How does power operate in community-campus engagement (CCE)? To what extent do the various ways that we convene CCE within CFICE allow us to work within power relations responsibly in order to get the work done effectively?

What big questions! Still, these are the questions I have been sitting with over the last few days at the Community-Campus Partnerships for Health conference in Chicago.

I have heard stories about the power of academic researchers – those who hold the purse strings of research projects that are intended to be “community-based”. I’ve seen academics cry as they speak of their inability to get their institutions and funders to get resources to community participants. I’ve heard about the informal navigation of power relations to ‘get things done’ by ‘bending the rules’. I’ve heard about the precarious position of student research assistants in projects. I’ve heard it ‘all depends’, that different forms of agency matters, that language matters, and that context matters.  

These observations led me to want to break open the dichotomy of campus/community and really unpack the different types of agents involve in this work, the forms of power each has access to, as well as their vulnerabilities in these relationships. I’d like to see a table that includes public health institutions as well as networks of grassroots activists, students, professors, university research officers, and institutional funders and more. What forms of power does each of these actors encounter and/or mobilize in their day to day practices?  Geri started such a table… maybe we can keep developing it collectively?

In the CFICE story-telling session and workshop on Thursday, we were given a lot of great ideas from participants at CCPH about how power ‘works’ in CCE, whether or not power-sharing needs to be explicitly addressed in this work, and some of the strategies that folks use to address questions of power in order to be fair to one another as well as effective.  On the functioning of power, I found participants grounded in different theoretical approaches. For some power is ‘held’ by specific actors, for others it is ‘web-like’ and relational. Others envision power through metaphors like a merry-go-round. Power can mean churning around in circles without any sense of who is doing the spinning or why.

In the midst of all of this talk of power, we heard lots about how people work within power-relations to get the job done as best they can. These strategies included the informal ones, such as the centrality of relationship building and then working through the back channels of universities and other institutions to make CCE happen well. We also heard about formal mechanisms for ensuring power is shared, like partnership agreements, contracts with RAs, data-sharing agreements and the establishment of partnership principles. What a lot of great ideas to collect and examine for lessons 

These discussions led me to wonder about the strengths, and the limitations, of the various models that I see at work in CFICE.  Again, another table comes to mind. I see so many forms of community-campus engagement, with different constellations of actors and roles. How capable are these various models at implementing the insights we’re learning about how to share power responsibly (both formally and informally)? Are some better, or at least more transferable, than others? What are the limitations of our models?  (And what new models can such an examination get us to?)

Among the models I see at work in CFICE, we have a Violence Against Women hub that actively tries to keep its community partners out of the messiness of an academic research project with lots of institutional burdens. I understand why they do this, but does it mean that some important decisions don’t include the perspectives of key voices? I don’t know, but it may be worth further discussion by those most affected. Then we have the ‘brokerage’ models, which are varied in CFICE. The TCCBE has a particular way of working that sees their organization very much ‘between’ community and university. Connie Nelson and her team at the Food Security Research Network in Thunder Bay see themselves as working ‘in community’, bringing particular resources and capacities (e.g. mobilizing courses and students), but defining directions alongside others with a shared vision of the future. Then there is Katherine Piggott at Region of Waterloo Public Health  who plays a facilitator role setting up internships and student placements. Her work is different structurally from the TCCBE and FSRN, but there are lots of similarities too. All work among other actors as ‘gate-keepers’ maybe, but are also ‘bridge-builders’ and ‘conveners’ (Katherine’s preferred word) of the work. Finally, we have various people who do the bridge-building work on their own, off the sides of their desks. Trish and I at Carleton both do this in different ways.

The questions I set out at the top are really too big. There are various ways of thinking about power, different constellations of actors involved, and many ways of undertaking the work of CCE. Still, I feel like there is a question in all of this that we can tackle together as a way of starting the cross-hub analysis. Such work will allow us to see if we even have the vocabulary to talk with each other, and whether we’re gathering the data needed to make comparisons among models. It would build the space for dialogue so that we can learn from one another’s experiences and figure out what we’re getting from such a huge project that can ‘contribute’ to the bigger debate about whether and how CCE can do its part for progressive social change.

How can we hone our questions about power in CCE so that we have something we can really chew on together?

Reflections on power I community campus engagement – penned on May 3, 2014 by Peter Andrée, co-lead of the Community Food Security hub