Using a participatory arts approach, we went out and listened to our local communities to help us better understand their needs and to develop our knowledge of how we can better support them to engage us.
How we listened
At the Public Engagement Unit, through our everyday informal conversations with community partners, we’re always mindful of their experiences of the University. However, with the community listening strand of the ParticipatoryResearch@Bath project, we wanted to try something a little different and used a participatory arts approach.
Working with our Community Listeners, visual and social artist Meghan Clark-Bagnall and community engagement professional Jasmine Loveys, we went out into various settings across the region with a programme of arts-based activities. We involved different types of community-based organisations and public group such as Bath City Farm, Bath Mind, Rose Cottage Community Hub, Bath Mind, Midsomer Norton Community Trust, Keynsham Town Council and Trowbridge Town Hall and others.
We wanted to host, meet and listen to people and community groups. We made terrariums, and flags, hosted lunches and met for coffee and cake, and while doing so, listened to people’s experiences, ideas, and thoughts about the University.
Views of the University
One of the key messages we heard loud and clear, was how our local communities see the University through a narrow window of their own experiences - living next door to a student or attending a public lecture - and that there is very little individual or collective understanding of research.
What research is, how it’s funded, who does it, who benefits from it, and who regulates it are largely invisible.
Experiences of research
People who had the experience of participating in research were more than willing to share their experiences. They mentioned how projects there often too time-limited or had short-term time frames accompanied by a lack of flexibility that didn’t consider people’s actual real lives. This compounded the feeling people had those projects were too often extractive and transactional in their nature. Some of the most positive experiences of participation shared were those where people felt researchers took the time to develop relationships with them that felt authentic and meaningful. However, in a couple of instances, it was highlighted that the projects were often carried by individual researchers in isolation which seemed to put pressure on them and, despite their best efforts, put pressure on their relationships. Some of these experiences were captured by illustrator Sam Churchill
Building better relationships
Through these exercises and our own everyday informal conversations, people have told us about what they want from the University:
- Clear ‘front door’ with a person welcoming them in
- Opportunities to build a relationship rather than doing projects
- The University being present and being seen to get involved with what’s happening in a community
- Access to knowledge that is held by the University and that knowledge isn’t just knowledge derived from research
As part of their Community Listening work Meghan and Jasmine also asked the question “how can we grow stronger relationships between the University of Bath and the local community?”. This film is their report:
Their findings can be distilled into three elements that make a successful participatory research project.
- Embed – embedding collaboration with communities and understanding their needs right from the conception of a project to the end.
- Value and Support – understanding what the value is for both communities and researchers working together and how is the relationship is structured within a project.
- More Chats – building a relational approach to developing relationships with communities outside the University.
These findings and reflections will be invaluable insight for us as we plan the next phase of the ParticipatoryResearch@Bath project.
Dean Veall is Deputy Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath.