Poverty Series Part Two: Connecting Communities and Universities to Make Change

Building on the work from our focus on poverty, and previous series of poverty blogs we continue our new series on practical approaches to tackling poverty with Dr Eva Elliott exploring how universities and researchers can work with communities more effectively to help reduce poverty.

Universities are often seen, particularly by people living in communities experiencing poverty, as not for them and as irrelevant to their own concerns.  This is not because universities are distant.  Quite the contrary, in many of the poorest places in the UK the gaze of the university is all too present.  University researchers find poor communities interesting and the sources of research funding in these areas, rich.  From the perspective of many people living in such places, research, whether it is qualitative or quantitative, is felt to be extractive. My experience of talking to people living in what might be termed ‘over-researched’ communities is that they feel that while academic researchers’ careers may have benefited from the publication of academic papers, the communities have not benefited at all.  And they would probably be right.

The Connected Communities programme was launched by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2010.  The aim was to understand better what communities are, how they connect and what role they play in our lives historically, now and in shaping the future.  The programme has been risk taking and boundary blurring in terms of both its interdisciplinarity and how universities were expected to work with communities.  Instead of undertaking researching on communities, successful grant applications were expected to work with communities, recognising that knowledge is generated through the processes of co-production.  The programme has challenged ideas about who has legitimate knowledge and expertise around the social challenges that we face, and where resources of social innovation reside to make changes that are meaningful to people living in marginalised and excluded communities.   The programme has often brought in other partners beyond the academy.  In particular, people working through arts based methods of engagement, knowledge creation and exchange. Whilst poverty was not the headline for any particular sub-programme, it was implicit or explicit in a number of projects.

People communication vector

For instance, Productive Margins: Regulating for Engagement, led by the University of Bristol with Cardiff University,  is a five year research programme which embodies ‘an understanding that people and communities excluded from participation in the regulatory regimes that impact upon their daily lives have expertise, experience and creativity that can be politically productive’.  At the centre of the programme is a research forum which was intended as ‘site for experimentation’ through which projects, designed by community and academic partners, would emerge.  One of these was the ‘Life Chances’ project, chosen deliberately to critique and disrupt the discourses implicit in the Westminster Government’s own programme for people living in poverty.  In this, families living in low income in Cardiff and Bristol worked through the writing of a co-produced novel to explore the regulatory regimes that the participants encounter and to re-imagine ways in which systems could be better designed.

In another projectRepresenting Communities: Developing the Creative Power of People to Improve Health and Wellbeing, community members worked with researchers and artists in five areas across the UK to challenge the ways in which health and wellbeing is understood, and policy implemented, in those areas.  In one South Wales Valleys area researchers worked alongside National Theatre Wales and local residents to facilitate a performance based debate on some of the key issues they face in their everyday lives.  Over two hundred people participated involving local people, representatives from local and national government and other public services.

Whilst poverty must not be seen as something communities have to solve themselves, co-production is based on the understanding that the production of knowledge that brings meaningful action and change, has to involve those who experience the systems that hold them back. My experience of both large projects is that co-production is challenging, requires continual reassessment and change, and poses institutional challenges in terms of how universities can best support research in which the academics are not always in the driving seat.  However this is a challenge that is necessary, particularly at a time where the divisions generated by the toxic combination of austerity and global inequality are being felt more acutely now than they have in generations.

About the author: Dr Eva Elliott is a Senior Lecturer in Cardiff University Social of Social Sciences and is a part of Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD).  Former Director of the Cardiff Institute of Society, Health and Wellbeing (CISHeW) much of her work focuses on health inequalities and the role of arts, culture and heritage in social change.    

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