What role can equitable partnerships play in decolonizing research and policy toward strengthening local resilience?

The title is the talk I was asked to deliver at the conference of the Africa Research & Impact Network on December 8, 2022. My role as Assistant VP Research Strategy & Impact has included work on EDI in research in general and decolonizing research and research administration specifically. And in Research Impact Canada we have created an EDI/Knowledge Mobilization thinking (because we don’t know what the work is yet) group. It was my pleasure to weave a few threads together for ARIN. A summary of my remarks is below.

Decolonizing is becoming a contested word among Indigenous scholars especially when we think of institutions. We can decolonize methods and approaches, but can we really decolonize a university that is steeped in colonial practices and is funded, evaluated and governed according to colonial and western ways of thinking and being? While I use the term decolonizing, in my work at York University I am approaching this by removing systemic barriers to the authentic engagement of Indigenous scholarship and Indigenous scholars and their community partners. There is little Indigenous scholarship that isn’t partnered with Indigenous communities and increasingly the expectation is that Indigenous research will be Indigenous led so the barriers need to be addressed both on campus and when engaging in community-campus relationships.

Community engaged and community led means we must honour commitments under OCAP which is Ownership, Control, Access and Possession. OCAP governs research in collaboration with First Nations but not Métis or Inuit. Under OCAP a community has the power to determine if the results of research can be published, for example. And this must be ok for colonial institutions.

Our work at York University and in Research Impact Canada is focused on research partnerships as one way to increase community access to research and researchers. I like to think of a good partnership as being an authentic partnership. In York University’s KMb Unit our role is to break down traditional power structures and balance power between community and campus partners.

We do this in a few ways:

  • We have a unit dedicated to this work with 2 full time staff and operating funds
  • We work for the community as much as for the academy
  • We focus on community pull not university push
  • We are the place that community can approach with an idea for research. We help frame the opportunity in terms of a research question. We try to find the right researcher – one who respects the complementary expertise of community and lived experience. We do not think of our work as supply and demand where the university has knowledge that the community needs. You can read about our community-campus knowledge brokering here.
  • We help researchers craft their grant applications so they can share funding with community. I was principal investigator on a SSHRC Public Outreach Grant with Daniele Zanotti, CEO United Way York Region as my co-applicant. Because he was co-applicant and not a “partner” or “collaborator” I was able to send $75K of the awarded $93K to United Way so they could hire the human resources from community.

We do this when working with Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities. In fact, what we are learning through our work on decolonizing research administration can be applied to working with non-Indigenous communities, so everyone can benefit.

Is this decolonizing? Not certain but we are trying to shift power to the community, so they are engaged as equals not as tokenistic collaborators. I get little resistance until it comes to thinking about sending money to a community partner to hire community-based researchers and not graduate students. Building community capacity to be authentic partners is an important step in balancing power between community and campus collaborators.

What do you need for this?

  1. Leadership: York’s first VP Research & Innovation was an educational psychologist. His research was in the classroom seeking better learning outcomes. He felt research needed to leave the university to make a difference.
  2. Planning: These activities need to be in the institutional policies and planning documents. If making a positive impact with local and global communities is not a stated institutional goal, then it will not drive resource allocation.
  3. Celebrate successes and lead by example: Celebrate those faculty members and students who are doing this work in a good way. Encourage them to be peer leaders.
  4. Funding: York invested $250K in Indigenous Research Seed Grants prioritising the work of early career researchers so they can get a start on their research.
  5. Training: KMb York runs MobilizeYU, a course building capacity for knowledge mobilization and research impact for York University and for Research Impact Canada. The course includes instruction and tools and expertise available to researchers and communities.
  6. Awards: Research Impact Canada holds an annual call for nominations for Engaged Scholarship Awards for Graduate Students. York University has research awards including an award for research impact.

I am working in a Canadian context yet I always learn from examples around the world. Through my work on the Association of Commonwealth Universities I know there are many promising practices in lower and middle income countries that I can learn from and bring back to Canada to help our researchers working with local and global community partners.

See below for proceedings of the ARIN International Conference 2022: “Rebuilding Better and Resilient Communities through a Just Transition in Africa. What does COP 27 offer?”

  • Day 1, Theme 1 “Envisioning a Just Transition for Africa”, 7th December 2022.
    Click this link to access the recording: https://youtu.be/7JvaJU66fSQ
  • Day 2, Theme 2 “Building Just and Resilient Community Systems”, 8th December 2022.
    Click this link to access the recording: https://youtu.be/9ZdunzfQL34
  • Day 3, Theme 3 “Decolonizing Policy Research Towards Resilient Communities”, 9th December 2022.
    Click this link to access the recording: https://youtu.be/8_d1D_k_zNE