BCLA Perspectives

The Community Scholars Program: a Partnership for Social Change

Note: This article was intended for publication on March 1 of 2018. Due to an error by the editor, it was delayed.

“There’s all this research on topics that can help with front line practice, but if you don’t have access to it, then it’s useless. It doesn’t make sense that only academics have access to this when practitioners would best be able to apply it to their fields” – Community Scholars Program participant

What do you do when you’re a researcher without an academic library? A recent article by Jake Orlowitz, Head of the Wikipedia Library, describes many creative solutions that independent researchers the world over employ to meet their information needs. In British Columbia, however, there’s an additional option: the Community Scholars Program. A partnership of SFU Library, Mindset Social Innovation Foundation, and United Way of the Lower Mainland (UWLM), this program provides 500 individuals with free electronic access to thousands of scholarly titles. The participants in the program, known as Community Scholars, work for non-profits and charities in a variety of sectors including social and legal services, human rights and social justice, housing, physical and mental health, sustainability and conservation.

Non-profits and charities, numbering more than 20,000 in BC, are often on the frontlines of the same issues that academic researchers are working on, and shape policy, deliver services, and contribute to the wider discourse. However, they are too often without the huge suite of information resources that, in the university setting, underpin this kind of work. The Community Scholars Program operates on the foundational belief that meaningful access to scholarly resources can make an impact for non-profits and the communities they serve by providing a tool for program development, policy advocacy, grant-writing and professional development.

Who participates in the Community Scholars Program, and why?

The Community Scholars have indicated that the access afforded to them through this program is very valuable to them. With individual journal articles costing $30 each or more, and subscriptions for a single journal in the hundreds or thousands of dollars annually, many organizations providing critical support to vulnerable populations in BC are unable to afford the relevant literature. Participants have shared many compelling reasons for their participation. One Community Scholar noted, “Having access to perform fulsome literature reviews will assist us in shifting away from an “Experienced Opinion” approach to policy and practice to a more robust empirical, evidence-based approach.” Another explained that it is hard to attract funding for the kind of harm-reduction work that she does with the community she serves – she looks to the literature to provide a solid rationale to convince funders. Others seek to stay current with developing research in their areas, to contextualize the programs and publications they produce, and to identify gaps and areas where new research is needed. A large number of Community Scholars work in the areas of community living, refugee support, and mental health and addictions where they are developing innovative practices that are shaping their fields.

How can access be made meaningful?

When becoming engaged with the Community Scholars Program, United Way of the Lower Mainland saw a tremendous opportunity to bring this program to our grant recipients. It has been a long standing practice at UWLM to ask grant applicants to cite research in support of their proposed activities as it assures alignment with current evidence-based practices. Due to the limited access of non-profit organizations to publications, we have consistently seen applicants refer to the same small subset of articles and reports found through open access portals. Seeing an opportunity to enhance our partners’ capacity, UWLM stepped up to fund a portion of the program in order to provide a set number of participant spaces for a specific grant stream that provide programming for children and youth. One of UWLM’s strategies in building sector capacity is to implement and lead Communities of Practice (CoP) for service providers serving similar populations. Our school age grant CoP participants received access to the Community Scholars Program beginning in January 2018.

Once the systems were in place, United Way’s focus shifted to the mechanism by which we could support the CoP participants in adopting usage of the Community Scholars Program access in their everyday work. The mechanism was developed collaboratively between an SFU librarian and UWLM representative in three stages. In the first stage, the Community Scholars Portal was introduced to CoP participants along with a brief introduction to the portal, search mechanisms and types of publications. In planning for the second stage, we realized that participants were experiencing a steep learning curve associated with the use of the search portal, particularly with the iterative process of searching and narrowing hits to find exact matches. Recognizing that our participants were extremely busy practitioners, we decided to remove the barrier of the portal and instead focus on helping our participants become more familiar and comfortable with using peer reviewed articles in their work. Utilizing participants’ own interests that were explored at a previous CoP, we selected a journal article that we felt would have universal appeal to socialize the idea of a journal club within the group. After scaffolding for the group the process of using journal articles to inform their practice, training and future grant applications, we will be moving forward with a series of in-person and webinar-based workshops to support their individual use of the portal.

Moving towards knowledge democracy

There has been a long standing gap between academic research and practice, particularly in the non-profit world where resources are scarce. Providing access in the form of the Community Scholars Program along with knowledge translation mechanisms such as Communities of Practice can truly transform the relationship between academia and practical application in ways that strengthen the knowledge base of practitioners to provide high quality, evidence-informed programming and will allow researchers to focus their scholarship on matters that are of urgent necessity in community. With such stark shifts in our communities, and information, partnerships such as this ensure that literature finds a place as a relevant and needed tool in the endeavour to solve society’s most complex problems. As one of the Community Scholars stated, “Much more in the way of opportunities such as this are badly needed. [This helps] ensure an equitable society where social policy decisions are not made in isolation from those social groups most impacted by those policies.”

>Heather De Forest is the Research Commons Librarian/Community Scholars Librarian at Simon Fraser University Libraries

>Maggie Karpilovsky is a Community Impact Planner with the United Way of the Lower Mainland