Community-engaged research is understood as existing on a continuum from less to more community engagement, defined by participation and decision-making authority. It has been widely assumed that more is better than less engagement. However, we argue that what makes for good community engagement is not simply the extent but the fit or alignment between the intended approach and the various contexts shaping the research projects. This article draws on case studies from three Community Engagement Cores (CECs) of NIEHS-funded Environmental Health Science Core Centers (Harvard University, UC Davis and University of Arizona,) to illustrate the ways in which community engagement approaches have been fit to different contexts and the successes and challenges experienced in each case. We analyze the processes through which the CECs work with researchers and community leaders to develop place-based community engagement approaches and find that different strategies are called for to fit distinct contexts. We find that alignment of the scale and scope of the environmental health issue and related research project, the capacities and resources of the researchers and community leaders, and the influences of the sociopolitical environment are critical for understanding and designing effective and equitable engagement approaches. These cases demonstrate that the types and degrees of alignment in community-engaged research projects are dynamic and evolve over time. Based on this analysis, we recommend that CBPR scholars and practitioners select a range of project planning and management techniques for designing and implementing their collaborative research approaches and both expect and allow for the dynamic and changing nature of alignment.
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