Community Engagement (CE)
Community engagement occurs when academic researchers work in collaboration with community researchers to develop health intervention. As a result, community members should have decision making and communication responsibilities for the project. Typically, these responsibilities are shared with the academic researchers although the ideal likely is the community members eventually having more responsibility. Community engagement ensures equitable and shared roles for community members in all phases of the research; not just the co-design but co-data collection, co-implementation, co-analysis/interpretation. We consider three key issues about community engagement.
First, we need to ensure that we have approval by the community—not just individuals; someone who can speak adequately on behalf of the community. Often these are people who serve on an advisory board that is consulted throughout the project or members of community organisations that we work with throughout the project. They could also be leaders from the community governance.
Second, we need to make sure that we share resources and decision making with the community. Community organisations and members are under resourced and in demand so we need to make sure they get the FTE to support their work on the project; 33-50% of project resources is the ideal benchmark to shoot for.
The final issue is probably the trickiest—how do we know we have represented the community well? We obviously can’t collaborate with the whole community so we need to find representatives. Often we can find what we think are good representatives (reps) only to find out later, they weren’t as influential as we thought. We need to look for three factors:
a) people who are affected by the intervention,
b) people who have influence on how it is implemented, and
c) key opinion leaders (who might not always be in positions of power).
They also have to have meaningful time available to participate. It takes an iterative process to find the right representatives. You can find reps by asking community members and community organisations who you should be talking to about this project (and then follow through on this advice). You can hold multiple stakeholder meetings to share project ideas and find out who is interested and has capacity to work with you. The key is not to take the easy path and accept reps who first present themselves. Spend time searching and making sure you have this right. It takes some initial investment and yet pays off in the end with good implementation and community support.
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