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  • Kirstie Lynn Dobbs, Ph.D.

Answering the Call? The Benefits of Community Engagement

After completing the week-long training at the American Political Science Association’s Institute of Civically Engaged Research (ICER) during the summer of 2019, I was excited to bridge my academic agenda with community-driven needs and interests. However, I had no idea what to expect in the process of engaging with community partners. I also did not have a clear sense of how community engagement could directly enhance my career. I was caught between wanting to “answer the call” for political science to produce more publicly relevant research and not getting “too distracted” from focusing on career-enhancing publications. I had heard scholars across various fields state, “engaging with communities is increasingly important, but wait till you’re tenured…” and “this type of work is really only feasible later on in your career when you have more academic freedom.” I was so perplexed by the notion that doing what was important had to wait? And hold up... one reason that I was attracted to academia was freedom. But, I don’t really get freedom till later in my career? So I did what any millennial, particularly drawn to studying rebellious youth (Arab spring anyone?) would do. I listened to all of this well-intentioned advice and started to engage with communities anyway.

Picture of the 2019 ICER Cohort at Tufts University

For those who might be struggling with this same tension, my advice is: GO FOR IT! Forming community partnerships can often produce intangible outcomes that better inform our identities, and ultimately, our scholarship. Working with community partners has made me feel good about doing political science. It can be challenging to measure our impact as political scientists when we wait for lightyears to hear back from reviewers. And after our work is published, scholars often rely on hard, emotionless citation data to assign value to our work. 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 don’t rely on reviewers 1 and 2 to tell me six months after submission that what I have produced is valuable. My community partners will often let me know toute de suite the relevancy of my contribution - to which I adjust accordingly!

I also find that working with communities illuminates my strength as a political scientist in ways previously hidden to me. After grad school, I quickly pigeon-holed myself as a comparativist who studies countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with an even narrower focus on elections, behavior, and civil society. Thus, working with communities in the United States that center their work on the environment felt like a giant stretch. But, when I started listening to stories about citizens engaging with the public and the government on their local priorities, my mind immediately started whizzing with questions and puzzles that I was eager and excited to solve! These experiences brought me back to the core of why I was attracted to political science in the first place - a desire to understand power and how to deconstruct it. I was a “kid again” in my work - excitable, ready, and unafraid to take on new challenges. Engaging with communities liberated me from the feeling that I had to pursue a specific agenda, with a particular focus on research questions that were “publishable.” At the end of the day, I study politics and power, and if that can be of use to real people right now - then why not?

If engaging with community partners in your own scholarship interests you, please follow my blog. As a “newbie” to engaged scholarship, my goal is to provide insight for scholars looking to do this type of work for the first time. I hope this blog can serve as a platform for scholars and community members who are anxious to start this work but might be hesitant to do so. Let’s all connect, offer advice, and support one another across disciplines and locations. :)

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