionable research motives. Participants who suggested that research could cause harm often raised concerns about the motives of for-profit entities, like pharmaceutical companies:

I think specifically when it comes to pharmaceuticals they tend to have it be faster than what it is. Because for example they say it can cure this symptom but then afterwards you have five different symptoms which had nothing to do with the original illness. (Poverty-Stricken Group)

Further, participants indicated that research could be misleading to uneducated members of the community or that researchers could misinterpret or inflate data, possibly leading to exaggerated results and implications.

When the results of research are taken out of context there is a danger…reporting bias…that studies finding a negative result or an insignificant result are rejected by journal publications or not even submitted. (Stakeholder)

Other participants discussed issues regarding research dissemination, use, and applicability to the community. A common concern was the readiness of research to be released:

I think if information is thrown out there too soon to the public it can cause a panic. You know not enough information provided when it’s first exposed to the general public that it can cause a panic. So it could be harmful if it’s not done in the right way. (Community Clinic Group)

Finally, participants discussed whether community values should be considered in research. The Young Parent Group offered an analysis of community values, concluding that targeting at-risk groups will most involve the community in research:

…[I]f they come and ask us about something that’s not affecting us, then we’re not going to go anywhere. So if the community participates and they say that they’re interested in a research about autism or obesity in kids or cholesterol that is affecting kids and adults…well, then the community will be more involved, and it will be better suited for the necessities we have.

The Care Connection Group offered another reason to consider community values, specifying personal motivations and cultural influences:

That us Latinos are sometimes afraid to speak of the problems we have…for example, when they’re asking us about a disease we have…. Sometimes we don’t say it all, what we feel and what we want to know, for fear, because we don’t feel comfortable…. Other cultures don’t have this fear.

The Child Enrichment Program Group, one of the strongest supporters of medical research in the community, also discussed a fear salient in the minds of this underserved group:

Is it beneficial? Yes and no at the same time…. One gets intimidated, like her. Right now she doubted because she thinks, what’s happening? What am I signing? And we’re all like that. And there are times where not all of us speak up for fear that…what if it’s for migration? What if they call? What if they knock on my house? And the way the situation is right now, many times you don’t answer many things because of the fear of being researched thoroughly.

Research awareness. Participants were prompted to list where they learned about research, how they wanted to learn about research, and which topics they deemed relevant for research. The most commonly reported sources for research information among focus groups were the Internet, particularly Google Search or WebMD sites, the news, and a personal physician. Other participants reported their children’s schools, radio, magazines, the library, and word-of-mouth as sources for research. Some stakeholders additionally mentioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state health department, community health organizations, professional associations, and academic journals as current sources of research awareness.

Focus groups found that the potential sources to which they could have access for research information outnumbered their current sources. Potential new sources reported by focus groups included the Internet, overt advertisements like billboards, radio ads, advertisements in grocery stores, public flyers, and mailings. Participants were also asked to discuss research topics that were relevant to their lives. Topics of interest among focus groups and stakeholders included mental health, women’s and children’s health, diabetes, smoking cessation, health disparities, healthy lifestyle promotion, and other issues related to health behaviors. The Young Parent Group captured the sentiments of many participants:

I live in DuPage County now….

[T]here’s a gap. There’s a big variation in classes and I guess I would overall like to see some type of research and a…change in that gap. So research how to even the playing field.

Research intentions and prejudice. Participants were asked to consider whether health research benefited the poor and uninsured, whether research was affected by prejudice or racism, and whether knowing who funds research was important to the community. Most participants indicated that research intended to help the uninsured, but some participants disagreed:

The research is directed towards the people who can actually go into the doctor’s office or find out about medical trials through their doctors and get the information that the sick person who can’t afford to go to the doctor can’t. (Young Parent Group)

I think sometimes yes, it helps everyone across the board and then sometimes I think there are studies or there are findings specifically that are going to pertain to persons who can afford health care that have definite insurance or have the ability to pay. If you’ve got money, then you’re going to get whatever you want. If you don’t have money, then you have to wait. (Community Clinic Group)

Many focus groups and stakeholders perceived that money was the greatest factor in determining the purpose of research and the scope of its benefits. The Recovering Substance Abuse Group, on the other hand, recognized that health research has far-reaching benefits:

It helps all people across the board. You know? Of course, if you’re doing research, disease isn’t biased. It just affects the rich or the poor or the black or the white or, you know Mexicans. It helps all mankind. It’s just that some people are so readily available to receive it. You’ve got people that live in Third World countries that aren’t going to have the same medical options that people do in Western cultures and societies.


Most focus groups and stakeholders acknowledged the presence of racism or prejudice in research, but emphasized an association with financial barriers:

…[W]hen we look at the discrepancies of mortality rates, you look at OK this year so many blacks dying from this disease while you have a much lower number of whites or Hispanics or whatever, well, why does that happen? So I would say that I don’t know if it would go back to what I said at the beginning about insurance, are they treating you better because you are white and you have money or you have a good insurance versus you’re black and you don’t have money, you don’t have insurance, you know? So there are so many things that are linked together.


Another stakeholder added that research can be prejudiced when population demographics are not adequately considered:

Indirect in the sense that medical research is biased though. Medical research is biased because most of the times… their research participants are from the mainstream community. They do not take into the consideration, you know, the demographic of DuPage County is not Caucasian.

Participants were somewhat divided on whether knowing who paid for research was important. Some focus groups mentioned apprehension of the government:

…[J]ust because of African Americans’ history dealing with the government and the different type of research, I would be more apprehensive. African Americans typically speaking…are more apprehensive when it comes to law enforcement or government officials than maybe say other ethnic groups because of our treatment historically here in

America. (Young Parent Group)


Many focus group participants favored research conducted by academic institutions, while stakeholders spoke positively of governmentfunded and academic research:

I would probably be the most green light with the academic research institution because that is sort of their expertise, and then if I thought that the study sounded sound I would be eager to participate in a government-funded study because I would want them to have more valid data that I can contribute to, and when it’s a private corporation running the study I kind of feel like my voice has less of an impact…. I would see a private enterprise as potentially more biased. (Stakeholder)

More commonly, participants were indifferent about who funded research:

I think that it’s more about knowing where we are getting the support from. Not so much knowing that they are paying for it.

(Care Connection Group)


Results revealed that DuPage County community members have many insights from which researchers can learn to improve future interventions. Four major themes arose from the analysis of focus groups and stakeholder interviews: 1) community members’ understanding of community engagement in defining research and determining its value; 2) the Internet as a dominant source for research awareness; 3) concerns regarding the effects of privately funded and commercial research on the community; and 4) financial barriers to research and health care.

When asked to discuss the difference between “scientific” and “medical” research, the notion of medical research subsumed scientific research. Furthermore, participants frequently equated medical research to community engagement, likely because the research most familiar to and most easily defined by the community is research which involves the community most. Focus groups often pointed to the personal connections made during community interventions and clinical interactions as the creation and fortification of their positive view of research. It is therefore critical that researchers are genuine and perform communitycentric research as such a degree of involvement will leave an impression on the community, affecting future research.

Although participants’ access to research was limited, a number of resources were repeated: the Internet, personal physicians, the news, and publications. Nearly all focus groups mentioned the Internet as a resource that they used most and wanted to use more. Participants mentioned physicians as sources for research information as much as the Internet; however, unlike the Internet, physicians were not mentioned as a potential new source for research, suggesting some untapped potential in the Internet as a research dissemination tool. For instance, the Internet could be tailored even more toward delivering useful, personalized information, such as local research. Further, while our findings suggest that current sources of research are meager, as some focus groups did not report any research sources, each group reported numerous possibilities for how they could be informed of research. In this community, an apparent imbalance exists between the potential and current level of research awareness. It is likely and acceptable that this will always be the case; however, the current disparity warrants investigation into how to best disseminate research to this population.

Despite the prevailing positive perception of research throughout focus groups and stakeholder interviews, a number of key concerns regarding the intentions and dissemination of research arose. Participants feared that some researchers may have questionable motives and distrusted forprofit entities. While many participants appeared indifferent to who conducted research, others criticized pharmaceutical companies for engaging in research that primarily served to develop drugs or treatments for profit. Participants both praised and criticized government entities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, minority-centric focus groups expressed unease for government institutions due to immigration issues or past treatment. Other focus groups and stakeholders were less reactive to the government conducting research, as they believed governmental research intended to benefit people. The academic institution emerged as the most trusted research entity, an expected finding due to this community’s past involvement with academic research. Participants feared that researchers, or research disseminators like the news, may frame a study in such a way to appear more successful or significant, which can pose major implications in a community. Participants voiced concern that research tends to be released in ways that cause a fad, such as a new diet, or panic, like the vaccination-autism scare. These fears suggest that research dissemination is not ideal; rather, the examples participants provided suggest that the media’s spin on research has a significant, at times negative, effect on research perceptions.

Although some focus groups discussed sensitivity to immigration issues, when asked about the relationship between racism or prejudice and research, participants predominantly discussed financial prejudice and identified financial obstacles as the most significant barriers to care. Some participants, however, equated financial barriers to a different form of prejudice, as economic burdens are more commonly born by minority populations. Nonetheless, participants generally felt that financial barriers were unrelated to racism, pointing to otherwise positive interactions with clinicians.

While the design of our study elicited important findings, the results are limited by the sample. Although 79 participants composed the sample, there were typically only 6-8 participants per focus group. Furthermore, all study participants were volunteers, which likely resulted in response bias. These factors combined with a lack of demographic data—namely, lack of ethnicity data, incomplete demographic data due to self-report, and the inability to individually identify the speaker of a particular focus group quotation— inhibit the generalizability of our results to other populations.

In addressing the need for greater understanding of research perceptions and means for dissemination, our study followed the recommendations outlined by Glasgow, Marcus, Bull, and Wilson (2004), Montoya and Kent (2011), and Wallerstein and Duran (2010). Specifically, a bicultural/bilingual community researcher conducted all interviews in which the research team directly addressed the perceptions of many segments of the community while building upon previous work in developing trust and rapport in the DuPage County community, extending recommendations by Alexander and Richman

(2008). While previous research has noted that one individual performing in both a service provider and focus group leader role can cause complications (Smith, 2008), this relationship instead allowed our research methodology access to otherwise guarded thoughts and insights from the community that will help future research initiate communityappropriate interventions. Future studies should consider involving the community more in data collection, as past research has demonstrated that community members are as effective at collecting data as traditional academic data collectors (Brugge, Kapunan, Babcock-Dunning, Matloff, Cagua-Koo, Okoroh, Salas, Bradeen, & Woodin, 2010).

This study sought to expand the literature by adding valuable CBR data on the growing underserved low-income, minority communities in suburban areas. Findings suggest that CBR is well-received and salient in this community and, as a whole, participants reported positive attitudes regarding research. Considering the rapid growth of underserved communities in suburban areas, CBR will become an instrumental tool in navigating the inevitable tensions between a growing community and an area traditionally unfamiliar with these new populations. Likewise, further research into suburban low-income, minority communities is necessary to gain a proper understanding of the needs of both the new and old communities before initiating interventions. Creating and maintaining social services, such as the programs offered by DuPage Health Coalition, will be invaluable to communities and researchers alike in the next decade (Cargo & Mercer, 2008).

Key take-home points. Future research

and interventions resulting from this study should address three things. First, expanding the community’s understanding of research should be a goal to prevent community members from avoiding or missing research that may benefit them. Second, exploring the potential of the Internet as a means for research dissemination would be highly valuable following the conclusions of this study. Given the ease of access to the Internet and the ease of developing web pages with today’s resources, the ability to generate low cost, local resources for research dissemination is unprecedented. Finally, following the community’s focus on financial barriers to research participation or awareness and resulting health care, investigation into the pervasiveness of this barrier and means to deconstruct it are needed. Developing resources to increase research participation and awareness among low-income, minority members of DuPage County would be a major step toward better understanding and preempting health disparities in this rapidly growing, underserved suburban community.


