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Community-Based Workers: A Practitioner-Researcher’s Agenda

By Angela M. Contreras


Community workers are those who provide direct or indirect services to or for the benefit of members of vulnerable communities. Some are paid, some are unpaid. Some are full-time employees, others are part-timers. Some occupy permanent positions, others are short-term contract employees. Some are men, most are women. I also consider necessary to add that community workers are situated at the frontlines of Canada’s efforts to meet its goals for social and economic development.

In my Ph.D. research, I am examining the learning needs and resources of community-based workers, which is a broad community of practice I have been part of for two decades.  In this article, I will briefly share my reflections on the descriptive terms knowledge brokering and bridging, found during my preliminary review of contemporary literature and theoretical concepts on the community work practitioners in Canada.

One of the first things I noticed at the earlier stages of my study is the lack of consensus on what constitutes the ideal skill-set of a frontline worker. Conceptual diversity is expected given frontline workers serve diverse communities, each with unique and multiple needs; the range of industries in which the career of community workers exist is also wide and diverse. However, one concept particularly resonating with my research is that where community-based workers, employed by social purpose organizations, particularly those funded by the state, act? as “knowledge brokers”. The concept of knowledge brokering is widely used in healthcare sciences to describe a community-based approach to facilitate the transfer and exchange of knowledge regarding health-oriented information between people from vulnerable communities, the scientific community, and the public health system (Graham and Logan, 2004; Conklin et al., 2013). For my research, I found the “scientific” orientation of the concept of knowledge brokering needing to be tackled from a critical educational cultural perspective, where I could explore the diversity of knowledge production and exchange, as well as the training and educational needs and resources of community workers.  Furthermore., a critical perspective on knowledge brokering is advantageous to? position these workers as active agents on the production and reproduction of knowledge and the implementation of public policies and programs for social development.

At earlier stages of my research, I realized the literature on the issue tended to focus on the regularization of the knowledge of community-based legal support workers, but little research had been done on the impact the knowledge and cultural background of these workers has on them and on their practices.  In the fields of cultural anthropology and international development studies (for example, see the works of Clifford Geertz, 1960; Lila Abu-Lughod, 1991; and Eric Wolf, 1956, 1999) a critical lens helps practitioner-researchers seeking to design research methodologies and epistemological approaches to explore positionality, which is the notion that the personal and the structural coexist in a symbiotic relation, and that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world (Hill Collins, 1999). In addition to positionality in practitioner-research, other central themes in my study are

power dynamics, conflicts of interests, and tensions between the subjectivities of those who are “in-between” the different economic and cultural worlds — highly relevant to developing pedagogies and curricula for educational and training programs for community-based workers.  A demonstration of a critical lens applied to the study of knowledge brokering is found in the work of Miklavcic and LeBlanc (2013) with health care community workers. At the end of their study, they learned that “[t]he ability to navigate between different cultural worldviews and social environments provides the culture broker with the possibility to acknowledge different perspectives and to adopt diverging, at times contradictory, behaviors, allowing for the creation of spaces for negotiation between them. Innovations come about through the culture broker’s attempts to bridge perspectives by circumventing sociocultural expectations and creating new possible ways of doing things” (pp. 116-117).

The descriptive term “bridge” is among the many terms found in the literature on the role of community workers in the provision of social and community services. I found the term compatible with the notion of knowledge brokering.  Through their practice and by their own position in the direct support services sector, community workers are bridges connecting vulnerable people with public programs and services that may help them meet their social, health, legal and other needs.

Using my critical conceptual approach, I have learned to see in a new light the complexity of the roles of community workers in two programs in which I have been professionally involved.

The first example is the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) and the Public Legal Advocacy program at the Migrant Workers Centre.  HIPPY is an evidence-based program that works with families in the home to support the parents, primarily mothers, in their critical role as their child’s first and most important teacher (Mothers Matter Centre, 2017, p.2). HIPPY’s Home Visitors Program relies on trained community workers to bridge mothers who may be hard to reach due to social isolation, poverty, language, or other cultural issues, to a school-ready program for their children.

The second example is the Public Legal Advocacy programs in British Columbia, where community-based legal clinics employ lay people (people without a law school degree) as frontline workers to help migrant workers employed at low-wage occupations, such as caregivers and seasonal agriculture workers, to complete legal forms they need to access the legal and justice system. Public legal advocates also engage in both outreach (visits to communities) and public education and information activities where they teach people from vulnerable communities about the legal system and people’s legal rights.

In bridging people from marginalized communities to the knowledge of health, legal, education, and other systems, community workers are expected to demonstrate proficiency on these systems. On the other hand, in both examples, frontline workers, particularly those serving immigrants and Aboriginal communities, also need to possess certain “soft skills” and competencies that can enable them to work in ways appropriate to the culture, language, and history of the people they serve. As Habacon & Woronko (2017) and Denomme & Woronko (2015) remind us, “soft skills” are defined in relation to a given geographic, cultural, and economic context. Some skills, like the ability to communicate in a second language, are essential in industries that serve newcomers and refugees. On the other hand, the work by Collins, Arthur, et al., (2014) demonstrates how the “soft skills” and competences of community-based workers may be assessed against principles of multiculturalism and social justice.

In the upcoming stages of my study, I will explore further the theme of skill-sets and competences of community workers. Two inter-connected areas I will be working on are teaching and learning opportunities for community workers, and the labour market for trained community workers.



Collins, Sandra; Arthur, Nancy, MacMahon, Mary, and Bisson, Susi. (2014). Development of the multiculturalism and social justice competencies (MCSJC) scale for career development practitioners. The Canadian Journal of Career Development. 13(1). Pp. 17-30.

Conklin, James; Lusk, Elizabeth; Harris, Meghan; and Stolee, Paul. (2013). Knowledge brokers in a knowledge network: the case of Seniors Health Research Transfer Network knowledge brokers. Implementation science. Retrieved from   Last accessed March 13, 2018.

Denomme, Susan, and Woronko, Susan Liu (2015). “Canadian experience means soft skills”. October 23, 2015. Retrieved from

Graham, Ian D. and Logan, Jo. (2004). Innovations in knowledge transfer and continuity of care. The Canadian Journal of Nursing Research. Child Development, 51 (4), Pp. 993-1009.

Habacon, Alden E., and Woronko, Susan L. (2017). “Cultural differences and transferrable soft skills: How newcomers can better integrate into the Canadian workplace.” October 30, 2017. Retrieved from

Hill Collins, Patricia. (2009). Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge Classics.

Miklavcic, Alessandra and LeBlanc, Marie Nathalie. (2013). Culture Brokers: Clinically applied ethnography and models of cultural Mediation in clinical settings” in Laurence J. Kirmayer, Cécile Rousseau and Jaswant Guzder (eds.), Encountering the Other: The Practice of Cultural Consultation. New York, NY: Springer SBM. Pp. 115-138.

Mothers Matter Centre. (2017). Performance Management Results 2016-2017. 38 pp. Vancouver, BC: Published by Mothers Matter Centre.




Angela M. Contreras has a background in human rights, legal studies, transnational issues and adult education. Prior to becoming an independent management and evaluation consultant for non-profit organizations, she provided frontline work and researcher services at non-profit organizations that serve low-income immigrants and survivors of violence in Canada. Angela is on the Education & Training Granting Committee of the Vancouver Foundation, and a volunteer with PovNet Society which is an online community of anti-poverty legal advocates. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia where she is conducting a case study on the public legal services industry.

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Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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