by Kate Higginson, CFICE Communications Research Assistant

In the initial stages of getting involved in a community-campus engagement (CCE) project, community-based organizations (CBOs) may feel intimidated, or that they have little influence in their relationship with academic partners. This power imbalance may be real or perceived. Within these engagements, trust is essential among partners to ensure that the partnership is equitable and valuable for everyone involved.

To start the process of building trust, one of the most important aspects that needs to be discussed is potential power dynamics that may exist within CCE relationships. All members of a CCE partnership have a role to play with respect to examining their own influence and privilege, and in negotiating how best to share and exercise this power for the good of the project.

Potential power differences between community and academic partners

Within the academic context, faculty and students both need to be acutely aware of their privileged access to supports within the post-secondary institution (PSI), and how this access to resources and funding can significantly differ from the situations of their community partners. For example, faculty and student partners are often compensated for the time they devote to CCE research through salaries, research stipends, grants, or hourly wages. These resources allow students and faculty more freedom in arranging their time to devote to CCE-related interests. Community partners, on the other hand, may not be compensated by their own organizations for this type of work; in fact, their participation may sometimes be fully voluntary. As a result, community partners may have limited time or capacity to engage in a full range of CCE activities, such as attending meetings, providing written or verbal support on research and governance processes, or crafting research outputs that will be most relevant to community. This imbalance can lead to academic needs and interests being unintentionally prioritized within projects, simply because the community’s voice is not able to be as present within CCE efforts.

Community and academic partners also work on different project timelines — whereas academic time and resources are subject to the academic calendar, community organizations are beholden to timelines that allow them to best serve their clients. Whether it’s a community partner not responding to academic inquiries during busy summer months, or an academic partner only resurfacing on email after conference season has ended, this divergence in timelines can lead to the feeling that each other’s partner is controlling (or hampering) progress on collaborative efforts.

Further, community and academic partners often have different needs with respect to when and how to share the learnings that are being generated through their partnerships. For example, academics need to publish journal articles to validate their research in the eyes of academic hiring committees, whereas community partners often request more accessible plain language output formats such as reports, videos, and other content that is often considered “grey literature” (and therefore not necessarily scholarly or legitimate) by academic tenure and promotion committees. Adding to this discrepancy is the fact that most CCE funding funnels through academic institutions; as a result, academic partners need to really think about the decisions surrounding what types of outputs are prioritized, particularly with respect to which outputs get funded.

Finally, it is important to note that power and privilege do not just rest with academics and students. Community organizations regularly hold the key to a lot of valuable knowledge about, and access to, the communities and issues being impacted by CCE projects. In fact, without community input and participation in CCE projects, the impacts of any research are likely to be less effective and useful to the community.

Overall, self-awareness is the first step in ensuring an equitable relationship among partners. The second step involves opening the door to direct conversations about power dynamics. Whether we hold the role of community partners, faculty or students, outlined below are some questions we can ask ourselves and of our partnerships as we navigate the power dynamics of our community-campus relationships and work together to achieve shared goals.

Questions CBOs can ask about power

The first thing any CBO should consider prior to entering a CCE partnership is whether or not you feel respected by your proposed academic partner. Choosing an academic partner who is community-first will go a long way towards ensuring your needs are met in a respectful and considerate manner.

Beyond deciding to work with a community-first academic partner, you can also help balance power in CCE partnerships by requesting to be included in the governance of the project. Collaboratively figuring out how project decisions will be made and how the team will communicate will also allow you to ensure your organization’s needs are being met. As well, ask for a clear sense of how many hours each partner will be expected to contribute, and at what time during the year, so expectations can be properly addressed and managed.

It is also important to ensure a community spot at the table when it comes to project budgeting, so you are aware of how the money is being spent. It is important to be part of planning meetings as well, as an equitable partnership begins with joint-decision making. Surprisingly, this might not always occur to your academic partners, so be sure that you are involved in the planning process. Be sure to ask about project timelines, as well as what academic partners’ exit will look like. Your academic partners may not have considered the effects that an abrupt exit (at the time of their deadline) will have on your organization and your project. Ensure that academic involvement will be phased out responsibly so that your work can continue independently beyond their labour.

It is also helpful to be aware of opportunities to request access to academic resources like meeting rooms or dedicated student research assistants. Your campus partners also likely have access to databases through their library that would be very costly to subscribe to independently. In general, ask about the range of research resources – physical or online – that are available.

Questions faculty can ask about power

As a faculty member of a PSI, you may not always realize the extent of the power you potentially hold within CCE projects. Yes, you must ensure that your funders are satisfied with the type of research being conducted, however, there are also opportunities for funders to listen to you, and they may hold your opinion in (relatively) high regard. Within this position, it is often up to you to ensure that community voices are being heard in CCE environments and in regard to funder expectations, to share resources, ensure accessible spaces for your community partners, and to assist community partners in finding avenues for future funding.

Start off by using your position as a sort of intermediary in order to help establish clear roles among partners, and to ask all parties about their expectations for the project. What do your funders require, and more importantly, what are your community partners hoping to receive from this relationship? Ask how the goals of the CBO can best be achieved and what they require from you in terms of support.

As an academic, your goal is to gather as much knowledge as possible. Remember that your community partners are also very knowledgeable and often hold a breadth of valuable experience. Ask them how best to engage with them and the communities they serve in order to ensure their voices are heard. Remember that the research you publish plays an integral role in knowledge mobilization. What you publish (be it an article or a book) will have an impact on the community. In order to include CBOs in the process, ask how best to both engage and feature your community partners in your work.

Also, be sure to use your relationships with funders in order to request more funding for the CBO. When you apply for future research funding, think about what would best benefit your community partners? What type of research are they looking for, and how can you use your position to provide them with access? If your research shows that a specific community-based project is working, make sure that your funders are aware of this.

Much of the power imbalance between academics and community-based organizations comes from a lack of access to resources. Ask around your institution to find out what resources might be shared with your community partners. Then, ask your community partners about the types of resources to which they would like access.

Physical access is also often an important consideration for partners; when planning an event or a meeting, ask your community partners what venue would be best suited to their needs. Institutions can be daunting and difficult to get to, so remember that while you may have a parking pass and know the campus layout, valuable community partners likely do not. Ask when and where in-person meetings could best be held, and about any other ways that you might respectfully accommodate your partners’ needs.

Questions students can ask about power

Though you may not realize it, as a student you also hold power in a CCE relationship. With this in mind, it is important to take some time to think about the influence and privilege that you may have within the relationship, for example, such as being paid to attend meetings, or having free access to library resources for completing literature reviews. It is also helpful to think about ways you can use these privileges to enhance your engagement with community.

Be sure to ask specific questions about the goals of the CBO and what type of assistance they require from you. From there you can figure out how best to provide them with what they need. Think outside the box too. For example, if there are specific skills or knowledge your community partner would like to gain that also align with your personal skills, training, or educational needs and interests, you can research free courses, workshops, and lectures that might be provided on campus and make a point of attending so you can then share the information with your community partner.

Provided you are comfortable with this type of role, you are also really well positioned to serve as an intermediary between faculty and the CBO, as you are most likely to be on the ground floor of the project. Ensuring all team members are communicating with each other regularly will be an important, power-balancing contribution you can provide to the CCE project. Work with both your community partner and your faculty partner to figure out how best you can provide this type of assistance in a way that respects the time and expertise you bring to the table.

In conclusion, whether you’re a student, a community partner, or a faculty member, you can hold a significant amount of power. It is up to each member of the partnership to work together to ensure that it is equitable.