From Research Impact to Critical Community Engagement: CESI's work toward social justice

Posted on Monday, September 9th, 2019

Written by Caroline Duvieusart-Déry

This blog post is based on a presentation offered at the National Alliance for Broader Impacts Summit 2019, on April 30, 2019.

Over the past two years, Acting Director Dr. Elizabeth Jackson has led the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI) through a process of review and questioning of our principles and values which concluded in an explicit commitment not only to research impact and to the common good, but to positive social change and social justice. Inspired by the work of Cynthia Gordon da Cruz, we decided to be more intentional in enabling and implementing initiatives that advance rigorous, evidence-informed, and principled critical community engaged scholarship. Critical community engaged scholarship is a type of community engaged scholarship that is informed by critical theory, asset-based understandings of community, and an explicit commitment to social and racial justice. It builds on the principles of community engaged scholarship that we know and love – reciprocity, trust, relationships – and places them in the larger contexts of oppression in ways that draw attention to the structural causes of inequity. For us at the Institute, doing critical community engaged scholarship means committing to research, knowledge mobilization, and teaching and learning partnerships that “more effectively dismantle systemic sources of racial and social injustice[i]”. It means carrying out our mandate by building student, faculty and community capacity for effective, ethical community engaged scholarship. It also means participating actively in the scholarship of engagement to push the field toward more explicitly justice-oriented principles and practices.

Anchoring our work in justice-seeking communities

Implementing this vision in practice will be a challenging and ongoing process. One of our main shifts has been to intentionally place justice at the forefront of our efforts. In our research design and our event planning, we work to amplify the voices and priorities of justice-seeking or marginalized communities. We think critically about the questions we ask, the projects we choose, and the partners we involve. We believe that those most affected by research should be at the center of planning and decision-making, and we increasingly rely on our community partners to provide insights into our projects. We try to figure out: “who wouldn’t come to our consultations or answer our survey, and how can we reach them?”, “How do we include people who don’t speak English?”, or “who is not represented?”.

In one example, we have been conducting collaborative research exploring student food insecurity on our campus. We are working with our primary collaborator, a non-profit aiming to address student food insecurity, to ensure that students, especially those having direct knowledge of the issue, guide the project. A caucus of racialized students is leading a specific aspect of the research, using digital storytelling to elevate the experiences of Black and Indigenous students among food insecure students. Input from groups that serve racialized or international students on campus has also informed a broad based survey of the student body. One question we continue to ask ourselves is, to what extent can we assume that organizations or service providers speak in the name of those they provide services to? We continue to seek ways to deepen our connections to people with lived experience of the issues we work on – rather than following the more conventional model where service providers are taken to ‘stand in’ for the people they are meant to support.

Building long-term relationships

While our work has always been anchored in deep trust and mutual relationships with our partners, our shift toward critical community engaged scholarship has brought us to slow down and try to engage even more fully in our partnerships. We do most of our learning by being “in communities”, both those we identify with and those that aren’t familiar to us, trying to experience each other’s realities so we know where and how to play our part. In practice, this means continuing to prioritize relationships over productivity, and being creative in finding ways to build long-term relationships despite short-term structures. We’re thinking beyond the 12-week term, the course, the research project, and work to combine various opportunities or build projects across multiple courses and programs in order to support our partners’ long-term visions and goals.

Interestingly, one challenge here has been the growing appetite from students – and an increased mandate from our institution – for engaged learning experiences. Building and maintaining relationships before, during and beyond single projects is slow, careful work. How can we aim for deeper relationships while responding to increasing requests for more partners, more projects? We are exploring new ways to offer community-focused learning[ii] opportunities which can help grow student awareness and skills without creating additional work for community groups or compromising the principles and practices that we know are key to impactful, ethical community engaged scholarship.

Removing barriers to participation

Thinking critically about our work and impact has also meant doing a bit of introspection and identifying the ways in which the Institute itself perpetuates inequities. While CESI’s staff, faculty, and students are composed of and identify with various communities, we certainly don’t reflect the full diversity of the world we are working to improve. Barriers to participating and engaging with the Institute affect community groups, faculty members, staff and students, and it is our responsibility to be aware of those and work towards dismantling them. In this context, working toward social justice has meant trying to more equitably distribute the opportunities and resources that we have available. For example, we are working to open up our hiring processes. We are starting to change the language of our job postings to be intentionally inclusive and attract applications from candidates with diverse experiences and perspectives. We are reaching out beyond our traditional networks to applicants who may not have heard of us, or who may be doing similar work in other fields. In an effort to reduce barriers to participation in our programs, we now pay our student researchers hourly for their work – they used to receive a small honorarium.

That said, we’ve noticed that these efforts haven’t had a significant impact (yet?) on our hires, which consist primarily of short-term student contracts. Even as we try to work against them, we know we are implicated within larger systems of privilege which affect access to and experiences in postsecondary education, and which advantage certain candidates. So what should we do? How can we value and bring in new voices and perspectives? How important is it that the demographic makeup of our staff/students reflect the makeup of the populations we’re hoping to serve? How can we create more accessible, meaningful training and employment opportunities for an emerging generation of new scholars? We aren’t close to answering these questions, but this work is helping us better understand the context in which we operate, and identify those entry points where we can have an impact.

Moving ahead

These are just a few examples of how our work has changed over the past years, and the many challenges that our shift toward more critical community engaged scholarship has uncovered. We certainly haven’t cracked this nut yet, but we were keen on sharing some of our process, because this feels like a field where asking the questions is as important as, if not more than, answering them. As employees at publicly funded institutions, what is our responsibility to ensure that our work serves the communities in which we live and work? Which community initiatives should we work to support, and what kinds of impacts should we strive to create? And how are our current efforts contributing – or not – to these goals?

We welcome thoughts and conversations on this from colleagues across sectors! Please get in touch with us with your questions, insights, or experiences.


[i] Gordon da Cruz, C. (2017). Critical Community-Engaged Scholarship: Communities and Universities Striving for Racial Justice. Peabody Journal of Education, 92:3, p.363.

[ii] The term “community-focused learning” was coined by Mavis Morton in Morton, M. (2019). The No-Contact Rule of Community FOCUSED Learning (CFL): An Ethical and Pedagogically Promising Model of Community Engaged Learning in Large Undergraduate Classes”. Unpublished manuscript.

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