The words community engagement have been used quite a bit over the past several years, most significantly during the ReThink London process, but also in the lead up to the recent municipal election.
One place those words aren’t given enough credit for creating new connections is at Western University, a place — ironically enough — where community engagement is in some respect what the facility is all about.
To change this, Engage Western was created last year as a way to celebrate the strong partnerships between the university and the broader London community. The event, which drew 100-120 people, was all about fostering dialogue around how partnerships can be maximized for the mutual benefit of communities and universities.
The second annual Engage Western is set for Friday, Nov. 28, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Mustang Lounge in the University Community Centre.
The goal of the event remains the same, according to Anne-Marie Fischer, community engaged learning coordinator at Western.
“It seeks to celebrate, acknowledge and recognize the collaborations that are already happening between the university and our community,” Fischer said. “We are a very engaged university and we have a number of initiatives that are happening across campus that seek to mobilize knowledge where it is needed, where it can enhance the way our society works and thrives together.”
Fischer, along with Joel Burton, a Western grad student and PhD candidate in English and Writing Studies, are among the organizers of this year’s event.
On the agenda for Engage Western are several panel discussions and workshops, as well as a keynote address from Paul Born, president and co-founder of the Tamarack Institute. Tamarack is a charity that helps people collaborate and co-generate knowledge used in finding solutions to many complex community challenges.
As a citizen of London, Burton said he wanted to be more involved in the broader community. But as a student he felt — as do many students — this sense he was locked on campus.
His journey for the last number of years, therefore, has been to find events and places where he could meet people from different organizations and participate in their efforts.
“What we wanted to do was create a venue where people could come together in the same room, which is the start of collaboration and partnership,” Burton said. “But also to think about a structure that is about learning, a collision of ideas, really the birth of partnerships can be formed by speaking over common concerns.”
Fischer said the inaugural Engage Western “went really well, had a very positive response.”
This time around, the goal is to pay particular attention to the need to reach all audience members in a way that was relevant to everybody — faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, community members, staff members — which isn’t an easy task for one day.
The focus, Fischer said, is community engaged learning, an educational approach that infuses community partnerships into course curriculum. Since about 2009, Western has had about 30 unique courses that use this community-engaged approach.
“It is a very reciprocal relationship where students are getting a very meaningful learning experience, grounded in the community, seeing the connections between theory and practice,” Fischer said. “While also the community organizations we work with get the benefit of fresh perspective, added capacity and specialized knowledge from our students.”
Engage Western, Fischer said, is about seeking to celebrate community engaged learning. One aspect is about building partnerships and what are the best practices for doing so. Another involves examining what learning looks like when taken out from “behind the gates” and is brought into the community.
And there is a third, Burton said, which is sharing stories.
The way forward, Burton said, for the humanities (academic disciplines that study human culture) is to fuse educational models, “to start to bridge gaps,” and be more practical.
“You can use words like applied or advanced study, but there are critics of that kind of work,” Burton said. “One of the things we think a lot about in the humanities is the use storytelling, the use of narrative, as something that can create connection between people. It is using storytelling as connection.”
A lot of the solutions to society’s issues, Fischer said, can be found in “evidence-based practices,” which is where the university can add quite a bit to the conversation and enhance an organization’s knowledge.
Fischer said it is through partnerships that a researcher or student can help find insights into various societal issues that aren’t necessarily apparent or at least look at them in a different way.
“There is a wealth of knowledge at the university just waiting to be mobilized,” Fischer said. “Western is part of the community, we aren’t separate, and we want to be part of making the community better.”
Admission to Engage Western is free, but participants are asked to register online at www.engagewestern2014.eventbrite.ca.