Reach out as an active citizen

May 25, 2007

If you want to get involved in working with your local community, you must consider what that community actually needs - otherwise its members could end up feeling exploited, warns Harriet Swain

It isn't exactly ivory. And it isn't exactly a tower. But your book-lined study still feels isolated from the real world. How do you get down to street level? If you want to become more involved in your local community you need to start by working out why, advises Kim Fitzgerald, community engagement manager at Bristol University. Is it because you think it could help your research, or is it more to do with teaching and reaching a broader range of students? Is it because you want a broader public for your research findings? Or is it for reasons of corporate social responsibility - you want to do your bit through volunteering, say, and you know your university would back you. "This is not to say one motive is exclusive of the others," Fitzgerald says. "But you need to be clear about it."

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has allocated £15 million a year to support student and staff volunteering opportunities in higher education institutions. Fitzgerald suggests contacting whoever is responsible within your institution for overseeing that fund and speaking to them about the kind of opportunities available.

If volunteering is what you're after, it is also worth contacting the local branch of Community Service Volunteers. Paul Donohoe, CSV spokesman, says academics shouldn't be put off volunteering by the fear that they will not be able to commit enough time. "If you give it a go you will realise what an important thing it is to you," he says. "People who volunteer feel less stressed for it." And if it doesn't work out, you shouldn't feel guilty, he says. You can always try something else - or just do bits and pieces when you have the time.

But Michalis Kakos, lecturer in citizenship education at the Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights Legislation at Leeds University, says you have to be absolutely clear about the needs of the community and your personal standpoint before you become involved. "Community involvement is a strong political act," he argues. "You shouldn't consider it an act of charity."

While he says that people should be proud of becoming involved, "it is the manifestation of our active citizenship and should not be approached light-heartedly".

Even if you want a precise benefit from your involvement in the community for research purposes, you still need to seek advice about the best way to go about it. Fitzgerald suggests looking at websites that give examples of best practice, as well as talking to colleagues who have already been involved in community work to understand how to manage the process in a way that yields the best results for all.

She says that it is important to go into any community involvement on an equal basis, and think about what both sides could get out of the experience. Academics are sometimes too hierarchical in the way they approach the relationship. "A lot of communities don't want to deal with experts any more because the experts get the information they want, pull out and that's the last communities see of them," Fitzgerald says.

"Communities can feel exploited by that."

Angie Hart, professor of child, family and community health in the Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research at Brighton University and academic director of the Community University Partnership Programme, says another common mistake is to send community groups a proposal that is structured and written like an academic paper. Often these groups cannot understand what the academic is on about. Nor will they understand what's in it for them. First contacts should stress how the proposal will benefit the community partner and should not make too many demands on their time, which is often more pressurised and less well paid than that of an academic.

Hart suggests involving community groups at the earliest opportunity. That way, you can have a better understanding of the issues involved before you draw up your research proposals and have a better chance of meeting their needs.

Don't expect community groups to drop everything and meet you at your convenience at the university, Hart says. But do invite them to the institution once you have established the relationship - perhaps to take part in a joint seminar. "And provide a lot of very nice food," she says.

"These people are working in very stressful jobs and they always appreciate being looked after and having a nice meeting room."

Hart says that you need to be just as sensitive if you want to involve community partners in your teaching. First, you must make sure you have the budget to pay them for their time - and preferably invite two people along because the experience can otherwise be intimidating. You must make sure that they, and your students, are well briefed about what to expect from the session.

Hart says that one of the best ways of becoming involved in the community is to work there - perhaps by becoming a researcher practitioner and buying yourself out of part of your university work.

Meanwhile, Bruce Macfarlane, head of educational development and director of the Centre for Research in Tertiary Education at Thames Valley University, encourages academics to think about the way they contribute to academic communities as well as local ones. Pro bono work such as reviewing, or giving feedback to peers on research papers, publishing in unrefereed journals or organising a new network or academic conference are all valuable contributions. He says that this kind of work is about nurturing future generations within your discipline and contributing to the sustainability of your academic community. He argues: "A good academic citizen will seek to serve a series of overlapping communities, including students, university colleagues, the institution, disciplinary peers and the wider public."

Further information

Community Service Volunteers: www.csv.org.uk

Those in higher education knowledge transfer can exchange and share good practice at www.kegoodpractice.org

Community University Partnership Programme, Brighton University: www.cupp.org.uk

The Academic Citizen: The Virtue of Service in Academic Life by Bruce Macfarlane (Routledge, 2007)

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