Supporting Social Change through Community-Engaged Scholarship

Students giving a presentation with a slideshow
University of Guelph students present their community engaged learning project to an audience of community partners, faculty, and community members in the community classroom at 10C Shared Space in downtown Guelph.

At its best, community-engaged scholarship seeks not only to address specific challenges but also to change social conditions.

For this reason, we have made a commitment to actively integrate critical theory and practice across all our programs. This commitment has fueled an ongoing process of learning and adjusting with the goal of supporting struggles for social justice and dismantling persistent structural inequity in our community.

In 2017, CESI's director began a months-long consultation process with community partners, staff members, colleagues, and faculty affiliates about how best to define and pursue our strategic priorities. We were looking for a way to express our commitment to community-engaged research that both seeks to improve people's immediate wellbeing (for instance, through improving service delivery and access to social service supports), and also contributes toward broader social change that will ultimately reduce the need for such services.

Through the course of these conversations, we were introduced to Cynthia Gordon da Cruz's article outlining the concept of critical community engaged scholarship (CCES), an engaged practice that draws on the insights of critical theory and works toward anti-oppressive impacts. This concept resonated deeply among the CESI team. We have since adopted much of da Cruz's language and are actively working to integrate that commitment into all levels of our work.

CESI's major community collaborators are social service organizations, non-profits, and community networks; we partner on projects in areas related to social determinants of health, community well-being, service-provision in food access, housing, and health care. We work with these collaborators because of our shared commitments to improving individual and community health, inclusion, and well-being.

Using a CCES lens provides an opportunity to deepen our impact, support the public good, and dismantle structural inequity. As demonstrated through the Affordable Food Map project with Chalmers Community Service Centre, CESI is committed to collaborating with equity-seeking groups, paying special attention to intersectionality and the barriers that marginalized groups face.

While we still work to address immediate priorities, integrating CCES has allowed us to work in a way that can support partners in identifying and addressing barriers to access and inclusion in their services and eventually change broader systems of power and oppression.

Bringing this CCES lens to our work has also led us to change our research design and collaborative processes to better integrate anti-oppressive commitments and impacts that reach beyond the scope of each individual project. As evidenced by the collaborative program evaluation conducted with Hospice Wellington, we are co-creating research that nurtures deep, meaningful relationships and encourages ongoing critical reflection.

We have also built an understanding of the ways in which systemic forces, such as power, oppression, identity, racialization, and gender, work to create inequity, even in spaces that seek to support community. In our collaborative work, such as the Student Food Insecurity partnership, we seek to centre and uplift those most affected by the issue, respecting and honoring multiple forms and locations of knowledge. CCES grounds us in an asset-based understanding of community, helping to ensure that our research doesn't further marginalize communities or perpetuate inequity.

We recognize that, in order to remain fully committed to CCES, our critical orientation must inform every element of our work. For this reason, we are working to keep all our practices — from student recruitment, to interviewing processes, to pay rates, to decision-making, to relationship building — critically oriented and ethical.

For example, we have shifted our hiring processes to identify lived experience and expertise as legitimate factors for consideration when hiring students. We are also engaged in constant learning to improve our knowledge, especially around disability and access, Indigenous knowledge, and anti-racism, and work to ensure that we collaborate with and uplift a diverse range of people and communities.

While the long-term impacts of these shifts may not be known for years, we are beginning to see some positive outcomes from integrating CCES across our practices and programs.

For example, we are aligning with and supporting work that supports community in the short-term and has the potential to lead to greater equity overall. Our research projects are also creating sharper insights about complex problems, and we are taking the time to reflect on our own learnings through our practices and processes that have expanded and shifted due to our grounding in CCES.

Furthermore, we are building trust and deep collaborations with a range of community partners, faculty, students, and colleagues across sectors who share our passion for research for social change.

Finally, the CESI student team is more representative of the communities with whom we seek to build trust and to collaborate.

Perhaps most importantly, we acknowledge that this work is ongoing — it may never be 'complete.' While we have been inspired by da Cruz, we are also working to build our own critical orientation that fits our specific context, respecting and supporting the important work of our community partners.