Earlier this semester, I had the pleasure of interviewing three incredible Latina organizers and creatives–Gladys Godinez, Cecia Alvarado, and Karina Perez, co-authors on this essay–with decades of experience advocating with and for Latino communities. Each had extensive experience collaborating with university researchers and wanted to use the panel to share a few pieces of advice with other community organizers and leaders curious about academic partnerships. 

Most importantly, the panelists emphasized that communities have power, strength, and resources regardless of their relationships to universities. Communities survive and thrive on their own, they create, they collaborate, they take initiative, they maintain deep and intimate relationships, even if these go unnoticed by universities or the media. And it is exactly these rich characteristics that make communities valuable partners in academic collaborations. In fact, community members and community representatives should see themselves as intellectual peers in academic relationships, and should negotiate for what they want accordingly. 

If you are a community organizer or leader being approached to work with a university, below are six quick consejos from Gladys, Cecia, and Karina that you can take with you into your academic collaborations. 

  1. Ask to see the grant application! Yes, if you are going to be ON a grant application, it’s a totally reasonable request to ask to see it! And if part of the application doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t align with your vision of the work you do, ask questions about it. Good academic researchers should build time into their community collaborations to answer any and all questions their collaborators may have. 

  2. Add your own questions to surveys or interviews. As a community organizer or leader, you are likely overwhelmingly busy with the urgent, day-to-day work of keeping your communities afloat during economic, legal, or political moments of tension. So, even though you have a whole metaphorical rolodex full of people to whom you could ask questions, you are too busy to ask a specific, uniform question or set of questions that could help you programmatically. Surveys and interviews are the bread and butter of academic work. Is there a question you can add to the study to get information that would help your organization? Don’t be scared to propose a few questions yourself.

  3. Ask for resources outside of the grant application. It’s easy to think that you can only negotiate within the bounds of the grant application presented to you. But remember, you have the resources, the knowledge, and the connections that make you essential to community collaborations. What else do the researchers have that could be helpful for you? Can someone take a look at that essay your cousin is writing for his college application? Can a student help you update the webpage or create a one-page summary of your work? Do they have language skills that someone you know could benefit from? Could they review other grant applications you have or look over some of your resumés?  Researchers have tons of skills outside of conducting studies, so don’t be scared to ask for other types of support. 

  4. Ask researchers to come to you. Sometimes researchers think the safest possible space to have a conversation is in their office, on the 7th floor, in a building with no parking, with security guards walking around, with nowhere for your children to sit, with no nearby bus route… Invite researchers to your turf. You pick the place, you pick the time, and let them know that your kids will be there. In fact, don’t be scared to ask for child care as part of the collaboration, or let the researchers know that, for example, people who work nine to five will not be meeting with them during the day. 

  5. Ask for a different kind of deliverable. Researchers are notorious for prioritizing publications that will come out in a few years and then be stuck behind a paywall. That is, after all, how academics often judge the success of their work. But as community organizers and leaders, you don’t benefit from academic articles, so make sure the deliverables from a project are useful to you and your community as well. Can the grant hire someone directly? Can the researchers come back to your organization and explain the findings? Or give a training based on the study’s results? Or present to, for example, a local hospital or public health department to better prioritize your needs? And, remember, the articles will come out either way, so negotiate your role in them as well. Will you be a co-author to publications? Can everyone who was a part of it have access to it? 

  6. Verify that you can be compensated as expected. This is an important one. Many grants, departments, and centers have restrictions on who they can pay and how. Will you be paid through direct deposit? Do you have to have a bank account to be paid? Do you have to have a social security number? Will you have to enroll as a vendor at the university? What information will you be required to share? Don’t hesitate to ask someone from the university to call you and explain specifically what you and your community collaborators will be asked to do to be paid. Often, universities are not aware of the barriers to payment that many community members face, and alerting them to your situation early can save payment delay later. 

Academic collaborations with community organizers and leaders should be fruitful for all involved, even if needs differ. As community organizers and leaders, it is critical to remember that YOU have what researchers need to be successful: deep connections with the community, access to people and places that researchers do not, and a lived experience that those outside of the community do not have.