In CFICE’s “Conversations With” series, we interview community-campus engagement (CCE) practitioners to get their insights on CCE. Interview conducted by Chelsea Nash, CFICE Communications Research Assistant.

Portrait of Isabelle Kim.This month, CFICE was happy to speak with Isabelle Kim, the Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Community Partnerships (CCP), where she contributes to the Centre’s mission to “work in partnership with students, staff, faculty, communities, and non-profit and public organizations to catalyze and sustain socially-responsive community-engaged learning and research.” Isabelle also recently chaired a CFICE CCE regional roundtable that was co-hosted by the University of Toronto and CFICE on May 1st. Here, she discusses the outcome of the roundtable, her own perspective on what it means to put community first, and what challenges lay ahead for campus-community engagement (CCE) in Ontario.

What does being ‘community first’ mean to you?

It means putting community-identified priorities at the heart of the project and using an assets-based approach throughout the relationship.

How do you try and embody that community lens on a daily basis?

My role as Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Community Partnerships is situated at the border between community and university. My lens needs to be bi-focal, if you will, to see things from both sides. Other than paying close attention to core tenets of community engagement principles including partnership, respect and reciprocity, I try to ensure that the structures and processes enable positive outcomes for all stakeholders engaged in community-campus initiatives: students, faculty, staff, the community partner organizations, and the communities concerned. I look for opportunities for synergies, and collective impact.

How do you balance the goals of your institution with the goals of community partners?

Ideally there would be shared aspirations, values and goals at the outset between both community and university partners. That being said, it does not mean that both the community and the institution will share all the same goals. Each party may have their unique, context-specific reasons for engaging in the partnership. It is important to take the time to have honest conversations and address critical questions: what are our organizational cultures and contexts like? What are our different needs, priorities and goals and how we can balance all of these equitably? What goals do we have in common and how can these be achieved in a way that results in positive outcomes for each partner and the communities involved? How do both parties see this community-campus partnership? What are their expectations for outputs and outcomes? What change do we want to be and see in the world as a result of this initiative? How do we want to work with and learn from one another?

What do you think are the best strategies for ensuring that power between academic institutions and community partners is equally shared?

Listening to a guided walking First Story Toronto tour led by Jill Carter at the Toronto CCE Regional Roundtable.

Self-reflexivity. Paying attention to dynamics of power and privilege in relationships between institutions and individuals involved.

Valuing different assets and knowledges; the myriads of different ways of knowing and being that each partner brings to the table. In short, walking the talk of ‘knowledge democracy’.

Ensuring that the governance aspect of the project is collectively conceptualized and actualized with great care, and that critical questions are addressed: Who owns the knowledge, the outputs, and the outcomes that may result from this partnership? Who will get recognition for the work? How are the resources allocated and shared through the project?

Having processes in place for constructive criticism, and if need be, lodging complaints in a safe way; having sound conflict resolution mechanisms in place throughout the partnership.

You have a lot of experience in international development work that could be considered more ‘global’ than ‘local.’ How do you think this experience lends itself to community engagement?

The local and global are interconnected – so much so that we now have a term for it: “glocal.” Nowhere is the glocal more apparent than large urban centres like the Greater Toronto Area, home to so many diasporic communities. Community engagement is intrinsic to global social justice work. I see principles of community engagement as common threads running through all of my experiences, fundamental principles of partnership, respect, reciprocity, as well as the following values, qualities and skills:

Interconnectedness: between local, national, and global; economic, environmental, political, social and cultural issues are all inextricably linked to one another; as are issues of class, gender, sexuality, (intersectionality) etc..

Complexity:  Social justice problems and the structures and dynamics that perpetuate these, whether at the local or international scale are complex. These problems require complex solutions that address the root causes and approaches that are critical, creative, and interdisciplinary approaches, and a diversity of knowledges and perspectives.

Imagination and hope: A ‘mantra’ of sorts that has sustained me throughout challenging moments comes from a teaching of my  Anthropology of Development Professor’s (Janice Boddy), “Don’t get cynical, get critical”. These words still echo in my mind when things seem hopeless – like when the Taliban shut down a community partner’s maternal and child health clinics in Afghanistan when I was working at PWS&D.  Hope and imagination are necessary to avoid being paralyzed with despair and cynicism.

Last but not least, activities and skills like event planning, project management, communications, research, and qualities like adaptability, flexibility, diplomacy, and patience, are useful in both local and international community contexts.

As a follow-up, how do you find international development work and community engagement differ?

