Equality and Trust

Brian Coyle Center adult services director Amando Dube and School of Social Work professor Elizabeth Lightfoot

 Like any successful relationship, partnerships between the University and the community are built on mutual trust. Methods for developing trust can take many forms, and the currently the School of Social Work is focusing its efforts on an approach known as Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) partnerships.

Rather than one party taking the lead, these collaborations center around equality, says Elizabeth Lightfoot, Associate Professor and the Director of the Doctoral Program at the School of Social Work. “Equal partnerships benefit both the knowledge generation needs of academics who are interested in developing broader knowledge and community concerns with developing community knowledge.”

To be more specific, she explains, when community and university members are partners in the entire research process, community partners can be sure that research projects result in knowledge that fits their specific needs. At the same time, University partners can use the knowledge gained through research to think about the broader themes and theories that might be applied elsewhere.

“Structuring partnerships like this helps ensure both parties get their needs met,” says Lightfoot, who is currently writing a book on CBPR partnerships titled “Community-Based Participatory Research in the Applied Social Sciences.” The book will be published by Springer Science in 2013.

Optimizing engagement strategies

Through community partnerships the University is advancing efforts to deepen the connection between public engagement and the research, teaching and outreach activities of its five campuses.

While individual departments are creating their own approaches to working closely with the community, the University’s Office for Public Engagement is facilitating processes to encourage and promote interdisciplinary collaborations that advance public engagement. Ongoing engagement strategies aim to deepen the University’s service to the public through research that benefits society while optimizing educational experiences for students participating in community-focused learning.

Having already held a number of trainings and symposiums on CBPR, the University’s School of Social Work is already seen as taking the lead on the approach nationally. “We are one of the few social work schools that has a core number of people focusing on CBPR,” Lightfoot explains.  

Engaging meaningfully with the community is crucial to University-based research for several reasons, Lightfoot points out. “If University researchers aren’t really engaging with the people they’re working with they may be looking at the wrong things, or not asking the right questions or analyzing and interpreting the data in a way that isn’t useful.”

Next steps

Work on engagement strategies is ongoing, but one thing Lightfoot and her colleagues would like to develop is a new Minnesota Social Work Institute on Community-Based Participatory Research and Education. In addition to promoting the use of CBPR methods in the field of social work, the Institute would help build the School of Social Work’s capacity to better partner with the community to enhance the well-being of community members.

No timeline is currently set, but Lightfoot is also interested in working with others to organize another mini conference on CBPR in the field of social work. The conference would include a collaborative planning exercise during which community partners, faculty and students would work together to strategize about future CBPR collaborations. “Engagement is a fundamental part of CBPR, and from a scholarly standpoint the main value of this type of partnership is that research results could potentially be more valid,” she says.