While there’s been an increase in formal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roles over the last five years, the bulk of employer-sponsored community engagement work is often unpaid or viewed as an extracurricular activity outside of workers’ official responsibilities. This makes creating and funding sustainable programs difficult. While the University of Minnesota is committed to supporting DEI work, funding across all missions is limited, and large organizations tend to become siloed, resulting in a fragmented approach. 

The Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain’s (MIDB)Community Engagement and Education Core aims to change that by making community engagement more accessible. Through a partnership with neuroscience-focused engagement programs across the University, the group is working to eliminate financial barriers, provide training and help advocates translate their work into an academic product.

“We’re trying to create an infrastructure where everyone can succeed in engagement work,” said Anita Randolph, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and director of Community Engagement and Education Core at the MIDB. “A lot of people give up when they put in so much effort but don’t get any credit or lack funding.”

Part of the MIDB’s mission is fostering healthy childhood brain development and creating a welcoming environment that’s community-focused and easily accessible to all. One aspect of Dr. Randolph’s role includes connecting underrepresented people from K-12, undergraduate and graduate school along with their families to the program to develop the next generation of scientists. Her background in engagement work made developing the MIDB’s external approach relatively straightforward. However, engaging the University’s internal stakeholders was a new challenge.

“Engagement seemed so siloed,” Dr. Randolph said. “I know that the University is massive, and the bigger you are, the more siloed and specialized you become. Still, it was hard to engage with people when I couldn’t find them to begin with.”

Enter NODE

One of Dr. Randolph’s first connections, Cheryl Olman, PhD, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Psychology, led her to a network of peers interested in community engagement work. As the interdisciplinary group grew, Dr. Randolph started organizing biweekly meetings in early 2021.

“During our meetings we shared what we were working on,” Dr. Randolph said. “Whoever was on the call would step up, step in and support each other, period.”

The group includes representatives from the Medical School’s Departments of Neuroscience and Neurology, the Office of Biomedical Graduate Research, Education and Training (BGREAT), the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Biological Sciences, the Institute of Child Development (ICD) and the Medical School, Duluth Campus. To fund the group’s projects, Dr. Randolph sought out and was awarded a Research Infrastructure Investment Program grant through the Office of the Vice President for Research. 

“The grant supports collective ideas from the group,” Dr. Randolph said. “We wanted to figure out how to increase our reach into the community.”

With official University funding, the group named itself the Neuroscience Opportunities for Discovery and Equity (NODE) and is working toward becoming a centralized infrastructure for community-based participatory research, training and resources. For example, NODE recognized that many University groups don’t have dedicated funds to hire staff or to buy activities and supplies to make an impact in community outreach. To address this, NODE is acquiring equipment and supplies that anyone can use. 

“We’ll have all the equipment needed,” Dr. Randolph said. “We have games, interactive displays and models for people to check out.” 

This includes plastinated brains and spinal cords and sliced and whole brains to make neuroscience fun and interactive. They’re also developing training videos and demos for advocates.

“We’re hoping to create a more equitable landscape so that people don’t feel like they can’t be in this space due to funding,” Dr. Randolph said. “We’re trying to make sure that everybody can participate at whatever level they would like.”

NODE also hopes to provide a blueprint for similar groups across campus and hosts quarterly meetings for engagement groups from all disciplines to share best practices, structure and support.

“We also have to know what others are doing so that we can expose as many underrepresented kids to science as possible,” Dr. Randolph said. “We want to have a really wide breadth of options for students to engage in.”

Translating Outreach to Scholarly Work

The University values community engaged scholarship, which involves translating community outreach into scholarly work. The University’s Review Committee on Community Engaged Scholarship provides guidance and feedback to faculty pursuing this work, but it’s not always clear how to get started.

“When you interface with the community and do service activities, it only counts toward your work as a faculty member if you produce a scholarly product like a grant or manuscript,” Dr. Randolph said. “So, a lot of people are doing engagement work but aren’t getting credit for it because they don’t know how to translate it into a scholarly product, which is difficult.”

While this is easier in a traditional hypothesis-driven lab, it’s not possible to replicate a service experience or translate the feeling of community engagement into scholarly work.

“We are formalizing seminars and workshops to help faculty and groups create a roadmap to translate community engagement work into some sort of scholarly product,” Dr. Randolph said. “We’ve come full circle: you don’t have to worry about money, and we’re going to show you how to turn your work into a scholarly product, enabling you to get grant funding and be self-sustaining.”

While NODE was founded across neuroscience-focused engagement initiatives, the infrastructure could be adopted broadly.

“NODE has been really great, and I think that’s why we get so many groups to join in,” Dr. Randolph said. “This is engagement work. It’s not for us, but for the community.”