Understanding Community Data in Community

Leah Levac, Associate Professor, Political Science & Co-Lead, Displacement, Emergence and Change Cluster, Live Work Well Centre, University of Guelph

Laura Pin, Postdoctoral Researcher & Research Coordinator, Political Science Department, University of Guelph

Julie Rochefort, PhD Student, Social Practice and Transformational Change, University of Guelph


Critical Community Engaged Scholarship and the Importance of Collaborative Analysis

Since 2012, Leah has been working with community organizations, academic researchers, and Indigenous governments and organizations on a community-engaged project to better understand northern and Inuit women’s[1] wellbeing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. In 2019, Laura joined the team to facilitate a series of community workshops designed to understand community-developed data in collaboration with members of the community.[2]

Community engaged scholarship (CES) is a theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical orientation to teaching and research grounded in a “partnership and a two-way exchange of information, ideas, and expertise as well as shared decision-making” (Jordan 2007, 3). Critical community engaged approaches builds on these commitments by foregrounding power relations in the research process. In this way, CCES considers how intersecting forms of oppression and privilege lead to the elevation of certain voices and erasure of others, and how this needs to be taken into consideration throughout all dimensions of research, from question development through to results dissemination. The principles underlying CCES by Gordon da Cruz (2017)[3] include:

  • An explicit focus on social justice, in terms of research process and research outputs
  • A reciprocal relationship between researcher and community partners that includes space for reflection, pause, and revisiting choices
  • A commitment to getting research “off the shelf”: the creation of research outputs that are usable by community members and organizations contribute to community goals

Often community-engaged research processes rely on academic researchers to analyse and interpret data. In our view, trying to understand community data in collaboration with members of the community is a necessary step in living up to the principles of CCES outlined above because it centres community knowledge in the process of making-meaning from the data.


Project Background

Our relationship in Happy Valley-Goose Bay was born from an earlier partnership, called FemNorthNet, a multi-year participatory action research project that investigated the impacts of economic restructuring in the north of present-day Canada using the themes of community infrastructure & economic development, community engagement & governance, community inclusions & exclusions, and migration, immigration & mobility.

Since the beginning of our new collaboration in 2012, the goal has been to better understand how northern and Indigenous women define wellbeing, and to find ways to gather information about their wellbeing and how it’s changing, especially in the context of northern urbanization brought on by major resource extraction and development projects.

In the case of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the resource project that prompted the need for data was the development of the hydroelectric dam at Muskrat Falls on the Lower Churchill river. The joint review panel that conducted the environmental assessment of the project found “the potential for adverse effects…on women and children in Happy Valley-Goose Bay…” (Report of the Joint Review Panel, 2011, p. xxviii). They determined that a social effect needs assessment, including a participatory research component, was important for monitoring and providing recommendations to mitigate negative gendered consequences (Ibid.). The government of Newfoundland and Labrador did not follow this recommendation.


Stages of the Collaboration

Our work together responded to this gap, that persists to this day. Our collaboration can be broken into six non-linear phases (see Figure 1).

Phase 1 (2012-13): Planning. Designing a CCES collaboration is a critical stage in the process. We needed to review literature about related topics (northern women’s wellbeing and political engagement, for instance), but we also needed to make sure that our work would serve women in the community. Things we did to try and stay true to the purpose of the collaboration included:

  • creating a steering committee of local women who could help set the direction and questions guiding the collaboration (this group has changed membership but has been in place since we started and still exists; one of its main purposes is to make important project decisions);
  • developing an ethics protocol that treated community collaborators as research partners rather than research participants; and
  • collectively designing Phase 2.

Phase 2 (2013-15): Understanding Wellbeing and Collaborative Tool Development. The centrepiece of this phase was two community workshops with 26 women in the community to develop definitions and images of, and factors affecting, wellbeing. We refined these ideas through years of discussions and testing ideas with other women in the community, such as at the Labrador Wellness AGM in 2013. Through this process, we created a wellbeing framework (see Figure 2) to represent dimensions of women’s wellbeing. The framework includes a definition of wellbeing developed through the community workshops and other events, a description of diverse women in HV-GB, stories about the wellbeing of women in the community, and a survey that asks questions about wellbeing in five areas: (1) spiritual wellbeing; (2) emotional wellbeing; (3) mental & intellectual wellbeing; (4) physical wellbeing; and (5) cultural wellbeing.

The wellbeing of women in the north depends on having the opportunity to enjoy and develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with the environment. Having the ability to value yourself – both where you have come from and where you are going – is also important. Wellbeing requires having a sense of safety and security, and having access to appropriate food, housing, resources, finances, and support services. Having a social support network and being free from violent relationships are critical factors that affect wellbeing for all women. Food security; having or being able to learn coping mechanisms; being able to make choices about what’s best for you and your family; having access to information and resources; and social acceptance of diverse social identities as also critically important factors that affect women’s wellbeing. Having a space to meet to share and learn with other women is also important. Overall wellbeing is made up of: (1) spiritual wellbeing; (2) emotional wellbeing; (3) mental & intellectual wellbeing; (4) physical wellbeing; and (5) cultural wellbeing (Community Vitality Index Workshop Participants, Spring, 2013).

Phase 3 (2016-17): Data Collection Pilot. After developing the survey, women involved in the collaboration were paid to pilot and work on revising the survey to make it more user friendly. A big challenge was – and continues to be – the length of the survey. Some community members thought it was too long and would discourage people from responding. Others thought making it shorter would undermine our ability to understand the complexity of northern and Inuit women’s wellbeing. Together, we also developed a plan for distributing the survey electronically and in hard copy to make the survey accessible to as many people as possible.

