I have a special place in my heart for community-academic research partnerships. I’ve worked on more than a few over the last seven years through my involvement at Ile sans fil.
At ISF we were lucky enough to work closely with Alison Powell who based a large part of her doctorate as well as several published papers on research on our organization and our area of activities. This year I’m managing ISF’s side of a new 5-year partnership that I helped set up with the Harvard Medical School and I’m helping a McGill augmented-reality engineering group work with a Québec organization for the visually impaired (L’Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille).
It takes time to work with researchers and sometimes it can feel like we are just repeating information that we already know so that someone can translate it into a different language. Why should we bother? I think Alison says it best:
“I am committed to undertaking empirical social research that helps to develop communication and information policy in the public good.”
Replace “communication and information” with your activities, and it might be possible to find yourself an Alison to be your ally. The academics I meet who study social issues are as passionate as my fellow community workers and activists. They can bring your stories and points of view to places inaccessible to most organizations. And they come with different skill sets and resources that can help you can find answers to specific questions and create new tools.
And while it takes work to engage with and support a researcher, it’s also often possible for the researcher or research team to bring funding with them. I don’t suggest research partnerships as a main source of funding for your organization’s activities, but in most of the partnerships that I’ve worked on, it’s been possible to carve out funding to support the organization spending time on the project (ISF has received the majority of it’s funding up to this point through academic collaborations). After all, if the researcher’s time is paid for, it’s important that the organization’s time is paid as well. Sometimes there’s absolutely no possibility of funding to support the non-profit’s participation and it’s still worthwhile to support the research because of its strategic importance. However, funding for community partners to participate in reseach collaborations is definitely what we should be aiming for.
I was just thinking about the role of research in the non-profit sector because of an upcoming event where one of the organizations I work with – COCo (le Centre des organismes communautaires / Center for Community Organizations) – is going to share some preliminary results from research they’ve been doing about their membership – anglo and ethnocultural non-profits across Québec.
Presentation of year one of COCo’s In the Know research results at: Communautés d’expression anglaise du Québec : enjeux actuels et tendances, Acfas Congress at the Université de Montréal. – May 11th
Frances RAVENSBERGEN, Le Centre des Organismes Communautiares (COCo)
Un regard sur les groupes communautaires anglophones, bilingues et ethnoculturels québécois et leur relation avec le gouvernement du Québec et l’action communautaire
Resumé: En octobre 2008, le Centre des organismes communautaires (le COCo) lançait un projet de recherche communautaire pour mieux comprendre la diversité des groupes de changement social au Québec. Le projet, qui a bénéficié de l’appui du Secrétariat à l’action communautaire autonome et aux initiatives sociales (SACAis), avait pour but de sonder les groupes communautaires anglophones, bilingues et ethnoculturels de partout au Québec pendant une période de 3 ans.
Ce projet est fondé sur un modèle de recherche-action de type communautaire. Nous explorons les forces et faiblesses de ce modèle.”
A few points if you’re interested in learning more about community – academic research collaborations:
- Research partnerships are often called “Community-University Research Alliances”.There are SSRCH grants available to support this. And if you’re in Québec, there is a SACAIS program for community research.
- One organization that might be able to give you a hand if you’re interested in pursuing a research collaboration: The Centre for Community Based Research.
- Participatory Action Research (wikipedia link) is a research method often used by academics working with communities or community groups. It’s great!
“The “research” aspects of PAR attempt to avoid the traditional “extractive” research carried out by universities and governments where “experts” go to a community, study their subjects, and take away their data to write their papers, reports and theses. Research in PAR is ideally BY the local people and FOR the local people. Research is designed to address specific issues identified by local people, and the results are directly applied to the problems at hand.”
As the above quote indicates, it’s important that research projects be co-created. It’s not okay for a researcher swoop in, do some research, and leave, never to be heard from again by the communities. The goals of the research should be clear beforehand, and they should benefit both the researcher as well as the community or community organization without compromising the integrity of the research. That includes not only what research questions are asked and how the research is done, but how the research is distributed (publishing it exclusively in academic jargon in expensive journals being unacceptable).
I know that the groups I’ve worked with have gained immensely from those collaborations. I would love to see more community organizations exploring ways to work with academics.
Please share if you have any experiences, positive or negative, of working with academics.