Community Engaged Research (CER) is a different and relatively new method of research. It foregrounds community partnerships in the development and execution of research, rather than the typical researcher and participant relationships that we usually think of. I decided to have a conversation with Dr. Jon Corbett, a UBCO geography professor whose course, GEOG 491H: Community Engaged Research, I took last semester. We discussed the many different sides of community engaged research, its potential for new pathways to knowledge production, barriers, and its place in academia. I believe that this is an important research method for UBCO students to be aware of, especially as many students would like to explore ways that directly benefit communities and build meaningful partnerships with them. This article is based on the insights that arose from my conversation with Dr. Corbett.
Typical forms of research have a top-down approach which establishes a hierarchical relationship between the researcher and research participants. In the past, this has led to different communities being over-researched, receiving no benefit, and often left misrepresented. This is where CER has the potential to make meaningful change. The communities are now able to inform the research project and work side by side with the researcher. This may lead to more accurate representations of the community which may otherwise go unseen. Additionally, one of the primary goals of CER is to directly benefit the community that chooses to participate. There is a large potential to foreground Indigenous involvement and knowledges still embedded in their communities. Academics no longer have an exclusive right to determine what is and is not important to study.
The communities are not the only stakeholders that benefit from this method of research. Academics, especially young ones, also have a mandate of required articles they need to publish. This method of research allows for equitable collaborations with community partners to potentially publish with them. This also fulfills the need of the university to produce papers. CER can also help students engage with research in communities around them. This allows them to gain practical and useful skills in the field and makes them feel like they can make real change even as an undergraduate.
Dr. Corbett became involved with CER during his Master’s Degree which focused on forestry. Environmental degradation and Indigenous land rights concerned Dr. Corbett, so he was interested in giving power back to Indigenous communities that lived in the forest. The goal was to give solutions so that these communities could manage the forests and benefit financially from the timber and non-timber products that would have otherwise been extracted by large companies and given to shareholders in large cities around the world. The emphasis was on relationship building with the community members, thereby avoiding the top-down hierarchical structure and the potential arrogance that can come from a researcher using another method.
Dr. Corbett’s example of where this method of research worked well is with our class project last semester. We worked together with the Social Planning Council for the North Okanagan to give new ideas on how to address the issue of homelessness in Vernon. We, a small class of undergraduate and graduate students, were able to produce an easily readable document with 15 actionable and innovative homelessness initiatives in small communities in Canada and across the globe. We presented this directly to the committee within the City of Vernon, and this project had a massive impact. The document caught the attention of bylaw officers particularly as it comes to vehicular homelessness. The issues and initiatives have been raised to the city council. A project has been funded and launched for a web-based solution to show available services to those with lived experiences of homelessness. This project has been launched and is a collaboration between UBCO, the city bylaw office, and the Social Planning Council for the North Okanagan. By taking on this project, we learnt a lot about CER, homelessness, Vernon, and we were able to benefit the community in ways you would not expect a small group of undergraduates and graduates to accomplish.
Some may critique CER as not being rigorous and objective enough, and that may very well be the case in some instances. To clarify, CER can be very rigorous, especially as it comes to the collection of qualitative data and the methods in which certain types of information are recorded. However, there are times when rigor can be a barrier to obtaining accurate information. CER allows you to build meaningful relationships with the community, not just extractive ones. This means that the community members may feel more comfortable about giving information and expressing emotion which can also give insights that would be unavailable using other methods.
With the building of relationships comes a new set of ethical concerns that may arise. Like any other research project, there must be approval from an ethics board to carry out research. This may be a greater task due to the relationships between researcher and community research partners becoming more personal. It may be difficult to balance these relationships with what is allowed within the rigid legal margins of the ethics board. Additionally, the researcher always must keep in mind confidentiality. Certain groups may not want pieces of information to be published and the researcher must make informed and ethical decisions. However, you cannot assume that all researchers have a set list of ethics and rules to abide by. Issues in transparency can also come up, as it is important to fully divulge all the objectives for the research and the stakeholders involved. The complexity of ethics in CER has the potential to be greater than in other forms of research.
CER has come a long way in the past two decades and has been picked up by many academics, but the focus on monetary gain for universities remains a barrier. CER may bring in less money than other forms of research because it zeroes in on smaller communities. This can influence which projects get the green light. Furthermore, CER draws on expertise from many different faculties. This makes it hard to position yourself in one particular faculty, which in turn makes it harder to garner support. CER has grown so much in the past two decades because of strong support from faculty and within the university. Stronger advocacy can help bolster support and funding for CER in the future, which can create more opportunities for collaborative and meaningful change with and within communities.
Often in research, we do not get to see communities directly benefit from research. Community Engaged Research bolsters university and community collaboration in a way that benefits all stakeholders and challenges the traditional hierarchical relationships that other methods of research may uphold. CER has the potential to contest who can produce valuable knowledge and can potentially more accurately solve issues that communities are invested in, because their knowledges are valued and directly inform the research. Though there is a lot to be done in terms of addressing ethical concerns and project approval, I believe that CER has the potential to benefit students and researchers alike in creating a safer and more inclusive environment that prioritizes and values different knowledges and the people who hold them.