Message from the Editor

Cassandra E. Simon, Ph.D.

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Founding Editor Reflects on JCES Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan B. Harden and Katherine Loving

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


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

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

Emerging Professional Identity

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

Outreach and Engagement Staff Roles

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

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

The Community of Practice Model

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

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

Stages of Development

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

Organizing Outreach and Engagement Staff: A Case to Consider

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing the Organizers and Creating A Community of Community-Builders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Network to System of Influence

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

Table 1

Figure 1

Emerging Identity and Community at a National Level

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

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

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

Benefits of Scaling Up and Implications for the Field

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

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

Questions for Future Research

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

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

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

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


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About the Authors

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

Responsible Engagement: Building a Culture of Concern

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




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

Introduction: Setting the Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles of Engagement
Figure 1

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

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

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

Balancing Stakeholder Motivations in University-Community Engagement

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

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

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

Preparation for Engagement: Competencies to Avoid and Deal with Failure

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

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

Conceptual Framework of the ERB

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

ERB Structure

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

ERB Activities

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


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

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

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

During Engagement

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


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

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

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

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

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

Integrating an ERB into the Current System

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

Building a Culture of Concern

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

Piloting the ERB

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

Proposed Models of Integration

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

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

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


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

Let the Conversations Continue!

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

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


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

About the Authors

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

Youth Engagement—Engaging for a Change: Changing for Engagement

Yoshitaka Iwasaki

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

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

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

Youth Engagement Research Project

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

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

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

Reflective Experiences with Project

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

Why Engage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We Engage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-Learning and Teamwork

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

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

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

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

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

Being Flexible/Adaptable and Strengths-Based

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Safe, Comfortable, and Fun Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group Dynamics

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

Dealing with Transformation

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

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

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

Relationship and Trust-Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity, Size, and Commitment of Youth Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structural Barriers

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

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

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

Collaborative and Coordinated Process in an Iterative Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Impacts Are We Having?

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

Capacity Building

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

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

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

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

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

A program evaluation director from a public school board concurred:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational, Meaningful Youth Engagement at a Positive and Safe Space

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

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

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

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

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

Demonstration of Positive Youth Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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About the Authors

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Engagement Ecosystem Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Participating in the ecosystem is elective.

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

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

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

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

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Spring 2015 Pilot Case Study: HESE Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

Preliminary Assessment of Engagement Ecosystem Model

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

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

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

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

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Participants and Procedure

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

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

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

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

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Data Analysis

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

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

Multicultural Awareness

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

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

Ethical Decision-Making

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

Table 7

Faculty Feedback

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned: Areas for Improvement

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

Faculty Preparation and Support

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

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

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

Faculty and Student Buy-In

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

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

Coordination Logistics

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

Assessment Strategy

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

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

Future Expansion

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

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


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

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


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

About the Authors

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Policy: Safe Routes to School

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

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

The Community Partners

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

Phase 1

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

Phase 2

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

Phase 3

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

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

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

Phase 4

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

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

Project Measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Findings

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

Concerns Collective Recommendations to Decision-Makers

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

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

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

Impact and Success

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Authors

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