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Seven tips for building trust with community partners

Jun 01, 2023
Pairs of people sharing instruments in three connected circles.

Within the scholarly communication ecosystem, conversations about “accessibility” tend to fall into two distinct silos. The first of these silos frames accessibility in terms of barriers and facilitators to accessing research findings and publications. What does it mean, for example, for transcripts of field work with an Indigenous community to be locked in an academic’s office filing cabinet? How can we leverage relationships and digital tools to make that information not only available, but also legible and useful? In this post, I share seven tips that helped me to create and sustain trust with my  community partners during my fieldwork in South Africa. 

The second silo conceptualizes accessibility in relation to “disability,” a category that is itself fraught with mechanisms of disempowerment and limiting perspectives about the visibility, temporality and experience of individuals who experience physical impairments, chronic illnesses, and neurodiversity that may or may not be apparent to others. This mental model of yoking accessibility to disability creates a division that makes people with limitations responsible for securing access to research.  

Scholarly practices fossilized by centuries of convention are slow to adapt to emerging research and social pressure to modify the ways we work and communicate.  As research claims to become socially responsive, we must revise our mental models for conceptualizing accessibility in scholarly communication so that accessibility becomes an integral component of design, not a checklist or afterthought. If scholars within the academy distrust how traditional research treats differences within academia, then how can academics navigate scholarly communication with communities outside of academia in a trustworthy manner?

Without trust, one cannot advance the partnerships, inclusive thinking, responsive design or the communication strategies necessary to achieve true accessibility in research and scholarly communication. As an emerging public scholar who has partnered with the Deaf community, I have learned that accessibility goes beyond the traditional framework of creating the least restrictive environment between people with disabilities and the majority able bodied society. 

In my fieldwork with Deaf and hearing educators in South Africa, I started to reimagine how to make my research accessible to all people. To make research accessible, I needed to reconsider how my academic training for creating and sharing knowledge can facilitate and foster agency for both scholars and the communities in a research partnership. I asked myself this critical question: How can I build sustainable trust between myself and my community partners? 

In my many years in academia and across the network of scholars working with various community partners, I have noted that many of the academics who have successfully built trust with their communities are people who themselves don’t fit the mold of what a conventional academic looks like. Whether you are dipping your toe in the waters of partnership-driven research or have been a practicing “public scholar” since before the concept had a name, trust is essential to advancing rigorous and accessible research. 

Within the structures of traditional research, I have leveraged ethnographic methodologies to co-design research questions with my research partners, implement inclusive research practices, and communicate results to communities through creative and multilingual channels. Throughout my fieldwork stage, I found new ways to test ideas, build relationships and translate research into various forms of communication accessible to academia, teachers and the South African Deaf community. Through trial and error,  threads of trust began to emerge and weave together into a shared vision to build accessible research that facilitated agency with my research community.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to fostering trust with community partners in research contexts. Every relationship weaves together multiple histories including, for some partners, memories of research projects that seemed promising and then went sideways. 

I offer these tips from my own experience as a point of entry into work that is always deeply rooted in relationships with specific people: 

  1. Keep your community partners in the loop: Communication is necessary when establishing trust. As I was conducting my fieldwork in the height of COVID restrictions in 2020, everyone appreciated over-communicating in our ever-changing environment. I often texted my community members every detail about when I would see them during my fieldwork. This was helpful when COVID restrictions constantly affected when and how I could physically be present in schools.  
  2. Share with intention: In the case where one has to manage information across local, regional and national contexts, don’t give sensational information to the community members. Such emotional management of yourself and the community is key. During the COVID restrictions, I made sure to share information from credible news sources in a conversational and not fear-mongering way. Creating calm in a chaotic situation was key.
  3. Listen before you speak: It can be so tempting to start talking from a theoretical point of view with your community partners. Resist the urge! Many public scholars encounter early awkward meetings with community members. In my first meeting with the teachers, I had many theories in my mind about how to “enter the field,” which made me anxious to make a good first impression. Things changed for me when a teacher teased me on my awkwardness (such as my formal use of South African Sign Language in casual conversations), and we both laughed at it. Listening to connect became easier.
  4. Recognize strengths in others: Coming into the research relationship with a spirit of learning from the community’s existing skills and infrastructure  goes a long way in building trust with researchers. The community members are a wealth of knowledge and I leveraged it by offering to support any existing projects or lessons, which the community appreciated because I had an attitude to learn. Learning from the community before partnering  in the research   
  5. Build your own scholarly community: Building community with other established and trusted academics who have also gone before you in building sustainable trust with communities is important. Publishing as a research collective with other researchers rather than an individual is also a great way to test out new publication trajectories that individual researchers may not have earlier considered. 
  6. Find mentors who know what it’s like: As an emerging public scholar, having a mentor to support and guide you into seeking funding for infrastructure as a collective helps in avoiding unnecessary detours and delays in the research project.  My mentors have helped guide me towards identifying credible partners outside of academia who are also invested in supporting the Deaf community through my research.
  7. Reflect and refine: This iterative process, much like research in general, has been the cornerstone to my work with teachers in South African schools for Deaf students.  These few intentional steps towards building trust are the foundations for impactful research. After all, accessibility in research is a journey and not a destination. 

Simangele Mabena is the Hikma Virtual Community Specialist. She is an artist-scholar currently finishing her PhD in Language and Literacy Education with a background in Deaf education and performing arts. Her passion for exploring the complexities of when  the Deaf community is in partnership  with the hearing community continues to fuel her curiosity of the many facets of accessibility.  

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