Choosing relations first: Ethical community engagement in CER

February 08, 2022

This blog post is authored by Jaimy Fischer, PhD student in Health Sciences, and Milah Smith, clinical counsellor and co-executive director of Cowichan Valley Youth Services. Here we reflect on what we’ve learned through relational CER project development. We anchor ourselves to the concept of ethical community engagement by exploring questions on the ethics of CER, focusing on some of the key questions laid out in CERi’s CER Ethical Principles resource.

How have you approached community relationship in this project?

Milah Smith (MS):  Although this is a complex question, I think at the heart of approaching community relationships you have to be vulnerable and transparent about your motives and goals. Even if the goal is to simply have a relationship, it takes willingness to put yourself out there in an uncomfortable way, to take the first step. For me, it is important to understand that everyone in the community has their own unique perspectives and priorities, and to realize that others may not see your priorities as important. As a counsellor, it is my duty to create opportunities for social justice based on the injustice that I witness daily, and to use the position and privileges I have to collaborate and create a community that is safer for everyone. This can only be done through relationship, trust, getting to know what the community wants, and understanding what might signal safety.

Jaimy Fischer (JF): I think this is so true. As an Indigenous (Michif) person in academia, I too feel a responsibility to use my privilege to advance social justice for Indigenous and other marginalized communities. Milah is doing generous work to connect me, the researcher, outsider, to the wider community through the relationships they have; this has been invaluable and really steers the direction of the work such that it will attend to community needs in a good way. Being so integrated with their community, Milah has a strong sense of community priorities—and how priorities will be variable depending on the organization we’re engaging with—which has been a valuable learning experience for me. This has also been a slow process, which can be challenging in keeping project momentum, but I think you can develop stronger relationships if you are willing lean in and honor your community partners’ expertise.

How have you practiced relationality and transparency in developing the research plan?

MS:  I think that in truly ethical work, there must be transparency about the concerns, feelings, and the way that things have felt through the process. For this to work, the researcher needs to have the capacity to hold someone’s feelings and honour their experience. I have made a commitment to naming how things have felt throughout the project so that the foundation can be solid and trusting, we can know each other’s intentions, and be adaptable as things shift. This means allowing the space and time to have conversations and to truly listen, while still centering the experiences of community members that I hold dear to my heart. When I stay centred in this knowing, I can work towards equity and justice, and it is easier to be transparent.

JF: I couldn’t agree more. And there are creative ways to take time and space to work on relationship building. One of our favorite things to do is have walking meetings where we walk and talk about project goals, progress, challenges, and the reasons we’re doing the work. And because I’m not sitting there in a formal meeting space with a pen and notebook, I’ve found that I’ve honed my listening so that I can come away having heard what my community partner has to say. Of course, sometimes we meet on Zoom, but when able to make the time to work while being out on the land I come away feeling revived, reinspired, and with a clearer vision.

How are you practicing accountability and responsibility in relationship and project building?

MS:  For me, being accountable can look like being responsive, open to feedback, and not taking ownership of the project or outcomes, but rather keeping a relational heart in the work. When the relationship with community members is centred, then the path to accountability stays clear. For me, building a relationship is not only the process but the absolute outcome of community engaged research. That relationship building process is where there can be room for healing, growth, and change. Without relationship, there is no project.

JF: As the researcher in this work, I have practiced accountability and responsibility by seeking consent at all steps, from planning and ethics to project rollout. I also practice reflexivity, which is a solo exercise that creates space for locating myself in relation to the community and in terms of the very specific power and privileges I hold coming from a research institution. It is my relationship with Milah that keeps me accountable—to them and to the wider community we’re researching with. And to this point, it’s not always comfortable. We’ve had some difficult conversations over the rubs between institutional and community expectations, and in the end I’m grateful for this because it’s taught me how to advocate for community needs.

Are there ways the pandemic has altered the community/project context? Are there new ideas as a result? How are you building this context into your project?

MS:  I’ve observed that the pandemic has taken a deep toll on community members and service providers, that the collective grief and exhaustion has impacted everyone’s ability to have capacity to uphold and create new relationships, as well as maintain excitement for new projects and collaboration.  However, from fatigue can come clarity, a way of simplifying things and understanding what feels truly supportive. Sometimes when people are at their limit, it allows for clarity around what relationships feel truly supportive as opposed to extractive. Although the pandemic has slowed things down, my impression is that the relationships that have been built through this project will be highly attuned to community needs.

JF: It’s been humbling to bear witness to the  ways social and health service providers have held their communities through such a difficult time. I can feel the toll Milah is talking about, and from my perspective as researcher, this has been a complex thing to navigate. Upholding values of community care while maintaining the project feels like we’re holding a very liminal space, which can be uncomfortable because it feels like nothing is happening. And the pandemic is exacerbating mobility injustices for folx in the community—the very thing we’re interested in understanding, which has created conflicting sense of urgency for me. But because I understand the of the nature of the work that Milah and their colleagues do in their community, with the added burden of COVID-19, I have done my best respect capacity because I think it better upholds relationality and accountability. Sometimes this means that the project is not moving, which can be difficult because in academia we tend to be focused on research outcomes and deliverables; and there are other complexities to factor in, like if the work is tied to a thesis. I think this speaks to some of the wider challenges in doing CER, and I believe that if the relationship is central to the project, then navigating such challenges can be an opportunity for insight and growth.

Learn more

Connect with Jaimy Fischer

CHATR Lab profile

Twitter: @JaimyFischer


Cowichan Valley Youth Services


Twitter: @CVYS_Youth


Stay Connected with CERi

We'll keep you engaged with our work, programs and events. You can unsubscribe at anytime.