Engage Memorial

Engage Memorial: Building Healthy Community-University Partnerships


Relationships, Reciprocity and Relevance: Creating Healthy Community-University Partnerships

More and more students, faculty, and staff at Canadian universities are exploring ways to make their research, teaching and learning, and public engagement relevant, accessible and aligned with the community. It’s a positive development, but how do we ensure that these efforts are equitable, respectful, and useful to the communities that we serve?

Understanding the opportunities, priorities, and constraints of both communities and their university partners is a key step in developing collaborations that make a positive difference. This process includes listening, learning, and being receptive to new ideas. It is important work, with the potential to enrich everyone involved, but it takes time, energy, and a willingness to engage in equitable cooperation.

Of course, the work of identifying and responding to community-identified priorities shouldn’t reside just with individual researchers and public partners. There is also tremendous opportunity for institutional supports, and a chance to rethink established ways of doing public engagement.

Panel discussion

To discuss strategies for better ways of building relationships between academic institutions and the communities they serve, the Office of Public Engagement assembled a panel of experts, moderated by Carolann Harding, the CEO of SmartICE, a social enterprise that offers climate change tools that integrate Inuit knowledge. Smart Ice was the recipient of the 2020 President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnerships.

Panelists included:

You can watch the entire session here. For a preview of the topics covered, see our summary below: Moving beyond transactional engagement

Before setting out on your journey to work with a prospective partner, you make sure you’re starting out on the right foot.

“Before you do anything, sit down and have a little self-reflection exercise. Ask yourself if you understand the difference between a transaction and a relationship… The history of colonialism is the promise of relationship and ending up with transactions that end up harming the community. A relationship is something that goes on and is reciprocal. A transaction is where you ask someone to sign a dotted line and never talk to them again.” -Kelly Anne Butler

Sometimes the project that you think you’re planning will evolve into something quite different as a result of working closely with your public partner. This is the nature of all relationships; they reflect all participants, and they evolve as both sides gain better knowledge of the needs and interests of the other.

The cycle of engagement

 Begin with a conversation and be transparent about what you bring to the table and what your limitations are, time spent on this stage of the relationship pays off later. When Dr.Richards  works to help prepare PhD students to engage in community-university collaboration, he encourages them to think of these relationships as a cycle: Establishing a relationship, building, maintaining, and moving towards co-production, and finally mobilizing and fulfilling the partnership are all part of that process. Thinking about the partnership as a series of stages with their own goals can help orientate you and your partner, aligning your efforts and expectations.

Take Your Time with It

Like all relationships, public engagement partnerships take time to establish. You may have to visit a potential partner multiple times to develop a shared sense of vision and commitment. Timelines for academic projects can be uneven due to the related long approval cycles that leave less time for carrying out the approved activities. Be mindful of the fact that your partner is just like you, they’re likely always spinning multiple plates. And just like yours, their time is precious, so be mindful of compensating them as appropriate.


“I refer to it as scientific dating. First you talk on the phone, then you have a coffee date, and then a dinner date. And then finally you might be ready to start a project together.” - Dr. Heather Carnahan

For the partnership to be successful, it is vitally important that participants keep each other up to date on how their shared journey is progressing. Dr. Carnahan is part of a micro-research initiative, originally developed by Dr. Noni Macdonald and brought to Memorial by the Marine Institute’s Dr Rosemary Ricciardelli.  The initiative connects research with community needs and interests by supporting  external partners in  defining and asking their own questions, and to supporting them to do their own research.

A similar thread was present in a project on rural drinking water funded by the Harris Centre and headed by Dr. Kelly Vodden from Grenfell’s Environmental Policy Institute. The project’s steering committee consisted almost entirely of community members, who Dr. Vodden would constantly feed results to as the partnership progressed. This way the community could make use of the data as it was produced.

“It completely changed the way (the community partners) think about research... (It was) super successful thanks to a committed researcher who started out the right way.” -Bojan Furst.


A Fork in the Road

When the time comes to part ways, make sure it’s an intentional conclusion.. And while the partnership might have reached its conclusion for now, consider what happens to the work that resulted from it, and who gets to use it.

“What happens to the results of this work? It becomes a part of the researchers’ academic trajectory and a part of our organizational trajectory. What happens when the way the way we talk about the project diverges?” – Josh Smee

To mitigate the possibility of conflict, you should remember that the partnership’s ending does and should not mean that your relationship needs to as well. Keep in touch with your partner and inform them of new work related to your shared interests. Often, respectful partnerships can lead to further collaboration down the road.

The entire session, including closed captioning, can be viewed here. Follow the Office of Public Engagement on Facebook and Twitter to hear about upcoming events.

Akseli Virratvuori is a Graduate Support Student with Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement and a PhD Candidate at Memorial’s Department of Folklore.