What does participatory research mean to our community, whether in a pandemic or not?

Sep 8, 2020

Tracey Herrington
Manager, Thrive Teesside

Thrive Teesside works tirelessly to ensure the voice, skills, knowledge and expertise of low income communities is respected, listened to and afforded the opportunity to work alongside others to affect positive change. The current pandemic has highlighted some specific barriers to meaningful participation, but I hasten to say, that none of these issues are new but are merely amplified.

We are a diverse community but have some things in common. We face barriers that impede our ability to realise our potential and we are held back by our financial constraints and life chances. I can only speak on my own experiences from working with the many people who I come into contact with and therefore in this article I am not presuming to speak about all people who live in financial difficulties and poverty. I am however offering some insight and reflections from our Thrive community

When thinking about participatory research, we imagine being fully included, working together with others to fully understand a problematic situation and then changing it for the better. Our expectations are not high, we fully acknowledge the difficulties and barriers that prevent long term, sustainable change. However, what we do expect is the recognition and value of our skills and expertise. Our community can add depth, understanding and insight to the issues at hand. No longer wanting to be looked at solely as a ‘resource’, we want to be valued as collaborators and partners. It is only by merging and valuing different areas of expertise that together we may eventually see the changes that are needed

Our experiences of working with researchers and universities has been mixed.

“Over the many years, newly appointed researchers have appeared, armed with a research proposal and went about gathering some of our knowledge and lived experience of what it is like to live in poverty. The issue to be researched has already been set in stone, researchers have wanted to chat about poverty in all its forms: debt, housing, universal credit, health.. the list is endless. Often it has felt like the process has been the same. We have opened our doors and let them in, to which they have then attended one or two of our coffee mornings armed with a pen and paper, taking notes on the things we have said and then left and we rarely hear from them again. We haven’t always had feedback or updates in relation what our information had been used for, or if it had influenced anything. This has been frustrating for us as a group. Not only does it feel a waste of our time, but it is painful to allow a researcher into our group, to open up our trust and bear our souls, only to be later left in the lurch”

                                                                                                          Dylan, Thrive

It is refreshing to note, that not all of our experiences have been negative. I can also say that we have some very positive experiences of working with researchers and academics. Our work with the Commission on Social Security is proving to be harnessing the unique power associated with working collaboratively and respecting the various areas of expertise.

Our amazing successes to date are as part of the Poverty2Solutions and APLE Collective (Addressing Poverty with Lived Experiences) collaborations. Merging knowledge, capabilities, connections and skills from the onset of the birth of these alliances has been inspirational. I would say with confidence that these successes are based on the development of trusting relationships. This is the foundation to working in a truly participatory manner. With trust and an investment in time with people in our community, the opportunities to learn from each other can be the difference between succeeding and falling short of what you expected to achieve. It is key that alongside developing these relationships, there is an openness to learn and grow in a reciprocal manner – together we can each learn a lot. Alone and isolated will lead to risking the ability to achieve intended outcomes

Researchers don’t necessarily need to have lived experience of the issue at hand, but rather an open mind to work collaboratively. Listening and acting upon the information given by any community can be the key to opening doors, addressing barriers to full participation and may offer that bit of insight that may have been out of reach or not even thought about.

Moving forward, we have some suggestions. These suggestions may not be new, but it is always good to take stock and reflect. I generally like to pose myself questions to keep me on track and grounded: Whose agenda am I responding to - is what I am doing working for and behalf of the community? Are these the issues of real concern in the community at the moment? Am I responding to the needs voiced by our community and working with people who are affected by the issue? How can I ensure I am adhering to the values of inclusivity; respect and meaningful collaboration?

Researchers may come and go, communities and key allies may change and therefore guiding principles are key to sustaining the values associated with meaningful participatory approaches:

·         Build relationships of trust

·         Respect the various skills a partnership/collaboration can present

·         Allow for opportunities to grow and develop

·         Offer support to all stakeholders

·         Develop meaningful research proposals together and allow these proposals to come from the community

·         Be open and honest about expectations and ownership of the information gathered

·         Develop a shared language

·         Fully support the organisations that connect with the community

It is my firm belief that we want this to work – research is the key to gaining knowledge, to facilitate learning, to raise awareness of current issues and to address the problems at hand. It has the potential to lead to change. It is in all our interests to do this in the most effective and inclusive way. Now more than ever, it is of value to appreciate the important principles raised, and that they are respected, maintained and acknowledged during Covid-19.

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