Blogpost: Community Engagement – More Questions than Answers

By Betty Overton-Adkins, Ph.D., Clinical Professor of Higher Education

About three months ago I arrived at the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good to assume a leadership role in partnership with John Burkhardt and a talented team of student-scholars and leaders.  While I have been connected to the Forum in many ways over the years, I am now on the inside, part of the work team that makes this place such a unique learning environment.  My assigned role is responsibility for our Community Engagement initiatives, which means being in service to those who do the work of carrying out our commitments to community projects.  What a delight!  This work speaks to my values and my beliefs about higher education.  In a way, it returns me to work I embraced for ten years while working at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

However, when I tell people (family, friends, strangers on airplanes) about my work at the University Michigan, they understand my teaching, but I am often asked, “What is community engagement or what do you do in community engagement?”  There is a nice description of this work on our website, but it seems off-putting to refer them there.  I’m searching for a succinct way to describe what is a rather complex and messy partnership between campus and community to folk who don’t have all day for an explanation.   I haven’t quite mastered an effective elevator speech.  Sometimes I say I am working with colleagues to share the talent and resources of the university with the community.  Well, that explanation’s really inadequate and one-sided.  It sounds like the work is about what we are doing—the beneficent and all powerful university, with our vast array of resources and smart people marching off to help solve the problems of needy communities.  Of course, that’s not it.  At other times I say, “At the National Forum, we engage with local people to address community-identified issues using the talents and resources of the university.” I think that’s a bit better.  But I know engagement doesn’t always start with community.

We at the university are not passive, seeing issues within community but waiting with our well-researched information and tool kits to be summoned.   We are sometimes initiators, seeing issues and finding ways to “offer” ourselves and come alongside communities—appropriately, we hope—as resource and partner.   We work in collaboration with communities to address issues that help them do better the things they want to do, and in the process we learn.  Fawcett and others (1995) describe community engagement as “the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people.”  The “with and through” are the messy parts of this work and, at the same time, its essential core.  Universities sacrifice some of the organized control of our teaching and research environments to venture into places where we are not in the driver’s seat.  Even in the short time I have been at the National Forum, I have had to remind myself of that, as I get ready to charge forth on a project cloaked in my do-gooder cape and with my researcher hat, armed with smart students, and emboldened by the clout of an outstanding university.

I know as I come anew to this work and our role at the National Forum, new questions (at least for me) are emerging about the process of community engagement.  How can we be more mindful about the process of understanding how questions arise in community and who has ownership for them?  How do external forces (a desire for funding or new programs) modify the community questions and how can we learn to listen for the questions beneath the questions?   How do we provide opportunity for community people to become part of the research process with us, not just subjects of our research (participatory action research, as it’s now called) and through this participatory process, how do we build and leave new capacities in community?  What does sustainability of effort mean in the context of what we seek to leave in community but also bring back to our own campus? What’s the knowledge extraction process for community and for us?  How do we integrate our learning from community into the scholarship of application and practice so that we really do advance knowledge?   I’ve made this list after three months on the job.  I suspect it may become longer.

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