Phase 4 (2018): Data Collection. To implement the survey, we hired community research assistants to support both online and face-to-face survey implementation. They took the survey to community organizations (e.g., women’s shelters, the friendship centre) to encourage wide participation, especially of those who are often invisible in community data. In the end 127 people who self-identified as women, two spirit people, or non-binary completed the survey.

Phase 5 (2019-20): Collaborative Data Analysis. After the survey closed, we created a draft report of some results, but the story the report was telling didn’t seem quite right. Women were concerned that by offering a broad summary and overview of the data, important complexities were being overlooked or masked, which had the unintentional effect of overshadowing the unique experiences of often-invisible community members. 

We decided that we needed a more extensive approach to analyzing the data with the community. This included hosting two sharing circles with the Labrador Land Protectors. During these sharing circles, we talked about some of the survey data, including whether women who responded thought the community was developing in a sustainable way, and what women thought about how their community had changed since the start of the Muskrat Falls project. We also created a partnership with the Labrador Friendship Centre (LFC) to further reflect on the data with community members. . Our partners at the LFC suggested combining data analysis with a crafting component. In Fall 2019, in conjunction with a sealskin purse-making workshop, we hosted a series of discussions about the data with the women’s circle at the LFC. A volunteer committee of people who attend the women’s circle supported the logistics of the workshop and received an honourarium to recognize their time and knowledge. We created overviews of findings (see Figure 3) related to three different themes that the women’s circle coordinator and other community members helped identify: 1. Caregiving and Supportive Services; 2. Spiritual, Cultural, and Physical Wellbeing; and 3. Younger Women, Older Women, and Wrap-Up. We discussed each theme (and the related data) on a different evening. We covered childcare expenses for participating women and asked questions about the overviews such as, “Did any findings surprise you?” and “What would you like decision-makers in your community to know about this data?”. Local women who are team members facilitated the discussions and took notes. These notes are now being used to expand and clarify our understanding of the survey data by giving it more context.

Phase 6 (2020-21): Results Reporting. We are now in the process of sharing the data results, including their interpretation with the community, more widely. We will host another series of workshops with the Labrador Friendship Centre in the Fall of 2020, or as soon as in-person workshops are allowed again. We will also deliver a series of data-based webinars for healthcare professionals in the Labrador-Grenfell Regional Health Authority, also in the Fall of 2020. One of the strategies Laura developed for communicating data in the webinar was to create composite stories. Composite stories are a narrative approach where data from several respondents is combined into a story to highlight common themes (Willis, 2018).[4] The benefit of composite stories is that they enable complex representations of data without sacrificing anonymity (Ibid). In keeping with CCES principles, composite stories can elevate voices and perspectives erased in summaries of data, and also aid in the creation of research outputs that are useful for community members. In the spring of 2021, there will be a community forum to share the results more widely using composite stories, mini-reports, infographics, and other data-sharing approaches. 


Learning As We Go

While we are still thinking through the process of community data analysis, we can point to some key areas of consideration that are important for upholding the principles of CCES, especially through the practice of collaborative data analysis.

  • Timeframe: CCES already operates according to longer timelines than many forms of academic research, to build in time for meaningful collaboration, and continuous re-orientation of projects to meet evolving needs. Collaborative data analysis adds additional time between data gathering and presenting the final results. On the one hand, this provides an important opportunity to reflect on the data, which we believe benefits the creation of meaningful and accurate research outputs. On the other hand, extended timeframes between data collection and research outputs may be frustrating for academics and partners who are eager to use these for research and advocacy, and who may fear that the hard work of the team has been forgotten.
  • Relationship building: Something that surprised us was that many of the women who participated in the collaborative data analysis were unaware of the survey. As such, the collaborative data analysis also served as a form of creative knowledge mobilization for the project and built new relationships with community members.
  • Flexibility in approach: Being able to leave the form, content and details of the workshops in community members’ hands was helpful for ensuring strong participation. It also meant that the workshops contributed to the objective of the partner – the Labrador Friendship Centre – to offer women in Labrador meaningful and culturally appropriate opportunities for engagement. This flexibility means that other community-data analysis processes may be quite different in form.
  • Complexity: “Community” is never a monolithic entity, and different women, two-spirit and non-binary folx have had different opinions on the data over time, often formed by diverse and contradictory lived experiences. At the same time, common themes and areas of concern have often emerged. A challenge moving forward remains providing research outputs that say something about the data, without flattening the complexity of the results.

We are eager to share our collaborative analysis results in the all of 2020 and through the winter and spring of 2021. These results will be necessarily messy, but true to the commitments of CCES, including that they will reflect – to the best of our abilities – the importance of creating useable research outputs that have been developed through a respectful and reciprocal process involving community and university researchers, every step of the way.


This blogpost was originally published on November 24th, 2020, you can find it here.


[1] Throughout this collaboration, we have invited anyone who self-identifies as a woman to participate. Our aim has been to be trans-inclusive, and to welcome folks who identify as two spirit and/or non-binary. 

[2] We would like to thank our collaborators in Labrador for providing comments on earlier versions of the textual and visual elements of this post, particularly Petrina Beals, Tracey Doherty, and Patti Maloney.  We also would like to thank project co-investigator, Dr. Sylvia Moore, for her feedback on earlier drafts.

[3] Gordon da Cruz, C. (2017). Critical community-engaged scholarship: Communities and universities striving for racial justice. Peabody Journal of Education. 92: 363-384

[4] Willis, R. (2018). The use of composite narratives to present interview findings. Qualitative Research. 19(4): 471-480.