By David D. Hart, Bridie McGreavy, Anthony Sutton, Gabrielle V. Hillyer and Darren J. Ranco
In an increasingly polarized world, how can partnerships between communities and universities strengthen the kinds of deliberative and democratic practices that might help address many local and global challenges? How can such partnerships improve practices that involve listening and responding across differences (the deliberative part)? How can they help find ways to make shared decisions and take joint actions, knowing that complete agreement or mutual understanding may never be possible (the democratic part)?
We have reflected on our partnerships with people from Maine communities and Wabanaki (“People of the Dawnland”) Tribal Nations in North America, especially regarding challenges faced by communities that harvest clams and other bivalve mollusks from the intertidal mudflats along the length of this region’s enormous coastline (Hart et al., 2022). Here we present some of the key lessons from that work.
Some challenges facing local communities are less about competing ideologies and more about pragmatic concerns such as reducing water pollution, which can make it easier for people to listen to and learn about each other in the context of community planning. Rather than assume we’ll find “common ground,” we’ve discovered how differences, and the creativity they spur, can motivate problem-solving and other kinds of connection. In essence, local partnerships may allow for a more tailored approach to working across differences, thereby generating the kinds of “small wins” that can grow the social capital needed to address even bigger challenges.
Listening for questions
In our experience, these partnerships rarely occur in formal, easily-identifiable spaces where community members participate in a project led by the university, or vice versa, with a clearly defined objective, timeline, and set of partners. Instead, our work frequently happens in places where the boundaries for when the effort started, who is involved, where and how participants meet, and even what participants are trying to achieve are not clear, singular, or easily definable. We often begin by listening to a wide range of questions, concerns and stories.
Collaboration requires ongoing negotiations of differences and extended deliberations about where to focus and how to change these efforts over time. This is long-term work that requires learning how to inhabit and cross multiple worlds to try to identify how they might connect, and also to learn how to move differently within each.
Often, instead of seeking to overcome differences, the process involves figuring out how to stay with and negotiate differences, always with an eye to addressing unintended exclusions and unequal power.
Building trust is essential – it’s the connective tissue that motivates people to show up for each other. Trust is a shorthand way of talking about a diverse set of social capacities that shape connection and foster a sense of belonging, including shared identifications, emotions, memories, experiences, and more. It’s also in the practices that shape how the community-university partnership works together at all stages of designing a study, as well as how they come together when something goes wrong. Trust is never static, and careful and curious attention can help groups track how it flows and learn how to work with it as a vital force in their communities.
Students as learners, leaders and teachers
Engaged research that centers students can be more productive for each party, destabilizing the usual power structures and activating networks. As learners, students embedded in community-driven work see how their own skills, effort, and knowledge immediately serve people and communities they have relationships with, creating and fulfilling a “science as service” mentality.
Students can also act as vital connectors, creating multiple relationships and ties between the community and the university as well as with other students. This is especially true when the students are from those communities. Community members will sometimes take a parental or caring interest in a student that is different from the kind of care they might show a professor. Such networks and experiences become part of the mental map young researchers carry forward.
Hard tellin’, not knowin’
This phrase is often repeated in Maine communities, where it means different things depending on the speaker and the situation. The phrase:
- is a motivation for a shared search for answers, as partial or incomplete as they may be.
- names a relationship to knowledge that makes communities open to partnerships where multiple forms of knowing can come together to enrich a collective understanding of what is happening and what is most needed. This approach to knowledge also promotes experimentation, creativity, and learning.
- serves as a powerful reminder that academic knowledge is inevitably uncertain and incomplete, which underscores the need for researchers to approach such partnerships with humility.
Shared doing, shared learning
In our experience, finding ways to agree about something like climate change is less important than identifying tangible, material objects that can serve as the focus for shared experimentation and learning.
Toward this end, we’ve come to embrace “boundary objects,” including tools like DNA tests to determine pollution sources and community mapping, which allow collaborators to come together around a shared focus in ways that allow for differing perspectives to remain. These objects enable communities to work together to understand how other members view the world and to find ways to connect across differences. Shared mapping and writing projects, for example, allow collaboration to emerge simultaneously with an open, active, and ongoing negotiation of difference.
Building collaborative networks for the long haul
For the five of us, the experience of working with communities is a potent reminder that we are engaging in something much bigger than our individual lives and careers. This is messy work in which we stumble, fall, reflect, and—with luck and persistence—rise, regroup, and renew our efforts.
Most of our partnerships occur in network-based collaborations, with many leaders and other participants who come into and out of the partnership in various ways at different times. Where the effort begins and ends and who is responsible for what parts are continually changing.
Despite the blurriness, network-based approaches have many benefits. They create opportunities for mutual learning, promote diverse forms of leadership, and foster connections across scales, contexts, organizations, and individuals. Sometimes called third spaces, they enable more flexible, inclusive, and effective forms of decision making that help communities adapt to social and environmental change.
How do our lessons resonate with your experience? How can we scale up a networked partnership way of collaborating?
Given what sometimes feels like an inexhaustible supply of wicked problems—such as pandemics, injustice, climate change, food insecurity—what would it take to mobilize a network of thousands of universities committed to working with communities to address such local and global challenges?
To find out more:
Hart, D. D., McGreavy, B., Sutton, A., Hillyer, G. B. and Ranco. D. J. (2022). Collaboration on the mudflats: How community-university partnerships can strengthen deliberative and democratic practices. Issues in Science and Technology, 39, 1: 71–76. (Online – open access): https://issues.org/collaboration-on-the-mudflats/
David D. Hart PhD is the director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. Together with hundreds of colleagues in and beyond Maine, he is focused on helping universities become more useful societal partners in solving complex problems.
Bridie McGreavy PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism and faculty fellow in the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine, in Orono, USA. Her engaged research interests are based on partnerships with coastal shellfishing communities and draw from environmental communication and sustainability science approaches.
Anthony Sutton PhD is Passamaquoddy from Sipayik. He is an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and Food Systems, and Faculty Fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. His work focuses on centering Wabanaki visions for the restoration of foodways and fisheries within Wabanaki homelands.
Gabrielle V. Hillyer is a PhD candidate in ecology and environmental sciences in the National Research Traineeship Conservation Science Program at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. Her research interests include engaged research within co-managed fisheries, and collaborative policy development.
Darren J. Ranco PhD is a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, Professor of Anthropology, Chair of Native American Programs, and Faculty Fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. His research focuses on the ways in which Indigenous Nations resist environmental destruction by using Indigenous science and diplomacies to protect their natural and cultural resources.