Supporting community-engaged practitioners during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Lisa Smith
March 4, 2022
Three puzzle pieces that read, Connection and Care, Accessibility and Community Dynamics.
Image credit: Vela Alarcón, Andrea and the Community Engagement in COVID-19 study team. (2021). Pedagogical Considerations, Practices and Strategies. Beyond the Toolkit.

On January 13, researchers Sarah Switzer, Andrea Vela-Alarcón, and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández shared how they developed Beyond the Toolkit, a suite of open-access online resources for community-engaged researchers and practitioners during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was funded through Switzer’s SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship held at OISE, and supervised by Professor Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández.

“There are a lot of resources out there on doing community-engaged work, but not many opportunities for communities to share their needs and best practices” said Gaztambide-Fernández. After balancing immediate community needs, community-engaged practitioners often lack the time and resources to reflect and share best practices, especially when faced with additional stressors during the pandemic, including the need to shift to online and remote forms of engagement.

The research team stepped in with the goal of providing spaces for co-learning as well as practical support materials. They recruited study participants working in diverse areas, including the arts, social services, health services, academia, political organizations, centres for immigrants, and youth. Next, they held interactive focus group workshops  based on practitioner type, including community facilitators, participatory visual methods researchers, participatory researchers, and community artists. They asked participants to identify and reflect on their ethical commitments and goals during the pandemic. 

The primary focus on community needs was the real impetus behind this work, and  participants were consulted at each step. “It was a balancing act to do participatory work in a pandemic given shifting capacity levels while also making sure that folks have input and feel ownership over the process,” Sarah Switzer said. The common goals that emerged during conversations include developing and maintaining caring relationships, addressing power dynamics, and promoting equitable access when gathering online.

Shifting online requires pedagogical strategies to implement these goals in a new context. It cannot be assumed, for example, that community members have access to a safe, confidential space in which they can participate fully and openly. 

The team also conducted a number of knowledge translation and mobilization activities, including an online panel discussion and an interactive launch event that was open to students and practitioners around the world. They also brought practitioners into classrooms to conduct training on community-engaged facilitation and translated their findings into accesible one minute videos.

Their presentation to the OISE community highlighted colourful and thought-provoking images created by lead illustrator Andrea Vela Alarcón for the Beyond the Toolkit website. “Images have affective resonances,” Vela Alarcón said. “An image that resonates with one person may have a different resonance with another.” The images invite the viewer to reflect on their own experience and inspire new conversations that continue the work. 

Session attendee Lara Cartmale, OISE’s Director, Research and International Initiatives commented: “I love how the art takes difficult concepts and experiences and, with colour and movement, opens the discussion into something communal and shared.”

The team continues the work of community engagement and knowledge mobilization at the heart of their research. Next steps include additional presentations, cowriting publications with academic and community partners, and building a national network of community-engaged facilitators in the future.


Sarah Switzer is a former SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at OISE (2019-2021). She is currently a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Community-Based Research. She is an adult educator, interdisciplinary scholar, and community-based participatory researcher.

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández is Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, member of Comparative, International and Development Education Centre (CIDEC), Senior Fellow at Massey College, Editor-in-Chief of Curriculum Inquiry, and Director of the Youth Research Lab at the Centre for Urban Schooling (CUS).

Andrea Vela-Alarcón is an educator, illustrator, and artist. A former graduate student at OISE, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Communications and New Media at McMaster University.

This project was conducted collaboratively with a much larger team of community-based and academic practitioners internal and external to the University of Toronto, including:

  • Angie Aranda, Neighbourhood Arts Network
  • Eva Hellreich, Neighbourhood Arts Network
  • Casey Burkholder, Education, University of New Brunswick
  • Heather Hermant, Centre for Community Partnerships, University of Toronto
  • Erin Howley, Independent Community-Engaged Practitioner
  • Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco, Dalla School of Public Health, University of Toronto
  • June Larkin, Women and Gender Studies, University of Toronto
  • Naima Raza, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Funding for Beyond the Toolkit was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities and Research Council (SSHRC). The University of Toronto New College Initiatives Fund and the Centre for Community Partnerships sponsored events that brought research participants together for conversation around community-engaged facilitation. 

Image credit: Vela Alarcón, Andrea and the Community Engagement in COVID-19 study team. (2021). Pedagogical Considerations, Practices and Strategies. Beyond the ToolkitLicence to use.

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