Unlocking answers starts with listening

Two years after the North-West University opened its Centre of Child, Youth and Family studies in Wellington, Western Cape, the research centre is finding new ways of working with communities that are challenging the status quo.

We wanted to adopt a true community engagement model for our centre,” said its director, Professor Retha Bloem. “About two years ago I asked one of our PhD candidates, a forensic social worker, to do her research into developing a community engagement model for higher education and, as a result of her work, we have changed our whole approach.”

The new model has turned the department on its head. The usual method of work is for a researcher to enter a community, often with preconceived ideas, to gather data and then to leave the community behind. “That’s the biggest concern in higher education. We need to train students, but we need to do it in a way that values and benefits the communities in which we work,” Bloem said.

“The last three months have seen us changing our whole academic approach to community engagement. “Adopting a new way of working is not without its pain. It is not comparable to internships or practical work or workplace-based learning. We are not the experts any more. Community engagement takes away the feeling of charity or power on the side of the researcher or the social worker. Our role is now to listen and the only expertise that we bring is how to unlock the answers. It is really a paradigm shift.”

The centre is adopting the new approach with nine projects, and the new way of working is building indigenous knowledge.

“I believe that for the first time we will be getting to the root of problems such as poverty and violence in our communities. Why is the primary health sector not working? Why is the rate of TB rising? Why is there so much violence against women and children? When you really start to open yourself to hear the people, you discover a very different picture. If we don’t have the answers from the people, we end up forcing our knowledge down on them. Now the first step in a long term process is to build relationships with the communities. We need to discipline ourselves as researchers to leave our paternalism and preconceptions behind us.”

She emphasised that this kind of engagement allows the communities’ own knowledge to be reframed into models that can benefit them. The researchers’ role also changes into one of skills building and sharing so that the people ultimately have the tools to solve their own problems. “We are learning to be the agents of change. My mandate and my challenge are the same: to truly make a difference to the communities we serve. I am convinced that community engagement is the way to do it,” she said.

This article was supplied and approved by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. It forms part of a larger supplement.

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