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Preventing Chronic Disease, 8(1), A20.

About the Authors

Melissa A. Simon is an associate professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Preventive Medicine, and Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University Feineburg School of Medicine. Daiva M. Ragas is research project coordinator at Northwestern University Feineburg School of Medicine. At time of acceptance Colin Willis was a research intern at Northwestern University Feineburg School of Medicine and student at Lake Forest College.Nadia Hajjar is project coordinator, and patient navigator at Access DuPage/Northwestern University. XinQi Dong is associate director of Rush Institute for Healthy Aging and an associate professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center. Kara Murphy is executive director of Access DuPage/Northwestern University.


We extend our gratitude to the DuPage Community Clinic, to the community health care agencies who helped recruit participants, and especially to the DuPage County community members who are the voices of this study. We also thank Rosario Bularzik, Carmi Frankovich, Dora Monroe, Narissa Nonzee, Ava Phisuthikul, Belinda Reyes, and Shaneah Taylor for their contributions.

This research is supported by NIH RO3 HD059721-01 (Simon) and NIMHD R24

MD001650 (Simon).

The Pedagogy of Community Service-Learning Discourse: From Deficit to Asset Mapping in the Re-Envisioning Media Project

Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz and Leda M. Cooks

An intersection of power, privilege, and injustice in community service-learning (CSL) pedagogy is examined through the language used to describe relationships between college classroom and community site participants. This article extends work on deficit and asset-based discourse to address critical race theory, critical pedagogy, and whiteness in a study of a university CSL partnership with an under-resourced public middle school in Western Massachusetts. Using critical race theory, appreciative inquiry, and situated learning theory, the instructors re-framed talk of education for dominant and non-dominant ethnic group participants as sites of contestation over the meaning of difference. The article demonstrates how increased cultural competencies could be learned as a result of improved intergroup understanding, interaction, and dialogue. It suggests new directions for a CSL pedagogy that moves from deficit- to asset-based discourse and the ways such meanings are formed in relation to and in relationship with others inside and outside our communities.

In the past decade CSL research has brought together theory and methodology that link ideas of democracy and citizenship (most recently on a global level) to the process of education as it connects classrooms and communities. Less attention has been paid, however, to the language used to frame these issues, e.g., Who is already assumed to need social change? Why are these groups the assumed targets of change efforts and what keeps them in these roles? (Yosso, 2002). As more CSL scholars and practitioners work in underserved areas and commit to partnerships for more sustainable programs, critique of systemic injustice and band-aid solutions to social ills sometimes collide with the ideals of service to the community (Robinson, 2000). Likewise, a CSL pedagogy of democracy and citizenship is at times at odds with a critical pedagogy that advocates critique of unreflective patriotism and a self-reflective look at the role of race and privilege in sustaining inequities in education and community (and CSL, see Abowitz, 1999; Jones, Maloy, & Steen, 1996; Shadduck-Hernandez, 2006). In agreement with these sentiments, Green (2001) notes that: “It is absolutely imperative to talk about the intersections of race, class, and service in order to prevent service-learning from replicating the power imbalances and economic injustices that create the need for service-learning in the first place” (p. 18).

In this article, we assert that the best way to focus on the intersections of power, privilege, and injustice in CSL pedagogy and practice is through a closer examination of the language we use to describe our relationships to those we work with in the classroom and community. Kretzmann and McKnight’s (1993) Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets represents a major effort to both look at the discourse of social problems and offer a practical guide for speaking and acting differently. This article builds on their efforts to develop a program for community action but also extends their (and others) work on deficit and asset-based discourse to address critical race theory, critical pedagogy, and whiteness in the context of an ongoing community service-learning project and long-term partnership. We turn our theoretical and pedagogical lens on our course, our project, ourselves, and the students and community members with whom we work to take a closer look at the movement from asset or needs based talk to action—on individual, social, and cultural levels.

The context of our analysis is a four- year partnership between the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a middle school in Western Massachusetts, an under-resourced, chronically under-performing middle school, and in the larger background of a decade of doing similar community-based learning projects in better resourced (higher income) school districts. The students in this middle school are primarily (more than 75%) Latino/a; the students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are primarily (82%) white. Our data analysis is based on one year of the program and on the constituencies involved, the language they used to describe themselves, and their relationships to each other as well as to their school/university, community, and media. Our focus in this article is on the ways a discussion of deficit discourses and an asset-based approach to the project impacted (or did not) the language that we and our students used to describe the project, ourselves, the middle school constituencies (parents, students, teachers, school administrators, department of education), local communities, and our pedagogy in the course of one year of the partnership. In this article we draw from qualitative and nominal quantitative data based on pre and post surveys of both the undergraduate students and the middle school students, journals of undergraduate students, video of middle school program sessions, post-program videotaped interviews with middle school students, videotaped interviews of college students, pre-program focus group sessions with middle school students, videotaped interviews with faculty and administrators at the middle school, and our own self-reflections.

The Re-Envisioning Media Project
Schools are not synonymous with education. They are only part of education. Alongside school operates a parallel educational system, the “societal curriculum.” Within that societal curriculum, the media serve as pervasive, relentless lifelong educators (Cortés, 1992).

The program at the center of our analysis, the Re-Envisioning Media Project, requires undergraduate students enrolled in a Media Literacy and Community Media course from a wide variety of majors to create and implement both an in-school and an after-school media literacy program on the topics of race, ethnicity, and nationality and their representation in a variety of media. The in-school program is geared toward sixth graders and introduces the topic of media literacy and racial stereotyping and representation, while the after-school program (open to all middle schoolers) adds a production component to the aforementioned areas. Both groups produce media dealing with race, ethnicity, and nationality, but in the after-school program the focus is on the process and product of alternative media production, whereas for the in-school program the children produce a short public service announcement discussing media literacy, race, and representation.

In the CSL course, the university students spend the first part of the semester learning about CSL, the concepts central to the program (race, ethnicity, nationality, media literacy), learning how to teach sixth graders these concepts, and learning basic skills of media production (e.g.,storyboarding and camera operation). Additionally, an important focus of our pedagogy is on the community in which the students will be working and on their own racial, class, gender, standpoints, and privilege in relation to the community. To frame this discussion throughout the semester, we constantly draw attention to the ways we create and perpetuate deficit discourses in our talk about the school, students, and surrounding community and how we might look for resources and assets within these same contexts and our relationships with all involved.

After the first month of classes, students spend their time both in the middle school and the university classroom. At this point in the semester, classroom sessions are used to discuss class readings, the application of theories, and to refine lesson plans. The in-school program runs for eight 45-minute sessions over the course of two months, while the after-school program requires twice a week two-hour sessions throughout and beyond the semester.

At the end of both the in-school and after-school program, the final productions are edited and shown on the local cable access station. The children view their productions in their own classrooms, at a showing for parents, and at a screening at the university the following semester. All children involved in the project attend the screening, along with university students and faculty, and take a tour of the campus afterwards. In this manner, the institutional and the personal, the social and the cultural, interweave with one another—if not reciprocally, then at least at the level of recognition and, we hope, critical thought. Critical thinking is central to the project and the field trip: for the children to think about race as an idea created by people in power, for our own students to learn about social privilege as unearned benefit, rather than as a right and for all to gain the ability to take action as a result of this knowledge.

Thus, it is in the movement back and forth in the language we use to situate the personal and institutional, social, and cultural, that we might dislodge deficit discourses. Here, and without negating the political dimensions of unequal resources and underserved communities, we develop in our relationships with the school the ability to find assets and resources where only need, lack, and despair are expected. To do so, however, we must first examine the theoretical frameworks that undergird deficit discourses and constructions of assets.

Theoretical Framework
Deficit Discourses
Beyond the cliché that “language creates our reality,” we must look at the ways language creates our relationships to each other and the world. Our words are formed in context–in communication and community with others. Communication theorists often talk about the centrality of communication in learning, in making meaning of everyday life, and thus in constructing an identity for us and others. Cooks and Scharrer (2006) note that, “By situating learning in the relational and contextual processes through which people make meaning, we also are able to situate community service-learning as engaged practice—a practice that offers learning in situ through challenges to notions of power, identities, cultures, community and change” (p. 2). CSL scholars, too, have found that relationships often drive the learning and pedagogy of CSL (Shadduck-Hernandez, 2006), but these relationships do not exist in vacuum; rather, they are situated as “helping” or “serving” a need—one that often implies a deficiency. Likewise, critical race theorists (CRT) in education (Delgado, 1995; Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993) challenge the ways learning and education have been constructed in the interests of the dominant racial group in society. CRT also emphasizes the importance of the experiential knowledge of marginalized groups as sources of support in the classroom, and moreover as foundations for new epistemologies that celebrate, rather than suppress, alternative ways of knowing.

Deficit discourses often frame “problems” based in a hierarchical system of social capital, where some groups have inherently more resources than others. This conception of resources, and their relative lack or fulfillment, drives the model of social programs designed to address the ills of groups on the margins of society. More insidious, however, is the degree to which deficit language becomes the measure upon which marginalized groups are defined against white middle class society in the United States. Critical race theorists in education have posited four general theoretical models that make deficit discourses seem logical and natural and make critique of such ideas difficult: genetic determinist, cultural determinist, school determinist, and societal determinist. These generally accepted theories correlate easily to stereotypes prevalent in the media and society based on intelligence, physical appearance, and educational ability (genetic), and personality or character (cultural and societal). These stereotypes in turn inform and justify low expectations for educational ability and occupation which result in differential tracking and testing for students of color (Solórzano & Yosso, 2001; Yosso, 2002).

Yosso (2002) applies these general theories of deficit to the portrayal of Chicanos in the media, and especially media depicting schooling in the United States. She finds “overwhelming support for cultural deficit explanations of why the social and educational outcomes of Chicano/a students are unequal to those of whites” (p. 53). Notably, and although there are many strong connections between deficit discourses and the impacts on marginalized groups in U.S. society, the literature in this area rarely discusses the ways white students (well-intentioned or not) and CSL in general utilize this discourse in their attempts to remedy social problems, as well as among CSL scholars discussing the pedagogy of community, citizenship, and moral/ethical duty. Green (2001), for instance, observes that “for those of us at predominantly white institutions, service-learning raises particular issues of race that we need to theorize. … In addition, when we set up service-learning sites, we should consider what those sites represent to our students” (p. 25). For us, Green’s advice translates into the need for CSL pedagogy to situate itself in relation to its own assumptions about people of color, as well as the need to theorize and discuss race in general as a “white” problem. From this perspective, deficit discourses need to be addressed not only or primarily in communities of people of color but among white people who intend to work toward a more just society.

