What’s in the Toolbox for Ethical Community Engagement?

July 1, 2021

Co-Edited By Kelly Bohrer, University of Dayton; Lynn Rollins, Case Western Reserve University; and Sarah Brownell, Rochester Institute of Technology

This is the fifth in a series of posts leading up to a Special Session at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2021 conference on July 27, 2021 entitled At the Crossroads of Community Engagement, Ethics, Liberal Education, and Social Responsibility:  Community engaged engineering education challenges and opportunities in light of COVID-19.  These posts are intended to introduce the panelists of the special session and provide a basis for discussion at the conference and beyond.  The co-editors of these blogs and the panelists represent different perspectives within engineering community-based global learning endeavors and community/university partnerships. Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Rollins, Bohrer, Brownell/June 2021; (2) Oakes/June 2021; (3) Manghnani, Nilov/June 2021; (4) Bohrer, Rollins, Brownell/June 2021.

In this post, we discuss tools for ethical community engagement with Dr. Tunya Griffin, who has experienced community engaged work from a variety of perspectives.

Dr. Tunya Griffin is a Doctor of Ministry, a community activist in the Marketview Heights neighborhood of Rochester, NY, and previously served as Associate Director of University Community Partnerships at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). 

What do you think should be in the toolbox for ethical engagement when students are working with a community?

First, active listening should be a part of the students’ tool box.  When they’re thinking about working with communities in partnership, they definitely should be focused on listening to the community–the people who live, work and play there–to hear what the vision is that residents have for their own community.  Next, in the tool box is a checks and balances system. Students should be engaging in ongoing evaluation and evolving the structure of a project to support the design and implementation phases. Specifically, they should develop with the community a systematic means of measuring outcomes, assessing systems performance, and providing accountability. Third, is building authentic relationships with residents, although, I think probably this should be done first. Communities often reject the “grab and go” mentality. What I mean by that is, based on what I’m finding in the community that I live in, is that what is really important to the people on the ground is building social connections.  

How would students build social connections? What suggestions do you have?

Food is always a good way to do that, by way of sharing a meal.  If we weren’t in a pandemic, you could have a picnic. Sharing a meal provides an access point to learn more about the community, and the individuals who work, live, and play in that community. “People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”  Sometimes there’s even an invitation to come to a resident’s home. I do that often. I show up. I go there to sit and listen to the stories of those we want to partner with.  

How do power and privilege factor into your work?

You know privilege is all about who has access.  You gain access to certain things based on who you are, based on how much education you have. And so how privilege plays a role in this is that usually the decision makers are those who sit in the seats of power and privilege. That’s why oftentimes people on the ground are left out, because it is the few “frozen chosen” who are selected to make decisions about the community. More often than not those individuals work for an organization that serves a specific community, but they do not live in that community. My observations are that people who sit in seats of power and privilege do not really understand the people on the ground. We must ask ourselves the question: if the systems that we have in place are really working then why are our communities in the condition that they are in?

What should students do to maintain connection on the ground?

Be intentional about showing up!  There’s always something going on in the neighborhoods.  For example, in our neighborhood we do cleanups, and we post those clean-ups on all social media platforms. 

You’ve approached this work from both the community perspective and university perspective, where do you see easy roads for collaboration and where do you see disconnects?

Okay, where do I see easy roads for collaboration? Connecting with an existing community organization or existing block clubs. Disconnects? The lack of listening actively to the voices of persons directly affected with humility and respect. Some universities have made communities, specifically, marginalized, poor communities, into their labs for research. Poor neighborhoods have been studied extensively. More often than not, universities initiate projects with communities that they think are important to the community, and because communities long for support, they sign-on to the university projects. In the neighborhood I reside in, if you speak with the people on the ground, they would say, for example, fighting the drug epidemic is more important than vacant lot research. They would say, getting guns off the street is more important to them than developing community gardens. Are vacant lot issues and community gardens important to the people in the community I reside in? Yes, however the solutions residents would recommend to the most pressing problems they face (such as legislation to keep those convicted of drugs and guns out of the neighborhood or projects to build trust between residents and law enforcement) are not the same solutions that universities often present as projects to residents. My findings are that the university’s goals for research tend to take priority over the needs of residents.   

Do you think the two groups often have different expectations?

It’s never presented as having different expectations.  It starts to morph into that.  It starts out collaborative and then often becomes directed by the university.  Universities need to listen and not only listen, but implement what it is that the community is asking them to do.  Oftentimes that’s the disconnect. The disconnect is that they have another agenda, and they’re not really forthright in what it really is that they are intending to do.  They say they are not studying neighborhood residents and marginalized communities as lab rats, but in truth that sometimes is what it ends up becoming, because they’re not being forthright. They’re not not really implementing what people in a community say they need. It’s important to be congruent with what is asked of, you know, someone they consider an outsider coming in. 

Do you have any recommendations for strategy to ensure more balance of the different expertise of the groups and how to teach students to value various kinds of expertise?

Yes. Residents should select what is important to them rather than the university presenting what the community should focus on. Next, constant checking in, because like I said earlier, sometimes we can go off the path.  We want to make sure that we are in alignment with what we initially said and agreed to with the community.  There should always be markers of time where we’re checking in with them to say, ”Are we on the right path? Do we need to change anything?” Ultimately, the university partnered with that community for certain types of outputs and it was the community voice that was and should remain in the driver’s seat. Be responsive to the needs of the community, create open dialogue without retaliation, keep learning.

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