Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Challenges for Community Engagement: An Australian Perspective

Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Challenges for Community Engagement: An Australian Perspective

Article excerpt

Copyright: © 2015 Kearney

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


In Australia, organisations such as the Australian University Community Engagement Alliance (AUCEA, now Engagement Australia) have supported the collective interests of Australian universities by advancing a shared understanding of community engagement as a core responsibility of higher education-within communities and in higher education institutions. AUCEA's (2008) position paper promoted community engagement as "knowledge-driven partnerships that yield mutually beneficial outcomes for university and community" (p. 1). Contemporary concepts of engagement focus on engaged scholarship (Boyer, 1996), a practice that situates engagement as knowledge creation and learning that are "participatory, processoriented and relationship-based . . . reflective and iterative", where "quality is both academically defined and socially accountable" (Cuthill & Brown, 2010, p. 130). However, while community engagement and engaged scholarship as an expression of community engagement are commended in practice, they are ideals fraught with challenges for academics and, at times, for communities, both of whom share responsibility for successful and sustained outcomes.

In this paper I explore three challenges that I identify as forefront to addressing for mutually rewarding community engagement. I also consider how each might be addressed. The first two concern misperceptions of community engagement on each side of the partnership. One challenge is therefore within the higher education sector where university agendas traditionally have prioritised research and teaching as scholarly activity and have relegated engagement with community as "community service" (Buys & Bursnall, 2007). As such, community engagement is usually undervalued, poorly supported and rewarded, and not recognised as an alternative form of, and valuable contribution to, research and teaching (Cuthill, 2008; Moore & Ward, 2010). Here the challenge emerges when an understanding of engagement is not clearly articulated or shared within the institution. The second challenge concerns community misperceptions. Where community perceives that a partnership serves a university's interests, rather than or more than its own, the community will distrust the partnership, its processes, and results (Cherry & Shefner, 2004; Holland & Gelmon, 1998). This often eventuates when university members conduct research on communities rather than with communities. A third challenge concerns sustainability of outcomes (Kearney & Zuber-Skerritt, 2012). How can partnerships and programmes be designed and conducted so that mutually beneficial outcomes for all interested parties can be sustained?

I consider these challenges and ways to resolve them through discussion of a case study where I have firsthand experience. It involves Griffith University where I work in Southeast Queensland, Australia, in a long-term partnership with members of The Voice of Samoan People (VOSP), a community organisation serving the needs of Samoan-heritage families in Southeast Queensland. Data collection involved methods appropriate for the qualitative research of this study, including participant observations, informal interviews, minutes from meetings, field notes, and personal reflections. In this paper, I develop a case study narrative to present experiential learnings that I consider in the context of the community engagement literature.

As context for understanding the community partnership in this case study and why it was begun, the paper first turns to the challenges facing Samoan-heritage families living in Southeast Queensland, especially those who have relocated to Australia as New Zealand citizens through the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement1 and are thus not legal immigrants per se. …

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