Of the seven projects developed through the Productive Margin’s research forum, three worked closely with and trained community researchers. Community researchers were generally individuals and group-members associated with one of the programme’s organisational partners. Most community researchers were directly recruited for involvement in projects as either participants, researchers or volunteers by representatives from the community organisation or academic researchers working within an organisation. Community researchers undertook research training, conducted fieldwork and analysis, in many cases co-designing and co-writing outputs, activities and leading follow-on initiatives.
Overview: The Role of Community Researchers within Projects
Alonely Project with Southville Community Development Association: 8 people aged 60+ were recruited to explore loneliness in the local community and consider possible solutions.
- Training: Training took an asset-based approach and drew on the skills of those involved in the project. A series of 3 hour sessions once a week over 6 weeks covered research ethics, interview schedules, interviewing and analysis. Training related very specifically to the tasks the group planned to carry out.
- Research Activity and Output: The group ran engagement events, conducted interviews and focus groups. They used this fieldwork to co-write a series of monologues which were performed in a local theatre at events across the city with the aim of starting a conversation about loneliness and starting to consider solutions.
- Reflections on Training: The community researchers felt that the role of training in this context was to prepare them to do a specific task: “The training has definitely taken me from here to there…..it has moved me from one place to another.”
Food Project with Single Parent Action Network: 12 women of predominantly Somali background were engaged to explore how people in the local community negotiate and make decisions about food in their everyday lives. The project wanted to probe into what factors were influencing and regulating food decisions in the locality with the possibility for developing community-led action in relation to accessing affordable, nutritious food in the area.
- Training: Training took an asset-based approach, emphasising the local knowledge and community expertise of those involved. Weekly three hour ‘workshops’ were held for ten weeks. Each workshop was followed by a shared lunch, informal Q and A and conversation space to reflect on and develop the workshop content. Variable literacy and language skills across the group demanded a translator from within the organisation embedded within each session. Training delivery did not rely on the written word. Workshops were focused on the tasks the group were to be involved in and included: research ethics, how to formulate and ask research questions, planning a peer-interview, peer-interviewing for research, participatory mapping and localised campaigning.
- Research Activity and Output: The group mapped the local area for fast food take-aways and, through comparison with other local wards were able to demonstrate a disproportionate prevalence in the local area. They met with local councillors to discuss ways to curb this excessive exposure to unhealthy food, guest appeared on a local radio station to raise awareness of the issue and are in the process of setting up a spin off social-enterprise focused on healthy take-away alternatives called Somali Kitchen. Peer-interviewing turned out to be a problematic research activity. There had been high interest and enthusiasm in interview training workshops but, when it came to actually doing the interviews in pairs, nobody wanted to do them. Reluctance stemmed from previous experiences and associations of what interviews were for – people shared how they felt like they were being interviewed by the Home Office, Social Services or the Police.
- Reflections on Training: The group’s keenness for new knowledge and skills through training meant that the issue with the actual practise of interviewing and its negative connotations didn’t become apparent until we were actually engaged in the activity. For community researchers the training had functioned as part of a process of empowerment for community activism and economic independence: “this is the start of something powerful. We’ve been wanting to change things in our community, and I think this is the start of that.”…“that’s a really empowering thing… A business…the pop-up…I think if we can have the training first. Understand more”. Individual reflections on the training were largely about confidence: “I’ve valued myself more”, “I feel more confident sharing my experience” and requests for “more training and practical skills”.
Life Chances Project with South Riverside Community Development Association and Single Parent Action Network: 12 people were recruited across the two organisational sites (Bristol and Cardiff) to take part in an experimental arts-based research project. The project’s broad aims were to; challenge how regulatory systems frame and manage people’s lives, and simultaneously re-imagine what a welfare state might be like if children and families were at the centre of decisions. The project’s research activities were focused on co-writing a work of sociological fiction, making jewellery and setting up a jewellery co-op.
- Training: Training had been embedded in the project from conception largely because both organisations had wider work-packages delivering community-based education and upskilling through training. 22 full and half-day workshops were held across the two sites with training designed to sit alongside the art-based activities. Training focused on: ethics, critical analysis, interpreting data, research reporting and group dynamics/communication/facilitation in participatory research. In practise it became clear very quickly that the research volunteer’s writing of fictional characters based on their non-fictional experiences was an emotionally intense process which required a deeply supportive facilitative environment: “I see it like a therapy …it’s kind of like…person centred counselling you allow the person to speak what’s in their heart or whatever.”… “Sharing experience…more support…when any person talking about their experience”. The training became an inappropriate addition that interfered with the experienced-based nature of the project’s activities. The exception to this was a two day campaigns and media training add-on which was organised in response to community researchers questions about how to make change happen and get their research ‘out there’ and, a training session with the University of Bristol’s English and Community Engagement part-time BA programme which used the project’s co-written novel and wider world literature sources to introduce literary analysis techniques.