Critical pedagogical scholars, discussing the topic of race/ethnicity and inequality in schools, cite the need for critical inquiry into the role of institutions such as schools, the prison system, media, government, and transnational corporations in preparing and socializing student-citizens. These scholars note that expectations for educational and other kinds of achievement are often based on race, class, gender, and ability, and whether one is schooled accordingly. The pedagogy part of critical pedagogy lies in promoting (1) critical thinking: asking questions about “official knowledge” promoted in texts and in the written and unwritten rules of proper behavior and comportment; (2) critical self-awareness and group awareness and knowledge: understanding one’s location in society and the differing ways groups (one’s own and others) are named, categorized and represented; (3) student empowerment: taking students’ own (especially students from marginalized groups) experiences and questions as a basis for developing course material; and similarly (4) challenging the authority of the teacher as container of knowledge in order to create opportunities for more creative and democratic forms of learning. Certainly CSL and critical pedagogy share some of the same pedagogical goals, and both concern themselves with underserved communities. While critical pedagogy may provide the more radical and structural critique of schooling and social problems, both critical pedagogy and CSL often (unintentionally) frame communities as deficient. Whether discussing the need to liberate or empower students from marginalized communities (critical pedagogy) or working in the communities themselves, rarely does the pedagogy of either approach focus on the discourse of deficiency or lack, and how teachers, students, and community members might develop alternative narratives based on resources and strengths already present in the community and in the relationships among those involved in change.
Any approach to re-framing community deficiencies as assets could easily be critiqued as simply another way of ignoring real social problems and thus perpetuating the oppression of marginalized communities, but, as noted in the organizer’s workbook of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, asset-based community development (ABCD) is an entire philosophical approach to community development that requires a shift in the ways one approaches the process and product of this work. However, they also caution that the language of assets can be a code and a cover for the same old deficit frame that ignores the real strengths of the community—strengths not immediately apparent when quick intervention is the operating principle. So, given that CSL is not community development and does not necessarily share the same community-based priorities and goals, can CSL pedagogy and practice move from deficit-based discourses about community needs and service to asset-based approaches? In the following sections we explore this question and its potential application within the context of our own CSL media literacy project.

Asset Building
When surveying the landscape of social scientific thought regarding social problems and social needs, some scholars are critical of psychological diagnoses of social ills as well as interventions of social work based on neutral and standardized evaluation (Gergen, 1994; Huot, 2004; Robinson, 2000). Ludema (2000) observes that the language of critique (postmodernism), as well as that of problem solving (the tradition of social science) offers few alternative solutions and often leads to conditions of cynicism and hopelessness. Alternatively, Ludema (2000) posits that language can also be used to create vocabularies of hope (or, for our purposes, community assets) when members of organizations and communities are willing and able to work together cooperatively to explore deeply held values with a sense of agency and optimism about the future. They are not merely a code word for resources, Kretzmann and McKnight’s (1993) concentration on assets, while less focused on language per se, is similar in its emphasis on cooperation and optimism. Assets are the strengths and talents already present in communities that often go unrecognized in a server-client or needs-based framework. Assets are not merely a code word for resources, but are the result of a strategy that requires the identification of deeply held values and defining problems and developing solutions from within the community. This strategy, called asset-mapping by Kretzmann and McKnight, takes place on several levels, from personal relationships to those between and among institutions that impact the community. At each level, Kretzmann and McKnight outline a process for capacity building: (1) locating “primary building blocks” in the form of human and social capital (skills and talents of community members); (2) moving to secondary building blocks currently outside the purview of the community that might be used as resources; and (3) thinking of potential building blocks, such as children, whose strength could help sustain the community into the future.

Discussing asset building, Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) observe that “[I]f a community development process is to be asset focused, then it will be in very important ways ‘relationship driven’,” and that one of the central challenges for asset-based community developers is to constantly build and rebuild the relationships between community members and others to sustain partnerships and build capacity (p. 6). Indeed, relationships are central to making meaning: subjects create subjectivities—and objectify their others. If we are to move from deficit to asset-based discourse, we must examine our position in our narratives about members of the community, along with the language of the narrative itself.

Given these concerns, our research questions are as follows:
RQ1: How/did our talk about ourselves (cultural identities as well as our roles as students/educators) in the school and the project change from the first part of the semester to the latter half (as we worked in the school)?
RQ2: Can we make links between classroom and community discussions of deficit and asset discourses and asset mapping and actions taken (i.e. PSAs and other video productions, projects started or underway, etc.)? What language/stories characterized these projects?
RQ3: What are problems and possibilities of using asset mapping in a program that deals specifically with concepts of race, ethnicity, and nationality (specifically as it involves primarily white, middle, and upper middle class students working with a community vastly different from their own?)?
RQ4: What theoretical and practical implications might we draw from asset mapping to pedagogy for social justice and social change?

In the subsequent paragraphs we outline our data and methodology and analyze the data in response to the research questions.

Data and Methodology
Discourses jostle up against each other, fight and conspire together, influence and change each other; they make us and we make them—although they have usually started before we got on the scene and continue long after we have left (Gee, 2001).
Using critical race theory’s critique of deficit discourses, along with a view of schools and schooling as inherently political and often oppressive, we have a clear basis for a structural critique of teaching and learning as inherently biased. Less clear, however, are the ways we might use CSL as pedagogy for movement from deficit- to asset-based discourse. Kretzmann and McKnight provide (literally and figuratively) a map for community action, and other CSL scholars (Ludema, 2002; Shadduck-Hernández, 2006) have discussed the use of appreciative inquiry and situated learning theory, among other approaches to re-framing talk of communities. These approaches, while useful for our analysis, are limited in their lack of actual application in classroom or community contexts (although the theories are themselves grounded explicitly in discourse analysis). As a result, theorizing about how we might use pedagogy to move or change our ways of talking, teaching, and thinking about communities has not moved beyond the abstract.

How can we utilize our talk about our work in and out of the community, our relationships to classmates and community members, our course goals and assignments, what it means to do CSL to trace stories of deficit and/or asset, lack or presence of resources? The force of these stories as a theoretical lens still undergirds much of our pedagogy as well as our critique of the general conditions of injustice, and it is these overlaps and blurring of boundaries that become points of confusion and enlightenment. For these reasons, in this paper we examine the stories of our undergraduate students throughout the semester as we introduce the concepts of deficit discourses and asset mapping. We trace these ideas as they appear (or not) in the talk among the sixth graders with whom we worked, their teachers and principal, and in the public service announcements they made at the conclusion of our program.

Our data come from several sources: video of our class at the university, sessions at the middle school, interviews with our students, focus groups of our students, interviews and focus groups with the sixth graders, interviews with the sixth grade teachers, interviews with the first author and with the school principal (separately and together), along with a large compendium of videotaped class sessions, personal narratives, and interviews with the undergraduate, graduate, and middle school students participating in the after-school program. Due to the breadth and quantity of the materials we amassed during the course of the project, we focus in particular on stories about relationships as they emerged in discussions of the project: in our (teacher, students, and student-teacher) discussions about pedagogy, in the content of the program at the middle school, and in the subsequent reflections on the part of those involved. In addition to the video materials, we draw from sixth graders’ responses to surveys (pre and post) on the concepts of race, ethnicity, nationality, and media literacy, on undergraduate student journals, and on the class’ final projects for the semester.

In all, we logged over 125 hours of video-recorded material, 120 surveys from the in-school program, 15 surveys from the after-school program and 250 pages of written reflective and evaluative material. From this corpus, we center on relational talk in particular in part as a response to Cooks, Scharrer, and Paredes’ (2004) discussion of learning as a social and relational process in which selves and others are co-constructed, and of assessment of CSL (Cooks & Scharrer, 2006) as necessarily emphasizing the connectedness of language, power, identity, and relationship in the context of civic engagement. We use critical pedagogy and critical race theory as a framework for our analysis of deficit discourses and utilize cultural studies analysis and the narrative concept of position to make sense of the relational stories we found in our data.

Cultural studies scholars look at culture as a site of struggle, often using critical theory to problematize areas of popular cultural discourse that are viewed as common sense or as unremarkable by the dominant culture. Within CSL, cultural studies have been employed to critique the enthusiasm with which CSL has approached concepts of democracy, civic education, and community service—often without reflection on the disparate meanings and benefits these concepts have held for those on the margins of society (Abowitz, 1999; Jones, Maloy, & Steen, 1996; Shadduck-Hernández, 2006). While certainly CSL scholars have worked to be inclusive of diverse populations in their work, they have often done so at the exclusion of examining their own position relative to those they study. Research conducted from the perspective of the dominant group, be it with regard to racial, gender, class, or sexual identity, often fails to regard its own biases and exclusions, and more so the epistemological assumptions which frame what counts as teaching and research of and for the community.

While certainly not without its own faults and assumptions, cultural studies analysis offers one corrective through deliberative attention to media and everyday experiences that are mostly taken for granted. Cultural studies analysis builds from the concept of articulation, first elaborated by Hall (1980) and then extended to methodology by Slack (1996) and Halualani, Fassett, Warren, and Dodge (2006). Articulation was first defined by Hall (1980) as a “non-necessary correspondence” of terms that become common sense. For Slack (1996) for instance, articulation results in correlation of technology with modern society, civilization, and development. Closer to the goals of CSL, Halualani et al. (2006) examine the ways terms such as race and diversity are intimately connected in everyday talk, and yet lived as disparate realities. In this analysis, we use the concept of articulation and its deconstruction to analyze the movement or flow of discourses in the articulation of racial and ethnic identity. Terms such as race or ethnicity often articulate with deficit discourses in the talk of all constituencies involved in the project (including ourselves), and our interest is in the meaning and consequences of these articulations as well as the ways we moved toward or away from them in attempts to construct narratives about the community and its assets.

Our analysis focuses on stories told of relationships, and of the articulation of race or ethnicity within those stories. For instance, our own stories as co-teachers in the classroom often articulated race and ethnicity with whiteness and privilege—assets we wished to problemetize for the direct implications that such ideologies and identities might have on our project for their direct implications for our project. Although we share some CSL scholars’ concerns (Jones, Maly &, Steen, 1996; Shadduck-Hernandez, 2006) with sending white middle class students off into the community to work with underserved youth, we also believe that the project allowed those (primarily white) students to break the seemingly “natural” correspondence between race and the body of the nonwhite other. By teaching and talking about race/ethnicity and nationality, the white university students were illustrating race through their own bodies: by pointing back at themselves. The middle school students were then freed to explore race as an idea, which had been created and used as a marker of difference as deficit.

We now turn to our analysis of the data and of the project. We first look at the ways race, ethnicity, and nationality were articulated in our own pedagogy, as goals and as practice reflected in our syllabus and course plan and in the video documentation and students’ surveys and journals. Next, we extend our examination to the articulation of race in-relation-to the various constituencies involved in the project.

The Pedagogy of the Media Re-Envisioning Project
Our class, Media Literacy and Community Media Production, enrolled three graduate students and eleven undergraduate seniors and juniors. The course was designed to give students theoretical content via readings and discussion in several areas: community-based learning and social justice, whiteness and privilege, theories of race and racism, ethnicity, and nationality as socially constructed concepts, critical race theory in education (including deficit theory), and media literacy. Readings on standardized testing, educational policy and “failing schools,” and on Puerto Rican culture and communities were assigned. Lesson plans from previous groups were handed out, along with many samples of potential curricula. We also discussed basic skills in media production. The readings and class discussion centered on how various systems—of knowledge, power, and privilege, media and education—worked to frame the school and the children we were working with as deficient, and we discussed the role of communication in creating, maintaining, and perpetuating that frame. We mentioned the need to reflect on our own language, as well as the talk of those we were working with at the middle school. We asked students to create an initial asset map based on the information they had from readings, Internet research, and interviews with previous university students who participated in this program. Once the sessions began in the school, we reflected on the use of deficit/asset language in the narratives we told about our own experiences in the middle school, as well as those of the school children, teachers, and principal. The video-recorded interviews and focus groups with the in-school and after-school participants assisted us in this process. Recorded interviews with teachers and parents were used as supporting data for the use of deficit discourses.

Beyond our university class, our pedagogical efforts extended into the middle school as a relational teaching/learning process. The in-school program was coordinated with the sixth grade social studies class (five classes with a total of 65 students). The university students were assigned to the various classes (or tracks) of students—each of which represented their academic ability. On the other hand, the after-school program served students on a voluntary basis and was open to all grades in the middle school. The after-school program attracted students interested in media production. For the 15 students enrolled in the program, the focus on race, ethnicity, and nationality allowed them to address their invisibility in mainstream media through writing and producing their own stories and poetry. The after-school program ran for two hours, twice a week for approximately three and a half months. This program required supervision beyond the semester and so one instructor/author and a few dedicated students agreed to continue to meet with the children over the break.

