The Community University Relationship

Yesterday, I spent the morning watching the sun rise above the Atlantic Ocean from atop Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador. It was chilly and peaceful and a perfect way to end my time in St. John’s following the People, Place, and Public Engagement conference.

The conference itself was a packed three days of thought-provoking discussions about the role of the university as a place of public engagement, and our responsibility as academics to improve our relationship with the communities in which we do our work. These discussions included examples of community-university outreach and in-reach programs – both active and in development – that have been created with a goal of improving connections with (and inclusion of) community. They also included frank discussions of some of the mistakes made, lessons learned, and a series of outstanding challenges that still need to be addressed if we are to repair and build relationships beyond the walls of campus.

This includes repairing and building relationships with communities – such as those in Inuit Nunangat – that have often been the focus of research but have not directly benefitted from its outputs and findings. It includes people and communities that have been excluded from the research process because their lived experience and collective expertise and knowledge are not seen as equal.

During his keynote address, Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), spoke quite eloquently about these challenges, and what they mean for the people of Inuit Nunangat. In particular, he spoke at length about the staggering social and economic inequity in Inuit Nunangat (take a moment to read the shocking statistics here), and what this has meant to Inuit. He also spoke of the work that ITK is doing to address these issues, and in particular about the ITK National Inuit Strategy on Research and the recently released Implementation Plan.

These latter documents are a result of an incredible amount of research on the Inuit and in the Arctic that has not directly benefited the people of Inuit Nunangat. For example, the Canadian Tri-council funding agencies have awarded millions of dollars for research in the North, but little of this has directly benefited the communities. Further, the Tri-councils do not and have never included Inuit representation – nor are they working on changing this – despite the vast amount of money that flows to research projects in the North1. ITK has also been hard-pressed to identify university ethics boards that include Inuit representation.

The issues raised by Natan are obvious failures in the way academics have viewed their work and the communities in which they conduct it. As he described, while much of the work in the North has been focused on natural sciences, we need to stop the habit of saying we’re only monitoring X, and that doesn’t affect the Inuit.

“If anyone is doing work in the Arctic, you are part of our community…you have an obligation as part of your work to make our communities better, and to link the work that you do with the ongoing self-determination of our people and the betterment of Inuit society.” – Natan Obed

After three days of discussion, I can honestly say that although there is a lot of work to do to bring community and university together, it was incredibly inspiring to sit with and learn from Natan and the collection of individuals who had gathered in St. John’s to share their stories and takeaways from public engagement.

I am particularly excited about LEAD – a proposed interdisciplinary undergraduate program designed by folks at Memorial University to bring together twenty students from different disciplines to work on broad challenges proposed by the community. Given its similarity to the Ideas Congress classroom, I’m hoping to work with the team at MUN to evaluate the student experience and compare this to students in ICON.

I was also happy to hear from other STEM instructors who are beginning the process of integrating community-engaged learning and public engagement into curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular design. This is particularly important given that one presenter identified that engineering students are less engaged with public and social issues the longer they spend in school.

As was stated several times throughout the conference, while we have made strides to improve the relationship between universities and communities, there is still much work to be done.

We need to reconsider how we teach our students. Are we open and inclusive in a way that invites all voices to the table? Do we allow students the space to recognize, respect, and value non-academic expertise? Do we encourage students to see community as part of the teaching team?

We also need to reconsider how we research. Academic expertise is not the only expertise. Ours is not the only way to know the world. We need to ensure that the communities in which we work are not only present but active participants in the work we do. And we can only do this by first listening to them and learning from them.

Thank you to the incredible organizing team at Memorial for the People, Place, and Public Engagement conference. It has given me much to think about.


1 As Natan stated, if this information is incorrect, please let me know.

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