Flashback – Inspiration Day: Rethinking education and research with and for local communities in Brussels

Written by Brent & Mouna

Ever since the first day of working with the CERL-team, we knew that the Inspiration Day on the 24th of May would be the highlight of our internship. In the weeks leading up to it, we learned that the aim of the event was to reflect on the way  universities interact with society through their research & learning, and how that interaction can be made more meaningful and impactful. People from different universities and networks could inspire and challenge each other to think in different ways during the key note, discussion tables, and workshops.

The event was held in the L-building on the USQuare site. After the opening word from our very own Brecht Van der Schueren, Higher Education Policy Expert Thomas Farnell gave a key note presentation on the topic of ‘Community Engagement in Higher Education: European developments, challenges and possibilities’. What we learned from this presentation is that higher education is becoming increasingly aware of societal challenges, and is taking community engagement a lot more seriously than in the years prior to COVID-19, though there are still some internal and external challenges to face. For example, there is the academic ‘publish or perish’ culture, and the fact that some academic disciplines are harder to find a meaningful connection to community engagement in than in others.

At the end of his keynote, Thomas raised three important questions which lay at the heart of the discussions at the World Café afterwards.

  1. ‘what could be the positive and negative effects of community engagement becoming a prominent feature of university rankings?’
  2. ‘what could ‘more recognition’ look like from the perspective of staff, students and community partners?’
  3. ‘community engagement is often associated to social justice, civic values, etc. What do we think of the more fluid definition which includes “social innovation”, collaboration with business, with local governments…?’

The answers given at the end of the World Café were very interesting and spoke to the imagination. For instance, the conclusion of the first question was that rankings can be seen as an unfavourable idea with certain beneficial consequences. This because, while a ranking system might be beneficial for the funding of community engagement, since CERL initiatives are unique and context specific, it doesn’t make sense to make comparable quantifications.

As the World Café drew to a close, conversations slowly moved from the discussion tables to the lunch tables. Much thanks to KOBA for providing the delicious sandwiches, soup, and salads! It was then finally time for the long-awaited welcoming word of the rector ad interim of the VUB: Jan Danckaert (no technical issues preceded this welcoming word earlier in the day, we promise). Following the video message, the participants were split into two groups, and led to separate rooms to attend different workshops, about the OpenLab and the CIRCLET project.

The OpenLab workshop given by Linde and Etienne explored frustrations, pitfalls and hurdles specific to engaged research and learning. Building on the experience and ambition of the participants, they wondered how the OpenLab could help prevent and/or overcome some of these concerns. At the end of the session, they reflected on the importance of safe uncertainties and vulnerabilities, the tension between inclusion and exclusion, and the importance of creating a ‘holding space’ for developing shared ownership and responsibility.

Brecht and Lien started their workshop by presenting the CIRCLET project: a small interdisciplinary group of VUB researchers and teaching staff that was brought together to strengthen their own community engagement projects. They dedicated 4 half-day sessions during the past academic year, to talk about topics such as the what, why and how of participation, how to build equal and reciprocal partnerships or the benefits of individual and group reflection for authentic learning. During this Inspiration Day, they presented the VUB-specific approach of working with learning communities in the CIRCLET project and discussed with the participants how this approach could be implemented in other universities’ workings.

While the workshops were going on, the room where the opening word had been given was being refurbished to accommodate the Inspiration Market, a place for networking and the exchange of ideas and experiences. In other words, the perfect closer for the Inspiration Day! Many thanks to everyone who hosted a stand at the Market and inspired both us and the other participants with your insights! All in all, it was a very inspirational day that we will be proudly looking back on for many years to come.

A big thanks to everyone who attended, and we hope to see you all at the Brussels2030 Summer Assembly in July! We promise an inspiring week during which we’ll reflect on Brussels’ future through keynotes, discussions, walks, cocreation labs and other activities. This all in an attempt to help Brussels become Cultural Capital of Europe in 2030!