- Research Activity and Output: Alongside co-writing a work of sociological fiction, making jewellery and setting up a jewellery co-op the project also devised a ‘Game of Life Chances’ activity which can be played by 6 or 7 players and is considered a ‘performance’ by the artists. Two of the volunteer researchers from the project have subsequently set up a CIC called ‘Creating Life Chances’.
- Reflections on Training: Sessional feedback demonstrated that ‘learning about research’, ‘learning something new’ and ‘improving job prospects’ remained a high priority for the entire duration of workshops for nearly all research volunteers. Most reported that, through their participation, they had felt they had learning about: “The whole process of co-production.” and/or “meaningful research.” However, there was clearly a desire; from some, for a more explicit training package: “the people should train [minority-ethnic group] and [same minority-ethnic group] should probably tell us about [the problems they experience]”. There was an expressed need for more clarity and perhaps an integrated learning process around the way the research project used different approaches and methods: “For the education… You see…when I completed this [research project] I don’t know how it works.”…“I didn’t understand some of the work, like how you say dataing”. This was particularly in relation to how jewellery-making as an arts-practice fits in with the project’s research: “I didn’t get the making of, the jewellery. I didn’t know what was the purpose of that but I’ve enjoyed doing it …for me it’s been used as a vehicle to connect people whilst they are sort of like talking to each other’…. “I was more confused how this jewellery is related to my problems and my life and character, and how everything is interrelated. Though I am still confused how it is related I have full faith in you guys”.
- Up Our Street’s Wellbeing Research Project: Up Our Street (UOS) are a neighbourhood-based organisation who made contact with Productive Margins to support them in developing an action-research project co-produced with local people to design a new and ‘academically rigorous and robust’ consultation process for their locality. They aimed to create a comprehensive and representative dataset on what wellbeing meant to local residents; exploring how it was defined and what contributed to wellbeing. The dataset would be for use by local communities. UOS recruited and employed four community researchers and a community research manager for a 7.5 month project, they attempted to recruit researchers who they felt were representative of the localities cultural and socio-economic profile.
- Training: Training took an asset-based approach drawing on the significant education, community research and development experience and skills of the recruited community researchers. Training was delivered in full and half-day blocks intermittently throughout the life of the research project. Training was designed for the specific research activities the group planned to carry out and additionally functioned as a capacity building exercise. Sessions covered co-production/action research approaches, interview schedules, interviewing, surveys and survey design, focus groups: design and implementation, qualitative and quantitative data analysis. The intermittent delivery model meant that training was iterative, shaping and informing the research design as well as (inadvertently) offering supervision to the researchers and their activities.
- Research Activity and Output: The research was designed in three-stages. Vox-pop style interviews with local residents were conducted in public locations, which were then analysed and developed into the overarching themes: services, environment, livelihoods, connections and emotions. Interview data was then used to inform the design of a survey questionnaire which targeted local people online, through stalls in public spaces and door knocking. The third stage was planned to involve a series of focus groups around key issues identified in the survey but, a combination of funding/timing limitations and a change to the city’s neighbourhood’s strategy meant that the third stage has not been undertaken at this time. The researchers produced a report and have held a number of local event showcasing their research.
- Reflections on Training: There was some tension between preparing the group to carry out research in a very time-restricted frame and, having the time and opportunity to be reflexive and explore research training in more general terms.
- ‘Critical Conversations’ Project In early 2017 Helen Thomas-Hughes was awarded a small grant from the Connected Communities Catalyst fund to bring together community researchers from across three Connected Communities projects (Productive Margins, The Imagine Project and The Trust Map) to explore experiences of being community researchers within co-produced research projects. The event was held in September 2017 in partnership with the NCCPE and was followed by a second event which brought together academic researchers from across the UK to share experiences of working with and training community researchers.There is short report available on the first event of this spin-off project. The second event is discussed in an article forthcoming in the NCCPE’s Journal: Research for All .
Principal Contact: Helen Thomas-Hughes. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org