The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Michelle de Leon is a graduate student in ecology and environmental science at the University of Maine. Linda Silka, a professor emerita in the School of Economics, is a senior fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and executive editor of the Maine Policy Review at the University of Maine. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been full of puzzling moments, and as we near its first anniversary, here’s a puzzle for you. What do the following three situations have in common?
Vaccinating our community.
Shopping local to support small businesses.
Planning urgent climate responses.
These three current events are examples of community partnerships. Vaccinations ask health care facilities, government and vaccine distributors to coordinate vaccination plans. Supporting small businesses call for collaboration between businesses, customers and state and federal aid programs to support local economies. And a changing climate demands the Maine Climate Council to build partnerships among experts and develop plans to respond to climate impacts in Maine. The pandemic reveals benefits of partnerships yet also challenges us to learn what it means to be strong together.
Does this look like pushing to maintain our normal? Perhaps we want to adapt our goals or even transform our approaches. These are considerations for our communities, our workplace, our families and ourselves. So we see different people with different experiences come together: Now is a time to lean on, and learn from, each other. Drawing on our experiences in Iowa, North Dakota, Massachusetts and Connecticut that have asked us to be resilient in the face of change, we reflect on what it means to be part of partnerships in Maine during COVID-19.
We work to build partnerships between universities and communities, aiming to give rise to practical, equitable, and trustworthy science and outcomes. Right now, we need to consider how collaborative pursuits can learn from university-community partnerships, build its resilience in uncertain times, and reflect on what our goals may look like in the face of COVID-19.
What can we learn from university-community partnerships? The University of Maine has been involved in co-developing many such partnership on issues critical to Maine, such as rebuilding fish populations in the Penobscot River, designing new and more effective strategies for addressing the state’s rapidly growing waste problem, and working to develop shared strategies for addressing the challenges the shellfishing community faces with a changing climate.
When researchers and community stakeholders plan projects together, this often involves tapping into each other’s expertise to identify the problems themselves and innovate possible solutions. This then expands the scope of knowledge to help understand what the real questions at hand are. Also, these collaborative research approaches typically prioritize joint decision-making which can bring about equitable, trusting and respectful partnerships. Lastly, university-community partnerships highlight opportunities to share resources: practical experiences, theoretical perspectives, grant monies and time.
Not only can we learn from university-community partnerships, but we can also learn with them as they work through issues common to collaborative efforts. It can be challenging to find common ground and to reconcile differences in priorities and approaches. Perhaps one organization’s mission doesn’t clearly align with its partner’s mission, yet both have interests in solving what they see as an issue in their community. Perhaps the organizations involved have different time urgencies. For example, a non-profit may want to see results useful to inform immediate policy decisions, whereas a researcher may want to explore longer-term processes. We can solve these issues with early and often communication, equitable relationships and trust.
Working with community members makes better science, and better science is especially needed during a global pandemic as scientists make new discoveries and partner for the health of our societies. Outside of science, people from local communities, businesses and government are putting their heads together to think about how we manage through the pandemic and even what work may look like post-pandemic. Now is a time to innovate how we build partnerships and plan programs. Do we maintain, adapt, or transform our goals amid stress? Perhaps our partnerships, programs and goals look different than they have — and that’s OK.
Returning to business as usual before COVID-19 is likely not in the cards, yet there are plenty of opportunities on the road ahead when we’re strong together.