By Chelsea Nash, CFICE Communications RA

This is part three of a three-part series on the ABC’s of CCE Partnerships, where we share some of the most important things to keep in mind when engaging in a CCE Partnership. Here, we’ve identified some strategies for sharing power. This article draws from interviews and focus groups conducted in 2015-2016 as part of CFICE’s year 4 project evaluation, and includes common themes from across CFICE’s five Phase I hubs. 

A close up shot of a black chess queen on a chess board in front of a toppled white chess king.In the first two parts of this series, sharing responsibilities and sharing resources, the question of power has been present throughout. Power dynamics in community-campus engagement (CCE) partnerships are important to be aware of, because if left unchecked, they can leave a lasting and damaging impact on community-campus engagement (CCE) partners.

Power dynamics can be managed and mitigated through building an awareness of power imbalances, openly discussing how power might impact the partnership, and by those holding positions of power using their privilege to empower the voices of others.

This article explores how power dynamics were at play within CFICE partnerships, and the strategies that were employed to manage power imbalances with a community first perspective.

Self-awareness of power dynamics

The first step in equalizing power is to develop an awareness of any power imbalances that might exist in a CCE partnership. The power dynamics and how they play out will differ depending on context, but the practice of being conscious of how power dynamics are impacting any given relationship can always apply.

For instance, within CFICE’s Community Environmental Sustainability Hub in Peterborough, “the role and power of the university and the perception of the university’s influence was a source of tension”, according to one community partner. It’s important to note here that the perception of a power imbalance or undue influence can have just as much of an effect on a partnership as an actual power imbalance.

In this instance, the perceived power imbalance was visualized when the number of academics and university affiliates “significantly outnumbered” representation from the community. The university affiliates may have simply been very engaged in the partnership and wanting to demonstrate this enthusiasm through their presence. However, there was discussion about whether or not the strong academic presence affected community members’ comfort in expressing opinions. Whatever the intention of the academic partners, the perception was that there was a power imbalance, and it may have had an impact on community participation in the discussion.

A scale with the left plate tipped significantly down and the right plate tipped significantly up.

A power imbalance can be real or perceived.

Taking steps to consciously equalize power imbalances is important in developing an effective partnership. For instance, the Poverty Reduction Hub demonstrated a self-awareness of power dynamics by making all decisions with input from both community and academic partners. They also worked to identify and discuss the principles they had been either consciously or unconsciously adopting to equalize power. This type of discussion ensured that efforts to equalize power were front of mind for everyone involved, which naturally lead to a more power-conscious partnership.

Academic institutions and partners, who are often seen to be the players with the power in a CCE partnership, should aim for self-awareness when it comes to their level of participation and representation within a partnership. Too much representation can cause the community partner to feel overpowered. Developing a self-awareness of power dynamics should lead to open and honest discussions between partners to ensure equalizing power becomes a priority for the group.

That said, these sorts of open and honest discussions can only happen when there is a foundation of trust.

The importance of trusting relationships

CFICE’s Violence Against Women Hub found that the success of the partnership was hugely dependent on trust. For partners in this hub, overcoming the inherent distrust that community felt towards academic partners as a result of prior experience with academic research was a slow process, but one that was deemed extremely worthwhile.

One of the academic partners in this hub described the benefit of coming to understand more about “why people in the community might not want partnerships with people in the university,” because it helped the academic partner “think about [her] own interaction.”

Discussing problems that were experienced as part of prior community-academic relationships allowed for the Violence Against Women hub to develop more understanding of potential problematic power dynamics. It also allowed the Violence Against Women academics to approach their partnerships with community in ways that allowed community to re-develop trust.

Similarly, in the Community Environmental Sustainability Hub, community partners made sure that conversations happened as they were needed, because “the need to provide space to air issues, questions, concerns” was a necessary component of a trusting and productive relationship.

Power and control in CCE relationships: Whose voices are heard?

A tug-of-war game between one strong yellow stick figure and three weaker stick figures.

Academic voices are often prioritized. Sharing power is about advancing community voices equally.

Academic knowledge is often privileged: It is usually academics who apply for and receive funding grants, and it is academics whose voices are heeded by institutions like government. As one community partner in the Violence Against Women Hub noted, “when you are talking about a research project, you are talking about who is in control, and it’s not us…ever.”

The feeling that the academic partner is in control of the research project can be amplified if the academic is paying members of the community for their participation. One academic partner in this hub reported how, “once we could pay the participants…then they felt like we were their bosses. Things shifted.” Because they were being paid, the community partners felt that it was ultimately up to the academic whether or not the project proceeded at all.

Therefore, academic partners and community partners engaging in CCE need to be mindful of the potential for “frontline experience [to be] overshadowed by academic expertise in research.”

In the Violence Against Women Hub, one academic partner used their privileged voice to empower the community partner and give them a platform that would traditionally be reserved for academics. When the academic partner was invited to speak at a conference on a topic they knew the community partner had more expertise on, they advocated for a spot for the community partner at the conference. This helped to change the perception that the academic is always the expert, and allows the community partners to have their voices heard.

Additionally, within the context of CCE, it can be important for academics to avoid measuring their work in terms of academic publications. As one academic partner said, keeping a community first mindset means recognizing that “it’s done in this community and it’s sent back to the community.”

Where community power lies

CFICE’s Knowledge Mobilization hub focused primarily on promoting effective communication amongst the other CFICE hubs. As a result, this hub took into account the differences in power held by partners. Ultimately, different models and approaches to CCE provide different ways to approach equalizing power relations. While academic power may hold certain privileges—access to funding and other resources, for instance—it’s important to remember that community partners and communities are not powerless.

Geri Briggs*, former CFICE Co-Director, said, “community power rests in connectedness to networks and individuals, in application of theory. Communities have the power to say ‘no’ thereby decreasing academe’s capacity to fulfill community engagement mandates. Academic power rests in sustainability, multiplicity of resources, research capacity.”

Ultimately, power differentials and imbalances can be corrected by using a community first approach that prioritizes frequent discussions and conscious efforts to equalize power and empower community partners and communities.

*The attributed quotes used in this article came from CFICE’s Midterm Review Report, which was posted publicly to our website in February, 2016.