Community Engagement Research
NF Convening v.2In the spirit of our mission to promote awareness, understanding, commitment and action in a changing pluralistic democratic society, the National Forum takes an approach in its leadership development and community service that foregrounds the community’s agency in creating change.  We are convinced that for community building to be sustainable it must be rooted in active, authentic and broadly endorsed community leadership, supported by widespread community input.  We believe that it is important for communities to have a strong partnership with institutions such as universities (which is where our work resides) and that from the very start of an engagement all parties should focus on processes that enhance community capacity for arriving at well-thought out decisions, planning and moving toward action, and be capable of sustaining its own interests through its own efforts.

For the past decade, we have been one of higher education’s leading conveners of system-wide policy and public engagement activities.  This reputation has been achieved by a series of initiatives to prompt discussion on the role of education in support of a diverse, democratic society.  One of our first efforts in this vein was a series of national dialogues, which drew educational leaders and policy makers to examine the public service role of colleges and universities.  These activities took place in strategic venues around the country and were summarized in a broadly discussed and often cited report, “Higher Education for the Public Good” which was published in partnership with the Kettering and Kellogg Foundation(s).

Launched in 2005 with support from the Lumina Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and several community foundations, the National Forum’s “Access to Democracy Project” (A2D) brought together residents in five communities across the state of Michigan to deliberate issues related to the wide range of factors shaping educational attainment.  Transcripts of over 60 structured community dialogues were analyzed using sophisticated research methods that allowed us to see how various words and phrases (“hard work”, “fairness”, “merit”) were interpreted very differently in each community and by different racial and economic groups.  We also learned that community groups who sensed a shared identify shifted their sense of “agency” to act on educational barriers from before a structured conversation to after it. Information gained from the A2D project was used to influence a new policy initiative within our state and generated funding to encourage community-based collaborative structures focused on increasing educational attainment at the local level.

This effort, launched as part of a state blueprint that the National Forum helped to write, provided for tax incentives for local communities, and generated a new program known as the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN).  MCAN is intended to help the state increase the number of students entering and graduating from college by mobilizing partnerships at the neighborhood and community level. Through sharing of information, scholarship support, community leadership, and inter-sectional collaboration, the program targets those students who may not believe college is accessible to them.  Local communities throughout Michigan are eligible for support through MCAN to develop Local College Access Networks (LCANs).

Within a short time of the program’s development, the original “passive incentives” of tax abatement for communities were replaced by direct grants, funded by the Kresge Foundation. There are now over 25 LCANs active in the state.

After helping to start a local college access network in Jackson County, we took up (in 2008) an active role in fostering a community coalition in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Northwest Detroit. Our work in community engagement over the last decade has led us to develop several key questions that continue to guide our work in this area:

1. How do diverse organizational partners, operating within one defined community, holding differently and similarly espoused goals, understand and value democratic participation in community change?

2. What is the vision of community change or improvement that is held by various community representatives and how do they see this vision aided by democratic engagement?

a. What definitions of community exist across different stakeholder groups?

b. How do differing definitions of community change relate to differences in institutional histories, foundational beliefs, theories, methods and forms of practice?

3. Does an explicit concept of democratic participation underlie the partnership process?

a. What are the differences and similarities in enacted approaches to democracy through the partnership?

Recent Research

Currently, we have ongoing alliances with two areas in Detroit, Michigan.  One is the community immediately around the well-known organization Focus: HOPE, otherwise known as Hope Village. We identified, trained, and hired community members to work with our university research team and engaged in a form of participatory action research to lead local dialogues that examined attitudes held about barriers and assets related to educational achievement in the community.  While this is an ongoing effort, it is clear that community members feel severely disconnected from schools, universities, and educational organizations, and do not feel they possess agency in naming their own problems and finding solutions.  Our other Detroit focus, in the Brightmoor community, has resulted in the formation of an LCAN.

We are also working with the Kettering Foundation, serving as a Center for Public Life, to organize, then analyze, democratic deliberations intended to provide insight into how the Hope Village community might shape and strengthen educational values of access and opportunity.  This work is taking place in a community that is in the process of trying to redefine itself and which has identified specific outcomes it wishes to accomplish consistent with a new future identity.  While the expressed vision adopted by the residents of this area is comprehensive of many different aspects of community well-being, the specific work we have been asked to do involves assisting the community as it makes strategic choices regarding how it might act to strengthen its “culture of educational achievement.”  This is a major goal to be realized as part of an overall community vision.

In our work with the Hope Village community of Detroit, we have outlined the following key objectives to guide our partnership with the community:

  • Support community goals and assist in creating positive movement toward their achievement
  • Understand how collaboration between community researchers and institutions impacts the quality of  community learning and public decision making around educational attainment
  • Understand the impact of the collaboration between community researchers and institutions in addressing the challenges to democracy (especially the gap between citizens and organizations)

 

Past Publications

In 2011, we published a report with the Kettering Foundation that captures the lessons we have learned through our community engagement work over a ten year period.

Wingspread_Monograph_Taking Responsibility_2006 cover

Specifically, the report outlines the knowledge gained inworking in Brightmoor and other Michigan communities and also describes the evolution of the work in the Brightmoor community over the course of five years. It also presents ongoing questions that have arisen out of neighborhood partnerships and the reasons they could be important beyond the immediate context and perhaps useful to others that share a similar faith in the democratic processes that take place in community settings.

For more information on other past publications, please see our Forum Publications page.

 

Past Research Initiatives

Past research from all of our projects can be found in the Past Projects page.

 

 

 

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