Paper By Sandra Lupi Rsm

The meeting of community and university moving forward

Sandra Lupi RSM


The challenge I want to put before you today what is the role for a university in community engagement? I'd like to suggest that a community development framework underpinning the theory and practice of community engagement can be a way for a university to really engage with community. I present this framework as a catalyst for discussion and suggest that a brokering role is the role that a university can develop to engage with community.

Community development is a way of working that aims to change a system. It takes the specific form of vertical authorities restructuring in favour of local community. Community development does not aim to change people as individuals but to change the social However, if we want to consider community engagement from a community development perspective that we have to recognize that there are two sides to the work pattern that emerges. One, to do with the vertical structure - the government or institution e.g. the university and the horizontal dimension - the community. There are continuing pressures and tensions between the two sides. My contention is that it is this tension that can create the energy for effective community engagement. It takes skill and patience and time to work at that point of transition - that is at the actual interface between the horizontal and the vertical. This is essentially a brokering role. The broker works between the two parties often advocating on behalf of one to influence the other. E.g. A person may accompany a recently arrived migrant to apply for a pension because they need help to overcome the barriers of language and cultural difficulties but the broker works to influence the system so that ethnic counter staff will be appointed on a permanent basis. The broker is always trying to work herself or himself out of a job because the change she/he is seeking is ultimately structural change.

A university is commonly perceived to be a powerful and privileged social institution, with strong traditions and hierarchical structures. These are often perceived by communities as difficult and daunting systems to navigate. To the nonacademic local resident, gaining a firm understanding of how higher education institutions work, learning the various points of entry, and maneuvering through various academic departments and institutional bureaucracies is often a challenge at best. Community is also diverse and multilayered. It may refer to neighbourhoods or workplaces but to be meaningful it must imply membership on a scale where it is possible to encounter people face to face and to nurture human scale structures within which people can feel at home. Unfortunately, most background studies concentrate on problems and define a community in terms of its deficiencies. On the other hand, healthy communities are not communities without problems but rather communities that have the capacity resources, resilience and leadership to creatively engage with their own issues and the wider context. (Community Praxis Coop Ltd. March 2000) The ideal of community engagement is expressed in your own publication. Community engagement represents a shift to partnership characterized by mutuality, equality of status, clearly defined goals and sought outcomes, frequent communication and long term commitment (ACUnique 2005)

This shift in thinking is common in universities today. Engagement goes well beyond conventional outreach the community service model. Engagement activities vary from staff involvement in local committees and professional memberships through to major community based projects and regionally relevant research. Embedded in the engagement ideal is partnership - commitment to sharing and reciprocity.


Be clear about the purposes or goals of the engagement effort, and the populations and/or communities you want to engage.

The processes for involvement and participation must be appropriate to meet the overall goals and objectives of the engagement. Be prepared for a variety of responses from the community. There may be many barriers to engagement and incentives should be established to help overcome these barriers. Communities can feel consulted to death with no tangible outcomes. The impetus for specific engagement efforts may vary. For example, legislation may make community involvement a condition of funding. E.g. Neighbourhood renewal program or institutions like a university or business often see community organizing and mobilization as part of their mission. Community engagement goals also vary. For example, a community engagement effort could be focused on very specific health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, immunizations, or cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, an effort might have a very broad focus, with either a direct or indirect impact on health improvement and disease prevention in the community. The level at which these goals are focused has implications for managing and sustaining the engagement. For example a broader goal may enable community leaders to involve larger segments of the community, while a narrower focus may keep activities more directed and manageable. Similarly, there are several dimensions to participation by the community. Leaders of community engagement efforts need to be clear about whether they: are seeking data, information, advice, and feedback to help them design programs; ie consulting or are interested in partnering and sharing control with the community. This second kind of partnership includes being willing to address the issues that the community identifies as important, even if those are not the ones originally anticipated. It is equally important to be clear about who is to be engaged, at least initially. Is it a geographic community and all of those who reside within its boundaries? Or, is it a specific racial/ethnic group, an income-specific population, or an age group, such as youth? Is it a specific set of institutions and groups, such as faith communities, schools, or, is it a combination? Answers to these questions will begin to provide the parameters for the engagement effort.

Become knowledgeable about the community in terms of its economic conditions, political structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and experience with engagement efforts. Learn about the community's perceptions of those initiating the engagement activities.

