Talloires Network sees tide turning for civic engagement

The Talloires Network marked its 15th anniversary with the launch of a new name and logo and the awarding of five university-community partnerships responding to COVID-19 this week.

From now on it will be known as the ‘Talloires Network of Engaged Universities’ to better reflect its new initiatives and the commitment of its 406 member institutions to build and support the university-community engagement movement.

“Our mission is to work together with heads of universities around the world to collaborate to confront societal challenges like diseases, famine, structural racism, gender oppression and climate change,” said Lorlene Hoyt, executive director of the network, in an interview with University World News.

“That vision has not changed; we have always been a coalition for vice-chancellors and presidents, trying to address social issues, but now we are focusing more tightly on the social issues that are most pressing, to bring resources to bear.”

One of the top priorities is our public health focus around the pandemic, which is related to the network’s focus on food security and clean water in developing countries.

“We are ambitious in seeking funds around pressing social issues,” said Hoyt, a research professor in urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in the United States, “especially where there is a threat to immediate safety and well-being.”

For the past four years, Talloires has been diversifying its revenue sources and bringing in a variety of different funding partners. It has launched a system of tiered membership contributions which range from US$7,500 in the US to US$500 in countries such as Pakistan and Cameroon.

The network is still receiving support from the Mastercard Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but has recently formed three new partnerships with Open Society Foundations, which has enabled it to launch new programmes, some of them in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of things we are really most excited about is some of our work with Open Society Foundations,” Hoyt says. “We recently launched the University Award for Innovative Civic Engagement, a pilot programme to discover novel research and learning strategies for university civic engagement among Talloires Network member universities.

“Five universities around the world were selected to receive US$20,000 each for partnerships focused on addressing issues that have come to the fore as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.”

They will also receive round-trip international air travel, lodging and ground transportation costs to the Talloires Network Leaders Conference at Tufts University and Harvard University on 30 September – 3 October 2021.

In Cameroon, for example, there is an ongoing conflict and the Anglophone population is not really getting the basic health services they need. So the Meridian Global University in partnership with Access Care Foundation is providing basic healthcare to people trapped or displaced by the conflict in the Anglophone regions of the country.

“A lot of the work they are doing involves educating [people] about the virus, providing PPE [personal protective equipment], creating hospital beds and caring for a population that would otherwise not be serviced at all,” Hoyt says.

In Kenya there is a lack of clean water in poorer communities and a problem of water-borne diseases, and in the settlements Talloires is working with, they can’t begin to practise proper hygiene in terms of handwashing. So Mount Kenya University in partnership with Partners for Care is providing funding to buy thousands of water back packs, so that clean water can be brought into the settlement and handwashing stations can be set up to curb the spread of the pandemic, Hoyt says.

In Mexico the problem of a lack of food security has worsened during the pandemic. Universidad Veracruzana and the Veracruz State Department of the Environment are enabling students and community members, via participatory research and reflection in action, to work together to incubate start-up projects in the conservation of water resources, greenhouses and agro-ecological farming.

In Nicaragua, a partnership between the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua and municipal mayors and non-profit community institutions is promoting biopsychosocial health and wellness habits.

And in Zimbabwe, the University of Zimbabwe and the Glen Norah Community Cooperative are addressing the impact of the pandemic on local livelihoods by promoting decent employment creation and income generation via entrepreneurship education and establishing a revolving loan facility for vulnerable small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs.

In parallel with the universities award, the Talloires Network – Open Society University Network Education Partnership has supported the piloting of a COV-AID Student Engagement Award. The aim is to publicly recognise and support undergraduate students who are currently engaged in their local communities in ways that contribute to more equal and more inclusive societies. The 10 winners received an award of US$2,500.

They include Keyvious Avery, at Bard College, US, who organised a campaign that aimed to provide people experiencing homelessness in Kingston, New York, with tools and food to survive during the pandemic; and Vera Stojanovic, at the University of Cork, Ireland, who founded a Sanctuary Mask Initiative and recruited women seeking asylum to sew thousands of reusable hygiene masks to distribute to vulnerable communities.

Universities provide leadership

So why are universities involved in this kind of work that you might typically expect NGOs to carry out? “The important aspect is leadership,” Hoyt says. “We believe that universities have a responsibility to develop the next generation of active citizens who have the capacity to address these complex challenges.

“It is a way of teaching and conducting research and engaging and empowering university students to take action and provide support to their communities.

“So what we are aiming to do is offer these opportunities to students to connect with one another and with communities and learn from hands-on experience.”

Often there is a group of faculty members whose skills and resources are aligned with these various types of projects, so their teaching is involved.

“Students form relationships with faculty so it becomes a mentorship opportunity, which over the long term can be quite helpful as students transition out of university, look for jobs or start their own businesses,” Hoyt says.

Although Talloires focuses a lot on supporting communities in the Global South, they are committed to supporting the exchange of ideas and strategies between the Global North and Global South.

The way they promote that is by bringing partners from different projects together – for instance the five awardees meet once a month to learn about each other’s projects, approaches and strategies.

“They also get moral support and camaraderie from being in an international group,” Hoyt says. “The exchange is designed and facilitated so that they learn and adopt strategies from each other.”

Talloires’ annual conference makes this happen on a global scale, bringing people together to share what they have learned with a larger network. The next one is scheduled to be held in 2021, hosted by Harvard and Tufts universities.

Hoyt says universities in the United Kingdom and the United States are increasingly looking to Talloires to help them find counterparts in different parts of the world, where the traditional focus might previously have been on connecting with communities in their own backyard.

Mutually beneficial relationships

“Some universities’ definition of engagement is growing around internationalisation and partnerships with universities across the world. But that is not so much the focus. For us it is about the mutually beneficial relationship between the university and the local community, where [the institution] is grounded,” Hoyt says.

She says in many parts of the world, for instance Chile, Mexico, South Africa and increasingly the US, there is a lot of pressure on universities to demonstrate that they are contributing meaningfully to society and are not entirely self-serving or just serving a small fraction of the population.

“I have been doing this for 20 years now,” says Hoyt. “Before I was doing it for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. But this kind of work has always involved swimming upstream; it is risky, it is not rewarded internally. There was no pat on the back for your university-community scholar engagement. So it is fascinating for me to witness how the tide is turning a bit.

“There is a trend around the world that this kind of role and these kind of activities for universities are gaining more traction in terms of becoming a priority within institutions.

“The UK is a good example, where many universities are coming and saying ‘we would like to work with you round this idea of demonstrating our value to the public and highlighting the contribution we are making to society’.”

She says it is happening in different ways in different parts of the world. In Canada – and Australia – it is more about reconciliation and decolonisation of the curriculum and incorporation of indigenous knowledge into the institution, Hoyt says.

“Another sign is that global league tables are beginning to explore and incorporate some of the measures of social impact,” Hoyt says.