mergency youth shelters serve a vital purpose, providing
sanctuary to young people in crisis. Staff at these shelters are
all too familiar with “revolving door syndrome,” in which the
same vulnerable young people cycle through the social service
network. Ideally, a person stays in a shelter temporarily before
finding a suitable housing solution. But in most cases, the supports are not in place for that to happen. It’s a problem with no
The problem of revolving door syndrome was not specifically
on her mind when Naomi Nichols began her doctoral studies at
Dr. Nichols (she now has her PhD) had just returned to Peterborough,
the city where she was raised, and a mutual friend introduced her to Walter
Johnstone, executive director of the city’s Youth Emergency Shelter. “We
chatted, and saw some real lines of convergence between what he wanted
to do at the shelter and what I was proposing.”
Scholarship that is engaged directly with the community is not exactly
something new under the sun. Researchers, especially those in the social
sciences and humanities, have always engaged the wider community in
“What is new is that institutions are stepping up to support this,” says
David Phipps, director of the office of research services at York University.
“There is now an investment of real dollars, similar to the way institutions
have always supported industry liaison and tech-transfer.”
Mr. Johnstone and Dr. Nichols were awarded four months of intern-
ship funding in the spring of 2007, and Dr. Nichols received a three-year
doctoral fellowship. She spent the next two years at the Youth Emergency
Shelter as a volunteer researcher, grant writer, program developer and staff
educator. Along with staff, she began to grapple with the seemingly intrac-
table “revolving door syndrome.”
“I started doing interviews with the young people – I thought of it as
‘privileged listening’ rather than telling them what to do.” The young peo-
ple discussed their prior learning, life experiences, goals and aspirations.
They also talked about their life skills in areas such as healthy relation-
ships, housekeeping, cooking and healthy eating.
Building on this research, Dr. Nichols and Mr. Johnstone collaborated
on a proposal to the Ontario Trillium Foundation, seeking support for a
life skills learning program. This ultimately led to the development of the
Transitioning Life Skills program, tailored specifically for each young person and carried out with the help of a mentor.
The program has created a lasting impact in the Peterborough community. The goal was to produce a self-sustaining program within three years,
after which the shelter would sell the program to other local, youth-serving
organizations such as the Children’s Aid Society. This fee-for-service structure would provide a revenue stream for the shelter.
The Transitioning Life Skills program, along with a work skills development program, led the Peterborough shelter to be named one of the
province’s success stories in the 2008 Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth
Services’ report Breaking the Cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.
the traditional system of academic incentives and rewards has not
always been a good fit for community-engaged scholarship. Tenure and
promotion are the two most frequently cited disincentives for scholars
who might want to partner with community groups – such partnerships
generally do not count for much in front of promotion and tenure committees when compared with research published in important journals.
But perhaps an even bigger barrier is cultural. Naomi Nichols understood she would need to build trust with the young people or her project
would go nowhere. She went climbing at the local gym, served as a volunteer lifeguard and job-shadowed the shelter workers.
The bonds of trust are critical. Lynn Lavallée, an academic of Algonquin, Cree and French ancestry, has childhood memories of people walking with clipboards through her Regent Park neighbourhood in Toronto,
making observations and taking notes. These are not pleasant memories.
“It was a feeling of being under the microscope. You felt stigmatized,
even though they might have had the best intentions,” says Dr. Lavallée,
now an associate professor in the school of social work at Ryerson University, whose research is on Indigenous health and well-being.
“Nothing about us, without us,” is the way Dr. Phipps sums up the cur-
rent approach to community engaged research. “We don’t do research on a
community – we do research with a community. This issue has been partic-
ularly strongly felt within Canada’s First Nations communities, who have
not been well ‘partnered-with’ by academia.”
But a fact of the research universe is that most assessment protocols
still involve single-author articles published in peer-reviewed journals.
Outcomes produced by community-engaged scholarship, by contrast, can
include everything from briefs written for government to public forums,
videos, resource kits and other items that can be of immediate, practical
use to a community.
There are concrete differences in the two approaches. When reviewing
a grant application with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr.
Lavallée will ask whether the principal investigators have plans for hiring
and building capacity within the community.
“Are they planning community forums where they will disseminate the
knowledge? Will they be writing a plain-language report that will be given
back to the community? Will they publish in journals that are available
online, so communities can have access?” Dr. Lavallée asks. “Many of the