If we accept that a brokering role means to work between the system and the community then you need a thorough knowledge of both. You need to be accepted by both and to have good working relationship with both. Increasing the accessibility of the university to community is an essential factor in building successful partnerships. You need entrance to the networks of both as well as being able to work across the gap between them as in conflict resolution and mediation It is important to learn as much about the community as possible, through both qualitative and quantitative methods from as many sources as feasible. An understanding of the community's perceived benefits and costs to participating can influence successful engagement. This understanding of the community will help leaders in the engagement effort to map community assets, develop a picture of how business is done, and identify the individuals and groups whose support is necessary. The information may also provide clues about who must be approached and involved in the initial stages of engagement. Many communities are already involved in coalitions and partnerships around specific issues so it is important to consider how trying to engage or mobilize the community around new issues may affect these pre-existing efforts. It is also helpful for those initiating the process to consider how the community perceives them (or their affiliations). Understanding these perceptions can help identify strengths that can be built upon and barriers that may need to be overcome.


Go into the community, establish relationships, build trust, work with the formal and informal leadership, and seek commitment from community organizations and leaders to create processes for mobilizing the community.

Community assets include the interests, skills, and experiences of individuals and local organizations. Community structures and members should be viewed as resources for change and action. The literature on community capacity building stresses that engagement is more likely to be sustained when appropriately nurtured. Engaging the community around decision-making and action may involve providing experts and resources to help communities develop the necessary capacities and infrastructure to analyse situations, make decisions, and take action. This assistance may involve training in leadership, facilitating meetings and discussions, and other skills-building activities. This was my role as a community based facilitator and I can see a really valuable role here for a university. Engagement is based on community support for whatever the process is trying to achieve. Potential participants need to see that respect for community members and opinion leaders are being fostered. For example, meeting with key community leaders and groups in their surroundings helps to build trust for a true partnership. Such meetings provide organizers of engagement activities with more information about the community, its concerns, and factors that will facilitate and constrain participation. Once a successful rapport is established, the meetings and exchanges with community members can snowball into an ongoing and substantive partnership. When going into the community, some efforts at community engagement find it most effective to reach out to the fullest possible range of formal and informal leaders and organizations. They try to work with all factions, expand the engagement table, and avoid becoming identified with one group. Alternatively others may find that identifying and working with key stakeholders is the most successful approach. Therefore, they engage with a smaller, perhaps more manageable, number of community members to achieve their mission. The range of individuals and groups contacted for an engagement effort depends in part on the issue at hand, the engagement strategy chosen, and whether the effort is mandated or voluntary.

It is essential for those engaging the community to adhere to the highest ethical standards. Past ethical failures have created distrust among some communities and have produced great challenges for current community organizers. If there is any potential for harm within the community through its involvement or endorsement of an intended action, the community must be educated to those risks so that an informed decision is possible. Failure to act ethically is not an option.

All aspects of community engagement must recognize and respect community diversity. Awareness of the various cultures of a community and other factors of diversity must be paramount in designing and implementing community engagement approaches.

Diversity may be related to economic, educational, employment and health status as well as to differences in cultures, language, age, mobility, literacy, and interests. Engaging these diverse populations will require the use of multiple engagement strategies. One of the most difficult yet most satisfying aspects of engaging the community is dealing with the differences in values and perceptions. In the neighbourhood program we had a strongly bonded Samoan group and a small scattered indigenous population. We had those who owned their own homes and those who never would and who could hardly keep up with the rent. A vocal group of people with disabilities a small but vocal group of public housing tenants, committed and well liked community workers. We had people who saw the development of the community meant roads and parks and getting youth off the streets. Others wanted safety for their children, education for the kids who couldn't fit into the mainstream, jobs and economic growth. I saw my role as facilitating discussion around these diverse issues but also enabling people to think differently to be inclusive and not fearful of the other. A brokering role for a university could be one whereby the university facilitates positive relationships among the various players involved in local issues: governments at all levels, private organizations, corporations, and the communities themselves. Universities may provide a forum for attitudinal changes. Just because an institution or organization introduces itself into the community does not mean that it is automatically of the community. An organization is of the community when it is run by and controlled by individuals or groups who are members of the community. This dynamic can be quite complex, communities themselves are often composed of factions that contend for power and influence. It should be recognized that internal and external forces may be at play in any engagement effort.

