Hands-on sustainable community engagement

22-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Succinctly encapsulating the overall content and tone of the session, Professor Field referred to My Octopus Teacher to indicate the level of hands-on commitment that sustainable community engagement requires. Swimming with an octopus every day for a year to build up trust and to make a lasting impact is necessary. Each of the speakers worked to unearth the meta context that makes community engagement successful and, in turn, gives purpose not only to the community but to the university.

Community-based research

Professor Sarah Mosoetsa (left) was the opening speaker for a session entitled The implications of community-based learning and community-based research for the engaged university. Professor Mosoetsa is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS). Firstly, she admitted to being an advocate of pure research. Secondly she acknowledged that, reluctantly, university rankings have their place and lastly that the work that university researchers do, takes place in financially constrained contexts.

With these accepted, Professor Mosoetsa zeroes in on community focussed research which seeks to blur the margins between the university and the surrounding community.

She moves on to three pieces of research undertaken by the NIHSS. The first, which has taken place during the CoViD-19 lockdown, focussed on townships, and was titled Townships under Lockdown. Its primary focus was on the health crisis but it also took into consideration the political, psychological and social crises that lockdown provoked. Community-led relevant research allows for linking research to policy interventions because it manages to provide evidence and allows interventions to get to solutions quicker. What also became apparent is that, contrary to expectations, households were not harmonious paces. Indeed, the rising gender-based violence that took place during lockdown pointed to the household as a contentious space.

The second research initiative was into religious communities during the lockdown. What became clear is the important role of these communities in the face of uncertainty about livelihoods and health. However, it also became apparent that many of these communities played a significant part is spreading vaccine hesitancy among communities.

The last instance of community research dealt with the July violence in Gauteng and KZN. What immediately became evident is that for communities, the prime objective is not only health (being CoViD-19 free) but living a better life. The study found that rising levels of social inequality and unemployment are triggers for social instability, rather than any political agenda. Professor Mosoetsa concludes by noting that the work of the NIHSS repeatedly makes use of community led research not as a chasing of citations but as a real urgent engagement with South Africans in need. Ironically, it is the poorest universities that cannot help but to conduct their research into the poor among them, to find solutions while it is the advantaged and richer universities that can afford to ignore these pressing social challenges.

The tipping point

Professor Tracy-Lynn Field is the Research Chair of the Claude Leon Foundation for Earth Justice and Stewardship at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her interest is in creating a sustainable transformation of communities and dealing with the urgency of this need. “The earth is not dying” but it is failing at a rate that will not allow human and other organisms the time to adapt to the change quickly enough. She briefly outlines the case for climate change, specifically its impact on Southern Africa, and argues that the 1,5 C rise is on course to arrive by the 2030s. This, in turn, has consequences for the food-energy nexus and its tipping point.

She quotes David Attenborough’s stark warning:

We are facing a global crisis. We are totally dependent on the natural world. It supplies us with every oxygen-laden breath we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But we are currently damaging it so profoundly that many of its natural systems are now on the verge of breakdown.

Professor Field moves on to a map of the world which lays out those areas of the planet that are likely to be impacted first and which shows the frailty of Africa and Southern Africa. Add to all of this the tidal wave of polluting organic and man-made substances. With municipal neglect, the flow of sewage and pollution are becoming a daily reality but its pathways are so incremental and insidious that we hardly notice it anymore. At times there is an event that is so spectacular and devastating that it confronts and can create opportunities for change.

The looting in July this year just North of Durban may be just such an event. Thousands of tonnes of fungicide, herbicide and pesticide went up in flames. Housed in a large, unlicenced warehouse in a densely populated area and near an estuary when it was hosed down, there was no awareness that these hazardous materials would flow down river and effectively kill the entire ecosystem.

Sustainability transformation

Within a week of this event a community of sorts came together. Academics from Wits, UJ, UKZN and DUT, civic organisation groups and lawyers from the area ensured that the event continued to get media coverage and apply pressure on local government. This is community engagement but not in any obvious way.

Going through the websites of all 26 public universities, Professor Field found that all have extensive reference to community engagement with personnel employed to oversee these mutually beneficial partnerships and with the universities often belonging to global networks dedicated to community engagement. But there are very few dedicated to sustainability transformation and most of these conduct research on this and produce knowledge for society but not necessarily in and with communities.

The pressing question then is: how do we re-think sustainability transformation in ways that will achieve greater prominence? She listed three possibilities:

  • Galvanising individual universities behind a common sustainability transformation challenge.
  • Re-focusing the work of an existing institutional architecture for community engagement.
  • Creating an enduring node for inter-university cooperation on sustainability.

By way of offering concrete examples, she talks of the embodied missions of sustainability on the part of NMU and Rhodes university where sustainability is built into everything that these institutions do. Quoting from Rhodes she notes that community engagement is phrased as a crucial action of “care and compassion”. In concluding she argues for an inter-university platform, across all institutions and aimed at “environmental stewardship”. USAf, with its important strategy groups seems to be missing both an environmental strategy as well as one on community engagement.

“The tale of two Durban spaces” was how Professor Monique Marks described her input. As Head of the Urban Futures Centre (UFC) at the Durban University of Technology, she is at pains to point out how engagement benefits the university. The establishment of the UFC was driven by Professor Bawa when he was Vice-Chancellor at DUT and arose out of a real passion to benefit people in surrounding urban areas and to re-imagine a better future for that community.

Understanding housing

Before showcasing her two projects, Professor Marks set about dispelling the myth that community engagement deflects “from research excellence and impacts on the university’s ratings”. What is missed in this critique is the real impact and benefit that community engagement has on people’s lives in ways that are impossible with more remote research. For her, society is the social scientist’s laboratory where involvement with real people on real challenges is where research comes alive and is an enabler for changing dominant narratives about how things work.

Her first tale centres on understanding social housing using Durban’s largest low-income estate. Called Kenneth Gardens, the project grew out of UKZN’s lack of community engagement and it was established in 2010. This began with “engagement in daily life, struggles, resource building and story-telling — ensuring community prioritisation of interventions and research. This also allowed for the co-creation of knowledge shared platforms, documenting oral history, raising their profile via media outlets and photovoice projects. The project gave rise to the publication of two books on Kenneth gardens and had the following benefits for UKZN and DUT:

  • It created student internships in a real world space.
  • The project presented an opportunity for volunteerism and helped build ‘citizenship’.
  • Empirically strong and socially relevant research outcomes (books and articles).
  • Partnerships with community based organisations (long-term MOUs).
  • Joined-up engagement projects with international universities.
  • Significant external funding via the NRF Community Engagement Fund.
  • Substantive media coverage.

The second project focusses on the Bellhaven Harm Reduction Centre. It began during Level 5 lockdown and was a project to offer a safe space for homeless people, especially those addicted to heroin. Housing 260 people for 10 weeks, it evolved to become Bellhaven Harm Reduction Centre in 2020.

Bellhaven has provided much-needed shelter for homeless people, some of whom lived under bridges or in underground parking lots.

Offering a range of services from a methodone programme, to basic medical services, testing for TB and HIV and to voluntary individual and group psycho-social services which has seen a remarkable uptake. This government-university partnership has also become a place of deliberation and knowledge creation.

Again, the benefits to the university are many. But, primarily, it increases the permeability of the university to the community, the dissolving of borders to the benefit of all.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.