Community engagement is an integral component of public health work, but how should we approach this work? Panelists Sara Axtell, Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, Anneka Kmiecik, and Jenna Cushing-Leubner generously shared their experience and knowledge on doing community engaged work. Here are some take-away points from the discussion.
Why is community engagement important?
It is important to have all voices at the table. Communities have more knowledge about what is going on in the community than someone from the outside, and we will not be able to shift health disparities without including everyone. Authentic community engagement is an important part of shifting more resources towards communities and away from keeping all resources within institutional settings.
Building relationships takes time
Most of our work is centered on deadlines. Building real relationships with communities takes time, which can be a challenge. It is important to take the time to get to know ourselves before we can begin to build relationships with others. Ask yourself questions – think about your identities and how they fit into structures of power. Take the time to think about how you are read and how this may influence your journey with different communities. Take the time to learn the history of the work you are trying to do rather than expecting a community to educate you.
Common mistakes we make
There are several mistakes we make when doing community engaged work. The first is believing we are the experts on a community when entering into a community relationship. Our grants are often “evidence based”, which focuses on the data and subjects that academic institutions see as warranting the most funding. With this mindset, we miss much of the knowledge that exists within the communities with which we are trying to work.
Another common mistake we make is in how we conduct and present research conducted in community settings. It is important to fully recognize the risks that individuals and the community as a whole take on by participating in research projects. After the research has been conducted, follow-up with the community and fully credit community members who participated. Community partners will have mechanisms for disseminating information in a way that best reaches the community.
Most important things to remember when doing community engaged work
We asked our panelists about the most important things to remember. Here are a few:
-Ask yourself how the knowledge you have can complement the knowledge already existing within a community. We are there to listen, learn, and build mutually honoring relationships.
-Who is being addressed and who is not being addressed? Within marginalized populations, there are people on the margins. Take the time to find out what you don’t know and identify who is being left out.
-Plan ahead. Community partners should be included from the very beginning, starting with planning and budgeting. Pay these community partners, and ask about the best way to offer payment.
-Recognize that institutions have done damage. You are a guest with the hopes of building a relationship. Know that not all knowledge is for all people, and respect that. Talk with community partners during times of conflict to help build networks of support.
More resources, put together by Dr. Max Liboiron, Assistant Professor in Sociology and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University, New Foundand, are available. Check them out.