Remember and accept that community self-determination is the responsibility and right of all people who comprise a community. No external entity should assume it can bestow on a community the power to act in its own self-interest.

The empowerment of residents through a community development initiative creates energy and capacity for continued involvement but the question is, will resources be available in the community to sustain this? An integrated planning infrastructure is required that enables the community to have appropriate infrastructure to engage with the institution be it government or others. It is not enough that the community identifies needs and issues but there have to be processes in place to enable the community to take part in the formation and implementation of plans, policies, decisions, services and activities in response to them.

Empowerment as a way of providing ordinary people with the resources opportunities, knowledge and skills to increase their capacity to determine their own future and to participate in and affect the life of the community (Mendes 1998:41) Communities and individuals need to "own" the issues, name the problem, identify action areas, plan and implement action strategies, and evaluate outcomes. People in a community are more likely to become involved if they identify with the issues being addressed and consider them important, and feel they have influence and can make a contribution. Participation will also be easier if people encounter few barriers to participation, find that the benefits of participating outweigh the costs (e.g., time, energy, dollars), and believe the participation process and related organizational climate are open and supportive. Simply providing student support of the community building process by such activities as Student note-taking and meeting facilitation can bolster community planning. Building Community Capacity by modeling skills, such as meeting management, helping community projects to clarify goals and refine strategies, training community members to perform research, such as visual surveys, and ensuring access to usable information such as websites and newsletters, making Maps and posters to enable research findings easier to digest are all empowerment strategies.

FOR ENGAGEMENT TO SUCCEED... Partnering with the community is necessary to create change and improve issues or conditions

Partnership is defined as "a relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility, as for the achievement of a specified goal." We know from discussions on empowerment that equity in these partnerships is more likely to lead to desired outcomes. The individuals and groups involved in a partnership must feel that they each have something to contribute and something to gain. Every party in such a relationship also holds important responsibility for the final outcome of an effort.

Engaging the community is ultimately about community-driven action. While balancing with the need to create a manageable process, community action should include as many different elements of a community as possible in order to be sustained. The community engagement process is also a way to facilitate behaviour change that is acceptable to the community. As a result, change will occur in relationships and in the way institutions and individuals demonstrate their capacity and strength to act on specific issues. Coalitions, networks, and new alliances are likely to emerge. Efforts will affect public and private programs, policies, and resource allocation. Those implementing engagement efforts must be prepared to anticipate and respond to these changes. Building trust and helping communities develop the capacity and infrastructure for successful community action take time. Before individuals and organizations can gain influence and become players and partners in community decision-making and action, they may need additional resources, knowledge, and skills. Establishing infrastructure ”whether human or physical” to support connections between the university and the community is a strategic investment. When such support exists, it goes a long way to sustaining partnerships over the long term. Given that partnerships do not emerge overnight, but rather may take years to take root, coordinating entities on campus play a vital role. They also go a long way in demonstrating the institution's ongoing commitment to working with the community

A key question in determining evaluation strategies asks what is the most appropriate mix of strategies and tools for a particular evaluation. There is the risk that real relationship building based on respect, trust and commitment, becomes short-circuited by the pressure to produce outcomes quickly and efficiently. The most serious outcome in such cases will be further alienation and a sense of being used. A university can work creatively with community members to identify and select indicators that describe the impact of activities and that are meaningful to community residents and organizations. The use of many different strategies involving quantitative and qualitative data is recommended. The context of a project is highly significant to an evaluation plan. An evaluation plan for community engagement projects is effective when they allow stakeholders to focus on why an initiative works or not and for whom and in what circumstances. Such a participatory evaluation model is then seen within the context of a learning process that enables stakeholders to learn about project design, implementation, and assessment. There is a wonderful teaching and modelling role here for a university. To have a clear, validated outline of project objectives, immediate outcomes and activities that relate to this is a valuable resource for planning, sourcing additional funding and implementing a monitoring or impact evaluation in the future. An awareness of influencing factors within the project is empowering and could lead to creative solutions. Being able to name those factors outside of the agency's control can lead to accessing outside bodies for assistance and advocacy. (Woodland, J. & Hind, J. 2002: 5)


There is no doubt that developing stronger university - community partnerships will take time, investment and hard work. But the effort is so worthwhile. A university is a place of learning - to engage with community in a brokering role is to collaboratively build knowledge that in turn improves practice and ultimately translates into stronger communities overall.