Lessons learned balancing researcher and participant roles at #CEFP2017

In January 2017, we wrapped up the training week for the inaugural class of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from the January training, the Fellows will report back on the Trellis blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Yesterday Dr. Stephanie E. Vasko shared a recap of a structured dialogue workshop that she helped lead. Today, in part two, she describes the experience of participating in the program as both a fellow and a researcher.

Posted by Stephanie E. Vasko, Research Associate and Program Manager for the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI) at Michigan State University

Three hats hanging by clothespins
DIY Hanging Copper Hat Rack” by Geneva Vanderzeil under CC BY 2.0

As both a research assistant and the program manager for the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI), I not only engage in designing, implementing, and evaluating workshops, but I also drive efforts for our community engagement (both our internal and external communities), strategic management, project management, and business efforts. On any given day of the week, I find myself wearing my client services, researcher, project manager, program manager, community engagement manager, marketer, and social media strategist member hats simultaneously. In the case of the workshop we ran for the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows  I attended as both a member of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative and a member of the Community Engagement Fellows cohort.

The notion of working as an “embedded” member of a group is not a new one for TDI researchers. The combination outsider/insider status can be helpful in becoming immersed in a client’s specific goals and interests — for example, here allowing me to reflect on the prompts for the dialogue in light of discussions and to weave some of our group discussions into my Toolbox breakout group’s discussions. However, it can also have the effect of requiring me to figure out the best balance of my roles (how to wear my multiple hats) and the best ways to communicate with a team. While challenging, this presented an opportunity for learning and growing, and I’d like to share a few of those insights with the community engagement and research communities. I’d like to highlight three areas of lessons learned though this experience:

 

1. Remain flexible and resilient!

This opportunity highlighted the crucial role that flexibility plays in the lives of researchers and community engagement managers. When I say flexibility here, I mean an ability to adapt to change or problems, as well as the ability to be open to new pathway. By keeping flexibility in mind, changes to the schedule and weather-based delays during the week became speed bumps along the road instead of insurmountable obstacles during the week.

Linked to the notion of remaining flexible is that of resilience. Resilience can be thought of as the ability to deal with stressful situations or tough matters (See The New Yorker’s “How People Learn To Become Resilient” for an interesting history on resilience research). I’ve had the opportunity to work on or hear about resilience in a variety of contexts, from my Journey of Facilitation and Collaboration training at UW-Madison to listening to Jennifer Davison’s lighting talk on resilience during the training week to attending with resilience through Michigan State University’s Executive Leadership Academy (ELA)’s “Building Capacity for Resilience as a Leader.” All of these experiences have underscored how important resilience is for community engagement managers, researchers, and program and project managers. They have also caused me to pause and reflect on the roles of flexibility and resilience in my entire career, which I recently highlighted on ThinkTechHawaii’s Likeable Science.

 

2. Practice crucial accountability

Crucial Accountability (formerly Crucial Confrontations) “offers the tools for improving relationships in the workplace and in life” and “teaches you how to deal with violated expectations in a way that solves the problem at hand without harming the relationship–and, in fact, even strengthens it.” When it comes to taking on multiple roles within an organization and within a situation, crucial accountability is key. It allows us to be comfortable with criticism, to deliver criticism in helpful ways, and to manage expectations. During this the training week, crucial accountability skills (along with resilience) were key to hearing critiques from fellows on the TDI method and being able to engage with these critiques in a way that will ultimately benefit TDI and our future partners. I’m excited to continue developing these skills this week through the MSU Academic Advancement Network’s Crucial Accountability Training.

 

3. Embrace That You Contain Multitudes!

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains the lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I take Whitman’s words to heart here when I say that rather than simply wearing multiple hats, we contain multitudes simultaneously. Our roles are often not discrete enough for individual hats; knowledge from one role often directly influences another role. Instead, we wear one magnificent hat representing the amalgam of our skills and knowledge. Rather than fear or worry over the multiple hats, or “costume changes,” we should embrace the blend of unique skill sets that community engagement managers in scientific organizations possess. We add value when we bring to the table the multiple roles we’ve held in our lives and the knowledge we’ve accumulated to the management and community building of our respective organizations.

None of these three areas are skills that we are born experts in; rather, they require our attention and our time to develop. Those of us participating in this year’s fellowship program are lucky enough to have each other as a resource for learning and developing our skills in these areas. For those of you who are interested in learning more, I’m looking forward to developing some content on these lessons over the upcoming year to share with the wider community!

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