One of the ongoing challenges we have faced delivering this programme of work is that, ironically, the project was designed and developed without much input from communities. I know, I know. We are supposed to be all about Public Involvement and promoting the community voice. Sadly on this occasion the realities of funding timelines meant this was challenging at best.
Our original bid was for a 3 phased project:
The Storytelling workshop – bringing a wide representation of communities and groups together for a one-off celebration of Southampton’s diversity
The Community Champions Advisory Group (CCAG) – made up of attendees from the story telling event, this group would work alongside us to shape, guide, and co-develop phase 3
‘Spaces for Engagement and Involvement‘ – Working with the CCAG, and taking a ‘needs based, place based’ approach, we would take public involvement activities out of a clinical or academic setting, and hold a series of fun, engaging and informal events in the community.
The reality though, was this project was dreamed up without real input from the very communities the we were hoping would be at the heart of it. Whilst we had some inspiring conversations at last year’s Mela festival and worked collaboratively with our fabulous existing PPI members, we didn’t integrate the thoughts, opinions and needs of the communities we were hoping to reach out to. (And at this point, had not real links or relationships with anyone from them).
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to us then (after all, we are constantly warning others of the pitfalls of doing ‘for’ rather than ‘with’), our plans began to unravel at phase 2. Despite the success of the workshop, just 1 attendee felt they could commit to the CCAG.
The reasons behind this? People didn’t feel they could commit to regular meetings. The concept of the group was to vague. (We had left it deliberately ‘open’, with the intention that the members would define and have ownership). They couldn’t see the direct benefit to the individual or their community.
Again, we needed to allow ourselves to relinquish control, admit we were wrong, and be flexible for the project to work. We worked individually with various community members who had been at the storytelling workshop, and asked them to take over re-shape and redefine the 2nd and 3rd stage of the project around their needs. (Thank you to INVOLVE who are in part funding and monitoring the project, and are happy for us to adapt as we go along!).
The new plan:
2. Individual community collaboration. We will continue to collaborate with representatives from different communities in Southampton on a 1:1 basis (rather than in a wider advisory group) in order to co-design future ‘spaces for involvement’ events. This will allow us to be flexible to their other commitments, needs and time restraints, and not place too much expectation on people to join a formal group. 3. ‘Spaces for Engagement and Involvement’. We will ‘piggy back’ onto existing community events, providing spaces where we will host conversations about research and health.
We are looking forward to running a series of ‘Spaces for Engagement and Involvement’ alongside different community events, including The Holyrood Estate’s summer garden party, West Itchen Community Trust’s summer event, and a Friday prayers at a local Mosque.
This is with great thanks to the community members who have pushed us in a different (and better) direction!
Last week, I had the pleasure of presenting our Reaching Out project at the Public Awareness of Research Infrastructures Conference. This conference described itself as a hands-on forum for communications, public relations and engagement professionals staff to share their experiences and expertise. I wasn’t sure what to expect: Would my work be relevant to communications professionals?; Would I learn anything?
In terms of the conversations I shared and the lessons I learnt, I think this was possibly the most valuable conference I’ve attended. A great chance to network outside of the PPI world. Plus people liked the talk and told me they learnt something!
I can’t go into all the talks and conversations, but as a little snapshot I’ve highlighted those that stood out to me.
Under-resourcing for communicating/engaging the public spans all science fields
The quote ‘we need to recognise that this is a bread and butter activity not a tag on activity’ fits well with what I know we all experience.
Payment recognition for public is not limited to health and social care
A presenter discussing citizen science mentioned that a public member pointed out ‘you’re all paid to be here, I’m not’.
Are we all too scared to take risks?
Many people commented on the openness of my talk and how impressed they were to see a slide on ‘what didn’t work’. Why are we always so keen to show off and hide the challenges? We discussed how it is likely to be because we are typically publically-funded organisations and, as such, feel that we have to always be proving that we are spending the money well. But does that mean that we are too risk-averse and so won’t ever reach new audiences?
Is it always fair to ask people to be involved?
I had a very stimulating conversation about public involvement and co-production and whether it is always fair to expect people to get involved. How do we tackle the challenges of diversity and under-represented voices when, for some individuals, it might just not be fair to add another burden (ie contributing to research) on top when their circumstances might already be very challenging.
Since the workshop, Megan and I have been busy continuing to build and sustain the relationships we’ve worked hard to make. Through these links, we’ve been meeting even more people passionate about communities and doing amazing things out there in the community.
Today we shared a coffee with a number of people working with or for the council – with a focus on housing. They shared their knowledge of the barriers to community engagement (with the purpose to work with residents to improve housing) from schemes like Decent Neighbourhoods.
“Decent Neighbourhoods isn’t just about making an area simply look better, it’s about getting the local community on board so that residents feel part of the transformation and proud of what’s happening in their neighbourhood.” Aidan Cooper Decent Neighbourhoods Project Manager
Some of the barriers parallel directly with the messages we, as Reaching Out Southampton, have been trying to share:
Address ‘What’s in it for me?’
