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Kirsten Schwarz Focuses on Relationships to Sustain Community Engagement

Kirsten Schwarz (not pictured) leads community planning sessions for her Strategic Depaving project. | Credit: Kirsten Schwarz.

When Kirsten Schwarz and her team asked the residents of Newport, Kentucky about their community concerns, two issues came out on top: access to green space and water quality. To address both concerns at once, Schwarz started the “Strategic Depaving” project, in which university and community participants together identify paved areas to turn into public green space with desirable amenities. Replacing concrete with “green infrastructure” that absorbs stormwater runoff means that less water enters the sewers during rain events, reducing overflow of sewage into waterways. The first lot they are part of redeveloping is the Bernadette Watkins Park, where the City of Newport had approached Schwarz for help getting community input.

Schwarz initiated her survey because she was looking for ways to partner with the local community. She had recently taken over leadership of the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute, and was one of 15 scientists awarded the 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science fellowship. She was able to get both internal and external funding for Strategic Depaving to support community engagement as well as involving undergraduates in the research.

The way Schwarz talks about this project has evolved over time. She initially focused on water quality benefits in conversations with funders, but recently social benefits have taken center stage, as the project follows the direction the community is interested in. Another shift is valuing the process of engagement over its products. She acknowledges that as an academic with publishing requirements, this can make her nervous, but she insists it is the right way to do this kind of work. “The keys to making a project sustainable get lost if you emphasize product over process. You want the community to say ‘I helped create this.’ The community needs to continue to care about the project,” says Schwarz. So her team checks in with their partners every step of the way. They also fund the community’s participation, which has required changing the funding approach for the project. She also transferred her earnings from the 2018 NKU SOL Award for the Strategic Depaving project to their community partners.

The result of valuing their involvement is that community members continue to be highly engaged and excited (more than 100 people have participated). Strategic Depaving has focused on working with an underserved community in Newport in which the Ecological Stewardship Institute already had connections. They partner primarily with the Westside Citizens Coalition, whose monthly meetings they often use to discuss Strategic Depaving. They use community design charettes, essentially planning workshops that allow participants to collaboratively design solutions. Eventually, they hope to find another lot to redevelop and expand into other neighborhoods as they also expand NKU participation.

A more experimental project Schwarz initiated this past year focused on the idea of relationship-building: nurturing the “soil” so that seeds of collaboration can later be planted. She convened the first “Soil Money” cohort in the fall of 2018 with three NKU junior faculty members and three community members, drawn from the community of Newport. With a small amount of funding from the AAAS Leshner Fellowship that was matched by NKU, they are meeting 5-6 times over the academic year to learn from each other. The community partners were interested in how the researchers do their science and how they fund it (they were surprised to learn that scientists work to fund their own research through grants, and are not solely supported by the university). They took a trip to campus, and another time, the group met in Newport to learn about community initiatives and what is important to them.

Schwarz knew the Soil Money project had been successful at forming relationships when she was trying to lead a design thinking exercise, and it was hard to get everyone’s attention to start because they were so busy talking with one other.

Being a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow gave her the confidence to seek – and win – the position of chair of the Ecological Society of America’s Communication & Engagement Section. In this role, she has been part of establishing an award for public engagement and organizing numerous communication-related sessions at their upcoming annual meeting. She was also asked to speak at one of these, and she made her acceptance contingent on a community member from her Soil Money cohort also presenting. The community member is thrilled, especially after having learned so much about the scientific process.

Working with the community on the Strategic Depaving project has had an impact on Schwarz’s students’ perspectives. Schwarz had lost her voice when it was time to give a pitch for renewed funding, so one of her students gave it instead. One funder asked how they had been successful at conveying their message to the community. Schwarz feels incredibly gratified that when she whispered, “Not our message, their message” to her student, the student immediately picked this up and took it from there. The “message” had sunk in: Strategic Depaving is about what the community wants.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.