Reflections on CBR Principles: Partnerships, Mentorship and Equity

“Partnerships, Mentorship and Equity: The best CBR is done when community members work closely with researchers who have strong training in methodologies, and when academics work closely with community members who understand the needs/concerns of populations most affected by HIV as well as the challenges of delivering programs and services. Through this process, communities learn more about research while researchers learn more about community. Experts in each context mentor one another. Within this structure, it is essential that power imbalances are actively recognized and addressed between a diverse set of partners.” hands-1939895_1280

On a Tuesday not that long ago, I had the privilege of attending a meeting on next steps for a community-based research (CBR) project led collaboratively by people with lived experience, academic researchers, community-based organization staff, and other key stakeholders. On the same night, I attended a dialogue on community-university engagement that focused on what the organizers described as “co-creating and/or mobilizing knowledge for a complicated world.” Attending both of these events on the same day (!) raised ideas about applying the CBR principle of partnerships, mentorship and equity, as defined above.

The working group meeting was an example of partnerships, mentorship and equity in action, as the group was actively brainstorming next steps for the research project based on their different sets of expertise. This group was coming together before launching the next phase of the project, in order to pool their skills and experience to collectively determine how they should proceed with the project in order to best meet the next set of research objectives. While there is always room to self-reflect and challenge the power imbalances that we bring to these encounters, this meeting was an example of what it can look like to co-create knowledge through research.

The more theoretical discussion that same evening revealed the power of language in framing these relationships. A participant asked the facilitator at our table of four participants to define knowledge mobilization, and she replied with “moving research from labs into community, for example.” The co-creation of knowledge, the other key term in the discussion question, went largely untouched; instead, the dialogue focused on knowledge mobilization as a tool to build more active community-university partnerships. This approach to knowledge mobilization, as the table was discussing it, seemed more oriented on sharing research findings with community after the fact and less so on involving community members throughout the process as equitable partners with potential interest in both mentoring and being mentored. Knowing that this group was committed and excited enough about community-university engagement to be meeting on a warm summer evening, I left the dialogue thinking how far we have to go in promoting the CBR principle of partnership, mentorship and equity as something to consider throughout the research process.

How can we decenter the concept of knowledge as being something that is mostly created by researchers and then shared back into community? Even with the best of intentions, it seems that the relationship between researchers and the communities involved in the production and application of research findings can leave much to be desired in terms of who is considered to know and who is considered as needing knowledge. Can changing our language about research partnerships shift our research practices, so that we reshape power-laden encounters between researchers and community members?

At an ancillary event for the 2017 Canadian Association of HIV Research, I heard the term ‘capacity-bridging’ for the first time and was deeply influenced by its meaning. Originally proposed by the Aboriginal HIV & AIDS Community-Based Research Collaborative Centre (AHA Centre), this term is an alternative to ‘capacity-building,’ in that it refocuses on the need to train all partners engaging in CBR projects, not just community members. While the term ‘capacity-building’ implies that community member involvement in research is a one-way mentorship of community members by researchers, the term ‘capacity-bridging’ reframes our understanding of the research (or evaluation!) encounter as being one that occurs between individuals who each bring a set of skills, knowledge and experience to the table. Superbly, the event captured the value of adopting a participatory, capacity-bridging approach even in bio-medical research projects where most of the research takes place in laboratory settings.

Reframing our understanding of community-academic partnerships as presenting the opportunity for mutual capacity-bridging raises our awareness of the extent to which projects are strengthened when we all come to the table ready, willing and enthused about bringing together diverse sets of experience and applying these learnings to the research process. In turn, this awareness facilitates projects that promote the principle of partnerships, mentorship and equity. While we have a way to go in seeing this principle applied as a widespread standard of research, REACH and the CBR Collaborative Centres are modelling the process and its valuable impact on research outcomes.

Read our CBR principles here.

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