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  • Kirstie Lynn Dobbs, Ph.D.

Answering the Call: The Benefits of Community Engagement

Updated: Mar 28


Picture of the 2019 ICER Cohort at Tufts University


At APSA’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research in 2019, I, along with a group of political science scholars, learned how to conduct engaged research with community partners, and to better connect our research with socially-relevant problems. After completing the week-long training, I was excited to merge my academic agenda with community-driven needs and interests. But I faced a challenge - I didn’t have existing relationships with community groups. On top of this, I worried about forming community partnerships that might be at odds with a tenure-track timeline and might “distract” me from focusing on career-enhancing publications.


For those who might be struggling with the same questions, my advice is: GO FOR IT! Partnerships that center communities’ political priorities and perspectives often produce intangible outcomes that better inform our identities, and ultimately, our scholarship. Additionally, it can be challenging to measure our impact as political scientists when we wait for eons to hear back from reviewers. But when I engage with communities, the feedback is reciprocal and continuous, and I feel the impact of the work being done in a very profound way.


I also find that working with communities illuminates my strengths as a political scientist in ways previously hidden to me. After grad school, I quickly pigeon-holed myself as a comparativist focused on a narrow part of the world, but after connecting with Thriving Earth Exchange, I found myself tackling environmental issues in the United States. This experience broadened my knowledge of political behavior and civil society and deepened my understanding of civic engagement. When I started learning more about Thriving Earth Exchange’s community groups, my mind immediately connected their environmental objectives with social movement theory and protest politics. I began to map in my mind the different centers of political power and how these community leaders could collaborate to impact not just the environment but politics as well. These experiences brought me back to the core of why I was attracted to political science in the first place - a desire to understand and re-balance power asymmetries.


APSA and Thriving Earth Exchange are working on increasing opportunities for political scientists to collaborate and engage with natural scientists and community groups across the United States. If you are interested in learning more about these opportunities or volunteering to participate, please contact me at dobbsk@merrimack.edu. To learn more you can also follow my blog. I hope this blog can serve as a platform for scholars who are interested in working with communities on real-world issues but might be hesitant to do so. You can also learn more about APSA’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research through their website here - and they are currently accepting applications for the virtual Summer 2021 institute (deadline April 1st). Let’s all connect, offer advice, and strengthen the movement to engage with local communities and work with one another across disciplines.


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