'Community Matters' - engaging local communities in research

Posted in: Civic Engagement

One exciting job I’ve been given since starting in the Public Engagement Unit in October is to organise a mid-point reflection event for the Unit’s Community Matters project. This is an innovative collaboration between researchers in the university, the South West Foundation (an organisation that trains people in local communities to undertake their own research) and 'under the radar’ community groups.

Using a process called community-based participatory research five groups have been formed, each a mixture of community and university researchers. The participants on both sides have received training to help them work together: on the university side there have been sessions on understanding the voluntary sector and effective collaborative behaviours and on the community side there have been more specific sessions on undertaking research. These have been delivered equally by the Public Engagement Unit and the South West Foundation. The groups are currently investigating local issues identified by the community organisations.

As the Unit is pioneering this way of working with external partners, an important aspect of the process is to reflect about where things are going well and where there are stumbling blocks. Last week I met with Dr Leda Blackwood and Jess Johansen from the Department of Psychology. Leda has an interesting and crucial role in the project as she is undertaking an evaluation of the way the process is working. Using interviews, focus groups and observation she has been gathering qualitative data from all participants, which we are now analysing thematically to draw out some initial observations about the various hopes, anxieties and logistics of the process. This will shape a session Leda will give to open the January event.

This week I met with Jan Crawley, Chief Executive of the South West Foundation. We talked about both the excitement and challenges of catering for diverse groups of people, the potential for a wide range of outcomes and the positive impact that creating this mutual partnership is having and might continue to have in the future. We then discussed how we could work together to create an event that would be both productive and fun for all involved.

Given where we are in the process we agreed that shaping the day around ‘looking backwards, looking forwards’ was a good idea. We are therefore co-devising two hands-on sessions: one focused on sharing experience to date and one focused on ‘envisaging outcomes’. In the former we hope to celebrate some of the amazing work that is already being done as well as to foster collective thinking around some of the issues that have arisen – for example around understandings of ‘ownership’ of the research. In the latter we hope to encourage the groups to reflect on who their major audiences are and how their data might be presented differently for different groups. In particular we are keen to stimulate thinking about the use of different media – photos, short films, blogs or websites – as potential outputs.

As a facilitator on this project I feel in the privileged position of getting to see things from many perspectives. If I can contribute to making this way of working something sustainable within the University I will be proud of my time here!

Posted in: Civic Engagement


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