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Tufts Faculty, Community Partners Discuss Collaborative Scholarship at Annual Symposium

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The 2018 Presidential Symposium on Community Partnerships focused on engaged research opportunities to address myriad problems.

2018 Presidential Symposium

On April 3, Tisch College and the Office of Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco co-hosted the 16th Tufts Presidential Symposium on Community Partnerships. This annual gathering of students, faculty, staff, and local leaders provides an opportunity for all members of the university community—across all three campuses—to connect and to discuss shared goals, concerns, and opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration. This year’s symposium was attended by more than 150 people, and it inspired substantive dialogue about partnership opportunities in a variety of fields.

The 2018 symposium’s theme was “With Communities, For Communities: The Promise of Engaged Research.” In his opening remarks, President Monaco alluded to the ways that traditional models of conducting and disseminating research were giving way to new approaches.

“In 1852, Tufts was founded to be a ‘light on the hill.’ We know today, however, that light comes from all directions, and we receive illumination as much as we send it out,” he said. “We are most innovative and most productive when we collaborate together.”

Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont highlighted some of the ways we have historically supported community-based participatory research and other forms of engaged scholarship, particularly through the Tisch College Community Research Center (TCRC). “It’s a unique organization at Tufts, with equal leadership between faculty and community members, and it has provided seed funding for groundbreaking research on issues like air pollution, food access, and obesity prevention,” said Dean Solomont.

Tufts professor Doug Brugge, who serves as faculty co-chair of the TCRC, outlined some of the myriad benefits that engaged research can offer to both academics and community members. Researchers, he said, often have their study design and implementation strengthened by vital on-the-ground know-how, and their connections to local leaders who may be fighting to address the challenges they study make it more likely that the results will be utilized to effect change.

Meanwhile, nonprofit leaders, local activists, and other community members can use research to support their advocacy efforts or requests for funding, to find out if their programs and initiatives are working, to discover overlooked challenges and opportunities related to their mission, and perhaps most of all to acquire new skills and experience that can enhance organizational capacity well after a specific study has concluded.

During an insightful panel moderated by Penn Loh, a lecturer in the Tufts Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department and a member of the TCRC steering committee, two community leaders and one Tufts faculty member shared their experiences conducting engaged research. Susan Chinsen, Managing Director of the Chinese Historical Society of New England, described how her collaboration with Prof. Diane O’Donoghue, Tisch College Senior Fellow and director of our Program for Public Humanities, led to the innovative These Words exhibition—and to the long-awaited restoration of a Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library.

Ben Echevarría, Executive Director of The Welcome Project and community co-chair of TCRC, spoke about his work with Tufts scholars and other community partners on a project to examine gentrification in Somerville. He highlighted that, when tackling such a complex, multifaceted problem, both sides benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.

“The community adds value to the research,” said Echevarría “We have a lot of questions that need answers ... and having a university partner like Tufts University to collaborate with to answer those questions is amazing”

Meanwhile, Sasha Fleary, Assistant Professor in Tufts’ Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, shared updates on her work with Asian Women for Health on the pilot project: “Achieving Whole Health through Gender Responsive and Culturally Relevant Curriculum.”

All three panelists discussed the ways in which, from their perspective, conducting community-based research strengthened their work. They also spoke candidly about the challenges involved in such partnerships, noting that they could be overcome with constant communication, clear expectation-setting, and a willingness to be flexible and adapt to new contexts and situations. All three strongly endorsed these models of collaborative work, with Fleary especially expressing gratitude for the way AWFH approached her with the project and encouraging her fellow academics: “If you have a chance to do research with a community partner: take it.”

The symposium ended with roundtable discussions about possible research collaborations in areas as diverse as STEM education, public health, K-12 education, food security, and youth political engagement. As always, one of the morning’s highlights was the opportunity for scholars and practitioners who may be working in similar fields to meet, brainstorm, and plant the seeds for future partnerships.

“We had a wonderful Presidential Symposium this year, with a timely theme that is of great interest to both academics and community members,” says Shirley Mark, Tisch College Director of Community Partnerships and the primary organizer of the event. “I’m grateful to everyone who worked on it and to everyone who attended—and I’m already looking forward to seeing all of our friends and partners again at next year’s Symposium!”