As Brock University builds up its community engagement activities, researchers and Niagara service providers are looking at ways to create mutually beneficial working relationships.
At a recent roundtable organized by Brock’s Social Justice Research Institute (SJRI), three of the institute’s community research partners shared their vision of what those partnerships could look like.
“We’re hoping that we can connect your thoughts and ideas with the thoughts and ideas of what community organizations are looking for,” Glen Walker, Executive Director of Positive Living Niagara, told faculty and staff attending the May 11 event.
Walker, along with Natalie Chaumont from the United Way and Marc Todd from Niagara Region, spoke about their research interests and what they could offer Brock researchers.
A big need on their list was research that would evaluate the effectiveness of agency programs and services.
“It’s important to measure what we do because that provides us opportunities to change or validate what we do for those who make decisions about where the dollars are spent,” said Todd, manager of Niagara Region’s Social Assistance and Employment Opportunities.
Todd is one of the co-ordinators of the Niagara Prosperity Initiative, a program that Niagara Region set up to support poverty reduction and prevention initiatives. Since its inception in 2008, more than $12 million has gone to 318 different projects delivered by more than 80 agencies and groups across the Region.
The Prosperity Initiative is writing a funding proposal that would have SJRI researchers evaluate the impact of its various programs and services.
Chaumont, program manager with the Niagara Prosperity Initiative, said her small staff doesn’t have the time or expertise to conduct program evaluations.
The United Way and SJRI researchers recently created a research partnership to study precarious employment in the Region. The report examines the situation of full- or part-time workers employed on a casual or permanent basis who may receive no benefits, receive low wages or face job insecurity.
She explained that Brock’s help with ethics clearance and collecting the data will enable her agency to conduct the research within the one-year funding time frame.
What United Way brought to the table was “years of experience in the community working with different agencies,” she said.
“We understand the politics and the nuances of different relationships; we have access to different funding that Brock can’t access, just like Brock has access to different funding that we can’t access.”
Researchers should be more mindful of how and why they present their research to community groups, said Walker.
He explained that, in the past, researchers from different institutions would approach Positive Living Niagara with HIV research ideas without asking whether or not the research fits into the organization’s work or goals.
And then they would disappear once the study was over.
“We’re talking about (adding) a knowledge exchange component to all research: you do research, we work with you as a partner, you’re coming back, you’re educating us on it, you’re talking about how we can implement your research and your ideas,” said Walker.
Community groups also need Brock researchers to fill in research gaps, said Walker. He noted that agencies generally lack expertise in how to carry out research, write grant proposals and get ethics clearance for their research.
He gave the example of his organization’s former housing task force, which was asked to estimate the number of homeless people ‘couch surfing,’ or staying temporarily in other peoples’ homes.
“How do you research that?” asked Walker. “How do you apply those numbers to a housing implementation model for the Niagara Region and province?”
In opening the May 11 event, Brock University President Tom Traves acknowledged that Brock’s research should “always be, ultimately, in the service of the community that has created us.”
But he stressed that research partnerships must support Brock’s core mission.
“We have a certain kind of expertise,” he said. “We’re delighted to lend it in a collaborative way to the community, to develop the strengths of the community, but at the end of the day, that has to also serve our mission, and our mission is the education of our students.”
The University also exists to publish research, and contribute to the wider ‘knowledge community,’ he said.
Traves praised SJRI’s research partnerships for providing publishing opportunities and service learning experiences for students.