Negotiating Community-Based Research: A Case Study of the "Life's Work" Project

By Weinberg, Adam S. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Negotiating Community-Based Research: A Case Study of the "Life's Work" Project


Weinberg, Adam S., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Seven years ago, Hamilton, NY was a struggling rural community. Downtown storefronts were empty. Village buildings' second and third floors had boarded up windows. The village green was in a state of disarray with dilapidated sidewalks and a crumbling fountain. There was a general sense that the community was dying.

Over the last seven years, Hamilton has become a vibrant rural community. Storefronts are filled with stable businesses. Facades have received coordinated improvements, including new windows. Businesses and offices now occupy village buildings' second and third floors. The village green has been completely renovated and sits next to a $750,000 public library expansion. Small micro-businesses are growing due to a new technical assistance program. A new business park has three tenants. The community feels alive, as evidenced by a range of new community organizations including a land trust and a community center for teenagers.

A unique partnership between Colgate University and the Town and Village of Hamilton has driven this transformation. At the core of the partnership lies a series of community-based research projects carried out by students in sociology, geography, anthropology, and economics students.

The case of Colgate University is used to argue that community-based research can be a vibrant and effective form of service-learning (Ferman & Shlay, 1997; Kinnevy & Boddie, 2001), especially in rural communities. In particular, I explore student efforts to work with community members to develop and launch a small business development program called Life's Work. Community-based research, it is argued here, is difficult to do well. There is little flexibility and high consequences for failed projects. As such, community-based research requires negotiation at multiple levels and developing a set of principles to guide decision-making and project development.

Liberal Arts Colleges, Rural Community Development, and Community-Based Research

Like many colleges, Colgate is struggling to find ways to generate local economic development.

Depressed communities pose a range of vexing problems for colleges (Channels & Zannoni, 1999; Edwards & Marullo, 1999; Forrant & Silka, 1999). It is expensive and difficult to run a college in a depressed community (Weinberg, 2002). Furthermore, depressed communities raise a series of ethical and moral questions for universities. Clearly, institutions of higher education have an ethical responsibility to local communities (Boyte & Kari, 1997), but we often struggle over the extent and proper content of the obligation (Nyden, Figert, Shibley, & Burrows, 1997; Shefner & Cobb, 2002). In the last decade an emerging literature has explored campus-community partnerships. Part of the literature has focused on how campus-community partnerships can generate community development (Loker & Montanero-Vargas, 2002; Nyden et al.; Shefner & Cobb). The literature has also examined campus-community partnerships' academic component, exploring service-learning and other pedagogical models for re-igniting the values of citizenship within students (Boyte & Kari, 1999; Eyler & Giles, 1997; Vogelgesang & Astin, 2000).

Within liberal arts colleges, there has been a growing interest in campus-community partnerships (Weinberg, 2002). Developing the academic component has been straightforward, although not easy or linear (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999). The more difficult part has been how to generate community development (Carson, 2001; Forrant & Silk, 1999). Liberal arts colleges generally lack the graduate students and/or large research departments (e.g., engineering, computer science, biology) needed to generate the sort of growth of an Austin, Texas or a Boulder, Colorado. However, we are well versed at producing undergraduates who have the intellectual skills to engage in good basic research, especially in the social sciences where students often take a research methods course and have a research oriented capstone experience (Channels & Zannoni, 1999). …

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