In our work in the middle school we encountered several contradictions between an approach to education in our university courses that emphasized critical thinking and challenged the institutional power of schools and schooling and that of the middle school teachers who emphasized rules and regulation due to (they said) the chaos of the children’s everyday lives. Although we were careful to present a more complex picture of the relationship between teacher and students, initially the university students found the seemingly unrelenting discipline and emphasis on failure in the schools somewhat depressing. As they spent more time with the teachers and students however, they began to see more complicated relationships between teachers and curriculum, teachers and community (school community, parents, neighborhoods, etc.) and teachers and students. In their interviews with us, the teachers expressed optimism and despair, as well as a sense of genuine affection for the children along with a conflicting and conflicted sense of their potential.

As we assessed our pedagogy and the structuring of the university class, we found places of movement from discussing the school and students as “at-risk” to talking about it and us in more relational terms that connoted change. We observed in our (instructor) in-class stories later in the semester more discussion of the sixth graders’ creativity and humor, their pride in their ethnicity and nationality, and their concern and care for their community. Although the underside of these stories always loomed, we found little need to focus on the negative aspects of students’ experiences with school and community beyond their use as a basis for more creative ways of relating.

We also found places where we remained stuck in deficit models and re-positioning ourselves felt impossible. The purpose of the school program (media literacy) located us as critics of mainstream media and our focus on race, ethnicity, and nationality connected to this population placed the emphasis again on race as Other. Although we constantly reframed race in terms of white skin, we did not manage to escape the inevitable deficits that contextualized our work “in the community”. Still, while we discussed the label the state had given the school, “chronically underperforming,” and student scores on their standardized tests, we did so self-consciously. Whenever we used these discourses, we reflected on what they did and did not say. Of course, later in the semester as our time in the school grew, we were able to fill in these blanks and return to them differently. Although we discussed the language of both critique and “client” as framing the community as a problem or as a target for social change, we did not bi-polarize either as bad or good. Where Ludema (2000), among others, would have us do away with negative critique, we believe that such language is necessary for movement toward change. Likewise, where Robinson (2000), Abowitz, (2001), Jones, Maloy and Steen, (1996) and others feel that CSL pushes students away from radical action or advocacy on behalf of social change, we feel that students may or may not choose to use CSL experiences to motivate further action. If some of our students have gone on to advocacy roles in children’s non-profits and others have become teachers, should we be critical of the latter? Just as we can question the language of social problems and social change, so too should we reflect on the ways the language of critique often assumes only one form of advocacy toward justice.

Articulating Race through Dialectics of Deficit and Asset: Stories of Teaching and Identity
In the sections that follow we look at the articulation of race in the project and in stories told about the project. We transcribed and analyzed data from focus groups and interviews with university students, sixth graders, the principal of the school, several teachers who worked with the sixth graders, parents who attended the open house for the after- school program, as well as interviews with each other (co-authors/instructors). We also analyzed university student journals, surveys of the sixth graders in the in-school program, surveys from the after-school program, and the various projects of both the in-school and after-school program. Additionally, and after producing and editing footage from both programs, we held a field trip for the students to the university where they viewed their work and then took a tour of the campus. On the bus rides back to the middle school we asked the sixth graders for further feedback some six months after the program had ended.

From this vast array of data, we first highlighted terms based on their repetition within stories told about relationships. We checked our perceptions with each other and with our students and the teachers at the school. Then, within the narratives we looked closely at the ways race and ethnicity were articulated; that is, we paid attention to how these terms were associated with others and looked for any changes in those linkages. Although it is tempting to look solely at the ways deficiencies defined early on in the semester became assets once relationships were established, we found that actual interactions, whether in the classroom, middle school, or during the interviews, were often much more complex. Asking mostly white students to not only think about, but to talk about to community members in asset terms in a context where the community was/is the target of social change is difficult given the institutional knowledge and liberal politics that support such a structure. We, too, were wary of asset terms becoming an excuse to ignore the very real structural inequities that made the gap between the university and communities to its south seem worlds apart. On the other side, and documented in the research of Kretzmann and McKnight (1993), Solórzano and Yosso (2001), and Yosso (2002), community members themselves can and do speak of themselves in deficit terms—sometimes for strategic purposes but generally as a reflection of dominant (i.e. institutional) discourses about them.

Although race was articulated with many important concepts across our corpus of data, due to space limitations we focus here on two of the most common narratives: teaching and identity. The former was discussed more often by the university students and in our own stories; the latter spanned all groups we worked with and demonstrates well the dynamics of race, privilege, and critical community service-learning.

Teaching and Learning. In our analysis of the data, we found that “teaching” was often articulated early on in the semester with “knowledge” about race and racial identities—and “helping”. Several of the university students expressed some hesitancy about entering into a middle school of students who were so different from themselves racially, ethnically, or economically, and being able to teach them, much less talk to them, about race. As one student expressed in her journal, “I have to say that I am nervous about going to the middle school. I don’t feel that I have much to say about race: I’m a white girl; that’s about it.” Responding to these sentiments, a student of color in the class later reflected on her nervousness about

teaching earlier in the semester: “If they don’t get it [the links between racial oppression and everyday actions of well-intentioned white people] then I am worried about what happens when they go in to teach the kids.” Teaching about race, for this student, was linked to self-knowledge, a theme that connected the discourse of the three students of color in the class.

From a critical perspective, the articulation of teaching with knowledge indicated an association of teaching with knowledge of race and ethnicity as facts to be obtained and contained. Consistent with the distancing that whites often experience with the concept of race (i.e., as something possessed by “others”), the white university students felt that to teach the younger students they must first and foremost be able to define race as objectively as possible. While certainly we instructors emphasized preparation in our class sessions, we also were careful to displace race— making the concept personal to white people in general and our class in particular. Data from our own interviews and our emails showed that teaching in our own discourse was often linked to learning in and from the community. Despite our efforts to differentiate between helping the community and working with them, several students continued to mark achievement in terms of changing the sixth graders’ lives. As another student later commented:

I thought it was interesting the last discussion we had in class … a lot of people [early in the semester] were having expectations that they were to go in and change the school and save the kids. … I think that the work we are going in to do there with them is planting seeds and really important seeds. You are not going to necessarily walk away like you have saved a child. … I don’t think that should be an expectation … .

The discourse of “helping” can be seen as a reflection of race and class privilege, one that makes assumptions about communities of color as deficient and in need of correction. Green (2001) argues that where mainly white students perform service among mostly people of color, they must “unlearn” their “largely white middle class biases” (p. 19). Like many of our students later in the project, the experience of “working with” the younger students allowed the student quoted above to see through the stereotypes and misperceptions that the school is deficient and the students within its corridors are victims or problems.

In later reflections on the programs by the university students, teaching was linked to the experience of learning about race and ethnicity from the sixth graders. As one student commented about the course and project, “everyone was a teacher in that class and everyone was a student.” Another student agreed, noting that it was,

Everyone learning together … contributed to the atmosphere that this class had. … [I]t did not feel like anyone had all the answers and that was at first a scary feeling I think.… But ultimately I think that is what made it the most honest and truly beneficial and organic experience.

Although the sixth graders and after school program participants did not reflect on teaching per se in their interviews, our follow up conversations with the students during their field trip sixth months later revealed that they saw themselves as teachers of their peers, their siblings, and parents about stereotyping in the media and about media production. Thus for these students as well, teaching and learning became intertwined and enriched the experience of both. Although the movement of deficit and asset discourses was not always clearly delineated in discourses about race and teaching or teaching about race, the actions taken in the creation and filming of the public service announcements and in the creative projects of the after school program revealed that the creation and production of content dealing with race and identity for a presumably sympathetic audience led to discussions and representations of assets within the community and in the students themselves.

Identity. Given the nature of our CSL course, the program in the middle school, and of the characteristics of deficit and asset-based discourses, identity (and racial identity in particular) was a central theme throughout the data. As the dominant narrative around which the project and the course was situated, it is important to locate racial identity discourses in relation to an asset-based ideal of change from the inside out (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). In the student narratives, change from deficit to asset discourses was associated with subject or object position in relation to the narratives about racial identities. Early in the semester, several of the white students related that although they knew they had white skin they did not identify with a white race. When asked to write about and discuss their first encounters with racial identification, they told stories that displaced race from their own bodies and onto the bodies of those who were racially marginalized. Others distanced themselves from race all together and became quite upset at arguments in favor of recognizing racial differences and the histories behind them. A few of the students insisted on the moral and spiritual basis of their advocacy for equality in a colorblind society (to the point of long emails and discussions after class), when

nothing had been said about the particular ethical rightness or wrongness or their point of view. They seemed troubled by their sense that we instructors were not attempting to empower all people on an equal basis. These views also reflected a particular centering and de-centering of themselves as invisible subjects in narratives of racial identity. If centered as the subject (the one who points out) and to race of the narrative of first encounter, then whites can distance themselves from the objects (the one pointed to) in the story. In this manner, they see themselves as neither gaining nor losing in stories about racial identity.

Later in the semester, however, some students told of uncovering their own biases and discovering whiteness as an unearned asset. In his final journal, one student, who had been an outspoken “savior’ of the downtrodden youth of Holyoke, reported that:

Though I lack the hatred and malice often associated with this word, I am guilty,  at least to some degree, of the ignorance implicit in being a racist. By not understanding; acknowledging, even, my own place in the racial discourse; my own whiteness; by blindly assuming that I was aware of the challenges facing subordinate groups in our society without ever working to truly understand them—in these subtle, seemingly inert ways I came to be as I am. Now that I have seen the whole picture, though, I will never allow myself to ignore it again.

Although it would be easier to look for—and find—language that moved from deficit to asset in all the talk about racial identities as the semester progressed, actual interaction around these topics never moves in such a linear fashion. What we found in the children’s talk, alternatively, was that deficit and assets could be located in the same stories—and in some cases (as in the afterschool poetry project and in their public service announcements discussed below) one became the other. The after-school program poetry project resulted in poems about where the middle school students were from. Most of the poems reflected cultural foods, stories from their childhoods in places like Puerto Rico, the Bronx, and the local communities of Springfield and Holyoke. The poems were beautifully articulated expressions of sandy beaches of Puerto Rico, bustling streets of New York, and locating themselves through deep experiences of joy and pain. One such poem from a young girl spoke of being “from her dead cat Princess” and another from “church music” and “missionary work” of her parents. We then asked the students to read or recite their poems several times on camera during a field trip to some of the sites they had mentioned as important to them with another student usually doing the video work and another working the sound. While the creation of the poems opened up new vocabularies for expressing the assets of their communities, the expression of this poetry to a wider audience (cable access television and a university screening) seemed to heighten the middle school students’ feelings of deficiency. Several of the poems were mumbled, with the students looking down or away from the camera. It was as if the sights and sounds of their community recreated as beautiful or at the least as more complexly significant in their poetry might become lost in translation simply as deficiencies.

Countering the opposition between critical analysis and discourses of hope (Ludema, 2000), the final projects from the sixth graders in the in-school program, demonstrate the need for both. One group of sixth graders rapped about stereotypes, and offered:

People think that if I am Puerto Rican I know how to fix cars. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I know how to run an industry. I could be a teacher at [our] school teaching history. Just ’cause I’m black doesn’t mean I own a gun. Just ’cause I’m a youth doesn’t mean I’d be shooting up for fun. Just because I am Mexican doesn’t mean I know how to run a bar.

