Investing in Outreach. Building relationships takes more than an email… Time, a friendly face and authenticity are key

Author: Megan Barlow-Pay

As a (relatively inexperienced) team we were somewhat optimistic in our planning for linking up to community organisations and groups. We fired off a series of emails inviting people to meet with us to chat about our Storytelling Event just before the Christmas holidays (you know the type – laden with helpful info, lots of detail about the content of the workshop, the type of emails we love). The event was scheduled for the end of January and we were confident people would be interested to meet with us and find out more. By the time we returned in January we had received an impressive 2 replies! Time to rethink.

Alex (our Independent Public Contributor) strongly advised we invested some time in attending different events and activities in Southampton, helping out, getting to know people and the communities we were were hoping to link with. Email communication may work well in our academic world, and as a mechanism for starting conversations with people it was something we were comfortable with. However, reaching out to new communities (and particularly to people who may not have a ‘professional role’) was going to need a different approach.

Increasingly it became clear to us that the how you go about doing something is as important as the what. Building relationships was going to have to start a lot earlier than at the workshop.

We decided to push the event back to the end of February, take the plunge and start attending events and gatherings across the city. Sometimes invited, sometimes uninvited.

This blog details a couple of examples, and some reflections on the process.

The Sunday Lunch Project

“The Sunday Lunch project has been running since 1990, providing a free Sunday Lunch in a warm, welcoming, friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Regular lunch guests are a wide range of adults, workings or retired but in need of support or company, some have temporarily fallen on hard times, some are without a suitable home and in need of a good lunch and some company”. (Taken from The Sunday Lunch website)

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The lunch we attended was in a town hall in Northam Estate (inner city Southampton), and packed with a huge number of local people, all enjoying a delicious meal of sausages (donated from a local butchers) and veg. Volunteers work on a rotation basis to cook the lunches, and this week was the turn of Northam Youth Group who were doing a brilliant job of waiting on us hungry diners.

It was an oddly intimidating turning up, (especially considering it was an open event aimed at being inclusive and friendly), but both Caroline and I felt out of our comfort zone. We decided to arrive together (safety in numbers!) and, on reflection, were not hugely proactive about starting conversations with people. Confidence isn’t a trait people experience in consistent measures… I’m sure many colleagues and friends would be surprised to hear me say my confidence was challenged in this new environment, but I really did struggle with knowing how I should approach people and start conversations. That said, as we settled down to eat we began chatting to people around us. The role food can play in helping open conversation is actually quite a powerful one – and one of the fundamental principles of the Sunday Lunch Project.

We managed to chat to Denis, who founded the project, as well as a number of regulars (and even had an impromptu tour of the local youth center). It was really inspiring to talk to diners and hear about what the project has meant to them, as well as explore in more detail with Denis how he has managed to deliver successful outreach programmes across the city. Everyone we spoke to was open and excited to talk to us about the project, raising this question again of barriers.

Are we perceiving barriers to engaging communities as lying within the communities themselves – describing them as ‘hard to reach’, when actually many of these barriers are systematic and lie with us?

Avenue Multicultural Centre

Avenue St Andrews Church holds a regular Friday drop in session, called the Andrews Multicultural Centre which has been created by CLEAR (City Life Education and Action for Refugees), the British Red Cross and Avenue St Andrew’s United Reformed Church. It is supported by the SWVG (Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group).  The Centre is a partnership of organisations with complementary services working closely together for the welfare of the service users. Upwards of 50 asylum seekers and refugees attend the Centre every week.

I attended the AMC in February, along with Alex. This was a different experience as Alex, (who was very much IN his comfort zone), spent 2 hours introducing me to everyone he knew at the centre – which was a LOT of people! The conversation would go something like:

“Hi X, this is Megan. Megan, tell X about yourself and about Reaching Out”. Talk about being put on the spot! But it was an amazing lesson in networking, and after about 3 or 4 spiels I felt myself settling into it, becoming more relaxed and authentic, and getting better responses from people. People were interested in the project, but they were also interested in me, and it wasn’t until I opened up, stopped trying to be ‘professional’, and began talking more honestly and frankly that I really started to have some meaningful conversations.

Millbrook Christian Centre

Millbrook Christian Centre is a church in the heart of Millbrook, one of Southampton’s most deprived neighbourhoods. We were linked to the church by Hazel Patel, one of our Public Contributors and collaborators in the Reaching Out project.

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Caroline and I attended the church one Sunday evening, when they have their more ‘informal’ service (unfortunately Hazel was on holiday so couldn’t join us). We had been offered the opportunity to speak after the service, and had suggested we were welcome to turn up as the service finished, or beforehand and we could join and observe. It seemed appropriate to arrive early and attend the service (we were, after all, hoping to learn more about the church and their community). This also gave us the opportunity to meet the wonderful Will Rose (who was preaching) beforehand, as well as get a feel for the relaxed and fun atmosphere the church tried to promote (when we arrived a group of kids were partaking in a lively karaoke ‘competition’ at the alter!).

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Joining the service was a great experience, (and Will had done his homework – managing to work ‘co-production’ into the service!). It also meant that when we were invited up at the end to talk about Reaching Out we had a much better understanding of the church and its congregation.

For both Caroline and myself (who have both only ever been in a church a handful of times in our lives) we were struck with the warmth of everyone offered to us. Again, it seemed to be that our perceptions of barriers we might face didn’t translate into reality.

Reflections…

This blog is just a small number of examples of a programme of wider engagement we attempted across January and February.

A pretty major learning curve for me over this time was the realisation of just how much is out there. The more we networked and the more people we meet, the more projects and initiatives we are introduced to. This was both inspiring and daunting, and is certainly a reminder of how little we have done in the past to link in and explore what is going on in the local area.

I have also reflected recently on my experiences engaging with the different groups that I have been. One thing that is really noteworthy is how keen different community organisations and groups are to link with us. In many ways I am not a natural ‘networker’ (though I am a ‘people person’ I find it quite intimidating to approach people I don’t know). The people who we have met and talked about the project with have all been so enthusiastic and welcoming. Reflecting on this really highlights to me how warped our perceptions of barriers to inclusion may be. I have focused a lot on the barriers communities face in access and confidence, but there are real barriers in our ability and confidence as individuals in the research community as well.

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