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Tips for Scientists: Getting Started in a Community Partnership

Category: Uncategorized

By Sarah Wilkins, Project Manager

“How do I get started in a collaborative partnership with a community group?” is one of the most common questions we get from scientists. The question is typically motivated by a desire to do good—either by sharing one’s research outcomes or through identifying a local problem that could benefit from one’s expertise.

This, right off the bat, is where I’d suggest taking a step back to check your assumptions and personal motivations at the door. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to share your research outcomes or lending your expertise to an identified problem, a true community science partnership has its roots in something else. Community science is grounded in a deep respect and understanding for community agency. This means that we begin with an open mind, ready to listen to what a community is prioritizing. For example, we may assume that the most pressing problem for a community is loss of greenspace due to development, but after attending a few community meetings, we learn that the biggest concern for residents is that asthma rates have spiked due to an increase of code red air quality days during the summer months. Respecting, acknowledging and responding to the community priority is essential in community science.

[Just to be clear, this is not a blog about what community science is—our Director, Raj Pandya, recently wrote about that. You can read his post here.]

So now that we know we need to check our assumptions at the door and keep an open mind, where to begin? In the middle of writing this post, I kept coming back to an image of childhood games like Sorry! and Candyland. While it’s way too simplistic to compare the community science journey to a board game, I think it helps illustrate the key milestones along the way and why it’s importance to have patience when you inevitably get sent back to “start.”  So, here’s a map I created, for your enjoyment and guidance. Much of this guidance can also be found in the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Scientist-Community Partnerships Guide. It’s a great handbook to consult when getting started in a community science collaboration.

  • Identify Your Role:
    • Why are you reaching out to this community? Why would they want to work with you?
    • What issues are you interested in?
    • What expertise and support do you feel you can lend to these issues? Pro tip: Try not to dwell too much on your specific area of expertise. Instead, focus on your broad science background and how your analytical skills can help address a community concern.
    • What issues are confronting the community? Make some notes on what you see—these can be broad (e.g., development pressures) or specific (e.g., increased algal blooms in ponds and lakes).
  • Identify Community Groups/Leaders:
    • Having a sense of what is happening around you will help steer you toward groups or leaders working on relevant issues. Remember, you’re not here to push your agenda. Keep an open mind and stay curious about the community’s top priorities and concerns.
    • Make a list of groups that work and care about the issues you outlined. Examples include church groups, local environmental groups, civic leagues, social justice groups, local boards, and policy councils (e.g., food, public health, transportation, waste).
  • Connect with these groups:
    • Do these groups have a website or email listserv you can join?
    • Bulletin boards inside the entrances of businesses and libraries also are a great way to learn about local groups active in your community.
    • Festivals and fairs often provide booth space to community groups to exhibit their work and educate the public on their cause.
  • Attend a community meeting:
    • If the group meets monthly, attend their meeting to learn more. Pro tip: Listen more than you talk during this initial meeting. “Be the sponge”.
  • Attend a second community meeting:
    • Or a third or fourth! One meeting is usually not enough to understand the full breadth and depth of the issue at hand and multiple meetings allow you to get to know the community members better.
  • Build trust with a community group:
    • By attending multiple meetings, taking good notes, asking good questions, and getting to know your neighbors, you are building trust with the community group. Trust means following through on your commitments (if you said you’d show up to a community meeting, then do it!); being honest and realistic in what you can offer; showing people you care about them; communicating well and often; and being honest about your mistakes.
    • Get to know the community outside of the science – you don’t have to become best friends for life, but being able to relate, share stories from your personal life, and break down the walls that separate “scientist” from “community member” go a long way in establishing a trusting relationship.
  • Request a small group meeting over coffee or tea:
    • Contact a few of the key community leaders from the group and invite them to get together to talk about a collaborative partnership. An informal setting like a coffeehouse helps people feel more relaxed, especially when the location is close to where they live or work. The meeting will allow everyone to get better acquainted.
    • Given that you attended at least two recent meetings with the community group, be sure to bring your notes and prepare a list of questions (here’s an example guide).
  • Listen, take notes and ask powerful questions:
    • During your meeting, allow ample time for the community leaders to discuss their priorities openly without jumping to solutions. Take notes and be sure to use active listening skills.
    • Turn to your list of questions to continue clarifying and refining your understanding of the community priorities. Zero in on where you can best work together.
  • Iterate and develop a plan of action with the community:
    • If the group is interested in pursuing a partnership, create a project scope and plan. This will take place over a few phone calls or in-person meetings to further iterate and refine.
    • Discuss deadlines, milestones, deliverables, best modes of communication, frequency of check-ins, and a timeline for the collaboration.
    • Be honest and upfront about how much time you can devote. Can you provide 2-3 hours per week, or 5-10?
    • Discuss the need for resources and access to data and where to obtain/access them, if necessary.
    • Pro tip: Be upfront that the results generated from the science work may not support a community belief or course of action. Any action taken will be based on the scientific evidence generated.
  • Establish ground rules together:
    • Together, codify your team’s shared expectations for working in a collaborative partnership. This set of agreements—your ground rules—will be used to make sure meetings and day-to-day engagement are productive and effective.

Now you’re ready to launch your project and get to work! Spending time upfront allows you to approach a community partnership with intention and a deep commitment to community priorities and agency. As you dive deeper into the project, remember to be adaptive and stay focused on the objectives set out with community members at the start. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are the best community science projects!

Have a suggestion on how to start a community partnership? Share your experience in the comments section, below.

Natasha Udu-gama editor

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