Chorus: White rice, black dice are both nice/Peace and love are both the same and none of us should be ashamed/ Color doesn’t mean/Our personality is an easy thing/Try to talk to one another/ No violence or pain. Leave with a friend come back with a homey/The person is not a phony/So let there be color and everything is rosy dozy.

And a middle school principal said:

I have found critical media literacy and particularly questions on race and ethnicity really valuable because our teachers are differently skilled in integrating conversations like that, and overall there are limited opportunities because of curriculum to really address both those questions of media and its impact. Being able to read it and secondly, to think about it systematically to think about questions of race and racism, race and ethnicity.


Our study evolved out of the research questions posed earlier based on deficit and asset discourses, the examination of language as it pertains to the classroom and community action work, and our own pedagogy with regard to critical theory, social justice, and community service-learning. Addressing the first research question, we found that (the university students and our own) talk about race and our talk about teaching shifted in the course of the semester. For the white students, it seemed that many became more reflexive about deficits and assets based on privileges and social inequities. Both the in-school and the after-school projects helped to establish relationships among the university and middle school students and with the teachers in the school, and this seemed to promote easier access to assets and to discussion of the same in the middle school and in our own classroom. Telling stories, rather than reciting facts about poverty and school failure, helped bridge the gap between our (and their) bodies and the reality of racial identity. The second and third research questions delved into the links between asset-based language and asset-based action in the community. As mentioned earlier, the opportunity to engage in the creative work of re-presenting stories of identity and community within the contexts of our partnership moved us away from discourses of deficiency and abstractly negative critique and toward restorative critical thinking. That is, we asked questions and had discussions about how we might re-envision race, ethnicity, identity, and community in the contexts of our relationships. The third question asked specifically about the problems and possibilities of using asset mapping in a program that deals with concepts of race, ethnicity, and nationality. We found that teachers and the principal of the middle school emphasized deficit discourses in their stories about the children, their families, neighborhood, and struggles in the school. However, we also discovered openings for resistance to these stories in their interest in and response to the children’s creative projects and in our own commitment to partnering with the school over the years. Where the children could easily recite all the stereotypes of students who went to their middle school (drop outs, poor, deviant, criminals, over sexualized, etc.), they knew also that the combination of their own stories and the platform of community media could educate a wider public.

In response to our fourth research question, regarding directions for CSL pedagogy, we hope that this essay contributes to the growing dialogue on moving from deficit- to asset-based discourse through complicating this shift as neither precisely one or the other, and by looking at the ways such meanings (deficit or asset) as formed in relation to and in relationship with others inside and outside our communities. Although it is perhaps a bit simplistic, we take from this study a pedagogical emphasis on three R’s: Relationship, reflexivity, and realism. By relationship, we emphasize centering our teaching on the ways we create meanings for identity (and everything else) in relation to others. Reflexivity means looking at the ways discourses (like those about race) point both toward and away from ourselves as subjects/objects. Focusing on the actual movement of discourse complicates the divisions between deficit and asset, along with the subjects and objects of such discourses. Lastly, and in terms of pedagogy, realism refers to the connections between a critical analysis of material inequities in social life and the hope embedded in everyday and mundane acts of human creativity.

Indeed, it is simply the strength of the relationships built during the projects that adds depth, complexity, and interdependence to our discussions in the classrooms on the college campus and the middle school as well as faith that things will not go careening out of control and everyone will be better off in the end. Calderón (2003) argues “the connections between the classroom and community based learning are all about translation”—about looking for ways to get students to “understand communities outside of themselves and to become engaged interpreters” (p. 22). In this fashion, we find that it is in those moments of self- and other-recognition as well as the realization that deficits do not reside in people or in communities but are mobilized in discourse that are central to the pedagogy of asset building in relationships and in communities.


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About the Authors

Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz is an assistant professor and Leda M. Cooks is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Educator Examines Tools to Engage Communities in Classrooms

Reviewed by Samantha Basile

Inviting Families into the Classroom: Learning from a Life in Teaching. Lynne Yermanock Strieb. Teachers College Press: New York, NY, 2010, 240 pages. ISBN 978-0-8077-5082-7

How can teachers create safe spaces for students to engage in their own education while exploring their individuality, embracing diversity, and celebrating community? What tools can educators, administrators, and policy-makers use to establish trust and encourage continuous improvement in schools? Chronicling over 30 years of one teacher’s experience as a parent, activist, and teacher, Strieb adds a new dynamic to existing academic studies of families and communities. A cross between an academic longitudinal study, an insider’s view into the classroom, and pragmatic toolkit, Inviting Families into the Classroom transparently shows why and how family involvement in schools has enhanced Strieb’s experience as a teacher and learner, a point substantiated by decades of research (Epstein & Sanders, 2009; Laureau, 1987; Leichter, 1978). Strieb’s work is an essential read for educators, researchers, and policy makers who wish to learn how to bridge classrooms and communities to make teaching and learning more meaningful. Over the course of the book, Strieb shares valuable tools for her reader through meticulously documented case studies and reflective analysis that models successes and challenges to integrating families and communities into her classroom.

Starting with a view into her personal life in Chapter 1, Strieb adds depth by discussing how her childhood experience as the daughter of a working class immigrant family influenced her life as a student, parent, activist, and teacher. Growing up, Streib experienced a large gap between her family and school lives. With these experiences as a foundation from the beginning of her teaching career, Streib consistently modeled an unwavering commitment to the education, safety, and well-being of children as she actively worked to find creative ways to make families an integral part of her classroom community.

In Chapter 2, Strieb introduces and explains how she constructs and sends regular newsletters to parents; through this example, she shows how classroom newsletters can move beyond simple fill-in-the-blank memos to become a powerful platform for communication between teachers and parents. By Strieb’s description of the newsletter and her experience with it, the reader learns about its effectiveness in building connections and setting expectations between students, teachers, and parents. Educators, and even administrators, could follow Strieb’s example of sending regular, personalized newsletters home to update parents on classroom activities and invite them to join in.
Building upon relationships and communication established with parents through her newsletters, in Chapter 3 Strieb discusses her personally conflicted views on homework and the challenge of aligning this work with parental, school, and district expectations. Citing cases of too much or too little parental involvement, the capacity for homework to exacerbate existing student disadvantages, and the stress it creates for families, her only conclusion is that the teacher is ultimately responsible for a student’s learning. Integrating notes from parents and her own journal about the touchy subject of homework, the reader is encouraged to reflect on his or her own ideas or policies on homework and what it means for the child’s education.

In Chapters 4, 5, and 6 Strieb advocates for understanding and managing student behavior through family involvement in the classroom while recognizing challenges that do exist. When a parent’s promise of revamping the annual gingerbread house class project by making individual sleighs becomes disastrous, Strieb reflects on how they could have improved communication in order to set realistic expectations in the future. This experience is juxtaposed with the synergy created when Bobbie, a helpful aunt and community member, volunteers to help with organizing classroom materials, cleanup, and hands-on projects; Strieb feels more at ease with classroom management and has more space to focus on content. Acknowledging that family involvement can and must take different forms and address different kinds of issues, when young Jalil returns to the classroom with bruises following a conversation about his disruptive behavior with his father, Strieb discusses the parameters of parent-teacher communication and shows when it is hurtful instead of helpful. Adding nuance to works like Canter’s Assertive Discipline: Positive Behavior Management for Today’s Classroom (2010), she reasserts her conviction that the teacher is ultimately responsible for establishing a safe space for children and hopes that teachers reflect on the best way for families to engage in classrooms.

Streib also discusses her experience with Parent Scholars (established through President Johnson’s Project Follow Through from 1967 to 1995) by showing how and why teachers can capitalize on parental involvement and incorporate applicable perspectives into her practice. When she invites multi-lingual parents and guardians from varied socio-economic backgrounds into the classroom, Strieb also shows how parental involvement can be a key element to connecting students with the variety of communities of which they are a part. In a most memorable illustration, a parent (truck driver by profession) shares his passion for hair cutting with the class by cutting his own child’s hair in front of all the students. Through illustrative case studies Inviting Families into the Classroom shows how parental involvement can cut through socio-economic barriers, increase inter-racial understanding, challenge stereotypes, and provide a foundation for communication that adds to each child’s learning experience.

Strieb’s reflections in Chapter 7 provide the basis for an analysis of her roles as parent activist, teacher, and community member and serve to illustrate the importance of documentation, while showing her dedication to excellence in her responsibilities as a teacher. Her innovative practice of collaborating with parents and teachers to conduct descriptive reviews provides a model to educators and administrators on how to approach student and classroom difficulties. Inviting Families into the Classroom suggests ways to approach diversity in a more institutional way and how administrators can make the school environment more warm and welcoming to families. Finally, Strieb’s letters to administrators to change discriminatory policies at local schools and analysis of “what she could have done differently” as a new and veteran teacher provide concrete examples of how to approach the effective practice of inviting families into the classroom through taking a stand on social and community issues. Although all of her suggestions, like cooking or bringing living animals into the classroom, may not be relevant in all environments, her steadfast commitment to all children’s learning invites interpretation on how to best execute them.

Providing an inside look into over 30 years of teaching, this book serves as a significant tool that is both pragmatic, innovative, and reflective for the use of new and seasoned educators, administrators, and policy-makers.

Putting the work to use in this era of ever-advancing classroom technology, online learning, and other forms of distance learning is only a small challenge that educators could face. Streib’s model can be used as an educational framework, constantly reminding us of the importance of human connection and interaction inside and outside the classroom. Teachers, researchers, university faculty, and education policy-makers can add this tool to their arsenal of teaching resources as a base from which to create innovative platforms that connect families and educators. Additionally, mentors can use Streib’s work to show new teachers how to build a positive classroom atmosphere, professionally communicate with parents, and as a launching point for the essential conversation of how to create relationships with new communities.

Throughout the book her educational philosophy is clear and consistent: In order for teachers to fulfill their responsibility to ensure that all students learn, communication with the entire school community is essential. Inviting Families into the Classroom models how teachers can capitalize on parent, student, administrator, and community knowledge and skills in a safe, inviting, and supportive environment conducive to improve teaching and learning. As such, this book would be a helpful resource for community-based researchers, educational activists, and policy-makers trying to create bridges between family and school life. It is also extremely appropriate for new, mid-career, and mentor teachers seeking to implement and improve community-based strategies within their own school communities.

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Epstein, J.L., & Sanders, M.G. (2006). Prospects for change: Preparing educators for school, family, and community partnerships. Peabody Journal of Education, 82(2), 81–120.

Lareau, A. (1987). Social class differences in family-school relationships: The importance of cultural capital. Sociology of Education, 60(2), 73–85.

Leichter, H. (1978). Families and communities as educators: Some concepts of relationship. Teachers College Record, 79(4), 567–658.

About the Reviewer
Samantha Basile is an educator and specializes in languge and literacy. Basile completed masters’ degrees at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2008 and at Teachers College Columbia University, 2011.

Two-Volume Set Offers Sage Advice for Those Doing Research on Service-Learning

Reviewed by George L. Daniels

Research on Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Assessment: Students and Faculty. (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research, Volume 2A). Patti H. Clayton, Robert G. Bringle, and Julie A. Hatcher, Editors. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013, 337 pages. ISBN 978-1-57922-341-0

Research on Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Assessments: Communities, Institutions, and Partnerships. (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research, Volume 2B). Patti H. Clayton, Robert G. Bringle, and Julie A. Hatcher, Editors. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013, 332 pages. ISBN 978-1-57922-884-2.

