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26 October 2018
Research Week 2018: Co-Creating Knowledge And Fighting Substance Abuse Through Community Engagement

“Knowledge is co-owned and co-created - and it’s important for researchers to understand that, especially if they want their work to have real community value. Go in as a partner, not the ‘expert’. People are the experts of their own daily experience, and we cannot tell them how they experience it, or should determine it - we can only teach if we also learn.”

That was the message delivered by Professor Priscilla Daniels, Director of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Community Engagement Unit, speaking at UWC Research Week 2018.

UWC takes the student-in-community as its academic point of departure for community engagement – the University pursues ongoing engagement with its communities while preparing students to take a place in the global community.

“You can technically learn about issues like diversity, community challenges and the like from a book or in a classroom,” Prof Daniels noted. “But to truly understand them, you need to learn it in the arena - and you need to learn it with the community involved. Decentralise knowledge production and we can transform ourselves as well as our environments.”

The UWC Community Engagement Unit (CEU) plays an advisory and coordinating role and also runs its own projects, including a UWC Community Engagement Database that keeps track of the University's community work.

One of the projects through which UWC has made a meaningful difference in society is the Substance Abuse Training and Research project, which was funded by the Department of Social Development of the Western Cape Government. The project aims to offer effective training to community members who already work in the area of substance abuse.

Research shows that substance abuse has a direct relationship with the increase in many social problems, ranging from poverty to crime, gender-based violence and child abuse. This is a particular problem in the Western Cape, the province with the highest reported rate of substance abuse in the country.

The role of education in fighting substance abuse has been highlighted in national discussions, and it has long been recognised that communities are responding to the challenge of substance abuse through various interventions.

The Substance Abuse project has allowed UWC to keep abreast of current trends and reinforce the effectiveness of the training. Eight courses were developed by the CEU and registered with the UWC Division for Lifelong Learning. Course participants were selected from among those who carry out voluntary and essential work in the community, including community workers, lay counsellors, sport coaches, healthcare workers, and more. The courses teach participants about the dangers of substance abuse, and how to deal with them.

“We were using all these case studies from overseas,” Prof Daniels said. “But they weren’t locally relevant. And then we decided that these people have all the knowledge - so let’s work with them to create local case studies that they can then use when they’re training within their community organisations.”

It was a very collaborative approach to co-creation. The course participants were taught how to write the case studies, placed in groups, and asked to write case studies of their own. These were then examined by the CEU and worked on with the participants, and then edited - and ultimately, a book of South African case studies was produced.

“The strength of this was that they developed a contextually relevant case study for themselves - using local terms, local language (including Afrikaans terms), and so on. They got to frame their case studies in ways that people would understand. And then they presented them - to people who know, and would question them. And that kind of reflection is critical to producing knowledge.”

The lesson: co-creation and collaborative engagement is about moving beyond the ivory towers to engage in dialogue. It’s about relationships and knowledge production rather than knowledge translation.

“True relevant knowledge is not going to be introduced just in the University, but outside of the University as well - within the community, in real life, in the agora where shared understanding can lead to greater understanding. We need to forget our arrogance and approach communities with love and humility, equality, trust and respect. We’re not telling them what to do - we’re finding out together.”

Prof Daniels urged researchers to not just rely on the good relationships the CEU may have with various communities, but to build their own relationships as well.

“True partnership is a difficult concept - it takes time, and attention, and sincerity,” Prof Daniels noted. “You can’t just put the seed in, add some water, and wait for the garden to grow on its own. You need to put in the time and the work - and then you will be surprised how the relationship blooms.”

Connect and Create: Community Engagement Colloquium On Ethical Co-Creation

While co-creation has the potential to positively transform educational systems, there are more ethical and political challenges that should not be overlooked. These challenges, and the larger challenge of properly envisioning and implementing co-creation initiatives, will be discussed further at UWC’s 2018 Community Engagement Colloquium on “Ethical co-creation through sustaining partnerships: Connect and Create” on 29-30 October 2018.

The annual Community Engagement Colloquium provides a platform for academics and their partners to engage in a world cafe session, and to showcase the manner in which the political and ethical challenges of community engagement and co-creation are addressed.

Want to learn more? Interested in helping out? Check out the programme, pick your topic, and come by!