Engaged Scholars: Dawn Anderson-Butcher
Engaged Scholars is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State faculty who have made an impact in our communities through their community-engaged research and teaching. This is the first edition of Engaged Scholars. Note: the above photo is from the 2019 LiFEsports camp.
Professor, College of Social Work
Executive Director of Teaching/Research, OSU LiFEsports
My scholarship explores positive youth development in different social settings, including schools, afterschool programs, and youth sport. Questions specifically focus on investigating what program mechanisms contribute to positive outcomes, particularly for youth coming from socially vulnerable circumstances. Secondary interests involve examining school-family-community partnerships designed to maximize community- and school-based resources for learning and development.
My research is designed to develop and test innovative design strategies that address real social problems. One key area of my scholarship focuses on sport-based positive youth development. Over multiple years our team has developed and tested the LiFEsports model, exploring for whom and how the program works for youth involved. Each year this intervention reaches over 600 youth in Central Ohio, teaching leadership and life skills through sport. Our community-engaged scholarship at LiFEsports has been highlighted in the recent National Youth Sport Strategy in the United States, and is used to inform practice in sport-based positive youth development across the world.
I also lead efforts within the Community and Youth Collaborative Institute at Ohio State. In this capacity we partner with school districts across the country and their community partners (i.e., local governments, United Way, community mental health, etc.) to improve student- and school-level outcomes. This scholarship has demonstrated significant improvements in school climate, student behaviors, academic achievement, service integration, and resource maximization. School communities in Ohio and across the country (New York, Utah) use elements of this work to get to better outcomes for youth.
Why is it important to engage the community in your research and teaching?
Community engagement in my research helps ensure my scholarship is applicable to real-life practice, that evidence-based strategies developed in our intervention research actually can be implemented with fidelity and make a difference in practice. Examples from the community then, in turn, are used to teach evidence-based practices in the classroom. In other words, case examples are used to demonstrate how theory informs practice, or how evidence-based practices can be modified to better meet the needs of the community or a particular subgroup of the population. Leaders in the community often participate with us in our research designs, helping to inform research questions and methods. The research is more relevant because of their co-ownership and input.
What led you to the path of engaged scholarship? How did you get started?
One of my mentors taught me how academicians have a moral responsibility to promote social good. He taught me about academically-based community scholarship, and engaged me in multiple research projects based in the community focused on systems change in child-serving organizations. It was through these experiences I began to realize how my research could inform practice and policy. Since then I have always strived to integrate my teaching, research, and service/outreach together, ensuring they inform and benefit from each other. That way Im developing knowledge that makes a difference to the community, using that knowledge to improve systems and practices, and then sharing evidence-based practices developed and tested in the field to teach students and others. As I teach and build capacity of others working in the field based on our work, they in turn take what they learned in the classroom to foster better outcomes through their practice.
How has your scholarship benefited from engaging with community partners?
I regularly engage with community partners who serve in multiple roles. Examples include partners how are elected officials, top level administrators in non-profit organizations, foundation leads, school and district leaders, business leaders, mental health/health practitioners, parents/caregivers, youth, and others. Through my interaction with individuals from varying backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, I learn different perspectives about what works, why, and what are the barriers in real life practice. By engaging with partners, our team is able to better design research that has utility in the real world (not in a laboratory, but in real-life settings where real kids are). Then ultimately findings from our studies can be used readily in practice as they have ecological validity and applicability.
What has been a highlight of your community engagement experience?
I have been doing this work for quite some time. I am always so honored when I see past students who have been involved in our engaged community scholarship continue to participate in engaged community scholarship. It could be the doctoral student who is now a professor at a Research 1 institution who has her own engaged scholarship agenda, a VP at an international youth serving organization who is leading research/evaluation efforts designed to continuously improve their programs and practices, or a social worker or sport coach who listens to youth and the community when designing and implementing programs and evidence-based practices. Knowing that in some way their involvement in engaged community scholarship at Ohio State has impacted how they do their work makes me so proud. Their work is strengthened as they take the principles and practices with them into their own work as professionals serving children and youth.
What advice would you give to faculty and students who are interested in engaging the community in their scholarship?
I have learned so much over the course of my career from leaders in the community, whether it be the young people involved in LiFEsports, parents of youth in our programs, principals and district administrators at partner schools, administrators in local and state government, foundations heads, etc. All of these stakeholders have expertise that they have shared with me and our team, which in turn has allowed us to better design strategies, interventions, programs, and systems that meet real needs in the communityand ones that are feasible and can truly be implemented in the community context. This work has been some of my most rewarding. Knock on doors, go where the community is, build relationships and friendships, ask how you can help with a gap or need, listen, bring resources, be humble, and show up. Engaging the community in scholarship takes time and energy, but it is super rewarding and some of the most fun work Ive ever been involved in across my career. It also has been the most impactful in relation to supporting children and youth and their overall development.