I’m Dan Turner, Ph.D., and I serve as the Assistant Director of the Community-Engaged Data and Evaluation Collaborative (CEDEC) at the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. A recently launched initiative, CEDEC connects campus, nonprofit, and public agency partners, leveraging Brown’s resources to advance data and evaluation capacity in Rhode Island.
It took many years for me to take a math or programming class not based solely on a textbook or slideshows. In my final semester as an undergraduate student, I enrolled in Quantitative Solutions to Global Problems, a course designed for ecology students (like myself), as well as journalism and public health students. We learned not just to code hypothetical problem sets, but, when possible, to partner our knowledge with others’ outside the classroom to realize mutual benefits. Since that experience, I’ve worked on research projects with community partners from my hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and internationally and consulted in the philanthropy sector to build sustainable data systems.
Many colleges and universities across the United States and around the world are committed to building more equitable partnerships with community-based organizations; places to learn more include Campus Compact and the Talloires Network. As this specific initiative continues to develop, I’ll reflect on a few guiding actions:
1) Co-generating knowledge that serves mutual interests
Each partner brings valuable assets that are not mutually exclusive. Community partners know their context, capacity, and community best. Students and faculty at higher education institutions often work to understand systems, theories, and practices that can support, but not compete with, existing data and evaluation projects.
Our Graduate Assistant at CEDEC, Sam Parker, has been working to match community partners in Rhode Island with campus partners to further data and evaluation capacity. In her words, “It’s really gratifying to sit down with a community partner, learn about their goals and then match them with a resource that is going to serve their work. I’ve learned through my own involvement with a local health-focused partnership that the results of data analysis often confirms or documents things that community partners already know. They’re experts in their own experience and we’re just helping to add data analysis as a tool to articulate this expertise in a new way. We get to learn from community partners while helping them address their organizational goals.”
2) Elevating education steeped in community engagement
Learning the principles of coding and/or program evaluation can happen concurrently with direct community engagement. We’ve seen it work at Brown; undergraduate students from non-data concentrations can earn a Data Fluency Certificate, which includes an experiential learning requirement. One option is to complete a project with a community partner; the Data Science Institute at Brown and CEDEC facilitate those matches, based on aligned interests and background, and students take on a variety of data organization, analysis and visualization tasks identified by partners.
While this certificate program serves as a great model, formal certification does not preclude community engagement in data and evaluation projects; timeline, availability, and scope may align for campus-community partnership along many capacities.
3) Running a relay, not a sprint
Trust takes long-term commitment (and much more). Higher education institutions have not always prioritized sustained work, engaging instead for a semester or a specific grant period. Fortunately, by organizing an institutional initiative, we can build campus-community partnerships that last, even as individual students, faculty, and staff may come and go. By centering accountability, documentation, and consistent connections across a network of individuals, data and evaluation initiatives look a lot more like a team relay than a sprint to finish.
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