School of Applied Human Sciences - Community Engagement Symposium
As part of its Community Engagement endeavour, the School of Applied Human Sciences (SAHS) held a Town and Gown Symposium at a beachfront hotel on 9 September. Sixty staff members, post-doctorate and doctoral students were joined by external stakeholders from industry and NGOs who are associated with the School’s Disciplines of: Communication and Media (The Centre for Communication, Media and Society, CCMS), Criminology and Forensics, Psychology and Social Work. The overall theme was: Preparing for the Future: Academic and social capital for work and community engagement.
The symposium was addressed by Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities. The day was divided into three segments, the first being a session of short keynote addresses chaired by Professor Donal McCracken. The speakers included Mmamitse Thibedi (Uzalo executive producer); Sabelo Gumedze (PSIRA); Bheki Zondo (Department of Health) and Eric Apelgren (eThekwini Municipality). The common recommendation from industry is that graduate’s soft skills need to be a focus if they are to make a positive impact on South African society. The idea of thought leadership is imperative for graduates to move into the different sectors and be committed transformation.
A round table discussion relating to community initiatives with NGO/NPO representatives was then chaired by Professor Ruth Teer-Tomaselli. Speakers included Chalone Savant (Public health communication consultant); Mary Lange and Bheki Dlamini from the ARROWSA NGO, Siyanda Biyela of Youth Crime prevention KwaZulu-Natal, Monty Thomas of Zoe-Life and Mzwakie Mosery of MATCH. As tempting (and important) as it is to focus outward on “social change” and structural constraints and opportunities, the discussion here reminded us of the more immediate layers of influence in society. For example, research and community engagement initiatives should seek to support “family” structures and creative school programmes. The issue of mental health was a hot topic, and a number of the presenters impressed upon the group that mental health is the single most important factor for adherence to HIV treatment.
The afternoon session was a lively panel discussion chaired by CCMS PhD candidate, Sanele Gamede – the theme being Community Engagement and the Role of the University. PhD presenters included Thomas Gumbo, Mkhonzeni Gumede, Shannon Landers, Nosipho Makhakhe, Nstika Mlamla, Tigere Muringa, Patrick Nyamruze and Sanele Shabane.
General sentiments that emanated from this group was that we need to avoid the often-criticised “smash and grab” approach of researchers entering a community and extracting information with no reciprocity or feedback to the people that participated in the research. The need for research relationships to be sustained and ways in which this could be done was widely discussed, with many interesting cases shared. Another key discussion is that although most research is problem-based our engagement with community partners needs to also foreground their resilience and solutions found within the community. With our dynamic times in mind, Landers ended her presentation with the wise words that, ‘The role of research in SAHS goes hand-in-hand with community engagement and it is necessary that efforts are made to bridge the gap in South Africa’s dual economy and ensure a smooth transition towards the fourth industrial revolution.’
Ruwayda Petrus ended the day with the message that as people committed to community engagement we need to hold the door open and allow multiple views, sectors, communities and paradigms positively influence our prosocial engagement with South African society.
This combination of academic staff, senior students and representatives of industry and NGOs proved an important stage in the School’s drive to break down barriers between scholarship and communities, and marks the first major activity of the recently established discipline stakeholder committees.
Words: Melissa Mungroo