Community House Rules
17 January 2012 17 Comments
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!
When it’s good it’s good
Shared agendas– Community groups need independent, well-researched data – the sort of data that your research project is undoubtedly going to provide. And you wouldn’t be able to undertake some kinds of research without community input, advice and support (financial or otherwise). Surely that’s a simple enough justification for mutually rewarding research agendas?
Research is advocacy – A good number of community groups are reliant on government-funding that may come with restrictions on advocacy. It is likely that small to mid-sized community groups won’t have the in-house capacity to do long-term research of the kind you’re offering to do. But do your homework before you approach them. Get to know what they’ve done in the past [Stop Press: even if it’s not ranked or cited, it still counts as research in the community sector and it will be publicly available on their websites.]
Getting it off your chest – People working in the community sector know the larger issues they or their clients face, but don’t have the time to invest in advocacy or broader research. They don’t have libraries with subscriptions to journals and even if they did, and tried to move forward on an issue, they’d likely be told that they were biased. So when you come along and offer to work with them, it can be like a dream come true.
Status – Governments love academics (or a policy person may have a soft spot for the university they studied at…). I’ve seen them positively drool as a Professor gives a 10 minute lecture that would bore 1st year students. So remember, as a researcher you bring status and clout that many organisations would scramble to be associated with. But don’t get too carried away with yourselves…
When it’s bad it is horrible
Are you speaking English? – There are different languages spoken in academia and the community sectors. Jargons and acronyms litter the paths of rejected research proposals, so you will have to work hard to find a common language that does not make your potential community partner feel stupid. They need to be reassured that you understand their issues and concerns without patronising them.
Money – If you’ve read this far you’ll probably appreciate the financial status of community organisations. Many organisations operate on a thin annual budget with low administrative overheads and so you will need to consider the full range of in-kind costs they can offer you. [And yes, before you ask, even $50,000 is a LOT of money. It would pay for a first year qualified welfare or community development worker under the SACS Award.] So think outside the box of how you can cooperate in a research partnership through the offer of a desk, meeting space, access to research participants and senior policy staff time. Throw in a few chestnuts like giving a briefing to a team meeting or network. Some conferences even have scholarships for professionals working outside academe that could provide a chance to co-present on your research.
Who is the busiest? – Community groups are busy too. Having worked in both environments I am going to potentially jeopardise my chances at an academic career and say that some researchers have no idea how busy and demanding work is when you have clients with real-life problems on your door on a daily basis. This means that even if a community representative can carve out the time to meet, they might not be in the right head-space to think about three-year longitudinal projects. Please forgive them and show understanding [Note: this does not mean in any way that you try to empathise. Sharing tales about the burden of your student load is not helpful. Nor is talking about how you need to go away from December to February to write.]
Death by outputs – This point might have gone in the ‘good’ section because everyone these days faces the same demands for outputs and key performance indicators (KPIs). The main distinction between academia and the community sector, with regard to outputs, are the expectations around time-frames. Community groups that I’ve worked with are mind-boggled about how long it takes to produce a research report or get an article published. Take heed of the ‘Are you speaking English?’ comments above and try to explain a little about your methodologies, processes and why your fantastically rigorous research is going to be so brilliant. A little understanding of the benefits that they might gain from some of the research outputs can go a long way. Hint: think about opportunities to showcase the research through public forums, high-profile final report launches and publications that can be freely downloaded from a community organisation’s website. Remember that they will be looking for research that is not only rigorous and relevant but also timely. Consider other timelines than those of government funding bodies, such as elections, Ministerial consultation periods, community sector funding cycles. You won’t be able to fit in with everything but you can appreciate the deadlines that your community partner is facing.
In 2010, I was involved in organising a public discussion on ‘Multiculturalism and Social Inclusion’, for a Migration, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism Thematic Group, as part of the Australian Sociological Association. The event brought together researchers, government representatives and community sector representatives. What struck me was the lack opportunities for people working at different levels in the same sector to meet and mingle. Everyone that I spoke to was eager to network – researchers wanted to meet community sector representatives and vice versa. This made me think that perhaps what we really need to build more community sector partnerships, as a kind of ‘speed dating’ for researchers. What do you think?
Edited to add:
- Community House Rules: Part 2 – Keeping everyone happy?