That is a good question and difficult to answer as both are highly intertwined; community engagement is intrinsic to community development locally and globally and they have many actors in common.  Differences that arise are mostly due to differences in context including language and culture. Terms like ‘best practices’ are problematic given the diversity of community engagement or CCE and international development settings. There are different understandings of ‘community’, ‘community engagement’, ‘learning’, ‘development’, etc,. I was just speaking with a professor from Japan, from Osaka University, and he was saying that ‘community-engaged learning’ as a term doesn’t exist in Japanese. In Japanese it means something like ‘working in communion to promote social cohesion.’ How one approaches CCE would very much depend on how the roles of ‘community’ and ‘university’ are understood in any given context.

There is a lot of Western-centric language in the community engagement and international development fields and literature. I have started exploring literature from South America and South Africa to learn from different approaches.

Discussing CCE at the Toronto CCE Regional Roundtable.

You chaired a regional roundtable in Toronto on May 1, which was co-hosted by U of T and CFICE. What did you hope to achieve, and what do you think came out of those discussions?

One of the main goals was to help facilitate multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral conversations about CCE. We wanted to bring together all the different actors involved in community-campus engagement: students, faculty and staff who do this boundary work between universities and communities, and community partners, and also people involved at the provincial policy level. We had over 50 people in show up from community organizations, universities and colleges from Toronto, Ottawa, London, Hamilton, Waterloo, and elsewhere and from the Council for Ontario Universities (COU).  We also wanted to get a picture of what the CCE landscape looked like in the region; understand the gaps and needs, and explore possible ways to leverage common opportunities, strengths, and common aspirations in order to strengthen the CCE culture regionally and beyond.

Right now we’re in the last stages of compiling all the responses and all the notes to present the summary of our discussions at the national roundtable event in Ottawa next week. There are contextual differences in the region such that I do not anticipate a blanket one-size-fits-all list of recommendations to emerge but many good ideas were put on the table and connections were made. Stay tuned for our May 1st summary report. Despite our differences there seems to be a commonly shared interest in continuing the conversation and learning from one another.

Holistically speaking, in your view, what are the biggest challenges or gaps in CCE either provincially or nationally that need attention? And to that end, what have been some challenges that have been successfully worked on to improve CCE on a broad scale?

Some of my earlier responses speak to some of the challenges with CCE and to these I might add limited resources and information. Ironically, in a world that is supposedly ‘connected’ or ‘wired’ as never before, it can be difficult to make connections between students, staff and faculty and community partner organizations locally, never mind provincially or nationally. Because people are not always aware of who is working on what, where and when, we are not always able to leverage the synergies that can come from CCE collaborations.

The journey of the Toronto CCE Regional Roundtable

In Ontario, an upcoming challenge–and opportunity at a provincial level–is the experiential and work-integrated learning opportunities for post-secondary students. This mandate provides an opportunity to boost community-campus engagement. At the same time it comes with significant challenges for not only the university but communities as it may exert more ‘demand’ for student placements on community organizations. How can we create meaningful experiential learning opportunities for students that respond to community-identified priorities in a reciprocal and sustainable way? We can explore new approaches to CCE in post-secondary education, including new models to teaching community-engaged learning (CEL) courses. I would not want to replace place-based courses but would like to explore the creation of more online and even international opportunities through local and global collaborations. Hart House at the University of Toronto started a global commons’ initiative to enable online conversations between universities and community partners in South and North America and South Africa. Global Commons was not part of a CEL course but it shows how online platforms provide ways of having international forms of CCE.

I just came back from the 8th Living Knowledge network conference in Budapest, where the ‘research shop’ or ‘science shop’ model, which is more popular in Europe, was discussed. This model has helped to broaden the scale of CCE participation and visibility in certain European countries and I would like to learn more about its potential uses here, or how we could modify it to suit the Canadian contexts. Some Canadian universities have similar structures, for example, McMaster and Guelph here in Ontario.

Do you have an example of successful CCE in Canada that might stand out to you as a highlight? If so, what do you think the takeaways from that instance would be?

Walls to Bridges is a program in which university courses are taught, usually in prisons, in which half the students are incarcerated and half the students are university students. The Associate Director of the Ethics, Society and Law programme, Dr. Simone Weil Davis taught a Walls to Bridges class this past winter. I was invited by Dhvani Ramanujam, one of the students in this class, who is also the co-Chair of the Centre for Community Partnerships’ Student Advisory Committee, to attend the last class. It was such a pleasure and honour to witness the transformative learning that had taken place amongst this group of students. I learned so much from just participating in this one class and it inspired me to rethink what and how I teach. I would love to see more Canadian universities take part in this program.