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Meaningful Relationships: Re-Learning What It Means to Partner in 2020

Additional authors: Eve Klein

As boundary professionals working in informal, free-choice learning environments, our work relies on partnerships. True partnerships, focused on co-creating rather than being merely transactional in nature, are difficult to build and maintain in the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted many of our long-standing practices and poses a significant challenge to our working partnerships. The pandemic has rattled us, but it’s also shaken loose some of our hardened ways of thinking. The disruption has focused us on how we can continue our work in the near term, but we are also trying to seize this opportunity to rethink what it means to be a force for justice in the long term. As researchers and practitioners, we have an obligation to reflect on our role in partnerships in this moment. We’re asking ourselves: whose knowledge is centered in our partnerships? Are we approaching these relationships with a real openness to changing our own assumptions and expectations?

Over the last several years, members of the Institute for Learning Innovation (ILI) have taken on projects that grapple with several of these questions, but we realize at times we have fallen short. This year has impacted some partners far more significantly than others, and as a result it has exposed some of the underlying power imbalances we were not addressing adequately in the past.

As we move forward with our work, we are increasing our commitment to creating meaningful change within our new projects by incorporating what we’ve learned from past projects, our own professional learning, and our internal organization. We believe that to create change within the informal science learning field, we need to facilitate authentic partnerships that honor the knowledge of all those in the community. Below, we share two new projects that are an opportunity for us to more fully commit to acting on our values.

We are entering into a new partnership with the emerging SciComm Trainers Network (SCTN) and thinking hard about what it means to be a good partner to this group. The partnership expands ILI’s growing focus on professional learning and deepens our connection to the field of science communication. (ILI is also home to the Portal to the Public network.) Before the pandemic, we were starting to work with SCTN to challenge some of our assumptions about how to build a community (e.g., are annual, in-person meetings the best way to build a network from the ground up?). We approached the opportunity excited to help the group grow, and confident that we had expertise to share. We also know we have a lot to learn. Many members of this new Network have been at the forefront of the inclusive SciComm movement for years, and the Network’s charter lists equity and inclusion as essential and central tenets to whatever work the group takes on in the future. This charter was written in 2019, but the inequitable impacts of COVID-19 have only heightened the importance of this focus. As we get to know our new partners, ILI will need to leverage our privilege (including access to spaces like this) to amplify the voices of those who are working to make science communication more inclusive and equitable. We will need to listen, and more importantly, we will need to act. Sometimes our focus will need to be the priorities set by the SCTN membership rather than our own.

Another project we are thrilled to have been invited to join is the Science to Street Art project, an innovative, placemaking project coming out of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) at UW-Madison. The project has been piloted and is being further developed by Ginger Ann Contreras, executive director of the Illuminating Discovery Hub at WID. The project is driven by Ginger’s professional experiences in science and art, as well as her family’s storytelling practices. As a community science initiative of the Thriving Earth Exchange @ AGU, 2019, this project fuses science and art to partner with diverse communities throughout Wisconsin to redefine how public spaces are used by those communities and to develop unique, creative ways of telling the story of science. While the project was conceived prior to 2020, COVID and the recent events in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have pushed us to think about how the future of science advancement lies in diversity, but unconscious biases often make it difficult to attract and retain diversity in science. As we continue to confront the challenges in retaining diverse minds and people, we need to challenge our unconscious biases and compel community members to address the questions: “what does a scientist look like, and how do we tell the story of science?” Our goal is to empower communities and capitalize on the strengths of the partners, including UW researchers, local artists, municipal partners, and community members, to create egalitarian partnerships that result in valuable public art and informal science opportunities, while transforming what it means to engage with and know about science.

As informal science education researchers and practitioners, we know that the future of science depends on a diverse community of people. To build this diverse community, we need to be open to changing what counts as science knowledge and STEM learning. We need to continue to push ourselves to create space for authentic partnerships that value community agency. The first step is to push ourselves to recognize that the way we have gone about our work is not the only or even the best way to do the work we need to do. The two projects shared here are part of a wonderful movement in the field, but there are many others taking on this necessary work, and we welcome all their contributions. We include some examples below of members of the community who are leading in this area: 

Posted by Monae Verbeke