Changing lives through community engagement and outreach

Josephine Bleach outlines questions that higher education institutions should ask to help them foster authentic community engagement that improves educational outcomes for children, families and communities

Josephine Bleach's avatar
National College of Ireland
16 Nov 2021
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Advice on shaping community outreach in order to improve educational outcomes for local communities

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Community engagement and outreach have been part of the higher education landscape for decades. Yet the “them and us” scenario is an all-too-familiar description of the relationship between marginalised communities and their local tertiary education providers. Lessons from our 15-year community action research project have highlighted the “magic” ingredients and the reflective questions needed to ensure that community engagement is both effective and sustainable. Evaluations have consistently highlighted the positive impact on the morale, well-being and home-learning environment of our partner families. Learning is seen as enjoyable and something to be shared. The educational aspirations and attainment of children has increased with parents more engaged in their children’s education.

Align community engagement and outreach with your goals and values

This is a no-brainer. Our goal is to change lives through education. Community and inclusivity are core values, along with integrity and excellence, and being both dynamic and learner-centric. Social justice is at the heart of what we do. We express these values daily through our relationships with marginalised communities across the Republic of Ireland. For instance, checking in with and supporting 6,683 vulnerable parents as they navigate the challenges of Covid-19. As one parent told us: “Thanks for everything these last two years.  Even with all the madness, you still went above and beyond for us, and we’ll be forever grateful.”

Question to ask: How do your mission and values permeate your outreach projects?

Provide warm, welcoming spaces where good things happen

Becoming a “campus without walls”, opening up the institution and welcoming the local community is important in building safe, trusting relationships. On- and off-campus events give families a positive experience of a higher education institution as well as making them, and their children, more aware of tertiary (third-level) education and all it has to offer.

Questions to ask: How welcome does the local community feel on your campus? Can people drop in and feel they belong?

Employ local people as outreach workers

Our “secret sauce” is our local home visitors who deliver our programmes directly into family homes. Easily recognisable in their distinctive uniforms, they are the ambassadors for tertiary education on the street and provide an accessible point of contact for families on issues relating to education. Known as the “book people”, this extended family encourages new parents to contact the home visitors immediately for support. People stop them in the street to ask for help, with contact details recorded on hairdresser’s cards, bookies’ slips and receipts. This has a dual benefit of ensuring community ownership of the institution and creating a ripple effect throughout the area, with more people appreciating and understanding the long-term benefits to their children of higher education.

Question to ask: How many local people are employed in your community outreach projects?

Use community action research

Community action research is research that is defined, undertaken, analysed and evidenced by members of the community. It gives direction, meaning and motivation to community engagement. It fosters a dialogue of equals, where each person may have their own role and level of expertise, but they are equal in personal and professional value. Systematic regular engagement between academics, researchers, practitioners and community members affords all involved valuable opportunities to inform each other’s thinking and practice. By giving local stakeholders a sense of ownership, continuity and progression, community action research enables the evolution of your outreach programme and the introduction of new elements.

Questions to ask: What process do you use to engage local stakeholders? Do they have the same status as academics and researchers?

Develop collaborative, bottom-up outreach projects

Involving local people as co-constructors of programmes and in the decision-making processes is key to educational change. Acknowledging, respecting and using the expertise and experience within families and communities is at the heart of community engagement, where participants come together as equals to share learning. Most of the National College of Ireland’s Early Learning Initiative (ELI) programmes start with an idea to address a real need: for example, a play mat for babies living in emergency accommodation who are not learning to crawl. A few families are asked to trial and critique it. Using their feedback, the programme is amended and then trialled with more families in Dublin. Working in partnership with our colleagues in Children and Young People’s Services Committees and Tusla – Child and Family Agency, the programme is then extended across Ireland. There is a continuous feedback loop with children and parents actively participating in the ongoing development of the project.

Question to ask: How many of your outreach activities are bottom-up, collaborative projects?

Recognise and address the challenges

Working within non-academic social systems is difficult. People often do not act as one might wish, and things do not always go according to plan. Engaging a range of “cross border” stakeholders and ensuring that all voices are heard can be challenging. Encouraging participants to openly question and critique community outreach initiatives and to amicably disagree is important in building trust, ownership and strategic sustainability.

Questions to ask: How open is your institution to listening to and acting on the diverse views within your local community? How do you ensure that the local community has opportunities to voice opinions on the value of your outreach projects? How do you manage divergent perspectives?

Exercise democratic ethical relational leadership

None of the above happens without leadership at an individual, institutional and community level. Creating and building the capacity of a community of leaders is a core task.

Questions to ask: Is community engagement a priority for the leaders in your institution? How committed are they to building equal, trusted relationships with your local community on both individual and institutional levels?

Community-engagement efforts are complex, challenging and difficult to sustain. For us, 15 years of continuous cross-sector collaborations have paid dividends. ELI has grown from 400 participants (children, parents and professionals) in 2008 to 14,234 in 2021. Engagement is higher than ever as our outreach projects evolve to meet the challenges of Covid-19. Indicators of satisfaction rose from 94 per cent in 2020 to 96 per cent in 2021. Significantly, indicators of learning rose from 81 per cent to 93 per cent. Imbued with a genuine sense of partnership, everyone remains committed to bridging the educational divides as we enter a new era.

Josephine Bleach is director of the Early Learning Initiative at the National College of Ireland.

The Early Learning Initiative has been shortlisted for Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community at the Times Higher Education Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here; the winners will be announced at a ceremony on 25 November.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in London.


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