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Op-ed: Jenne Nolan, Dr. Sobia Shaheen Shaikh and Dr. Jennifer Selby

Can faculty at Memorial create meaningful social change in N.L.? Should they?

Part of a special feature that illuminates the synergistic relationship between individuals, communities and community organizations and Memorial, with a focus on Memorial’s supporting role to community-led work.

The university’s Office of Public Engagement hopes so.

And so do a good number of Memorial’s faculty, who give public talks and engage in research connecting the university with local communities. But what makes Memorial’s engagement meaningful? What are its limitations?

We reflect on these questions after working on Addressing Islamophobia in Newfoundland and Labrador for over two years.

This project sought to initiate meaningful social change by bringing together over 300 people, including local service providers, community organizers and Memorial students, faculty and staff. Its main goal was to increase local knowledge about countering Islamophobia and racism, and to foster community-wide responses.

A year ago, from Sept. 22-23, we hosted the Addressing Islamophobia in N.L. Conference. The conference was a culmination of collaboration of more than 40 groups and organizations.[1]

Conference participants concluded that it was important to encourage the provincial government to direct more attention on anti-Islamophobia and anti-racist social justice policy.

A set of recommendations to the provincial government was created.

Limitations of traditional metrics

By all accounts, the project was meaningful, but much of its significance is not visible using the traditional metrics applied by university administrators.

For the sake of brevity, here are three of the lessons learned throughout the project:

First, we learned that we had to rely on pre-existing relationships to advance community-university collaboration.

“Forging meaningful partnerships meant that we “showed up” beyond the confines of our project.”

Connections with diverse communities could not have been possible without the Anti-Racist Coalition-Newfoundland and Labrador’s (ARC-NL) relationship-building propelled by the coalition’s mandate to broaden a culture of anti-racism within Newfoundland and Labrador.

Forging meaningful partnerships meant that we “showed up” beyond the confines of our project. We not only supported collaborators and partners, but we built the bonds on which social change is possible.

Time, effort and heart are required for these relationships. Engaging with community members and maintaining bonds takes a tremendous amount of time and emotional investment.

Transformation of relationships

Second, we learned that our university-enabled community engagement both facilitated collaboration and limited it.

As we completed our final reports, we were pleased to see how much we had accomplished, were still accomplishing and still had to accomplish.

“Social change cannot be attained with one-off events.”

However, we were struck by the fact that although we were able to outline the successful “outcomes” of our project, we were unable to relay the level of transformation that occurred as we built relationships.

While the university, along with other non-profit and community organizations, is often expected to show deliverables and outcomes, these measures are not what drive and sustain community engagement. Relationships do. Social change cannot be attained with one-off events.

As we outline in our community report, these engaged encounters have been transformational, often in unpredictable and immeasurable ways. We collectively brought into focus anti-Islamophobia and anti-racism awareness and action (see our provincial recommendations).

Commitment beyond short-term

Finally, we learned that we needed to attend to, and sometimes resist, the neat (and, in our case, false) binary between the academy and the community.

As faculty members (Sobia and Jennifer) we are also active members of ARC-NL. Conversely, many of our “community” collaborators were also academics and researchers (including Jenne). And many of our collaborators were members of university-affiliated organizations, alumni, students and/or faculty.

Indeed, very few of us could easily claim one side of the academic/community divide. This idea was also a limitation: there is a commonly-held perception that Memorial faculty are disconnected from generating meaningful social change for all citizens.

Some believe that an aloofness is necessary as faculty should remain “neutral” to inequalities in our local communities. Others believe that the disconnection arises because many academics are seen as “come-from-aways” and are ignorant of local experience.

These perceptions fuel a distrust that the university will not remain committed to community efforts to counter Islamophobia and racism beyond short-funded projects.

Create vs. co-create

So, to answer our opening question: Can faculty at Memorial create meaningful social change?

No. Faculty can only co-create meaningful social change, if they are able to build sustaining relationships between the “university” and “the community,” if they refute neat university-community binaries, and if they show up for social change efforts across the province.

Should they? Yes, most definitely.

Faculty should be engaged and supported as we co-create meaningful social change in Newfoundland and Labrador.

[1] Addressing Islamophobia in N.L. was funded primarily by the Quick Start (Community Consultations) and Accelerator (Conference) Grants of the Office of Public Engagement, as well as through the generosity of the Office of the Provost and Vice-president (Academic) and the Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association (see our Yaffle report and our final community report).

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