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Politics of Engagement: Building Community Partnerships in an Undergraduate Summer Research Program

By Andrea Freidus and Nicole Peterson, Department of Anthropology, UNC Charlotte

Student Final Poster Presentation Gallery in 2019

Our sixteen undergraduate students were nervous. They were about to present their research findings to an audience of their community partners and people from the communities they studied during an eight-week NSF research experiences for undergraduates (REU) program focused on differential access to healthcare, housing, and food in historically Black and under-resourced communities in Charlotte, NC.

Despite rookie hiccups during our first year of the three-year program, we felt confident we had met our goals. Our pride quickly turned to humility when mixed reviews from students and community members came in. One community member wrote, “It is good to see students researching the information but overall there is nothing new that I learned from the presentations.” Others wanted to see more community members at our final event. Similarly, one student shared that “I would have liked more opportunities to work with community partners, both directly and indirectly related to my topic.” It became clear we had some work to do before we embarked on next year’s course.

Students and Mentors at the End of the 2019 Program

One of the goals of this NSF program was to teach students how to do collaborative, community-based research that could provide tangible results for locally identified needs. We were keenly aware that while community-based participatory research has many benefits, it can actually perpetuate uneven power relationships (Ford et al 2018, Ensor et al 2018). We wanted to teach students about this tension and the challenges of working with community partners.

Esmeralda Martinez Presenting on Food Security in 2019

Overall, we did have some success. One of the students said, “Working with a community partner helped me learn a lot more about real organizations and how their planning goes on.” We also found that we needed to provide more guidance about positionality and power, with a focus on how ethnic identity, gender, and class can influence community engagement and collaborative work. In addition, while some projects were more successful than others with community engagement, we also needed earlier and deeper community collaborations.

In our second year, we implemented these changes to our curriculum and schedule, adding some new readings and speakers around power differences and dedicating more time to community partner meetings, including field trips and coffees. We found community partners, residents, and students were more satisfied with the second-year projects. Community engagement for the students was “amazing” if “stressful,” and “the best part” if “more difficult.” Community members felt the research was relevant to the community, and all reported learning something valuable about the community; one told us that we needed to take our findings to the Mayor.

Students and Mentors in the 2018 Program

While we still needed to invite more community members and we still have some challenges around logistics and the curriculum, 2019 was a much better experience for everyone. We learned that successful engagement requires particular attention to histories and power differences, as well as a concerted effort to build trust in the community. We will continue many of these relationships with our third cohort and work to build on these projects in the future.


Ensor, J. E., Park, S. E., Attwood, S. J., Kaminski, A. M., & Johnson, J. E. (2018). Can community-based adaptation increase resilience?. Climate and Development, 10(2), 134-151.

Ford, J. D., Sherman, M., Berrang-Ford, L., Llanos, A., Carcamo, C., Harper, S., ... & Edge, V. (2018). Preparing for the health impacts of climate change in Indigenous communities: The role of community-based adaptation. Global Environmental Change, 49, 129-139.


@NSF_REU, @ndpeterson, #NSFREU, @UNCCResearch

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