Inclusion and legitimacy are co-dependent constructs for successful campus-community partnerships for environmental education

Maharramli, B. J., & Houston, D. . (2021). Navigating inclusion and legitimacy in campus-community environmental partnerships to advance urban social-ecological resilience. Environmental Education Research, 27, 955-969.

Partnerships between universities and communities can benefit environmental education through the engagement, collaboration, and participation of demographically and ideologically diverse communities to address relevant and local environmental issues. However, institutions of higher education face challenges that affect their ability to develop such meaningful partnerships. These challenges may include power dynamics within the university and among the community, funding issues, academic silos that may limit interdisciplinarity and collaboration, different strategic initiatives across the institution that may not align or are at different stages, and other structural processes. Two key constructs for successful campus-community partnerships are inclusion, the practices that engage community and campus participants in a democratic manner and legitimacy, the processes in which a university manages its reputation as an appropriate authority within the social norms, values, and beliefs of the community. Though each construct has been studied independently, the researchers in this study sought to review the role of both inclusion and legitimacy in an ecology-focused campus-community partnership, the challenges experienced by the institution, and how they developed the Legitimacy-Inclusion Engagement Gradient (LIEG) which measures inclusion and legitimacy in campus-community partnerships.

Universities partner with communities in a variety of ways. For example, campus outreach to a community may include information sharing, though this is typically a one-way exchange that places the university in a position of power and can marginalize the community. Universities may also consult communities for a two-way exchange of information, but this can often be interpreted as a one-way exchange benefitting the campus as opposed to being a mutually beneficial exchange for both the institution and community. A campus-community partnership can be improved when it includes one or more elements of democratic engagement, in which the community is involved a great deal in the process, the partners collaborate with each other and delegate power, and/or the community owns the decision-making process. Cooperative extensions at universities are a democratic engagement model in which the campus consults the community on natural resource issues by asking what information the community needs, providing access to the campus for the community members, and pursuing research that is useful to the community.

The study focused on the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) at a university in southern California. The UEC's mission is to improve human wellbeing in urban communities through the study of urban ecology. The researchers collected narratives from 38 participant interviews between 2017 and 2018. The participants included 7 UEC faculty/staff members, 5 local government officials, 12 faculty/staff members from other universities, and 14 representatives from non-profit organizations. Each interviewee was directly engaged with the UEC, either through employment, having worked with the UEC on a project, or having been recommended by UEC faculty/staff. The researchers analyzed the interview transcripts for common themes. To identify the themes, they looked for comments and phrases related to the constructs of inclusion and legitimacy, since most participants did not specifically say those terms. For example, the terms “credibility” and “neutral” were considered a part of the legitimacy construct and “underserved communities” as part of the inclusion construct. The researchers undertook three steps to address their research questions. First, they identified the elements of inclusion and legitimacy and developed the LIEG framework (a tool, visualized by a square with four quadrants, to measure inclusion and legitimacy in campus-community partnerships). Second, they plotted six UEC projects against the LIEG for specific examples and insights into the process of incorporating inclusion and legitimacy into campus-community partnerships under urban ecology. Finally, they revisited the interviews from non-UEC participants to determine the applications of inclusion and legitimacy in campus-community partnerships beyond UEC.

The elements of inclusion were found to be: 1) ongoing relationship building, 2) engagement during projects, 3) connection with social justice and marginalized communities, and 4) conducting collaborative research and teaching to address community issues. The elements of legitimacy were found to be: 1) contributing through research or teaching the community, 2) remaining in a neutral/objective role, 3) matching or challenging existing narratives, and 4) playing the role as mediator. The LIEG was built on these findings and is represented as a square with four quadrants. Moving left to right is enacting inclusion and moving bottom to top is enacting legitimacy. In the bottom left quadrant is exclusionary engagement (distrust, power abuse), and the bottom right is distorted engagement (biased, rash). The top left quadrant is traditional university outreach (neutral, positivist), and the top right is community engagement (relational, co-productive). Therefore, community engagement is the best implementation of inclusion and legitimacy in a campus-community partnership. Of the six UEC programs evaluated, the one that most enacted both inclusion and legitimacy on the LIEG was a restorative justice project in which the UEC's work with urban wetland restoration was paired with including all participant feedback and the UEC acted as a mediator among the participants. The researchers found that universities try to bridge inclusion and legitimacy by extending university center resources into the community, directly involving students in community projects, hiring faculty/staff from community organizations, and creating meeting spaces for both the university and community partners.

Overall, the researchers found campus-community partnerships use inclusion and legitimacy to feed progress and solve issues in advancing urban ecology and environmental resilience. The LIEG proved that enacting legitimacy tended to be more prevalent than inclusion for the UEC, with the latter being the more variable of the two constructs. For example, the UEC can contribute scientific expertise but did not always have an inclusive relationship among partners. Specifically, the UEC included more local government officials and non-profits as partners compared to less formal groups of community members. Further, the ability to improve environmental education and ecological resilience varied based on the partnership, and each partnership is dynamic over time. Legitimacy can be more beneficial for time-sensitive decisions because universities have the knowledge and tools to help communities make informed and thoughtful decisions, whereas a more inclusion-focused program can help increase capacity for partners and positively impact the local ecology over the long-term. However, some community organizations felt traditional university outreach (low inclusivity, high legitimacy) was most appropriate for their partnership.

There were limitations to this study. First, the researchers focused on one urban ecology center in southern California. The mission, local environmental needs, and local communities of this center cannot be replicated across all institutions. For example, the urban ecological needs of southern California will not translate to the rural environmental challenges faced in central Oklahoma and the circumstances in which a university or college could address those issues with their community. Second, the researchers used a snowball interview method, meaning they conducted interviews based on the information received in previous interviews. This process, though insightful, can produce biased results because some populations and perspectives may be unintentionally left out of the study. Third, this study did not include every community member's perspective and experience, so the results may not resonate with all community members.

The researchers asserted inclusion and legitimacy are not independent constructs for campus-community partnerships, but rather they occur simultaneously. They recommended university center faculty/staff outline inclusive, co-productive processes that include community partner knowledge and allow for flexibility as more information is learned. They suggested universities should consider alleviating the challenges (i.e., misaligned strategies initiatives, academic silos, power dynamics) that exist to allow for more transformative campus-community partnerships, though some challenges (i.e., funding, peoples' values) may not be within the institutions' range of influence. Overall, university and campus center administration must consider ways to address inclusion and legitimacy in their partnerships on ecological and environmental resilience. Finally, the researchers shared the LIEG as a framework that can be applied to and used by other entities to find identify shortcomings in partnerships on the visual output of the LIEG and develop innovative and collaborative solutions for environmental issues.

The Bottom Line

<p>Universities have partnered with communities in a variety of ways to address local environmental issues. In this study, the researchers conducted interviews from an urban ecology center to understand the role of inclusion and legitimacy in the partnership-building process, and to develop the Legitimacy-Inclusion Engagement Gradient (LIEG). Overall, the researchers found campus-community partnerships use inclusion and legitimacy to feed progress and solve issues in advancing urban ecology and environmental resilience. University and campus center administration must consider ways to address inclusion and legitimacy in their partnerships on ecological and environmental resilience. Further, the LIEG is a framework that can be applied to and used by other entities to find innovative and collaborative solutions for environmental issues.</p>

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