Nurturing Community During Times of Upheaval: A Case Study of Community-University Collaborative Events During COVID-19

January 12, 2021

Lulama Moyo, Community Engaged Learning Assistant Program Director, Center for Social Concerns University of Notre Dame, Ludy McCollester, Community Based Learning Coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club, South Bend, and David Lassen, Community Engaged Learning Program Director at the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.

The uneven, uncertain, and evolving effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised key questions about the role of institutions of higher education in supporting community-based organizations in times of upheaval. The current moment reminds us that successful community-university partnerships are built on a collaboratively-constructed worldview. That perspective, however, can be difficult to find when partners on and off-campus are unsure how to move forward. Even well-established practices can fail when the context they were built on changes.

This session will begin to explore both university and community perspectives of one attempt to collectively navigate the fluid landscape of 2020. Recognizing the enhanced importance of coming together in a time when circumstances threaten to keep us apart, community engagement professionals (CEPs) at the University of Notre Dame (UND) and a team of seven community leaders collaboratively created a series of 12 virtual gatherings during the summer of 2020. These spaces provided a much-needed opportunity for community and university members to come together to discuss experiences, best practices, and avenues to healing. Yet these gatherings also raised at least three key questions about the role of university actors during an extended period of crisis. First, when should CEPs act primarily as conveners (and secondarily as direct discussants)? Second, how can collaborative events remain fluid and responsive to community interests? Third, what evaluation practices are most appropriate and effective in times of crisis? This session will provide lessons learned on these subjects as well as the opportunity for attendees to make goals in their own contexts.

Like other natural and human-induced crises before it, the global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and at times fractured the lives of many people across the United States. The uneven, uncertain, and evolving effect of the virus, however, has raised key questions about the role of institutions of higher education in supporting community-based organizations. The current moment reminds us that successful community-university partnerships are built on a collaboratively-constructed worldview that guides priorities and resource allocation. That perspective, however, can be difficult to find when partners on and off-campus are unsure how to move forward. Even well-established practices can fail when the context they were built on changes. Yet responses to moments such as the current pandemic appear only rarely in the community engagement literature. Previous research on community-university partnerships during times of crisis appears sporadically, typically closely tied to a specific crisis event such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. This session will therefore expand on existing studies by exploring a fully collaborative approach to adapting to changing circumstances.

Specifically, the session will explore in detail a series of 12 virtual gatherings designed by community engagement professionals at the University of Notre Dame and community leaders in the greater South Bend area during summer 2020. An organic outgrowth of existing community-university relationships, the gatherings were a direct response to the isolation felt by many community leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gatherings focused on a range of topics closely related to the work of and recommended by each attendee. Our presentation will focus on three key areas of practice among community engagement professionals–the role of university actors in discussion with community leaders, remaining responsive and adaptive to community interests, and effective evaluation of collaborative projects. The session will therefore consider how university and community actors can learn and strategically act together in moments of high uncertainty, especially the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The session will include significant opportunities for audience engagement, including small group work where attendees can in conversation with one another and one of the presenters use insights from the session to enhance their own practice. Major goals for the session include helping attendees establish goals for their own work during the pandemic and in future moments of crisis.

The three presenters bring a unique background and essential perspective to this conversation. As two university staff members and a community leader, we have directly experienced and continue to navigate the uncertainties brought by the current health crisis. More importantly, we were each centrally involved in the creation, administration, and evaluation of the gatherings examined in this session. Each presenter will have space during the session to share their own experience with the gatherings as well as facilitate a conversation with attendees. This session will therefore be well-suited for community engagement professionals and community members with a range of experience.

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