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At the nexus of people and basic science – an argument for community engagement

Jacob Allgeier, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, illustrates the value of community involvement in research.

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I often seem to find myself on this one particular street corner. It isn’t really a corner so much as an intersection of paths. There are no real corners where I work in Haiti – there are no real roads. But this particular intersection is a great place to perch. Vildo sells lukewarm beers for the right price and importantly, this is where people gather.

I am an ecologist, and I study the coastal ecosystems that include coral reefs, seagrass beds, biodiverse fish communities, and people. When I decided to start a new project in Haiti, I did so because I was motivated to make my research relevant for local communities. Along the way I realized there is a certain luxury that pursuing this motivation affords you: time. The reason is that once you commit to working with communities, taking time to engage them is inherently part of the job.

The fortuitous part about this is that hardly anything goes right when doing field research anyhow, so I fill the painful gaps when I am ‘supposed’ to be working but can’t for myriad field-related reasons with active engagement with locals. In doing so, I get to hear about people’s experiences, learn about what they care about, what fish they like to eat, what pisses them off or makes them happy, among many other things. And importantly, they also get to know me. Instead of this odd ‘blanc’ (Haitian Creole for “white dude”) running about this way or that, I become a regular dude that drinks Vildo’s beer on the corner. This is one of my favorite aspects of my job.

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Time affords flexibility. A good example of this is how I came to work with many of the local fishers, and importantly how I came to gain their trust and their support. One day, a friend’s motorized boat (a relatively scarce item in these fishing communities) broke. We needed to work, so we instead hired some fishers and their handmade sailboats. We expected doing this would slow us down in terms of time, and it did to some extent, but what we gained was immeasurable. We now work with a dozen or so fishers, rotating among them based on their expertise and availability. This provides some needed temporary work when the catch is low. But it also allows them to see the research in progress. As they see the development of these projects that they helped build, it rightfully so generates a sense of ownership in them. With each year they see the project progress and learn through the same scientific process that we do. Further, and importantly, it helps me to get to know, on a personal level, the people that we hope to affect positively through our conservation research. A win-win.

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Spending time with locals has helped me improve my communication and facilitate important interactions. Most notably this can be seen in local meetings. I regularly meet with local fisher co-ops, school classes, and community members, each meeting catered to the specific audience. With the fishers we talk about future projects, or results from on-going work – I show videos and photos of the projects, they ask questions and offer suggestions and opinions that help direct the next steps. Sometimes we just talk about how fishing is, where they fish, what they catch. With students, I use visual aids like posters (translated in English and Haitian Creole with bold colors and images of animals they know) and videos to talk about basic biology of the fish their families harvest and eat. It is through these interactions that I have found the most tangible results, when people start to understand the motivation of my work and importantly contribute their ideas to promote its success.

Last summer, I proposed the idea of helping a local fishing co-op create the first (to my knowledge) fisher-managed marine protected area in Haiti. The basic idea being that I could help initiate and provide resources through my research and they could help design and manage the small-scale project. And the idea was a hit. But a key reason was their trust in me, and central to that trust has been all the small person to person interactions that come with just being present and spending time with them. Had I pitched this same idea five years ago they would have booed me out of town. But now they know me, and they trust me. We drink beer together on Vildo’s corner.

No two scenarios are the same, but I am confident that if you are truly invested in engaging any community with your research and you allow yourself the time to listen and observe, your efforts will gain more traction. And you might just have fun doing it.

About Jacob Allgeier 

Jake is an ecologist with broad interests in how human-induced changes alter how ecosystems function and the services that they provide.  His work is rooted in basic ecological theory, but motivated by increasing need for food security, particularly in coastal societies. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website.

Want to share your thoughts about this post? Email Jake at jeallg@umich.edu.

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