The face of rural Newfoundland and Labrador is changing quickly — the population is aging and declining, creating challenges for industry and economic growth.
But for many people in rural regions, accepting decline is not an option. For them, it’s just another reason to pull communities together and to work collaboratively.
Deeper, stronger collaborations
That is the thinking behind a new Harris Centre-led initiative focused on community-university collaboration.
As part of Memorial’s COASTS initiative (Cold Oceans and Arctic Science, Technology and Society), the Sustainable Northern Coastal Communities initiative aims to build upon the university’s existing research and engagement capacity in northern and remote regions to support community-engaged and community-led research that leads to positive impacts for community and regional sustainability.
Dr. Rob Greenwood, director of the Harris Centre and public engagement at Memorial, says the centre’s regional workshops have done much to build collaborations between university researchers and communities during the past decade.
But, given the massive challenges facing numerous regions across the province, many rural residents say they want deeper, stronger collaborations — more than what one-day workshops can accomplish.
“The Sustainable Northern Coastal Communities initiative is about tackling big challenges, and doing it together with communities, governments, organizations and researchers. It goes well beyond conventional research projects or programs,” he said.
Priorities and challenges
With initial funding through the International Grenfell Association, the first of three pilot workshops will take place this fall on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula and Southern Labrador.
This first session is designed to bring the region together and identify priorities, says Amy Jones, program co-ordinator at the Harris Centre.
“We have representatives from several communities within the region on the planning committee, and the first session will be open to community groups, government, business and industry leaders, and interested members of the public,” she said. “This is the session where people will begin to identify what the major challenges are, and what are the priorities for sustainability going forward.”
“We’re seeing this as an opportunity to collaborate and create a regional action plan to ensure the future of the Northern Peninsula,” said Sheila Fitzgerald, mayor of Roddickton and member of the regional planning committee.
Once the priorities have been identified by the region, the Harris Centre’s team, working in collaboration with Memorial’s Grenfell Campus and the Labrador Institute, will open a call for expressions of interest from researchers at the university to tackle the various research areas.
Ms. Jones says that to ensure community engagement throughout the entire process, in addition to academics, regional representatives will sit on the research funding selection committee.
“In the past, it’s been hard to broker research projects brought to us by communities without funds to help get the work done,” said Ms. Jones. “With this new initiative, we have research dollars built into the program.”
“We can tap into a group of innovative, creative thinkers who bring an objective view and a fresh “can do” attitude.”
Once the grants are awarded, the researchers will attend the second set of workshops in the region and meet with community representatives to further develop specific questions to be addressed.
This second visit will provide an additional opportunity for engagement and collaboration in the process and help to ensure the research to be conducted is relevant to the region.
Mutual contribution, mutual benefit
A third and final visit will take place once the research is complete. This will allow opportunity to present and discuss the findings with community members and to plan the next steps.
“The program is designed to really dig in and get stuff done, but also create more engagement within the regions,” said Dr. Greenwood. “With multiple visits and dedicated research funds, there is concrete value for groups and individuals in the region coming to the table and building substantial connections with researchers at the university.”
Dr. Greenwood also says it’s a natural and necessary next step to foster even stronger partnerships and collaborations between Memorial and the people of the province, to connect university capacity with community knowledge and public, private and non-profit partners and to tackle the most daunting challenges facing communities.
“That’s good for communities, good for the university and essential for the future of the province,” he said.
“It’s a remarkable opportunity,” said Mrs. Fitzgerald. “We can tap into a group of innovative, creative thinkers who bring an objective view and a fresh “can do” attitude. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”