Is there a right way or a wrong way to do service learning research? What are the necessary ingredients of a good study that adds something meaningful to the body of knowledge on experiential learning? Who should be the real beneficiaries of a solid piece of service learning scholarship? These are questions addressed in the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship since the very first issue (Johnson, Johnson, & Shaney, 2008). Most recently, these are some of the questions the authors of a brand new two-volume set probe in their in-depth treatment and exploration of the field.

Part of the IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research, the two volumes of Research on Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Assessment were produced with the intent of improving service learning scholarship through strengthening its theoretical base. The volumes followed an initial book in the series that was dedicated to international service learning and produced by scholars in the Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis Center for Service and Learning. In Volume 2A the authors present eight chapters on service learning research related specifically to students and faculty. In Volume 2B, eight more chapters are devoted to community development and the institutionalization of service learning. The latter volume also devotes three chapters to conceptualizing and measuring the quality of various partnerships. Even though they were produced as a two-volume set, readers could purchase either volume and still get a complete experience, as both volumes open with the same two chapters defining the criteria for quality research.

Many of the authors who contributed chapters to both volumes, like the editors of the set, are a virtual “Who’s Who” in the field of service learning and engagement scholarship. From Andrew Furco and Barbara Holland’s chapter on improving research on service learning institutionalization, to KerryAnn O’Meara’s treatment of faculty motivations for service learning, to Kevin Kecskes’ chapter on what an engaged academic unit should look like and Emily Janke’s how-to on advancing theory-based research on organizational partnerships, readers can be assured they are hearing from leaders in the field. However, that doesn’t mean newer or lesser-known scholars are excluded. Whether a leading scholar in the field or a researcher in the early stage in his/her career, the contributors all came together in 2009 in an IUPUI symposium. The result is an integrated set of chapters that complement one another in a way that is ideal for the service learning novice. In fact, this review is written from the perspective of one who is evolving as a service learning researcher and is seeking guidance on the best way to contribute to the body of knowledge in the interdisciplinary fields of service learning and civic engagement.

One of the biggest strengths of both volumes is that they assume nothing more than the reader’s desire to make such a contribution, starting with defining the very terms themselves—“service learning” and “research.” For something to be considered research, the authors say, a convergence of theory, measurement, design, and practice is required. Research, then, is not the same as evaluation because the former is conducted to generate or test theory, apply to practice, and contribute to knowledge for the sake of knowledge, whereas the latter is only a component of the process. Service learning research can be mistaken for program evaluation, which generally does not test theory and lacks generalizability because it is primarily concerned with the data and inferences from a single program or effort. How many times have we seen a “study” on a service learning class that, while useful in the assessment of that course, was not really research, as these volumes make clear?

Another strength of Volume 2 is the depth of treatment on what some of the goals of our service learning research should be: impact on academic learning, influence on students’ civic learning, personal development, and intercultural competence. For example, in Communication and Diversity, a course this reviewer teaches, significant time is spent conceptualizing what it means to live and produce media messages in a diverse society.

Elsewhere, O’Meara (2010) has argued for a “new script” when it comes to reward systems for engaged scholars that are more public and more growth-focused. In a chapter in the first volume of this set, O’Meara reviewed the numerous studies on the motivations for faculty doing research on service learning and community engagement. The synthesis on this scholarship resulted in a conceptual model that includes inputs, processes, and outcomes of such research. Her analysis suggested that three common methods for research in the specific area of faculty reward system were quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews, and narrative analysis. New scholars in the field can take O’Meara’s analysis and not only situate themselves (and their own motivations for what they do) in the field, but also blaze a new path methodologically and conceptually in developing a research project. This shows how one can really put the chapters in these two volumes to work.

A couple of years ago, Kevin Kecskes, based on his decade in the provost’s office at Portland State University, acknowledged that engaged scholars have to wage our own public relations campaign to tell our story to those in our institution that engagement scholarship not only has to meet all the rigors of traditional scholarship, but also has to have applicable value and relevance to community or public issues while advancing disciplinary knowledge and public knowledge (Kecskes, 2013). Here in the second volume of Research on Service Learning, Kecskes outlines one way to start that public relations campaign by researching the academic department as a locus of change in the service learning and community engagement movement in higher education. By utilizing organizational change or institutional theory, one can show the key role of an academic unit in institutionalizing change toward community engagement. He noted that cultural theory can provide researchers with a framework to consider the diversity of community-campus partnership-building arrangements.

For anyone seeking to conduct research or program evaluation on a service learning course, this Research on Service Learning two-volume set is a must-have for starting to conceptualize what the project will be. The completeness and currency of the volumes make either or both of them appropriate as a textbook for an engagement scholarship graduate course or a guide for research on civic engagement. Community partners interested in how academic research is done, especially on community-based research, could also benefit from Research on Service Learning as the writing is very accessible to the layperson.

Johnson, P.D., Johnson, P.W., & Shaney, N. (2008). Developing contemporary engineering skills through service learning in Peru. Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 1(1), 81–84.

Kecskes, K., & Foster, K.M. (2013). Fits and starts: Visions for the community engaged university. Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 6(2), 102–113.

O’Meara, K. (2010). Rewarding multiple forms of scholarship: Promotion and tenure. In H.E. Fitzgerald, C. Burack, & S.D. Seifer (Eds.). Handbook of Engaged Scholarship: Contemporary Landscapes, Future Directions. Volume 1: Institutional Change (pp. 271-293) East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

About the Reviewer
George L. Daniels is an assistant dean in the College of Communication and Information Sciences and associate professor of journalism at The University of Alabama.

Student Voices: Arriving as Strangers, Welcomed as Friends: Student Reflections on Mindsets, Equity, and Partnerships in International Service-Learning

Nicholas Allen, Rachel Boots, Michael Bugas, Arianna Parsons and Robert Swap

We began as a group of students interested in conducting a service-learning project in rural South Africa. As we prepared, we quickly found ourselves exposed to a broad range of literature and personal testimony regarding campus-community engagement that ranged from glowing praise to outright criticism (Butin, 2010; Handler, 2013). While we had been educated about the importance of student mindsets, equity in the engagement, and long-lasting relationships, we still found ourselves faced with the uncertainties of working with people whom we did not know well, in a place we did not know well, with a project where we were not experts. Furthermore, we were deeply concerned with whether we should even attempt to conduct an international service-learning project for fear of potentially causing harm to the community.

In preparation for a service-learning project focused on implementing an improved design for wood-burning cook stoves, known as Rocket Stoves, in the rural Limpopo Province of South Africa, the team became aware of the importance of process in service-learning and community engagement. Team members were taught that underlying all engagements were the fundamental tenets of respect, reciprocity, and relationship. The team members had been exposed to the notion that real world challenges know no disciplinary boundaries and that such challenges required a diverse knowledge base to arrive at appropriate approaches. Coursework had made the team aware of the value of multiple forms of knowledge, existing both inside and outside academic settings. Most formal courses stress that knowledge outside of the academy, while present, was often silent and only exchanged between the community, faculty, and students after the practice of responsible engagement with the community had been demonstrated (Chambers, 1983). We came to see that the lack of respect for and exchange of knowledge between community and the project team could result in ineffective service-learning and community engagement project outcomes. Near the end of the stateside project preparation, our student team came to comprehend the protocols of service-learning as a type of etiquette around the process of engagement as people first, process second, and product third.

We have seen firsthand that any other focus can lead to highly product-driven, individualistic mindsets. We understand how easy it can be to fall into the trap of seeing one’s education as a linear process designed for corporate readiness, an education that places a strong emphasis on results, rather than on the process of learning how to learn and think for oneself. Such observations are consistent with the views of scholars such as Hirschman (1986), who have found that these highly individualistic mindsets reinforce self-centered interest behavior and run counter to collaboration and engagement. With these economistic, product-first mindsets, it follows that students, more often than not, undertake service-learning projects to produce a tangible product. This “get the job done” mentality tends to focus on project rather than people and process (Brown-Glazner, Gutierrez, & Heil, 2009). Our courses had impressed upon us that such approaches can lead to extractive, asymmetrical, student-community engagements, which over time may make communities less receptive to entertaining outsiders (Sandy & Holland, 2006; Clayton, Bringle, Senor, Huq, & Morrison, 2010; Nelson & Klak, 2013).

During project preparation we were taught that the community voice often goes unheard during project planning and implementation, all while the campus service-learning team works toward its predetermined goals. Little if any thought is given to the principle of equity and engaging all stakeholders from the inception of the proposed activity (Sandy & Holland, 2006). It is as if the community is there to serve the students and their project, in spite of the stated purpose to learn from and serve the community. The principles of respect, reciprocity, and relationship can be overlooked, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in engagement between outsiders (the students and faculty) and insiders (the community). Too often, as noted by Clayton et al. (2010), this can result in extractive relationships that lead to ongoing dependencies within the community long after the service-learning engagements are completed.

As undergraduates from the United States, we were accustomed to pursuing the most efficient and effective approach to group work in order to produce the best product. We entered the planning phase of this project with the intellectual awareness instilled by service-learning and community engagement-focused courses. Even so, we had to fight against the notion of racing through the process of checking off items on a list of pre-departure requirements; we tried not to succumb to “walking fast by walking alone”1 during the preparation process. While we had heard the proverb that stressed the importance of walking far by walking together, there were many uncertainties as to how this implementation would occur. By adhering to our people-first principle, we relied on this method to ensure we could effectively engage with the rural South African communities.

With this as the backdrop, an interesting thing happened upon the arrival of the student team in the rural setting of the Limpopo Province; the team was greeted by the community not as a group of imposing strangers, as the team had feared, but received warmly, almost as friends. The larger community was there to welcome the team with an opening reception at the local primary school. Furthermore, at the completion of the reception, staff from the primary school invited the student members of the team to their homes and hosted them for the duration of the stay. We, as members of the student team, did not expect to receive the degree of hospitality from the community that we experienced. Such a warm welcome helped alleviate some of our trepidation. With all that was occurring at that time, the team did not have the opportunity to reflect on much of anything, let alone the welcome, its significance, and what had prompted it.

The time for reflection would present itself after returning home and to campus the following fall. During that first semester back, the student team participated in a group independent study to reflexively process the experience. One of the most challenging aspects of this process was understanding exactly how the team, comprised primarily of relatively young students, could enter a close-knit community as almost complete strangers, and yet be welcomed as friends. This reaction seemed counter to experiences of many student groups involved in international service-learning community engagement that critics have noted, leaving our group to reflect upon why was this our experience. Was this purely cultural or was there something else, something deeper that the team was not aware of? The team’s first inkling that this might have been something deeper came from the realization that the initial spirit of collaboration continued both during and after our time in the region.

As we began the process of post-field reflection, we sought to comprehend our experience and quickly focused on what we found to be three key aspects of service-learning community engagement: the role of our mindsets as students, the role of equity in partner participation in these activities, and the role of facilitative relationships. Throughout formal (in class) and informal (outside of class) educational activities to prepare for this project, the concept of maintaining a “beginner’s mind” was constantly reinforced. While we had heard this concept countless times prior to departure and had understood it in the abstract, it was not until having lived it in the field during the project that this concept actually made sense in practice. A concrete example of this was when one of the local artisan members of our team came up with several solutions to challenges that the team faced. As it turned out, the protective roofing structures that originally covered the first generation of stoves were not as durable as they needed to be. At first we looked to merely replace the roofs with a similar design; however, we listened to a solution that was offered from one of the least likely members of our team, the artisan from another province, who had joined us to learn about these stoves. His suggestion was to go with a metal frame that was easily sourced, highly durable, and that could be maintained in a cost-effective fashion by members of the local community. Without his help, we could have easily gone with a solution that would have created further economic and logistical burdens for the community. Upon further reflection back home, we realized that if we had not placed the emphasis on entering into this engagement process with a “beginner’s mind” as learners, there was a very real risk of the student team adopting a product-oriented mindset that might have allowed us to accomplish our goals efficiently, but would have possibly harmed engagement with the community.

