Our first guest post for 2012 is by Melissa Phillips who has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk.
If you are working on an industry Linkage project, or have ever had to develop a research proposal, you’ve no doubt had to write a line or two about ‘community’. ‘Working with the community’, ‘engaging the community’, ‘giving back to the community’… you know the drill.
Researchers can and do have positive and rewarding interactions with communities and vice versa. Having worked on both sides of the divide, I really believe that partnerships between academics and communities are vital. Some of my most enjoyable interactions have been running, or participating in, a focus group. As a community worker I’ve loved listening to ideas that researchers can voice – ideas that I’ve not dared to think. Now as a postgraduate student I value the time and patience that community groups give to the questions that I ask.
Like any relationship, research-community partnerships require a bit of effort. I think that the trickiest part isn’t those few sentences that you draft for your research proposal – it’s putting them into practice.
In the past, I’ve managed a refugee settlement program and worked for a national refugee policy and advocacy organisation. What I’ve written below is based on my experience in the refugee and migrant services community sector. It focuses on the broader aspects of relationship building and will be followed up (if you promise to comment nicely on this post) with a more ‘how-to’ guide on working with communities, especially getting research participants. But first you’ve got to get your foot in the door!