Honesty, transparency, respect and trust are important
Be innovative and try new things
Avoid duplication (learn from what others are already doing well)
Other advice given resonated with how I’ve been feeling recently about how under-resourced, and under-skilled, we are to really build and then keep relationships.
You need the right person – someone that people are able to open up to
It takes time to build credibility
You need to be present in their space/community – otherwise credibility/trust wont come
We also heard about how the council is an authority that are tainted to many and so they need to get through to the residents using other means – for example using art or creative techniques, led by non-council members. This did make me question whether the same barrier exists for us.
We have kindly been invited to join them at various housing/residency events, which we will of course be attending. And in the wider project we will be taking on their reflections and using their advice to be present as much as possible.
Last week we have finally held our storytelling workshop that we have been working hard on planning and organising. I arrived a little bit in advance and helped Megan, Caroline and Sonia set things up at our lovely venue, Board in the City.
I really liked the overall atmosphere of the event. It impressed me how many people came to attend, and everyone seemed very friendly and keen to listen and contribute. We sat in several groups on different tables, making sure the staff were spread out (though I did end up at a table with Caroline, but it was nice to have a familiar face around).
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)
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.
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!).
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.
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.
We’ve got just over a week until our storytelling event and our time is very stretched getting everything ready for that. But I just want to pause for a minute and summarise some of my key learnings in the last week.
I am really proud of my new skills in how to monitor and evaluate
We’ve been lucky to work with independent evaluators Jai and
Catherine (commissioned by INVOLVE to evaluate the whole project) and
it’s been so invaluable. They’ve made us realise all the assumptions we’d made
within our project. By recognising these, we can make sure we ask the right
questions to establish exactly what aspects of the project do or don’t work in
That doesn’t make me any good at documenting my learning formally
Journaling is one of the means of documenting our learning
as we go but it’s proving difficult to find the time to do it properly. This
project is time consuming, and at points is all consuming. We’ll have a meeting
or conversation which will make a huge change or provide some insight and
learnings but we don’t then have the time to sit and reflect on this, then
document that – we’ve already moved onto the next meeting or activity. We need
to correct this, and that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this post. You can
expect to see more reflective posts – on past and current activities.
Working with a creative mind is amazing
brings such a wealth of experience to the table and she doesn’t find it
difficult at all to come up with more engaging ways to do something. We were
unsure of how to introduce the next stage of the project at the end of the
storytelling workshop (the CCAG – more on that later). We just knew we didn’t
want a formal presentation or to put people off by overcomplicating it or
putting pressure on individuals. Debs suggested that one person could be
interviewed by another. We’ve seen Debs do this at another event, and it felt really authentic and
interesting, and seemed to be a format that resonated with the audience. We’d
have never thought of this on our own.
Don’t forget to address “what’s in it for them?”
once again reminded us about to address ‘what’s in it for them’ in some of our
communications materials. This is not the first time this has come up, and yet
we keep forgetting. We have two different groups to address in our projects –
communities/organisations as a whole, and the individuals who take part in the
project. Alex has provided some guidance, from his experience, about what might
appeal to each of these. We’ll be asking people if that is of interest when we
chat more with them.
I have my own barriers to working with new audiences
I find working in public involvement extremely rewarding, but it’s also an area where you have to constantly adapt, and it’s often very difficult to predict how much time or resource a project requires. Reaching Out has been no different. It’s such an exciting project but it’s also been difficult to fit it all in around my normal work load.
We’ve needed to give up our weekends and evenings. I’ve learnt what my own barriers are and been pushed outside of my comfort zone. For example, I’m not even that great at networking at an academic conference – so me walking into someone else’s comfortable space and having to approach them has been tough. Once I’ve got through my own barrier, everyone has been so approachable and so willing to talk. This does lead to the question of how many of these ‘barriers’ to involvement are we creating ourselves?
Board in the City is no ordinary cafe. It is a not-for-profit, community-run café dedicated to playing board games, and is staffed largely by volunteers. This cosy place is in the heart of one of Southampton’s most diverse neighbourhood and hosts a variety of community events – including our upcoming storytelling workshop. Hayley Binstead, cafe owner, has been a valuable partner in the early days of designing the project – bringing her passion, enthusiasm and experience.
Using a ‘needs-based place-based’ approach, it was important to take our project out of the hospitals and universities and into informal, comfortable and approachable environments. This is what makes the café such a valuable partner to us, and the perfect setting for our first event. We also needed a place that is accessible, inclusive and safe. These values are at the heart of café, which prides itself on its all-inclusive atmosphere.
Board in the City do a lot of community work: their first year was dedicated to education, the second to assisted living for elderly people, and their current focus is on mental health and wellbeing. By hosting our event here, we are supporting a company whose ethos fits with our project.
We are proud to be working with Board
in the City, and look forward to welcome our community leaders to its doors to
share their stories.