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Weaving the threads together

The framework outlined in Figure 1.1 was derived from the ideas of academics who had not undertaken literature reviews on the concepts of engaged research or community resilience beforehand. That is, they were working from an intuitive rather than deeply informed position. However, the essence of their understanding of each concept can be broadly supported by the literature. Engaged research was seen by these academics as being: transformational (that is, made a difference); focused on creating new knowledge or understanding; innovative; founded on relationships and partnerships that had an agreed purpose; ethical and respectful of communities; and based on what is valued, particularly by community. Such an understanding is very consistent with the community collaborative research outlined by a number of authors, particularly those who advocate for a PAR approach. Similarly, the academics conceptualised community resilience as: a sense of connectedness and identity; generosity, compassion and tolerance; a sense of optimism and hope; a holistic perspective related to people and place; having self-determination and reliance; retaining a sense of humour in the face of adversity; and acknowledging vulnerability. In particular, they recognised the centrality of social connectedness and trust to community resilience, ideas that are also apparent within the literature.

Perhaps more importantly is the recognition by the academics in the overlap between engaged research and community resilience. It is here that the academics identified that engaged research could increase community resilience through: collective problem solving; action; learning and capacity building through participation and reflection; and sharing resources in and of the community. The literature review undertaken on both of these concepts consistently raised these as core ideas; of people coming together to identify issues of importance to the community, to decide together how to share their resources and intervene in order to address those issues, and how to learn from their experiences. This is what community learning is and it lies at the heart of both community collaborative research and community resilience. Universities that take their place within their communities can contribute greatly to the resources required for communities to increase their adaptive capacity to be able to respond to natural and human related challenges. These resources include academics who have skills and knowledge in seeing things from different perspectives, in being able to draw on a vast knowledge base within the literature to help in their decision making, and in being able to apply considerable cognitive capacities toward problem solving. When these resources are used in collaboration with community members and agencies who also have considerable skills and knowledge gained through their practices and lived experiences, the results can be transformative for all involved.

However, there is much that needs to be done before the fabric made up of these strands is able to strengthen our communities. Universities need to put into place systems that encourage and recognise engaged research by its staff and need to advocate for changes within the funding bodies to likewise encourage and recognise the value of this type of research activity. Only then will some of the vast financial resources that are currently directed almost exclusively towards one-directional research be diverted to research that works with communities to solve ‘real-world’ problems and perceptions of the ivory tower be relegated to the past. A significant amount of work needs to be directed towards encouraging academics to recognise and value the knowledge of community members and agencies and to learn to work from positions of partnership where decisions and power are shared equally. Work also needs to be undertaken within communities to break down some of the prejudices toward outsiders, including academic researchers, to increase the levels of diversity and openness within communities and to build trust between all partners. Only then will there be a willingness to share resources. The communication channels between universities and their communities can form the basis of better feedback loops that benefit both, but these need to be consistently worked on just as all relationships need to be nurtured. However, as communities and universities develop stronger partnerships across a range of activities, they have greater opportunities to learn together and while it is likely to take some time before community collaborative research becomes the norm, a clear start has been made.

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