“My student experience has just completely exploded into opportunity.”
Amanda Cowan, a second-year Social Service Worker (SSWK) student at Durham College (DC), can barely contain her excitement. She’s describing how she took her classroom learning into the community while participating in a recent “Day of Action” focused on developing solutions for local winter homelessness.
On June 21, Cowan joined a group of approximately 60 like-minded individuals from Durham Region service agencies, including the John Howard Society, the HOPE Coalition and other advocacy groups, and the greater unsheltered community for a brainstorming and planning session. The event was co-facilitated by Durham Mental Health Services, under the leadership of regional housing coordinator Doreen Hume McKenna, and hosted by the New Life Neighbourhood Centre in Oshawa.
The opportunity to take part and gain valuable real-world experience in her chosen field came to Cowan through an earlier event held as part of an ongoing partnership between the Regional Municipality of Durham, Social Services Department, and DC.
The two-day living lab, Co-production: Climbing the ladder of participation in public service delivery, focused on a new vision of public service, which involves an equal and reciprocal approach between service providers and people using public services. Funded by the DC International Research Fund, the event featured Dr. Stuart Muirhead, an international expert on co-production, from The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services in Scotland.
“When my professor, Randy Uyenaka, put out the call for volunteers for the co-production event, I jumped at the opportunity,” recalls Cowan. “It sounded like a great opportunity to sit in a room with a bunch of people all thinking the same way about important issues.”
Her instincts paid off when being in the room for the co-production event and participating in a breakout session evolved into new opportunities. Along with eight other attendees, Cowan broke off from the co-production event to form a working group that would look at how the co-production model could be used to tackle homelessness in the region.
“The working group put out the invite to other community members and groups and the Day of Action on winter homelessness quickly started to take shape,” says Cowan. Participants were offered an honourarium and fed for the day, and together they generated an incredible amount of information.
“We identified problems first, then looked for solutions with an understanding that everything was on the table and there were no bad ideas.”
Cowan says the group is now moving into the action-potential stage.
“At the end of the day, there was the ability for people to continue to work towards the solutions that will affect them. Sign-up lists were circulated and people put their names down. Next, once they have their action articulated and approved, everyone will come back to unpack the solutions together. I’m helping to actually put co-production into action – while I’m still a student – by not doing to but doing with. We’re not downloading solutions to the unsheltered community, we’re creating solutions together.”
The project is particularly poignant for Cowan, who is bringing the lens of her own lived experience to bear on her studies as a mature student.
“I am so blessed and thankful to be a part of this fantastic project,” she shares. “These learning experiences are embodying all of the things I dreamed I’d be able to be involved in when I decided to go back to school. I see my work with the co-production model in particular to be the perfect pairing for my professional identity and my lived experience. Through this project I’ve been able to sort out and fuse these two worlds. This was a special interest project for me and it has brought me more learning than I could ever have imagined.”
The success of the co-production event and its impact on students like Cowan are points of pride for Dr. Darren Levine as well. As the manager of Research and Innovation with the Regional Municipality of Durham, Dr. Levine recognizes the value of engaging the students who will form the next generation of social service workers and community leaders.
“The collaborative co-production project is one of many successful partnerships between our Innovation and Research Unit and Durham College’s Office of Research Services, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship [ORSIE],” says Levine. “Students were an integral part of the project, working not only to help coordinate the event, but also working in equal partnership with service providers, faculty, and community service providers throughout to co-create new insights and applications of co-production in social service delivery.”
The co-production event also reinforced the value and impact of participating in applied research for DC students.
“Students thrive when they are given an opportunity to learn through experience and contribute solutions to real-world problems in collaboration with community partners,” says ORSIE dean Debbie McKee Demczyk. “The skills and approaches students learn through applied research are ones that they can continue to draw on throughout their careers.”
For Cowan, participating in both co-production events has had a dramatic impact on her career outlook.
“The energy and focus in those rooms were kind of magical,” she says. “Participating in these events has really opened up my professional world. It’s expanded my view of the kind of work I’m interested in pursuing and helped me develop a huge professional network very quickly.”
It’s this connection between classroom and community that means the most to Cowan as she continues moving towards her career goals.