As the BTU priority at Towson University continues to grow and mature, we have been fortunate enough to enter dialogue with a number of community engagement practitioners and leaders nationally.

In the summer of 2021, the BTU team attended a virtual summer institute sponsored by the Place Based Justice Network (PBJN) based out of Seattle University. The PBJN is a growing network and learning community of faculty and member institutions nationally that is “…committed to transforming higher education and our communities by deconstructing systems of oppression through place-based community engagement.” Other values of PBJN are to utilize an anti-oppression framework, act on community-identified goals and commit to long-term reciprocal relationships with communities. The ethos of community engagement work at TU aligns with these principles and I am glad to announce that along with colleagues from the Office of Institutional Inclusion and Equity, Towson University has become a member of the PBJN Network.

In addition to other networks in the community engagement space such as the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU), which is nationally headquartered at TU, and the Engaged Scholarship Consortium, PBJN convenes a number of opportunities to compare notes, dialogue and learn best practices in community engagement work.

A highlight of the recent summer institute was a presentation by University of Utah staff member Paul Kuttner and Ana Antunes on a recently created community-based research guide. Produced in May of 2021, In It Together: Community Based Research Guidelines for Communities and Higher Education is an excellent resource for both community members and community engagement practitioners. Community-based research aligns with the work that many faculty at TU do, including myself as a cultural anthropologist. The introduction to the guideline provides an excellent contextual definition of community-based research as

“…a large family of research approaches, each with its own history. These approaches were developed by people working in health, edu­cation, activism, social work, community devel­opment, human psychology, and many other areas. Some of the many terms you might hear are action research, com­munity-based participatory research, translational re­search, community-engaged research, participatory action research, teacher research, and action science.”

There are many elements of the guidelines that align with Towson University’s new strategic plan focused on leadership for the public good that have guided the work of BTU since its inception. Primarily, it is the ethos that not only recognizes the expertise of academic researchers, but simultaneously and of equal value the subject matter expertise and local knowledge of our collaborators. And, the guidelines center perhaps the most important aspect of community engagement work to ensure that there is a commitment to not only study issues but to also implement solutions collaboratively.

I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Kuttner and Dr. Antunes recently for more context. The guidelines are actually an update of earlier guidelines created collaboratively with both internal and external partners in 2007 at the University of Utah’s University Neighborhood Partners department and has been updated to reflect community engagement practices today. Interestingly enough, Dr. Antunes is using the research guidelines to structure a class she is teaching this semester. She is currently teaching a community based research course where students are working with three local organizations and is using the guidelines as a primary text. A research project is being developed collaboratively for each class. Representatives from the three community groups attend the classes, and work closely with students to discuss the research process and possible projects. Collaborators are incentivized to participate to respect their subject matter expertise as members of these three organizations and to follow the principle of debt incurred. The idea is that this course will lead into future projects that can be supported by partnerships with the university with equal knowledge of the intricacies of research. This deliberative model is a great way to disrupt top-down approaches and work intensively over time. The model also involves students from day one of development of a research project as well.

Related link: Download “In It Together: Community Based Research Guidelines for Communities and Higher Education (PDF)

Community engagement priorities at universities thrive if they have the support and backing of presidential leadership which we enjoy at TU as well. Another component as community engagement work matures is that there is a reflection on the process of that work and quality. As Paul told me, “At our University there had been a big push for community engagement, and we had a president that saw it as central to what we do. We were celebrating our Carnegie Community Engagement classification, which showed all of the work that was being done. Every conversation I had was about how much community engagement work people were doing, so much that no one person knew about all of it. That was great, but I also felt we needed a deeper conversation about the quality of the work. We needed an opportunity to discuss equity, to discuss anti-racist and anti-colonial frameworks and the extent to which our engagement work is truly power sharing. That gave us the impetus to revisit the guidelines with a whole set of new people and have it reflect where we wanted community engagement work to go.”

This aligns with the story of community engagement at Towson since the arrival of President Schatzel and our own journey as the first institution in the University System of Maryland to receive the Carnegie Community Engagement classification as well. And, as we continue to develop our practices there is a consistent effort to create critical conversations with both internal and external stakeholders on these issues as well.

What I especially appreciate about In It Together is that it is written a jargon-free tone and is easily accessible. It is truly a best practice to adhere to in community engagement work to ensure productive rapport building and collaborative work. Therefore, I would highly recommend it as a resource to share with community collaborators to ground a conversation in what expectations from both parties. While we fully acknowledge (and hope) that the community engagement work we do as an institution impacts where we work, it is also important to recognize that community engagement is a two-way street that also benefits the researcher, students and the institution itself. There is social value to community engagement work and an acknowledgement of a mutually beneficial relationship should be an important benchmark.

If you have any questions about the Place Based Justice Network or the Community Based Research Guide feel free to contact Matthew Durington.