The shift from being a nurse, being a front-line service provider in our community, to a full-time academic was a difficult one for me. I suddenly felt disconnected, disengaged, that I was walking away from some of the very spaces and relationships that drove me towards academia in the first place. While we have come a long way from the days when being part of the ‘Ivory Tower’ meant disconnecting from the community, there is still some degree of separation, some distance that needs to be thoughtfully, and continually, bridged if we are to be authentic, community-engaged scholars.
For me, the London Homeless Coalition offered that bridge. Here was an organization that existed to advise, shape and coordinate community responses to homelessness in London. It offered an open membership and a desire for more diverse perspectives beyond just the social-service sector. The venue for connection was there, but required me to reach out and find it. The coalition has since welcomed me with open arms, allowing me to serve as its chair for four years, and to now serve on the steering committee with a focus on communications.
I will admit, however, this engagement – this relationship between academia and the community – is not so simple as just finding and sitting on a committee. There are pragmatic considerations. This term, my teaching obligations conflict with committee meetings and I am already getting questions about whether I have “walked away” from the coalition. Perhaps there is a (justifiable) sense in the community that academics will inevitably walk away from engagement at some point?
There are also the pragmatics of performance evaluations and the promotion and tenure process. While the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing has evolved to more explicitly consider community work as service, there is still that continual push and pull to do more service within one’s own department and faculty. Community-based service means not only setting limits on department service, but also means being more frequently off-campus. Neither is particularly effective in persuading tenure-determining colleagues you are doing your fair share.
So why do it? Why leave the comfort of your office? Why distract from the laser-like focus of grant writing and publication generation? Why limit your availability for undergraduate and graduate students who seek advice and mentorship?
Well, to change the world, of course.
We conduct research to generate knowledge, we generate knowledge for a better world. For those of us doing work with more direct applications, our local community is a key environment to move this knowledge into action. Maybe we don’t change the world by joining local, community-based committees and organizations, but it’s a sure bet we can change London just a bit.
Abe Oudshoorn is a nurse and a professor at the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing at Western. He is a sought-after, valued voice in London’s efforts to reduce homelessness.