Celebrating 20 years of community engaged research

The Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children Youth and Families, now housed in the School of Public Health, works in partnership with community organizations to identify research problems and solutions that serve the community.

No one knows the issues facing a community more intimately than those experiencing them firsthand. When the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families (CUP) was formed, community organizations wanted more agency in the research process. The old paradigm of being the objects of research was not serving them as they had their own questions to address. Born out of this need and a desire for meaningful relationships between community organizations and university researchers, CUP has been engaging in collaborative research for 20 years. CUP works to create and mobilize evidence to improve practices, programs, and policies, creating real change in the community. 

CUP's partnerships combine invaluable community insight with the rigour of academic research. Our vision is one where communities are engaged in supporting the well-being of children, youth and families with evidence informed policies and practices,” said Karen Edwards, director of CUP. 

With projects addressing areas such as poverty, food insecurity and early childhood development, CUP has tackled broad and complex issues that are important to Edmontonians and Albertans. 

CUP joined the School of Public Health in July of 2020, which marked new opportunities for interdisciplinary research and community-based interventions. 


Built through partnerships 

What makes CUP unique is the level of integration with community organizations. CUP was created not to be “owned” by the University or by partner organizations, but was instead a true partnership between both. This shared leadership approach remains a foundation at CUP where community, university, funding and government partners share their voices, collaborate, and develop projects that support mutually beneficial outcomes.

“Our partners’ common belief, commitment and dedication to using research to support the well-being of children and families led to the creation, and continued success, of CUP,” said Edwards. 

Edwards said the creation of CUP was sparked by a desire for deeper involvement by community groups to be more involved in research. According to Edwards, CUP’s founders recognized that community partners had strong programs but they wanted something more. They wanted to keep up with the literature, they wanted support with evaluation, and they wanted to shape the research agenda in a way that would be useful to the community. Researchers saw the value in community ideas and needs contributing to the university’s research agenda. Eventually these complementary visions became clearer and more closely aligned resulting in the creation of CUP.  

“Since the beginning, our community and university partners have worked together to advance our understanding of the issues impacting children and their families in Edmonton and across the province. We have generated research to inform frontline practices through to public policies,” said Edwards. 


Supporting children, youth, and families

Since 2016, CUP's responsive community-based mandate has focused on research and evaluation in three priority areas: early childhood development, public policy analysis and development, and poverty. 

Since its inception, Early Childhood Development (ECD) has been a foundational aspect of CUP's work driven by the needs of community partners. Community was seeking ECD measurement tools to best assess children’s development and provide responsive support for children and families. Over the years, collaborative projects have addressed the need for culturally relevant understanding of ECD, mapping early child development and child-related resources across the province, and supporting evaluation in the ECD sector. In more recent years, high-quality, affordable, and accessible early learning and care, especially for the most vulnerable, has been an ongoing focus of CUP projects.

CUP’s expertise is grounded in community-based participatory research (CBPR). Early in CUP’s development, the Steering Committee identified the need to enhance the university community’s understanding of CBPR as an important area of investment. In response, CUP would make significant investments into capacity building for the university and community alike. CUP developed and offered specific opportunities like the CBPR and evaluation workshop series and embedded capacity building in all projects. CUP also developed a collaboration with the Women and Children's Health Research Institute to support medical researchers with CBPR and qualitative research methods.

According to Edwards, poverty-related research at CUP began through relationships with partners who were seeking evidence to better understand the needs of the most vulnerable in the city and ways to best provide support and services. CUP was founded with a recognition of the value that community-based participatory research (CBPR) could bring in addressing systemic issues, including poverty. The Families First Edmonton (FFE) project was the beginning of CUP’s poverty work. The evidence generated from FFE supported city-wide dialogue which bolstered the evolution of poverty work in Edmonton across several sectors.

Informing policy has always been a desired outcome for CUP’s research partnerships, asserts Edwards. CBPR methods naturally facilitate this process as CUP works with partners that can use research findings in their everyday practice and programs. 

Evolving community needs will inevitably influence CUP’s priorities going forward. What will remain unchanged are the underlying values of community based participatory research: trust, collaboration, a willingness to try (and fail), and embracing the complexity of social issues.” said Edwards. 


Funding for CUP is supported by United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, Edmonton Community Foundation, Edmonton Public School Board, Edmonton Catholic School Division, City of Edmonton, Muttart Foundation and Anonymous Donor. Learn more about CUP’s founding, achievements and research excellence in their 2020 Annual Report.

The photo was taken in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines were implemented. 


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Karen Edwards
Director of Community-University Partnership