CETL: Building Capacity for Personal Growth & Conscientious Citizenship
This year marks historic anniversaries and occasions for some of the community partners with whom CESI has longstanding collaborations through our Community Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL) program. As the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) and Zonta International celebrate their national centenaries, and the Guelph Black Heritage Society breaks ground on renovating Heritage Hall, which sits as an important Black cultural landmark for 150 years, I am reminded of the incredible strongholds of community knowledge and expertise that we have the privilege of working with in the CETL program. Reflecting on International Women’s Day 2020, I am reminded that CFUW and Zonta local chapters have been advocating for policy changes to better the lives of women and girls for 75 and 40 years respectively, creating meaningful impacts in areas such as the representation of women in municipal politics and the representation of the needs of diverse women and girls in municipal policies and resources. It has been a point of pride to have had some part in their actions, as when CFUW and Zonta used CEL research produced in partnership with Dr. Leah Levac’s Political Science class as the basis for a panel that would generate strategies to reduce barriers for diverse women and girls in accessing municipal services, or when over 50 women attended a day-long Women’s Campaign School developed in collaboration with CESI’s Research Shop to encourage more women to run in municipal elections by teaching strategies for getting started, navigating the campaign process, and developing communications and messaging.
While CESI’s CETL mandate is grounded in co-creating research, evaluation, and knowledge mobilization partnerships for the dual goal of community impact and student learning outcomes, these collaborations also have the benefit of contributing to students’ personal growth and professionalization. We frequently work with practicum students to develop community engaged opportunities for applied learning in areas such as industrial and organizational psychology, social psychology, and nutrition. The collaborative nature of CEL allows students to experience being a part of a professional team. In one case, it was the first time a graduate student had ever led meetings with multiple stakeholders including community partners, government staff, and consultants. It was the first time this same student had been expected to create and follow a meeting agenda, record and circulate meeting notes, formulate a project plan and professional communications, and integrate non-academic feedback into his research and reporting. It was, by the student’s own account, “a steep learning curve” but one that the student found deeply satisfying as he described now feeling more “ready for the real world.”
Aside from preparing students with the necessary professional skills for working in their respective fields, working in concert with community partners exposes students to the practical constraints and complexities of the lived realities of research participants, front line workers and non-profit organizations. Working within the limits of community work can be all the more stimulating for the kind of innovation, care and resourcefulness that it requires students to cultivate, and for the personal growth that can result from testing the limits of one’s academic and personal knowledge. One psychology student recalled being excited and a little unsure of moving her research out of the lab and into a process that involved recruiting women survivors of abuse. In her words, the process “had to be handled with extreme care.” The student adapted by “quickly learning how to be flexible with contacting, pre-screening, and scheduling [and] how to adapt procedures within ethical constraints” attuned to the needs and practicalities of the community. The research component of this partnership consisted of conducting focus groups with service providers, and interviews with women survivors of abuse.
The student remarked that “it was fascinating to see much of what I had read jumping out at me as service providers and women spoke about their experiences. At the same time, the level of complexity I gleaned from candid conversations with participants far surpassed the understanding I gained from simply reading published academic manuscripts.” Furthermore, the student shared that being able to ask service providers follow-up and clarifying questions “skyrocketed my understanding” of the phenomenon she was studying. The student revealed that, in fact, “some of the most interesting conversations came from disagreements among service providers” that she would not have been privy to without this experience. She goes on to explain that the space between these disagreements gave her a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issue. She says, “I arrived with pre-determined questions and a rough plan for the direction the conversation would go [and] quickly realized this was impossible, and possibly even undesirable, as most of the issues we were exploring were all heavily intertwined, in ways that I had not been able to fully comprehend from simply reading published academic papers.”
The student makes clear the benefits of contextualizing research topics within lived settings in order to enable deep learning, but these CEL opportunities also enable profound personal transformations that have the potential to prepare students for conscientious citizenship. The student shared with me that she is grateful for the ways “my level of understanding was elevated by listening to women’s stories directly.” She goes on to explain the profound effect it had on her to hear one woman explain the difficulties she experienced at a women’s shelter, which was supposed to be a place of refuge for her. Another woman talked about planning to get back together with her abuser when he got out of jail. The student shares that “being able to speak with her and truly understand her experience according to her words and not according to a researcher’s interpretation was immensely beneficial to my understanding of the issue.” The student reflects that “this project made me feel like the research I was doing was indeed important.” She continues, “there is no better motivator than that!”
Many of the student’s sentiments were echoed in conversation with the community partner on this project, who recognizes that “once you are conducting research in the community, you better understand how [abuse] might happen and how flexible and adaptable you have to be as people cancel, are sometimes not well enough to take part, or are distracted by other key priorities or challenges they are facing at the time.” The community partner herself remembers that “it wasn’t until I left school and started working that I realized the practical challenges that came with working in the gender equality space (such as funding, resources) or that result from the complexities of women’s lives,” in which case “the social work or social justice approaches learned in university cannot be neatly applied.” She believes that community engagement helps usefully “burst that ‘university’ bubble,” so that students can start to learn how to apply their disciplinary knowledge in everyday contexts. That said, she values insight brought by students and university collaborators, reflecting that “the capacity of the project grew significantly because of the support from the students, the faculty member and CESI.”
Each year, CESI’s CETL program supports 25-30 community engaged course partnerships. I am heartened by these partnerships, which show the incredible enrichment that happens across university-community collaborations when guided by the principles of mutual benefit, reciprocity, and the tenets of anti-oppressive teaching and learning frameworks. For students, the world becomes at once both more complex and tangible as theory meets lived experience. For partners, new points of intervention emerge as students and faculty bring multi-disciplinary perspectives in conversation with stories heard and told by those at the front lines of community thresholds. In the words of the student quoted earlier, “it turns out that activities like community-based research are as far from the ‘ivory tower’ as one can imagine!” As we continue to develop CETL partnerships focused on community-identified needs and priorities, the opportunities are redoubled for significant research impacts, lasting personal transformations, and meaningful civic engagement.