Rackham DEI Workshop: Entering Communities

Coming into the Community + Citizen Science arm of the Design Lab, I knew I had decent knowledge of one aspect of the activity: the science part. Having extensive education in scientific fields means that I generally understand what the strengths and weaknesses of science are, what a good data collection protocol looks like, and the sorts of things it can tell us about our world. What I joined knowing quite a bit less about was the “people” aspect of citizen science: the part where we have to engage people and communities to demonstrate how these activities can be beneficial, informative, effective and fun for them as well. One of the things that has allowed me to understand the people aspect of citizen science better was the Rackham DEI workshop on Entering Communities. 

The Entering Communities workshop asked us to think about what it means to enter a new community as part of our work, school assignment or research. They mentioned that often, in social research or in client- or community service-based courses, people can enter a new community and extract some sort of value from working in that community (e.g. data, a completed assignment, something to put on their resume) without really giving that community something of value back. Even when the point of entering a new community is to provide a service to that community, it’s possible to be presumptuous and think you know what that community needs when in reality they need something different than what you’re offering them. Solutions designed and imposed from outside and implemented without input from the community have a chance to backfire. Not only is there a possibility of failing to provide the benefit you had intended, but also eroding trust between your institution or profession and that community, because you were seen as intrusive and not responsive to their needs. Lastly, they mentioned that one pitfall to avoid is exiting that community without consulting with them about how follow-up communication is going to happen, how any services are going to be maintained, and how they can continue to experience any benefits your mutual work has brought to them.

We discussed several strategies to avoid these unfortunate outcomes. The main idea was that you need to have an open and effective channel of communication with the community you’re acting within. Ask them about their real needs, their customs and traditions, possible solutions they’ve already tried, how their social norms work and how their community is organized. Collaborate with them to come up with solutions rather than designing them and imposing them without any input from those who are going to be affected. Plan ahead for how you can solicit input from the community for as many of the steps of the work/school/research activity as possible. One thing that is very important is that if you are entering a community to provide a new service, you should ensure that members of that community understand the service and how it works for them, and then empower them to continue and maintain it once your work there is finished. Placing a priority on considerations like these help activities that involve working with communities result in mutual benefit, rather than benefit only for the visiting workers or researchers.

Some of the problems of how not to treat other communities you’re entering into for such activities could arise in Citizen Science (CS) if we aren’t careful about it. Certainly, we can imagine entering a community experiencing the effects of pollution or environmental degradation and treating the members of that community like they’re part of the problem. On the other hand, I think well-considered CS projects that place importance on respecting others and providing benefits to all are well-situated to provide the sort of mutual benefit we talked about as an ideal in the workshop. Two of the chapters in the book Citizen Science for Coastal and Marine Conservation provide examples of CS teams entering new communities, treating them respectfully, taking their considerations into mind, and empowering them to be better and more sustainable stewards of their local environments. In chapter three, the authors describe a CS project to restore critical mangrove forests around Gazi Bay in Kenya. The CS team involved the local community in the project, planted alternative sources of wood for building and fire, used the money from sold carbon credits to fund beneficial projects in the community, and explained how restoring the mangrove forests would help slow erosion of their coastline. In chapter ten, a CS team consisting of foreign and local scientists and collaborators described operating in the Federated States of Micronesia to try and understand and slow local reef degradation. The team pays special attention to local customs around fishing and goes to great lengths to understand the leadership structure of the local community. The team attributes much of the success of their project to recognizing the importance of placing the local community perspective and needs first, as well as planning, reporting, and discussing findings in a way that locals could understand and apply.

The workshop I attended, as well as some interesting example projects I read about, have shown me the sort of powerful force for community engagement and mutual benefit citizen science can be if we plan well and place community needs first. I hope that if I enter a new community as part of the design lab, I remember these principles and act with mutual benefit in mind.