Community Connectors: Charlene Brenner

News — May 10, 2022

Community Connectors: Charlene Brenner

May 2022

Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact.

Charlene Brenner
Program Director
The STEAM Factory

You might say that community engagement is at the heart of everything that I do with STEAM. Every component of my work is centered on relationship and community building, both internally and externally to the university. My community-engaged work spans the gamut, from developing community outreach programs that share the work of Ohio State faculty, staff, and students with the larger Columbus community to sustained and deeper efforts working collaboratively with community partners in developing jointly designed initiatives that address mutually defined needs, interests, and goals marked by integrated community-centered research efforts that center community needs within the research. At STEAM, we are also working to develop community engaged scholarship models that create, support, and sustain integrated community-centered, community-focused scholarship and education within our Ohio State efforts.

No conversation about my community engaged work would be complete without highlighting the importance of our STEAM Factory space, located off-campus in Franklinton among artists, creatives, and neighbors. Over the past 8 years, we have opened our doors to hundreds of community-facing events hosting tens of thousands of participants and attendees (including our longstanding flagship Franklinton Fridays programs). These public events provide important experiential learning opportunities for university faculty and students to effectively communicate their work with a broader public audience while also creating and amplifying public interest, enthusiasm, and engagement for research impacts with a broad range of audiences.

Why is engaging the community important to STEAM and its work?

Ohio State is a land-grant institution. We hear that all the time. But what does that really mean, in practice? For me, it means that I have both a professional responsibility and a moral obligation to do meaningful, substantive work with, for, and including the community. If you think about the biggest challenges facing us, locally and globally, they are complex, persistent, and interrelated problems. Hunger and food accessibility. Health outcomes, impacts and disparities. Sustainable energy and environmental impacts. Just to name a few. We are all impacted by these challenges, sometimes similarly but also differentially based on our relative positionality. These are the complex, wicked problems that require us to lean into our collective knowledge and experience.

One example of the importance of community engagement in research comes vividly to mind. Several years ago, I was talking with a young faculty member about her research and clinical work. At that time, she had been working on developing interventions and protocols for non-verbal clients on the spectrum and their caregivers in addressing daily needs and challenges. She shared that she and her colleagues struggled with the fact that their interventions and protocols were often not widely and fully implemented by their community of clients and caregivers due to very real constraints on time, capacity, and resources. As a result of this challenge, this faculty member and her colleagues developed a research protocol and, working integrally with their clients and caregivers, asked their community what was needed most to benefit their lives daily. What were the pain points, challenges, and support opportunities needed to make the lives of these clients and their caregivers better? Brilliant. Such a simple yet profound approach, one that discovered much more than I might have anticipated. This example shifted my understanding about the importance of centering university research with our work in our many, many communities.

What lessons have you learned from the community that have helped you as a university staff member?

I've learned that community work is essential and really at the heart and core of what we do at Ohio State. Why do we do what we do? What is the impact that we are hoping our work will make in our communities? How do we want to change the world, starting right where we are? I have also learned that approaching your relationship with your community with the same principles that you would approach any relationship that is important to you. Every good relationship is a two-way street. It should benefit all parties. Showing up, again and again, consistently and over time. Learning about what is important to your community. Honoring the knowledge, wisdom, and lived experience within your communities is also essential.

What has been your favorite moment from STEAM's community-engagement work?

I have so many great moments that it's hard to choose a favorite. I love creating events that invite diverse public audiences into the important conversations and work happening across Ohio State from faculty, staff, and students alike. Even though it tends to be dismissed, I strongly believe that public outreach and engagement with university research efforts is an important and essential component of our university community engaged work. It's easy to forget that even with such a large footprint across Columbus, many people have little, or no idea of the work Ohio State does within our communities. Another one of my favorite parts of my community engaged work includes my many conversations with faculty, staff, administrators from across the university, local Franklinton neighbors/residents and Columbus community partners and beyond. I love hearing how excited, and often surprised, both Ohio State and community folks are to see Ohio State active and engaged within the local community. I relish the opportunities to expand and deepen our collective work including research and scholarship addressing complex and emergent local and societal challenges.

What advice do you have for staff and faculty members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement?

My advice mirrors what lessons Ive learned from my community engaged work. Doing community engaged work is powerful! And it takes time to do properly. Plan to be around for the long-haul, show some love, continue to learn about what matters to your neighbors and community. Make friends and get to know the members of the communities in which you are working. Good relationships take time. Give yourself the time to do this work properly. Learn. And keep learning, keep inviting others in, keep showing up for others in the ways that matter to your communities. Ask questions. And keep asking questions about hopes, needs, desires and histories within the communities with which you are engaging. Pay attention and be accountable. Approach your community work with all the kinds of humility - cultural, academic, and social. Finally, find your people across the university who care about and engage in this work. There is an incredible network of community engaged scholars and practitioners here at Ohio State and lots of great resources including STEAM, the Office of Outreach and Engagement, and the Kirwan Center, just to name a few.