Idea Exchange Drives Community Engagement, Social Entrepreneurship

Pitt’s entrepreneurial activity should include social entrepreneurship, Vice Provost for Research Mark Redfern told faculty in closing remarks at the second annual Academically-Based Community Engagement (ABCE) Idea Exchange.

The Dec. 1 event, hosted by the University Honors College, the Office of PittServes, and the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, showcased current community engagement work and focused on plans for community engagement centers that will support Pitt’s engagement in local neighborhoods. 

“We’ve got an Innovation Institute. They’re looking at entrepreneurial activity from a commercial standpoint and for having impact that way. I think they should have a social entrepreneurship bent that will foster that kind of thing in these centers as well,” Redfern said, promising to raise the issue with Provost Patricia Beeson.

The University is close to naming an assistant vice chancellor for community engagement who will oversee the neighborhood-based centers. The new AVC is expected to be in place by January, said Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations. The first centers are planned for the Hill District and Homewood, but up to five could be established, Supowitz said.

Redfern cited a report that emerged from last year’s ABCE idea exchange and action within the University Senate, in alignment with Pitt’s strategic plan and with ongoing discussion within the administration, as motivators for the establishment of the centers.

“I’m really pretty excited about what can happen with these centers,” Redfern said.

When you do things like this, if it’s right, it resonates up.

Mark Redfern, Vice Provost for Research

He urged faculty to form interdisciplinary partnerships to facilitate community-based work.

“We can’t be siloed in our community-based research. We have to be bringing people together who have different expertise to be able to do something in the community,” he said.

Opportunities exist University-wide. “This is not something for just sociology and social work; this is something for the entire University to come together,” he said, citing the many disciplines represented at the idea exchange — among them, pharmacy, engineering and biomedical informatics — in addition to the social sciences.

Redfern, a bioengineer, said his eyes were opened to the broader range of community-based research through discussion in the University Senate research committee.

He commended faculty for their role in the formation of the University’s planned community engagement centers and for their input in ensuring they’re structured in a way that will be effective.

“There’s just such opportunity out there for various kinds of people in different disciplines to do quality work. This forum is fantastic for trying to define the best way we can do that for these centers: How do we structure the centers? What are the roles? What do we do?” he said.

He stressed the importance of faculty input in establishing the centers. “If we don’t set it up right, it’s not going to be as effective,” he said.

As part of the idea exchange, the advisory council for Pitt’s community engagement centers (CECs) sought faculty input on their community engagement work and how the centers might be used.

Roundtable discussions focused on three areas:

  • The physical and structural features that need to be included in the CECs in order to facilitate faculty members’ community-based research.
  • What community partners need to know about the way faculty conduct community-based research — what can and cannot be done in such projects.
  • The challenges that may need to be overcome or avoided in the new CECs.

Input from the discussion will be compiled into a report that the advisory committee will share with Pitt’s administration.

Panel Discussion Perspectives

Public Health

Faculty members Mackey Friedman of public health, Jackie Smith of sociology and John Wallace of social work, business and sociology, shared their perspectives in a panel discussion on research partnerships within communities.

Friedman, principal investigator of Project Silk, which provides a community space for young adult LGBT people of color, pointed out that the communities Pitt researchers work with aren’t all geographically based, but can be communities of marginalized individuals.

He encouraged researchers to recognize the knowledge that exists within those communities and supplement it, rather than going into a community with the approach that the researchers are the experts with all the solutions.

“We do have some knowledge and it’s great that we develop that and we can share that knowledge and convey and translate it, but that knowledge does not ever supersede the community’s knowledge,” Friedman said.

Solutions do not typically come from university researchers who are philosophizing from their offices. They come from the communities. It’s our job to foment and generate that information and help communities channel that power and energy and solutions into effective responses.

Mackey Friedman, Graduate School of Public Health

He cited the HIV/AIDS epidemic as an example. “It’s important to recognize the response to HIV/AIDS didn’t come first from the government or from the medical establishment per se, or the research establishment,” he said. “It came from the affected communities … who were pushing for better research, for more funding, for a response that was appropriate to the devastation of the epidemic.”

In keeping with the fact that the community response is the best response, he said it’s important to develop leadership systems within the community. “Pitch in when you can and when you can help but more importantly establish an infrastructure so communities can take over these projects,” he said.

“Build the infrastructure of the community so they can take your job.”


"Effective community-based research is time-consuming, said Jackie Smith, whose research focuses on social movements and globalization.

“It really requires a long-term commitment to being deeply involved in practice. We can’t just parachute in and do research with the group for a few months, or a few years even,” she said.

“We need to think less about instrumental goals that we usually bring to our research and really think more in terms of building relationships. It means scheduling meetings at times that are difficult … and being open to the kind of demands that working with people take. We can’t take the kind of time-bound approaches we do in much of our other work,” she said.

In addition, “we need to be open about the outcomes and the directions that this work will take us.”

Smith’s work on Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance, an initiative to use human rights as a framework for community governance, has taken her in some unexpected directions. “I never imagined that I would be working on housing,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting up to speed on areas of public policy that really have nothing to do with anything I’d worked on before. But that’s what arose in the work was a really important area of focus,” she said.

Although she was led by people within the community to take up the issue, the direction has benefited her own scholarship. “Now in sociology there’s much more discussion of global processes related to housing. So now I’m better prepared to engage in those debates on a professional level as well,” Smith said.

It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship but not one that follows the conventional approaches that people take to doing research.

Scarce resources pose a challenge. In addition to time challenges, money, space and administrative resources are limited, “especially if you’re doing politically transformative work,” she said.

It can be difficult to find volunteers, she said. “People are busy, their jobs are more insecure and they spend more time in them. There are lots of reasons people don’t do this work,” she said. Students may be more focused on building their resumes than acting as change agents.

“It gets very difficult to convince people to take their scarce time and devote it to these projects. But if we want a better city and a better world, we’ve got to get people involved in the projects of transformation like the Human Rights City project.”

Social Work

“For us as scholars to teach our students that what you do can make a difference in the world, that’s a big deal,” said Wallace, who works extensively in the Homewood community.

Students in the School of Social Work’s community-based participatory research course have had field placements in community-based organizations in Homewood. “We’ve done research projects out of that class that have turned into dissertations and published work,” Wallace said.

He encouraged faculty to seek grant funding for their community engagement work.

"You do research, and train your students and make a difference in the life of a kid — how powerful is that?" he said.

Community-based work must align with community needs, reiterated Wallace, who has completed projects on asthma and on property and real estate issues because they are problems in the Homewood community. Positive relationships between the University, the city and the community are important in facilitating the work, which benefits researchers, students and the community.

The opportunities are varied — ranging from a college in high school program at Westinghouse High School to the Everyday Cafe, a new coffeehouse that not only aims to provide residents with a “third place” beyond home and work, but to play a role in revitalizing the community.

The University has established PACS — Pitt-Assisted Communities and Schools ( — to coordinate service work in the neighborhood.

Dedication is required. “Something has to either make you cry or has to make you angry,” said Wallace. “If it does neither of those, then it’s just a research project.

“Unless you’re serious about this and willing to spend years doing the work, leave it alone,” he advised.

This article first appeared in the University Times on December 8, 2016.