Community Engaged Scholarship: One Professor’s Story
Sept. 30, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Emily Binetti
By Sarah Burchett, Center for Community Engagement
One evening in 2010, as Bill Wells sat down to watch the evening news, a segment aired about the Houston Police Department’s backlog of unprocessed rape kits. As a researcher within the College of Criminal Justice, he was interested and concerned. Wells immediately sent an email to his connection within the HPD offering his expertise and help.
This simple act eventually led to a mutually beneficial partnership to create a system that would clear the backlog and prevent it from reoccurring.
“The problem had already been identified. Then you dig deeper, and you analyze the problem, understand all the moving parts, and then you lay out a path forward for responding to that problem based on what you learned,” Wells said. “I somewhat gave them an overview of this as a model we could adopt here and that gave us the direction. We talked about all the data we would need to examine. We interviewed every sexual assault investigator, all the crime lab’s people that worked in DNA and a host of different stakeholders.”
Together, they worked through the process of identifying a solution to the problem while Wells assisted them in writing and securing a grant to fund the project. This led to HPD implementing systematic reforms, completing the testing of over 6,500 previously unsubmitted rape kits and reviewing the associated criminal cases.
The project was, in fact, so successful that it influenced a national model for solving similar issues in other jurisdictions. While Wells is no longer directly involved because of his responsibilities as department chair, he stays up to date with the program and its successes.
This collaboration between professor and community organization is an example of community engaged scholarship. There are varying definitions of community engaged research, but all of them contain the essential elements of mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and communities, the collaborative generation of knowledge following academically rigorous standards and the objective of contributing to the public good.
Wells benefited through grant development and publications, HPD benefited from specific expertise to help solve a problem and SHSU students were offered a transformative applied learning experience.
The project was especially impactful for the students who worked closely with Wells throughout their graduate program. Former student, Brad Campbell, is a professor at the University of Louisville and has been working with the Bureau of Justice Assistance to investigate the sexual assault backlog in Kentucky and provide assistance to other cities across the country.
“The experience with Dr. Wells taught me about action research and how you can get in with an agency, find a problem, and come up with solutions to that problem. Bill paved the way for me. He is a fantastic mentor and he does a really good job with applied research for agencies,” Campbell said.
Out of the six graduate students who assisted on the project, four have become professors and one is working as a director of social advocacy for a large social media company. All have been personally impacted by the success of this initiative.
While there are potentially many rewarding outcomes, working collaboratively with community partners does not always come easy.
“You must build up trust. It is also a give and take. You must be willing to compromise. They compromised, we compromised. You must have a collaborative mindset," Wells said. "You must go in knowing what you want to accomplish, but then also recognize that there are these other stakeholders that have vastly different goals and perspectives that you need to try to understand as well.”
At its core, successful community engagement is based on people talking to people over time. Through maintaining relationships, connections and partners – the work and rewards of contributing to the public good never ceases.
While community engaged work is not for everyone, Wells emphasized the importance of learning about this type of scholarship. Without his own mentors and professors instilling the importance of working with the community for the public good, he might never have discovered how rewarding it could be.
“I was taught by some fantastic people on how to do this work. Thanks to mentors that I had as a graduate student, and the projects they would bring me in on, I would get to see how my mentors would approach problems, how they would approach agencies and how they would do this work. Then, that is what I tried to do,” Wells said.
Engaged scholarly activity often creates sustained partnerships and conversations that lead to additional opportunities. For example, the efforts of Wells and his colleagues have led to agencies around the world reaching out to, and working in tandem with, them.
“Because of the partnerships previously established, someone referred a contact to me, who was with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and we built a strategic partnership with them. When they have needs, they will reach out to us, and we will do research with them,” Wells said. “I'm really excited about this because it is going to be this umbrella partnership where they might want a community survey, or they might want us to evaluate a violence reduction initiative that they’re doing, or they might want us to help with a crime problem that they're experiencing.”
While Wells’ recent partnerships started with one simple email - there is nothing simple about the chain of events that was set into motion.
The COCJ and Community Engaged Scholarship
Community engaged scholarship is a pillar of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University – it is the culture of the college, thanks to the efforts of faculty, throughout the years, establishing many partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the country. Numerous faculty members currently within the college, practice community engaged scholarship through their research and course work with partners.
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