Unique partnership combines research and teaching

York Professor Sarah Flicker set a new standard for integrating research and teaching this fall by structuring her graduate-level qualitative methods course around a community-based research project. The project, a collaboration between the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) and the City of Toronto Safety Secretariat, resulted in valuable insight into community responses to crisis while giving graduate students first-hand experience with qualitative research methods.

Right: Sarah Flicker

In August, Flicker was approached by the City of Toronto Safety Secretariat to assist with a study of community responses to crisis. Over the past few years, several events in Toronto, such as the SARS outbreak and escalations of violence and sexual assaults, have been widely defined as community crises. However, the ways that actual members of the affected communities interpret and respond to these events are not well understood. To gain insight into how members of communities define crises and how well those definitions correlate with the ones used by professional organizations, the secretariat wanted Flicker to coordinate a pilot project focused on the Morningside-Kingston-Galloway community, which had been affected by recurring acts of violence.

In spite of starting her first term as a professor at FES, Flicker agreed to coordinate the project. Inspired by her extensive background in participatory research, she saw great potential for using the project to enhance the learning experience for students in the inaugural version of her graduate research methods course.

"I wasn’t exactly sure how it would work in practice, but I knew the combination would be a great experience for the students," said Flicker. "I talked to the students about the fact that this was an experimental process, and would involve a lot of work and flexibility on their part, and they rallied behind the idea – and the project."

Flicker set up the course so that the first third gave the students a solid foundation in theories of community-based research, focusing on qualitative methods such as conducting interviews and focus groups and introducing students to the neighborhood through guest lectures and site visits. The theoretical foundation of the course was also influenced and supported by community members. To help guide the project, the secretariat set up a community advisory panel, consisting of representatives from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the police department, the school board and other local agencies. Community representatives and city staff attended many classes and provided practical insight into the neighborhood and different methodological approaches.

The panel identified topics helpful for them to have literature reviews on, such as aboriginal crisis response strategies, the social determinants of heath, and how to run focus groups. The students conducted the reviews as part of their class assignments, and then translated the reviews into "community-friendly" posters. The reviews were distributed via e-mail to interested community members, while the posters were circulated at various community organizations.

The rest of the course provided the students with hands-on research experience through work on the project. Dividing the field research up into fair portions, the students conducted a total of 12 in-depth stakeholder interviews, three focus groups and 19 quick interviews of random community residents, as well as two youth photo-voice projects. After the meetings and interviews were transcribed, the students and advisory panel came together in a class and literally used scissors to cut up the transcripts and sort them into themes, highlighting how the community members understood crises and how those issues might be addressed. The themes illustrated the broad definitions of crises held by community members, who cited lack of adequate food, shelter & employment and barriers to community participation, such as racism, as crises alongside, and related to, explicitly violent acts.

Right: Sarah Flicker guiding the students and advisory panel members through the sorting of transcripts into themes

For the photo-voice projects, the York students taught high-school aged youth to take photographs that expressed their experiences. The youth were given disposable cameras and asked to take photos representing how safe or unsafe they felt in their communities, along with brief comments. The resulting group of images acts as a poignant visual gallery that helps highlight the themes that emerged through other research methods.

The project culminated in a community meeting held in the Morningside-Kingston-Galloway area on Dec. 11, which presented the research findings to the community and framed copies of the photos to the youth who created them. Subsequently, each student in the research methods class submitted a paper to Flicker, who is working on synthesizing them into a final report that will be presented to the secretariat at a Toronto City Hall ceremony later in the spring.

Meanwhile, both Flicker and her students are thrilled with how the course worked out. "It was amazing to see how it all came together," said Flicker. "The students learned so much about community engagement and research methods. The secretariat developed stronger links to the University and a better understanding of crisis. And, the community really pulled together to put their own issues on the agenda!"

"We had a ball," said Allegra Newman, student in York’s Master in Environmental Studies Program. "It was wonderful to be able to conduct research for an actual project aimed at making a difference in the world. We learned so much about how a research project is organized and implemented – far more than if we had come up with our own sample projects."

FES Dean Joni Seager commented on how this course exemplifies the best of FES’s unique educational approach, with "engaged, community research that demands intellectual and methodological rigor from students and that also takes a small step towards changing the world – what could be better!"

This article was submitted to YFile by Arlene Williams, media & communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies.