Interview with Brianna Wilson and Sonia Zawitkowski, winners of the SciShops Pitch Challenge

University of Guelph students and winners of the SciShops Pitch Symposium, Brianna Wilson and Sonia Zawitkowski, talking about their community-research project at the SciShops Symposium. Photo: Liselotte Rambonnet

In the autumn of 2019, the Horizon 2020 SciShops project ran a video competition, the SciShops Pitch Challenge, in which participants were invited to present a community-based research project that they are undertaking in a short video. The competition was won by psychology students, Brianna Wilson and Sonia Zawitkowski from the University of Guelph in Canada. Their project was conducted via the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, a Science Shop based within the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute at the University. 

As winners of the competition, Brianna and Sonia were invited to present their community research project and video at the SciShops Symposium held in Italy from 30-31 January. Here we talk to them about their project and experiences.


Q: Firstly, tell us a bit about the community-research project that you undertook. 

As a community mobilizer and coordinator, the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (WomanACT) had heard from women and service providers that financial abuse as a form of intimate partner violence was prevalent. However, they noticed there was very little research about it, and therefore little awareness and a lack of services to address it. Therefore, the main goal of the project was to improve the prevention of and response to financial abuse in the Toronto area. To achieve this goal, we aimed to increase the understanding of women’s diverse experiences of financial abuse and build the capacity of community services through awareness and education. After several discussions, the research team decided that the best way to investigate this topic was to do focus groups with service providers (to gain insight into city-wide trends, policy, and service provision) and in-depth interviews with women survivors (to get the perspectives of the women experiencing it and a sense of its trajectory).


Q: Did you encounter any challenges while undertaking the project? 

We learned quickly that doing community-based research means you have to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the community you are working with. One of the main challenges we faced was in recruitment of participants. Specifically, we had a lot of interest from women at a large shelter in Toronto, but because most did not have access to phones or e-mail, and scheduling appointments did not work well for them, we had to update our recruitment strategies to accommodate them. We also had a tight deadline in order to meet the requirements of the funder (the City of Toronto), but with the help of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute and WomanACT’s strong relationship with the community, we were able to progress through our timeline rather swiftly. Finally, identifying actionable paths forward was quite difficult given the broad nature of our research questions and the fact that this study was the first of its kind in the area. Thankfully, the service providers we spoke to were very knowledgeable about the existing resource landscape for financial abuse survivors and this helped us narrow down potential avenues forward.


Q: How did the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute support you during the project? 

The Community Engaged Scholarship Institute was invaluable when it came to ensuring that every stakeholder (the participants, the researchers, and the community partner) was well represented and meeting their goals through the project. They also made sure that we, as students, were learning from this experience and were not pushed beyond our capacity. Moreover, the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute staff also encouraged us to do a presentation with community members to promote the research and ensure that our findings accurately represented their experiences. Lastly, because of their extensive experience with community-based research, the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute continuously helped us to align the project with best practices in the community and were a source of knowledge throughout the process. This kept us on track to meet our deadlines and allowed us to provide the highest quality research.


Q: How did you disseminate the results of the project and has it had any impact? 

Shortly after analysis was complete, and with the help and encouragement of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, we did a presentation with community members where we put forth our findings and got feedback to confirm that they were in line with their experiences and expectations. The research team then proceeded to publish a report containing the key findings and recommendations, and circulated it to begin a wider conversation. Fortunately, the report received some press coverage and WomanACT noticed a significant increase in calls from women who identified with the stories reported. We believe this is a good initial indication that our results are resonating with women. Additionally, one of our key recommendations was the development of gender- and trauma- informed approaches to attach to existing financial empowerment workshops, and those are currently underway. We believe that we are making excellent progress considering we only published our report in fall 2019! 

Lastly, the feedback from participants themselves after the interviews was highly positive, particularly surrounding the impact of being able to share their stories. During the focus groups with service providers, they also said that they were thankful for the opportunity to share resources, stories, and knowledge with one another in order to tackle this issue.


Q: How difficult was it to put together the video? 

We anticipated that the most difficult aspect of making the video would be expressing everything important about the project in three minutes because the process and data were so complex — qualitative research rarely yields easy answers! With this in mind, we approached the video similarly to how we did the project — we went back to the community and got their input! We let participants guide the story, and we think that’s why it turned out so great! It was very difficult to cut down all of the amazing footage we got interviewing community members and participants, and to decide on just one sentence per interview to convey the story we were trying to tell, but by continuing to refer back to the purpose of the video (to explain the importance of community-based research), we were able to accomplish this.


Q: Your prize was a funded trip to attend the SciShops Symposium in Italy. Tell us about your experience at the Symposium. 

Networking with such a diverse group of people who recognize the importance of community research was truly wonderful and motivated us to continue to prioritize this form of research and collaborate with others on their community-engaged projects. We also learned a lot about the challenges that other science shops face, which made us feel extremely grateful for the established presence of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute in Guelph, while also recognizing that there is a lot of work to be done in promoting these organizations worldwide. Finally, we learned about different technical approaches and strategies to performing community-engaged research, such as Citizen Science, different tech platforms like Mentimeter and Zooniverse, and how to preserve community partnerships. Ultimately, the potential for future collaborations with other attendees and hearing the experiences of fellow community researchers was our favourite part!


 Further information: 

Watch the winning video as well as those of the finalists. 

Read more about the winning video

A case study undertaken by the SciShops project on the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute at the University of Guelph