The original student effort to design and construct modified wood burning stoves in this area of the Limpopo Province took place over a nearly two-year period (2008-2010) and is detailed elsewhere (de Chastonay, Bugas, Soni, & Swap, 2012). While that original effort was in response to the stated needs of the Mashamba Primary School located within the larger community, a broader community engagement around the stoves emerged through the process of collaboration and knowledge exchange. This engagement was defined as one in which more members of the community were able to have their voices heard, and one in which the undergraduate students were able to step to the side for full community ownership.

As part of the ongoing efforts of an international program involving faculty, practitioners, students, and communities associated with different African and U.S. institutions of higher learning known as the Eastern/Southern African Virginia Networks and Associations2 (ESAVANA) study abroad activities, two of our own student team members traveled to Mashamba in 2011, a year after the first stove was constructed. These new students had the opportunity to observe the original stove and learn that two more had been built by the school on their own initiative. These new students were also able to interact with school staff, teachers, and administrators (de Chastonay et al., 2012). More importantly, they were able to see the increased community interest around the original implementation, interest that had spread well beyond the Mashamba community. As learners within the larger context of the ESAVANA study abroad program, the new students were able to interact under the umbrella of the larger relationship without imposing upon school stakeholders and local community members to the degree that a relatively unknown student group outside of the context of these longstanding relationships would. These interactions led to dialogues between the community and the ESAVANA study abroad participants, around the emergence of additional student energies to expand the implementation of appropriate wood-stove technology. These conversations led to brainstorming sessions to improve upon the design so as to have the outcomes desired by the community. Upon their return to their home campus, these new students pursued additional coursework and devoted the next year to developing ideas for a project plan. The student team utilized the existing, facilitative relationships between faculty, practitioners, community members, and students from the U.S. and South Africa to collaborate with Mashamba stakeholders and to incorporate their expressed concerns regarding the first generation of the modified wood burning cook stoves. With the voice of the community front and center in the design process, the student team iteratively developed a proposal for implementing additional stoves with the collaboratively improved stove design.

This iterative process of consultation and engagement over a prolonged period, facilitated a community of trust between the team and the community. A pivotal aspect of this project partnership was the utilization of asset-based community development (ABCD) (Kretzman & McKnight, 1993). Using this approach that sought to recognize and engage the strengths and expertise inherent in the community, the team created space and opportunities for local community members to enter into the project. Our desire was to create the opportunity for both parties—researchers from the outside and community members from the inside—to capitalize on available resources and leverage off of each other’s strengths to yield a more feasible, resilient, and sustainable outcome. First, knowledge was exchanged regarding the impact of the first generation of modified Rocket Stoves. Knowledge concerning the stoves’ performance and suggestions for improvements were exchanged between the key stakeholders, the cooking staff at the school, and the students seeking to improve upon original implementation. Second, all stakeholders had the opportunity to comment on and contribute to the evolving design during the project-planning phase. Over the course of six months prior to departure, the student team demonstrated due diligence in following up on these expressed concerns through communications with the other project stakeholders, faculty, community mentors, and local craftsmen. Such communication allowed for the collaborative identification of other individuals with the necessary expertise to complete the team. These included skilled craftsmen, local teachers, community development practitioners, and students from the local university. The project team’s intentions were to account for and recognize the assets that both the community (knowledge of how the stoves work in practice and more importantly how they do not work, construction skills, etc.) and the student researchers (energy, passion, openness to learn) brought to bear on this project, so that all parties would have a sense of equity and, therefore, joint ownership in this project.

This trust was further deepened by the actions of the project team that included being part of the community. Team members demonstrated their commitment to being present in and part of the community by living within the community with the school’s teachers, holding open meetings to foster discussion, and engaging in transparent dialogue among stakeholders. While participating in these activities, the project team was approached with and responded to additional requests by the community. Sometimes these requests fell outside of the initial project scope, such as the need for cultural exchange events and computer classes for teachers. and the nature of the requests left the team feeling overwhelmed and helpless at times. However, upon further reflection, the student team came to understand this sharing of requests beyond the nature of the project as a demonstration by the community of a certain level of comfort and trust with the project team. More importantly, the way forward for the stove project may not have been possible without that level of trust and comfort between the students and the community, a trust whose solid foundation had already been established by these longer-term relationships. We came to see that the ongoing personal, professional, and institutional relationships, when combined with an open mind when responding to these requests, helped to create a stronger community of trust and more resilient partnership between student and community.

The team also came to realize that the ability to conduct this project emerged from more than just the initiative of the students and their collaboration with the community; it was also due in part to a combination of personal, professional, and institutional relationships developed over nearly two decades. While intellectually the student team had known the existence and importance of the existing partnerships beyond the original student stove project, it was not until having returned and reflecting upon this further that the team came to appreciate more fully the power of those existing partnerships. As part of the reflection process, we came to understand that the community of trust that we had become a part of had at its roots the shared, lived experiences of at least two large-scale, multi-year research, education, and outreach programs. The first of these programs was the international Southern African Regional Science Initiative (SAFARI 2000) that ran from 1998–2003 (Annegarn, Otter, Swap, & Scholes, 2002). This was the first formal, regional research activity to engage the universities and communities of this part of rural South Africa. The momentum of SAFARI 2000 helped to give rise to what is now known as the ESAVANA network. As part of a constant process of evolution, the ESAVANA relationship grew to incorporate additional disciplinary expertise at the University of Virginia (Intolubbe-Chmil, Spreen, & Swap, 2012). With this increase in the disciplinary breadth, students also found increased opportunities for engagement through long-standing personal connections in Limpopo Province, more specifically with the village of Mashamba.

Our team benefited greatly from the exchange of knowledge, experience, and wisdom between faculty, practitioners, community members, and former South African and U.S students. An integral part of this transfer was between our team and a group of local university student members of their campus Global Sustainability Club, who were able to use a similar analytical mindset while providing insights as seen through a South African lens. Looking forward, the South African student was able to understand the project from a sustainability standpoint and how the networks would exist over time. Through this we were able to see how the etiquette that we had come to learn in class was put into practice in the field. As part of the reflexive process, we could now begin to understand how being associated with faculty, staff, and communities from these long-standing, respectful, and reciprocal relationships, might, in the eyes of those people whom we had not yet met, make us not appear as student strangers but rather as relatives in an ongoing relationship.

As students, we often hear criticisms of international service-learning, criticisms that include projects not being maintained once the outside implementing teams have left the site and that many of these types of encounters are based on extractive engagements where student teams focus on projects almost exclusively (Brown-Glazner et al., 2009) and where the community has little equity (Sandy & Holland, 2006; Nelson & Klak, 2012). Our experience that involved implementing an international service-learning project, however, differs from these widely held criticisms. We found that the implementation of the Rocket Stoves in the Mashamba area has been effective not only in addressing the community’s expressed needs, but also in creating an increased interest in this particular approach to energy efficient, wood burning stoves after our engagement. We support this assertion with the following facts: since 2010, 13 stoves have been constructed at 4 different schools; nearly half (6 of the 13) were built solely through the community’s own initiative; as of 2013, these stoves are all functioning, and half a dozen more communities in the province of Limpopo have requested the plans for the modified Rocket Stoves. We attribute much of the expansion of this collaboratively developed approach to three main points: our mindsets as students; the community being vested in the process of generating an appropriate and contextually relevant solution; and a longstanding relationship with the local community and our local partnering institution of higher learning, the University of Venda. Project sustainability, the use of ABCD, and the cultural competence exhibited by students and community members were only accomplished through a relationship of respectful, responsible, and reciprocal collaboration and mentoring.

Through reflection, we understand that our respect for the process and adherence to the tacit etiquette around service-learning and community engagement contributed greatly to our arriving as strangers and being welcomed as friends. We aimed to ensure that the opportunity for reciprocity was maintained throughout the process for all stakeholders during the service-learning project. And finally we realized that such respectful behavior most likely contributed to faculty and community acceptance of our group and of our project and to our being entrusted with access to this facilitative partnership; we had demonstrated respect of the process and adherence to its etiquette. Our efforts benefited greatly from the community of trust created by the rich and complex tapestry of relationships originating from respect and reciprocity. We know that our own time in South Africa is just one thread of a much bigger network, but we, as students, believe that is how service-learning should be—resilient braids of partnerships rather than tenuous strands of individual effort.

We would like to acknowledge Prof. Carol Anne Spreen for the critical insight that she provided and her decade-long engagement with the teachers and staff of Mashamba Presidential Primary School outside of Elim, Limpopo Province. We also thank those who contributed significantly to the success of the engagement: Ray Dukes Smith, Jr., Gadisi Nthambeleni, and Sox Sihlangu. In addition, we thank Principal Lazarus, Alex Mashamba, Selina Mbedzi, Joel Mushaku, Selinah Letshebane, and Fridah Rambu Konanani from the Mashamba Nelson Mandela Presidential Primary School in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Financial support was provided by the Jefferson Public Citizens and Community Based Undergraduate Research Grants programs of the University of Virginia, and Terence Y. Sieg through his support of the ESAVANA program. The authors also wish to acknowledge Caroline Berinyuy, Loren Intolubbe-Chmil, Kent Wayland, Joseph Francis, and Augusto Castilho for their thoughtful comments on this manuscript.

Annegarn, H.J., Otter, L., Swap, R.J., & Scholes, R.J. (2002). Southern Africa’s ecosystem in a test-tube: A perspective on the Southern African Regional Science Initiative (SAFARI 2000). South African Journal of Science 98(3-4), 111–113.

Brown-Glazner R., Gutierrez, V., & Heil E. (2009). Engaging people, not projects: Re-defining the standards of service-learning through a community led project in Tshapasha, South Africa, JPC Journal Public 1, 5–10.

Butin, D.W. (2010). Service-learning in theory and practice: The future of community engagement in higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clayton, P.H., Bringle, R.G., Senor, B., Huq, J., & Morrison, M. (2010). Differentiating and assessing relationships in service-learning and civic engagement: Exploitative, transactional, or transformational. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 16,(2), 5–22.

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Handler, R. (2013). Disciplinary adaptation and undergraduate desire: Anthropology and global development studies in the liberal arts curriculum.” Cultural Anthropology 28(2), 181–203.

Hirschman, A.O. (1986). Rival views of market society: And other recent essays, pp. 33–49. New York: Viking Penguin.

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McKnight, J., & Kretzmann, J. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets, pp. 2–10. Chicago: ACTA Publications.

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About the Author
Nicholas Allen, Rachel Boots, Michael Bugas, and Arianna Parsons are undergraduate students at the University of Virginia. Robert Swap is a research professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and Extraordinary Professor in Environmental Sciences and Management, North West University, South Africa.

Community Voices: Model for Engaged Community Efficacy

Jason Merrick

Through this essay I hope to illuminate the processes implemented by a concerned student activist and his community in a region hit extraordinarily hard by an influx of heroin and opioid (synthetic) pain medication. I have structured it as an equation for community engagement so others may address paramount community issues and concerns with a productive and efficient format.
My intention is to breathe life into this essay so that it may spark affection and interest in its readers. My hope is that readers will choose to advocate for recovery from the disease of addiction by making decisions that reinforce the efforts of those working to stop the unnecessary suffering.

Support from the communities throughout Northern Kentucky has only been paralleled by the encouragement, advisement, and experiences received from the social work faculty at Northern Kentucky University. It is through their guidance that the synchronicity of events explained in the following paragraphs has taken form. My experience as a student and a community activist has been, and continues to be, the most exhilarating and profoundly satisfying accomplishment of my life.

