Reporter: Venera Nikolaeva
Providing a forum for people to get involved in a productive dialogue on issues of common importance is a key for crafting solutions that meet the needs of those affected. As a hub of knowledge and ideas that serve a higher purpose, Memorial University prides itself on facilitating and encouraging activities that serve the public good locally, nationally and internationally.
One such activity that brought academics, policy makers, and professionals from the public sector and different industries together to share their experiences and discuss different ways of collaborating was the People,Place and Public Engagement conference, which took place October 25 – 27 at MUN’s recently completed and picturesque Signal Hill Campus. First of its kind,the event attracted more than 200 participants (with additional 100 attending the free open sessions) representing universities as well as not-for-profit organizations in the health, natural resources, arts and economic development fields among others. Representatives from municipal, provincial and the federal government also took part in the discussion, thus ensuring a two-way communication and collection of valuable feedback on how government policies,programs and services can be adapted to better serve the interests of the underrepresented, stigmatized and marginalized communities and guarantee an actual impact and improvement of the status quo.
The conference offered a large variety of sessions focusing on different aspects of collaboration, the challenges faced in the process of changing mindsets and successful practices that can be utilized on a wider scale. The first day included several plenary sessions addressing the current state of public engagement in the country, initiating conversations on how to reach out to people in rural regions and making better use of the research findings to devise more adequate strategies and shape the way forward. Inclusiveness,accessibility and clear communication emerged as key prerequisites of meaningfully connecting to the different stakeholders. Getting on the field and moving beyond the traditional audiences in order to gather different perspectives (as well as insights) will help overcome the barriers imposed by traditional approaches to public engagement and result in more active participation on behalf of the general public in shaping the future of their communities.
The attendees also delved deeper into the role of the institutions of higher education as facilitators of the link between people and places. They need to go beyond pursuing narrowly defined notions of excellence and embed public engagement into every aspect of their work as well as the way they approach their work.Fostering social responsibility, stimulating two-way flow of knowledge and insight between universities and the society and developing teaching activities which positively impact communities and thus increase students’ engagement ares some of the steps institutions can take to ensure commitment at all levels.
The conference also featured several open to the general public sessions, which aimed at showcasing successful practices and projects and the importance of starting with small steps and gradually building trust and learning from failures. Among the projects discussed was the local Farmer’s Market. Panelists walked the audience through the development of the project and the challenges they faced,emphasizing the extensive collaboration that took place along the way (from the identification of the objectives, potential barriers and ensuring the mutual benefit to all the parties involved).
The event culminated with a keynote address by President Natan Obed of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a non-profit organization that works to improve the health and well-being of Inuit in Canada through research, advocacy, public outreach and education. His passionate and informative speech served as both acknowledgement of the shifting paradigms and expansion of the frontiers of public engagement,as well as raising awareness of the still long way to go when it comes to respecting the rights and achieving inclusiveness of the indigenous people. He spoke of the challenges they face on a daily basis in almost every aspect of their lives (academics included) and the need to deconstruct current realities and move away from templated frameworks and towards more open-minded and flexible approaches.
Viewing the public engagement process as a journey rather than as a destination, strengthening the connections between the different communities that we all are part of and breaking the practice of working in silos were the key takeaways shared by the panelists of the wrap-up session. Their words, reiterated by the rest of the attendees as well, contained a powerful message for everyone and guiding principles for future work – that public engagement is a continuous process which requires long-term commitment, adaptive and transparent decision-making and culture of mutual respect and inclusiveness of diverse populations.