Listening to Our Community Partners: Key Takeaways from 2018 Focus Groups
Photo above: Hartford community partners in a focus group with Megan Hartline and Karolina Kwiecinska at Trinity College in August 2018.
In late summer 2018, the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) invited Hartford-area community partners who engaged with Trinity students to share their feedback in focus group sessions. CHER is responsible for regularly evaluating community engagement between Trinity and Hartford, so that all parties better understand the scope and quality of our work together, so that we may continue to improve. Now that we have reviewed notes from these very insightful conversations, this report outlines six of our key findings about these partnerships, as told from the perspective of 21 representatives from 20 community organizations.
This is the second year that Megan Faver Hartline, Associate Director of Community Learning, has led these focus groups. (See her first report from summer 2017.) We invited about 50 Hartford-area community partners, most of them affiliated with non-profit organizations and neighborhood groups that collaborated during the prior academic year with Trinity students through various CHER programs: Community Learning, Community Service & Civic Engagement, Liberal Arts Action Lab, and Trinfo.Cafe. We were pleased that our partners generously made time to participate in hour-long focus groups, which took place on six different dates in August and September 2018. Two participants attended because they read about the focus groups in a CHER public announcement. The average size of the focus groups was smaller than ideal, and ranged between 1 and 6 participants per session, due to changing demands on their schedules. But in all cases other than the one-person session, participants were stimulated by one another and engaged in interactive conversation.
During these sessions, we asked participants to describe their interactions with Trinity students; to review the costs, benefits, and development of these relationships; and to evaluate their overall impact on Hartford. (See our focus group questions in the appendix.) While the vast majority of the 21 participants represented organizations located in Hartford, only about half of these people reside inside the city. The feedback described below is not necessarily representative of all of Trinity’s community partners, because it is a self-selected sample of people who agreed to attend a one-hour focus group. Furthermore, our study of community partners does not attempt to represent the views of Hartford neighborhood residents at large. But until Trinity conducts future assessments, these focus groups offer the richest data currently available on the quality of our engagements, as viewed from the perspective of Hartford community partners.
- Range of Partnerships: We began each session with a short writing exercise that asked participants to list the ways that their organizations interacted with Trinity students during the prior school year. After listening to participants share their lists, we sorted them into our three recommended categories. Of the 20 different organizations represented, they primarily interacted with Trinity students in these ways:
- Service Hours: 3 described how students tutor youth or volunteer at programs or events
- Information Products: 5 stated how students created products like videos, data visualizations, and curriculum units
- Research Studies: 10 identified how students conducted oral histories, or collected and analyzed data for studies
Note that the numbers above should not be interpreted as percentages of engaged students, because a service project may include 25 students while a research study may involve only 2. Furthermore, the focus group participants did not come from a carefully-designed representative sample, and these categories of interaction are not mutually exclusive.
Participants also provided new examples that forced us to rethink and expand our categories above. One explained how they interacted with Trinity students primarily through Artistic Collaboration, and another suggested adding this category: Guest Speaker in Class. Most impressive was the wide range — and unexpected cases — of community partner engagements with students. These focus groups taught us that no single Trinity employee had knowledge of all of our partnerships and the various ways that students interact with Hartford organizations. This finding provides additional motivation for the CHER team to create a collaborative database of our community engagements, to help us identify and work more closely with all of our partners.
2. Benefits to Partners:
When community partners agree to have Trinity students work with their organizations, this so-called “free” labor may require a significant investment of their time, so we asked them to evaluate the costs and benefits. All partners stated that student projects were useful to their organizations. “It’s a luxury for us to have folks who focus in on one specific project,” was a common theme voiced by community partners at small organizations with limited resources. In addition, about three-quarters reported that students completed work that their organizations would not have been able to do on their own. “The work that Trinity students have done for us would not be obtainable” without them, one partner stated, while another emphasized that their work without Trinity students would “not be as high quality.” Some partners attributed the high quality of Trinity student work to the faculty or staff oversight in the process, or noted that they would be hesitant to work with students without oversight. “When expectations are laid out for them, students are much more engaged,” one observed. Furthermore, even when counting the other 25 percent of organizations that would have done the work on their own, Trinity student involvement delivered value by offering different perspectives. “I appreciated the fresh approach by a younger set of eyes,” stated a humanities partner who worked with historical materials that were already very familiar to her. Others welcomed Trinity students for building public awareness of their organization’s work by “feeding it out” to younger generations on social media.
This finding reaffirms the importance of seeking feedback from community partners about the costs and benefits of including Trinity students in their organization’s work.
3. Relationships Drive Partnerships: When we asked participants how they began their partnerships with Trinity, about two-thirds pointed to their existing relationships with Trinity staff and faculty, and often named specific individuals as connectors. The other third were motivated by their desire to build new relationships with Trinity College at large, or noted how Trinity programs fulfilled one of their organization’s needs.
This finding reminds us of the importance of establishing, sustaining, and expanding individual relationships with Hartford partners, which is vital to the work of CHER and the continued health of campus-community partnerships.
4. The Power of Networking Partners: One advantage of focus groups, rather than individual surveys or interviews, is that Hartford community partners frequently met one another for the first time. This happened far more often than we expected, given that people often refer to Hartford as a small city where everyone supposedly knows one another. Instead, community partners often engaged in conversations before, during, or after our focus groups to learn more about each other’s work, discuss potential collaborations, and exchange business cards. Moreover, when one partners described a particularly enriching partnership with Trinity, other partners often wanted to know more. One newer partner remarked, “I’m extremely curious about all of these other partnerships” described by other groups at the table, and another partner wondered “how to do that” with their own organization.
