Reflections on university-community partnership & collective inquiry

(This was first posted at: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/melissa-brough/reflections-university-community-partnership-collective-inquiry)

Many of us within the HASTAC network have participated in university-community collaborations of some sort, so my guess is that many of us have experienced some of the challenges that arise when the political and epistemological cultures of academia run up against the epistemologies and cultures operating outside of the university gates, at the community level. In the case of Mobile Voices, the schedules, pressures, communication styles and needs of individual participants has varied significantly at times, always framed by the power differential between the university and the community of immigrant workers and organizers. Here I share some of my own reflections (and I emphasize that this is my personal perspective, not necessarily representative of the group).

In late January, several of the PhD students involved in Mobile Voices and two staff people from our community partner, IDEPSCA, sat down with Janna Shadduck-Hernandez to reflect on some of the challenges we’ve experienced, and learn from someone committed to working through such challenges toward shared goals of social justice. Janna has gained great insight through her participatory action research projects that combine organizing and social justice initiatives with arts and popular education. She offered us several suggestions based on her experiences, but most importantly, I think, helped us start to share and reflect on our own, in an effort to overcome some of the structural and social barriers to a truly productive university-community partnership.

Our combined goals for the conversation were to reflect on the Mobile Voices project thus far, to understand all participants’ and partners’ perspectives (broadly defined as USC and IDEPSCA, but also of each individual in their own right), to build trust and openness within the group, to learn from other similar partnerships, and to reach a shared understanding in order to promote the goals of the workers.

For me, some of the most useful learnings from this dialogue were:

· Collective inquiry (or participatory research) should start from collective theory building.

While many of us study theories of power, social change, communication, etc., what we have not done as a group (although just recently we’ve started to) is spend the time to develop—through a participatory and/or popular education process—our shared theory(s) of change. This perhaps starts with a critical analysis of the dynamics of power in which the project is embedded, from the societal to the institutional to the individual levels.

For various reasons, we skipped over this crucial component in the process of starting Mobile Voices, including in-depth group conversations with the workers about how the university-community partnership would be structured. Many conversations were had, of course, and a memorandum of agreement and a community advisory board was created toward this end. Yet more time could have been spent as a group on these crucial discussions.

Consensus of the group seemed to be that collective theory building, including power analysis and analysis of what we have learned in the project thus far, was a top priority for the coming months, and would help us reach a shared understanding of what collective inquiry and participatory research means to us and what methods or processes it implies.

· Building the infrastructure to support collective inquiry:

Janna recounted the many ways in which she and her collaborators have worked to develop an infrastructure of resources (drawn from the university) to support the community collaboration. This can include organizing class credit for participants, securing transportation for community members, asking for support from certain faculty, securing meeting and retreat spaces, and raising funds to pay organizers and even electricity bills; the point being that it’s crucial for the university partner to bring resources to the table. This helps counter the possibility of extractive research relationships, can help gain the trust of community members, and can help ensure that time and space is made so that people can participate. We have done this in many ways over the course of developing Mobile Voices, but we could have done more at the outset to map this out—i.e. to sit down and strategize all of the concrete resources we could harness and bring to the table from the beginning, and made explicit to our community partners. As Mobile Voices moves into a new phase, it might be appropriate to do this soon.

· Emphasizing process over outcome

Emphasizing the process as the primary outcome of a collaboration, such as a participatory media or participatory research project, has been articulated in the literature on participatory media and communication for social change for decades, but is often difficult to maintain in practice due to donor, university or other institutional expectations of concrete “deliverables”.

· Building trust

This depends to a great extent on the individuals involved, as well as the processes mentioned above. And time. One thing I continue to experience in Mobile Voices is the importance of face-to-face time, no matter how sophisticated our technologies become! Also key to building trust is the management of expectations and meeting commitments that are made.

I’m quite sure that all of these ‘learnings’ are readily and frequently available in the literature on academic-community partnerships, but each process is also unique and each learning curve distinct. One thing our conversation with Janna reaffirmed for me was the importance of reflecting on the specificities of our own process, which I only started to do here but which we have continued to do as a group over the course of this semester. A key outcome of this was a strategic planning process that included the drafting of some shared definitions of key concepts in our partnership. (See http://dev.vozmob.net/projects/vozmob/wiki/Stakeholder_Strategy_for_University-based_Researchers-and-Practitioners)

For me, this dialogue with Janna was an important step in my own sensitization to the complex dynamics involved in collective inquiry, participatory research, and community-academic partnerships. We are continuing this work this week, with a group discussion of power dynamics within and around the project.

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