University community engagement

Yesterday I attended a workshop at Uni with Barbara Ferman from University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia on “Community Engagement: Opportunities, consideration, and benefits”.

An interesting difference between the USA and Australian context is that in the USA, when universities talk about community engagement, they normally mean engaging marginalised groups. In Australia, community engagement can be anyone – and often refers to engaging businesses and industry.

Much of her work with the University in this context was based on community capacity building. She used a definition of community capacity building from Arizona State Uni:

Enabling community-based organisations and institutions to become strong and effective by providing support, training and access to resources and information.

This definition focuses on organisations and institutions and I’m not sure how community members fit into this definition (although it was clearly a large focus of her work).

I must admit I do find it strange that we didn’t all introduce ourselves – there were only 20 people so it wouldn’t have taken long and it would have been good to know who was in the room. It was great to see that not everyone in the room was from the Uni. (And it was great to meet one of my online students there.)

She suggested that community engagement gives students:

  • Real world experience
  • Exposure to other communities, culture and practices
  • The opportunity to develop civic skills and commitment
  • Skills that develop them professionally
  • New networks and links.

In terms of community engagement she suggested it is important to the think about:

  • The language we use. (I thought it was slightly ironic that her next words were: “What would a common discource around the engaged uni look like?” Most marginalised communities I come in contact with would use the term discourse.) To be fair her audience was largely academic.
  • The community we are focusing on. (e.g. Which community are we focussing on?, Who defines the community?)
  • The motivations for community engagement.
  • The available assets and expertise..

Much of the time was spent in small group discussion and we had some interesting conversations. At one stage in our small group we were discussing the IAP2’s (the International Association of Public Participation) spectrum of public participation (Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, Empower) and we thought the Unis quite often inform and consult and consider this community engagement. While these might be the foundation of community engagement, for real community engagement, we have to move up the levels to involve, collaboarate and empower.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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