This finding reinforces why CHER needs to improve campus-community partnership storytelling in our blog, social media, and monthly newsletter, to help other Hartford organizations imagine possibilities of collaborating with Trinity. Furthermore, CHER can play a more dynamic role in the city by regularly hosting focus groups or other events that bring together community partners to meet and brainstorm with us and other Hartford organizations.
5. Improve our Two-Way Relationships: Although we did not directly ask participants about campus-community relationships, this theme emerged at several focus groups, and views were mixed. On one hand, many praised the numerous Trinity programs that are designed to connect outward to the city. On the other hand, some believed that Hartford residents do not feel “invited” to come onto Trinity’s campus, or attend events, or use campus space, particularly in comparison to publicly-funded colleges and universities in the city. “Are we welcome here?” asked one focus group participant, who also is a Hartford resident and person of color. Even partners who feel somewhat comfortable at Trinity expressed confusion over how to find information about public events or answers to questions about requesting to use campus space. One positive example that actively makes Hartford residents feel welcome at Trinity is the International Hip Hop Festival, which several participants raised.
This finding highlights concerns about unbalanced campus-community relationships. Although Trinity sponsors multiple programs to engage students with Hartford, some city residents — notably some of our valued community partners on educational projects — do not always feel welcome on Trinity’s campus.
6. Unclear Impact on Hartford: Near the end of each focus group, we asked community partners to answer the big question: given their organization’s partnership with Trinity, and other Trinity partnerships that they were aware of, have these relationships made any difference in Hartford? The breadth of this question prompted long pauses and mixed responses, with different types of reasoning.
On one hand, partners who leaned “no” tended to emphasize higher expectations for Trinity as an “anchor institution” in the city. “I would expect to have more partnerships, not just with students, but also faculty. Their reach into really shaping Hartford isn’t there yet,” observed one partner. Another pointed to publicly-funded higher education institutions in the city that “are integrated and invested in partnerships all over the place. . . [while] Trinity literally has a fence. . . I see it making a difference with individual students, who are already inclined to working with the city. [Our Trinity students] feel frustrated about isolation and lack of integration.”
On the other hand, some partners who leaned “yes” argued that Trinity’s long-term institutional investment in the Hartford, from former President Evan Dobelle’s era to the present, is making a difference. Some answered affirmatively by pointing to the many individual relationships that formed through campus-community partnerships, particularly for Hartford youth in mentoring programs. College students “have incredible potential to influence young people, high-school age people. With a little bit of help, there could be thousands of college mentors in Hartford,” one partner observed. Still others mentioned very specific projects (such as an information product that Trinity students created to help domestic abuse victims hide their location on smartphones) as evidence that our work has an impact “on a micro level.” One community partner summed up their response to the question about whether we are making a difference in Hartford this way: “On an individual level, yes. As a whole, do I think we are moving the needle together? Probably not. Do I think we could? Yes. This year? Probably not.”
In conclusion, the CHER mission statement is “to strengthen educational partnerships between Hartford’s diverse communities and students, staff, and faculty at Trinity College, and evaluate campus-city relationships.” To achieve this goal, we need to regularly conduct assessments about the quality of our relationships — most notably with our Hartford community partners — and to publicly report our findings to help all of us improve our work together. This report is one step in a continuing effort to enhance assessment and communication. Another example of assessment work-in-progress is the online survey and follow-up focus groups with educators, students, and alumni involved in the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA) and Trinity College partnership, conducted by Robert Cotto, Director of Urban Educational Initiatives. The Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) plans to continue gathering feedback from more Hartford community partners and neighborhood residents in the future, to shape our future efforts.
Thank you to Erica Crowley and Karolina Kwiecinska for their contributions to this report by taking notes at many of these meetings. Thanks also to Jim Trostle for valuable feedback in preparing the questions and editing our report.
If you are a Hartford community partner or Hartford resident who interacts with Trinity College students, and wish to offer your feedback, contact Erica Crowley, Communications and Data Assistant for the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research.
Appendix: Community Partner Focus Group Discussion Guide, Trinity College CHER
Thanks for participating. The purpose of this focus group is to better understand relationships between Trinity College and Hartford-area community partners. We will ask you some questions, which will require about a half-hour of your time. People in the room will hear your answers, and we will write notes about your responses. But our final report will NOT identify you or your organization by name. Your participation in this project is completely voluntary, and you are free to stop or withdraw at any time.
1) Create a List
Our goal is to make concrete examples more visible to everyone in the focus group. Feel free to add notes to this page during our discussion. We will collect your sheet at the end.
– Name of your organization:
– List ways that Trinity students interacted with your organization over the past school year.
2) Looking at what you wrote above, what type of work did students do for your organization?
– Did students provide hours of service?
– Did students provide information or research products?
3) In your own words, tell us more about how Trinity students interacted with your organization and the service/information/research they provided.
4) Tell us about the conversations with people at Trinity and your organization that led to this arrangement, and why you agreed to participate.
5) Did the Trinity students provide service/information/research that your organization would not have had otherwise?
6) Did the Trinity student service/information/research require additional supervision from your organization? If yes, was it worth the investment of your supervisory time?
7) Thinking about your organization’s partnership with Trinity, and other Trinity partnerships you’re aware of, have these relationships made any difference in Hartford?
8) What are your organization’s plans for the next year?
9) Would you like to continue partnering with Trinity in the future? Why or why not?