Community Connectors: Lisa Durham

Lisa Durham, middle in black, with students at a

Community Connectors: Lisa Durham

May 2021

Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact. Photo: Lisa Durham, middle in black, with students at the 2019 "D.C. Fly-In" event, where students learn about advocating for legislation.

Lisa Durham
Assistant Dean of Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement
College of Social Work

I've been at the College of Social Work for almost 15 years and my work has always involved community engagement. I started out working with our field agencies, at the time more than 600 organizations that serve as internship locations for our students. I so enjoy the community agencies that work to make a difference in the world by helping those most in need, most vulnerable and oppressed. I've transitioned to doing more collaborative work in identifying community needs and working with faculty and staff and other organizations to meet the needs of our communities. I also oversee programs that engage our community, such as Age-Friendly Columbus and Franklin County, our Continuing Education Program, Alumni Relations, and our Advocacy programs. Strategizing to enhance the services and programs we provide is critical to the college's mission. Additionally, I sit on several boards and committees that serve as a feedback loop for the college. I carry the college's messages to the community, and the community messages to the college. I also enjoy assisting with strategic planning of local non-profits, helping them see what is possible.

Why is engaging the community important to you and your work?

Engaging in the community allows me to advocate for the profession of social work and its relevance in helping improve lives and quality of life that many people don't realize. Social workers provide over 70 percent of the mental health services in our country, and we are in hospitals, schools, local, state, and national government, non-profit organizations, banking institutions, the VA, neighborhoods, and many other areas. As part of a land-grant institution, we have a responsibility to be in our community, helping to solve problems, not sitting in the ivory tower. We take that obligation seriously and seek to match our faculty and staff expertise to our communities' needs. It reflects the core values of social work; to serve, to promote social and economic justice and to engage in anti-racist, equitable practice. The college engages in research that will make a difference in the daily lives of individuals and connecting researchers to communities and sharing their work is an important role in community engagement.

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

The community members are the experts. There has been a tension in the past between universities and the communities in which they reside. Too many times researchers want to study a population or a community, but don't get input from those who live there. This is a critical error. Ohio State and the College of Social Work are working hard to not make that mistake. The best way to succeed in helping a community is to listen to their needs and concerns and include them in the entire process. Community-based participatory research is social work research. We must prioritize the experiences of those we are partnering with.

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

For me, I love making connections. From a community organization to a faculty member, or from one non-profit to another. These connections can be formal or informal, and it is mostly about building relationships. I have met so many amazing people and helped make connections, it is not possible to pick one as my favorite. I enjoy hosting world cafes with organizations and strategic planning and helping them dream about what is possible. It is also satisfying to help problem-solve during difficult times.

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

Be curious. When engaging with the community, internal or external to the university, take the time to listen and then ask questions. Don't rush in with answers, but look for opportunities to collaborate and to partner. It may take more time, but it is much more effective. And learn to embrace change. Just when you think you have a good handle on things, funding, programming or leadership changes, and so does your work. That's what makes it fun.