CSAHS Researchers Work with Community Groups to Benefit People in Need

New institute fosters collaboration, change

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Linda Hawkins

ICES director Linda Hawkins -- Photo by Dean Palmer

Linda Hawkins is intrigued by what motivates people to make the choices they do, especially when they work together.

“What pulls them toward or pushes them away from making certain decisions? When do they feel most engaged in their work or in the world? These are questions that fascinate me,” says Hawkins, who earned a Guelph master’s degree in sociology and anthropology in 1990. It was here that she was bitten by the research bug and developed a strong interest in the critical study of complex social issues.

In 2009, she became director of U of G’s new Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship (ICES), an innovative research centre operating in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences that draws on faculty, staff and student researchers to create and foster relationships with community organizations, at home and abroad, in an effort to resolve some of their most pressing issues.

Hawkins says she is excited to be working in an environment that blends community expertise with academic knowledge in the pursuit of civic responsibility and social transformation. ICES has already partnered with a number of groups including the Community Research Centre of North and Centre Wellington, Immigrant Services Guelph-Wellington, and the Volunteer Centre of Guelph-Wellington.

“It’s definitely research for social purpose,” says Hawkins, adding that knowledge exchange chairs, capacity building and a research shop are all part of the ICES vision. “It’s about strengthening the institution’s capacity to work with communities and developing relationships and partnerships that will foster collaborations.”

One of those collaborations is a community-based research project organized by the city and county’s poverty elimination task force in conjunction with ICES’s research shop. “The goal is to identify gaps in services and programs as well as issues with accessing services and programs for people facing economic hardship in Guelph and Wellington,” says project co-ordinator Trish Altass, a 2010 master’s graduate and now a PhD student in sociology.

As part of the initiative, 11 residents of Guelph and Wellington County — each one impacted by economic hardship — were trained to become community researchers. In addition to designing the research process and helping to frame the questions and the language used, they conducted four focus groups with other people facing economic hardship in the local area.

“The great thing about this kind of collaborative approach is that the community members are equals in the research process,” says Altass, noting that this is the first time she has had an opportunity to do research using this type of partnership method. “There are certain things you don’t think of if you’re not the one experiencing the issue at hand. It’s really exciting to be involved  in research that is going to make a difference in my community and have direct benefit to people living here.”