Identifying the Need
Every community in the eight counties of the Northern Kentucky area has been affected by the heroin epidemic on an unprecedented scale. A recent newspaper article identified Northern Kentucky as “heroin ground zero,” describing our region as “…the state’s epicenter for heroin, straining legal and medical systems and bringing deadly consequences that are starting to spill out to the rest of the state” (DeMio, 2013a). Heroin is affecting families in Northern Kentucky without regard to status, income, family composition, race, faith, or location.

The need for action was clear. According to St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the number of babies treated for drug withdrawal doubled between 2011 and 2012 (St. Elizabeth & Children’s Hospitals, 2013). In addition, the number of overdose cases treated through the St. Elizabeth Healthcare systems increased by 77% in 2012. As of August 2013, the number of heroin overdose cases almost doubled the 2012 rate (St. Elizabeth, 2013). Statewide, the number of heroin overdose deaths has increased by 550% between 2011 and 2012 (ODCP, 2012).

Rallying the Stakeholders
Developing a grassroots community organization was essential in bringing the people most invested in the stabilization of this epidemic together. The data spoke for itself. Community leaders, politicians, doctors, parents, families, and loved ones all have felt the impact of heroin and opioid pain killers on our communities at epidemic proportions. What was missing is a catalyst to action.

People Advocating Recovery (PAR), a state-wide organization with over 10,000 members and dedicated to eliminating barriers to recovery, became that catalyst. A Northern Kentucky chapter was established, and in February 2013 I was selected to serve as its chairperson. At our inaugural meeting, 250 citizens attended to express their concerns. Attendees included the mayor of Covington, Ky., St Elizabeth Healthcare professionals, the Northern Kentucky Health Department, concerned parents, loved ones, people from the recovery community, and many privately practicing physicians, therapists, and clinicians. All of these people attended in the interest of stabilizing this crippling epidemic.

An interesting characteristic of my student activist/community organizer journey has been the uncanny parallels between my studies and real life experiences. In the spring semester of the 2012-13 academic year I was enrolled in my first semester of core classes in the social work program here at NKU. One of these core classes was SWK 405, Community Organizations.

During the first month of class, in an unrelated setting, I was asked to be the chairman of PAR. As the semester progressed I was able to study community organizations while building a real world grassroots community organization. The two experiences paralleled one another seamlessly. I was able to use my experience in the field to fuel my academic requirements and use my academic accomplishments to better understand my fieldwork. A more closely related class to real world experience could not have been choreographed this well.

Developing a Plan of Action
“First things first, stop the dying,” Dr. Jeremy Engel (2013) told me in a personal commmunication. Through Northern Kentucky PAR, a committee was formed to promote House Bill 366. This bill allowed for public prescription and distribution of a medication called Naloxone. Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, temporarily reverses the effects of a potentially fatal opiate overdose. This life saving medication, also known as Narcan, has been used in emergency rooms to successfully reverse overdose situations since 1971.

A newly developed nasal atomizer delivery system for Naloxone, in the hands of high risk individuals and their loved ones, is just the tool needed to save lives, serve as a gateway into treatment, and work to establish long term recovery from the disease of addiction. An unprecedented campaign of letters, emails, and phone calls was coordinated through our network of PAR members. The campaign was directed at state and local representatives, and sent HB 366 soaring through both the House and the Senate. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed HB 366 into law in July of 2013.
Developing and implementing a vessel designed to distribute Naloxone to our high-risk population came with surprisingly little resistance. (One of many, many signs that we were on the right path.) Through Northern Kentucky PAR, local agencies, and other coalitions, we were able to secure an office space in Falmouth, Ky. in hopes of distributing this medication to our target population. We soon established a team of health care professionals, pharmacists, social workers, and recovery advocates that collectively covered every needed aspect of the intervention.

Dr. Engel, our champion physician, became the first doctor in the state willing to prescribe and distribute the Naloxone Rescue Kits. A local pharmacist ordered the medication and built the kits. Karen Hargett, assistant executive director of Transitions, Inc., developed and stored the necessary forms and waivers for our client charts and files. Stacie Nance, a registered nurse at St. Elizabeth Hospital, performed on site triage care. Ron Clark, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant, developed and performed training on how to identify an overdose, rescue breathing, and explanations regarding administration of the medication. Also, countless others who donated time, space, furniture, food, energy, and, of course, money, were most essential to the opening of Kentucky’s first Naloxone Harm Reduction Center on October 6, 2013, at 206 Main Street in Falmouth, Ky. (DeMio, 2013b).

Performing the Intervention
Our first day was a very successful dry run. We served six clients with free Naloxone Rescue Kits, and were able to establish the raw mechanics of the process. Our team had just enough time, space, and participants to understand what and where each role fit into the equation.

Each client or group of clients was assigned a personal guide to navigate the process of paperwork, training, examinations, and prescription. As clients entered the offices, they were greeted and introduced to our policy of complete confidentiality. Each client packet included consent to treatment, past medical history, and HIPAA forms. The training process was divided into six sections: calling 911, identifying an overdose, rescue breathing (with a real CPR dummy), hands-on atomizer assembly, medication administration, and a short video reviewing each step. After training was completed, the doctor performed a brief examination and our nurse took and recorded the client’s vitals. Finally, the prescriptions were written and the Kits were distributed. From beginning to end, the process took about 30–40 minutes.

It is very important to note that these Kits are not intended to give a person an excuse to use drugs again. What they give a person suffering from heroin or opioid addiction is a lifeline into treatment and long-term recovery.

The Kits are equipped with several critical components:
• Two doses of Naloxone (2 ml each).
• Step-by-step instructions (instructions include: calling 911, identifying an overdose, an overview of rescue breathing procedures, and explanations of the medication administration process).
• A nasal atomizer delivery device (this turns the liquid Naloxone into a fine mist that is absorbed through the capillaries in the nasal cavity).
• A rescue breathing mask.
• Latex gloves.
• A list of local treatment resource phone numbers.

Our goal to save lives by making Naloxone more available to high risk individuals and their loved ones has evolved far beyond the boundaries of our small grassroots organization. The community has embraced this effort by developing a proposed social welfare policy that encompasses not only harm reduction, but also prevention, treatment, recovery, and advocacy. This is a well-rounded plan that, with proper support, can build a sustainable structure and continuum of care that promotes life-saving and life-restoring strategies addressing heroin and opioid pain medication addiction as well as the impact it has on our communities.

This plan, another academic synchronicity, coincided with SWK 407, Social Welfare Policy, which began in the fall of the 2013–14 school year. Through the first few classes, I found that my greatest challenge was to visualize a complete social welfare policy. Where did it begin? What was its driving force? How did it gain traction? Where does the money come from? How is it implemented, and who oversees the process?

As a community organizer, I was working to develop a social welfare policy without even realizing it. It hit me one day in the second week of class while analyzing the National School Lunch Program that this was it, this is what we are working on, this is policy in the making. Much like the NSLP, our policy was born of tragic necessity. The support came naturally. As any good movement gains momentum, people see and understand something needs to be done. When an option presents itself that people believe is sound and of value they naturally gravitate toward support.
The proposed policy, titled Northern Kentucky’s Collective Response to the Heroin Epidemic, was released to the people of Northern Kentucky on November 14, 2013, and can be found at drugfreenky.org. Since then, we have begun to implement five strategic platforms relating to harm reduction, prevention, treatment, advocacy, and recovery. Our mission: The people of Northern Kentucky have access to life-saving and life-restoring resources for heroin addiction that will reduce its impact in our communities. Our Vision: That Northern Kentuckians thrive healthier and happier.

As a result of the extreme need for awareness, education, and advocacy regarding this cause, teams of social work students and professors have freely dedicated time, energy, and resources to the cause. Drs. Tara McLendon, Jessica Averitt-Taylor, Caroline Macke, Holly Riffe, Prof. Karen Tapp, and many more have all helped me to see and reach my potential. Drs. McLendon, Riffe, and Prof. Tapp have given me time to speak to their BSW & MSW classes. Dr. Macke invited me to speak at the Kentucky Association of Social Work Educators conference, and our events have been posted on the University websites. In fact, the conception of this very article was born in a brainstorming session with Drs. Averitt-Taylor and McLendon. Professors and students alike have participated in, and donated to, our fundraisers, and Dr. Riffe has officially joined the team as an academic liaison. The support and collaborative efforts between student advocacy and university resources have been paramount to the efficacy of our efforts, but not without some challenges.

To continue at a level that both serves the cause and my academic requirements has been a daunting task. In light of this, Dr. Riffe has authorized a team of her MSW Community Organization students to help ensure our successes. They are performing strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis, developing training manuals for a wrap-around service called Starting Point, gathering resources, and volunteering time at the distribution site. Prof. Tapp has arranged for me to fulfill my practicum hours in service within the Heroin Impact Response Team under the supervision of the Northern Kentucky Health Department.

The overall support has been an uplifting inspiration and fueled my understanding of what a college education ought to be. I came to Northern Kentucky University not just for a degree, but for the opportunity to serve my fellow men, women, and children. The value of human life and our accomplishments cannot only be seen within its hallways, classrooms, and communities, but also in the minds and hearts of our students and faculty.

Children’s Hospitals Perinatal Institute. (2013). Public Records & Personal Communication.

DeMio, T. (2013a). Special report: Northern Kentucky is heroin ground zero. Kentucky Inquirer. Retrieved from http://news.cincinnati.com/.

DeMio, T. (2013b). NKY a testing ground for overdose antidote. Kentucky Inquirer. Retrieved from http://news.cincinnati.com/.

Engel, J. (2013). St. Elizabeth Family Physician, Personal Communication.

KODCP (2012). Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. Overdose Fatality Report for 2012.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare. (2013). Public Records & Personal Communication.

About the Author
Jason Merrick is a third year undergraduate student in social work at Northern Kentucky University.

JCES Seeks Reviewers for the Following Books and Others You May Recommend

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Book reviews published in JCES are intended to speak to a wide range of issues relevant to the scholarship of engagement. Reviews of books within the social sciences, natural sciences and math, medicine and health, the environment, law, business, philosophy, religion, and the arts and humanities are encouraged. All book reviews submitted to JCES should provide readers with a broad overview of the book, but should go beyond description to discuss central issues raised, strengths and limitations of the text, and current issues of theory and practice raised by the book that are germane to the subject matter and engaged scholarship. Book reviews should introduce readers to literature that advances knowledge, provides practical advice, disseminates best practices, and encourages conversation and dialogue. Faculty members, administrators, staff members, students, and community partners are invited to offer their interpretations of the literature. If you are interested in writing a book review for JCES, please contact Drew Pearl (andrew.pearl@ung.edu) for a current list of books available to review. Reviewers are also welcome to suggest titles.



The JCES Editorial Board invites the submission of manuscripts that relate to its mission: to provide a mechanism through which faculty, staff, and students of academic institutions and their community partners may disseminate scholarly works from all academic disciplines, with the goal of integrating teaching, research, and community engagement. All forms of writing and analysis will be acceptable with consideration being given to research and creative approaches that apply a variety of methodologies. Manuscripts that demonstrate central involvement of students and community partners and advance community-engaged scholarship will be given favorable consideration. Manuscripts should be free of all forms of bias, including racial, religious, gender, or ethnic.

Submission of a manuscript implies commitment to publish in this journal if accepted for publication. Manuscripts must have been submitted for exclusive publication in JCES and not simultaneously submitted elsewhere. Manuscripts should not have been published elsewhere in substantially the same form. Authors in doubt about what constitutes prior publication should consult the editor. At this time, hard paper submissions are not accepted. Inquiries and submissions should be emailed to jces@ua.edu.

Cassandra E. Simon, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, School of Social Work

The University of Alabama

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