Community-academic partnership through a pandemic: reflections on enabling spaces for values-based collaborations

by Monique Campbell, Community Engagement Officer,  University of Glasgow College of Social Sciences and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health

My own background

When the pandemic hit and we were forced into lockdown, I had only been in the joint community engagement post with UofG and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) for a few months. I came from working in the third sector, mostly with grassroots community organisations – volunteering first, then being offered sessional hours and years later coordinating and managing projects. I spent six years working for a community-led Equalities charity focusing on anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime education, development projects and case work. I studied alongside this work and completed an MSc in Sustainable Development over three years – partly to afford it.

I was a youth worker, advocacy worker, interpreter, community researcher and creative workshop facilitator (often all at once due to precarious funding like so many in the third sector). I loved it. Being surrounded by diversity (such as of backgrounds, thought and identities) as well as creativity was extremely enriching. I grew up with stories of migration, asylum and refugee journeys at the heart of my own family history on my mother’s side and ‘working class struggles’ on my father’s.  

The ‘Equalities world’ helped me find a place. I also supported individuals facing the sharp end of prejudice and stood beside families, including those seeking refuge, to challenge the weight of public institutions refusing to acknowledge institutional racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia… Painful examples of each stay with me. This experience was both traumatising and transformative; it helped me come to terms with the contradictions within my own identity and, particularly, my sexuality.

The centrality of critical self-reflection in community work

Working alongside others in community settings taught me more than I could ever have learned from books. I have made assumptions and gotten things very wrong and I have been rightly brought down a peg for naïve ideas. I have faced prejudice and discrimination myself, as a gay woman, and as a community worker. And my skills, knowledge, and experience have been dismissed as ‘anecdote’ by more powerful individuals and organisations. But I also experience numerous privileges – such as white and class and have been lucky enough to travel and live in Latin America.

My relationship with these identities is complex and it has taken me years to write these sentences without immediately deleting them. And I do not suggest that the level of openness I am sharing here is comfortable for everyone. This is a choice for each of us working in these roles to make. However, whilst working with various groups as a case worker, I was asked to ‘speak for’ communities whom I couldn’t possibly represent and had no right to speak for, as my own lived experience is far removed. Community work – development, engagement, organising – is deeply personal and deeply political. In my view, it requires a constant interrogation of our own place in the world and the influence our life experiences have on the assumptions we make and actions we take as a result. Even if these interrogations are only for our own clarity of motivation.

Critical reflection in institutional settings

Immediately before joining UofG, I had been working with Shelter Scotland in their first Community Organiser post. This experience taught me the importance of looking inwards, critically, at cultures and ways of working in organisations attempting to shift to community-led approaches to research, campaigning and delivering services. I learned there is no shortcut. One or two ‘bottom-up’ initiatives will rarely transform centuries-old hierarchies. Where traditional societal structures are built on deeply embedded inequalities and ‘isms’, the only way to truly transform our ways of working, must be to dismantle, unlearn, relearn, and rebuild. But first we have to acknowledge and recognise that power imbalances are always at play. And this is certainly no different in universities.

We need to open up difficult conversations within our institutions in order to support ongoing critical-self and critical-institutional reflection. Again, this has got to be done carefully and safely. In my experience, there is a danger that this work can cause harm and burnout to those involved if not very skillfully crafted. To do this, I believe it is helpful to look to community organisations with a wealth of experience in consciousness raising efforts as well as anti-prejudice and anti-discrimination work. Within these contexts, many people and groups have spent decades considering ‘what works’ to facilitate conversations safely and to support each other to deal with trauma, whilst building relationships of trust and reciprocity.

What do values have to do with Community Engagement?

Community engagement (CE) is a set of principles and practices which must acknowledge its own historic connection to imperialism and colonisation: white, middle-class, western men engaging with the ‘Other’, such as in some early anthropological studies. CE therefore also needs constant scrutiny and vigilance to ensure we as practitioners are not reestablishing, enabling or compounding oppressions and inequalities in our work. This requires commitment and is not easy.

The National Standards for Community Engagement, are an example of a set of principles in Scotland which exist to “improve and guide the process of community engagement”. These standards can be said to be based on the values of equality and social justice in that they aim to support communities to “take action on their own needs and experiences”. The extent to which this is possible and is further enabled by community engagement practitioners can vary significantly, however. And this, in my opinion, can depend on a wide range of factors. For example: the institutions we work for and within, their values and the priorities which are set based on these values; the funding we receive to carry out our work and priorities set by those funders based on their institutional values; and our own personal worldviews and life experiences.

To untangle this complexity, I have found it helpful to start by examining my own values and to consider how my own life experiences influence how I see the world and inform my assumptions and actions. Deliberately trying to create a less-hierarchical operating structure, a culture of openness and transparency and facilitating spaces (such as workshops or virtual conversation cafes) which explicitly acknowledge power imbalances and attempt to redress them through participatory methods used for facilitation, can enable more open, honest discussions.

Sharing our experiences and critically challenging ourselves and our institutions can help us to build a culture of trust, where relationships based on the values of equality and reciprocity are respected first and foremost. We have to be open to criticism, reflection (about ourselves and institutions) and to change. We will make mistakes and we will get things wrong, but crucially we will also learn and do better if we decide we want to.

Learning from our university and local communities through crowdsourcing

Learning about the work and expertise of so many of our UofG colleagues, students and community partners throughout the pandemic has been humbling and inspiring. There is an energy, personal drive and commitment to collaborate, to learn from each other and fundamentally to social justice.

We have been sharing some of our University communities’ stories as well as campaigns and initiatives from community partners through the College of Social Sciences Newsletter throughout the pandemic. To collect these examples, we launched a crowdsourcing initiative in April 2020. This ‘open ask’ through a collaborative document open to the whole University has enabled a greater understanding of the range of experiences and partnerships across CoSS – from volunteering to collaborative research.

It has also enabled relationship building, internally across our university community, as well as with partners. We now have another mechanism through which we can listen to and learn from community expertise, concerns, priorities and respond to requests for support from our internal university community and external partners. This community-led principal has been at the heart of developing #UofGEngage.

Co-creating a new ‘values-based’ virtual space to enable learning and collaboration.

The purpose of the #UofG Engage Forum is to bring people together as equals (students, staff, partners) to share and learn from each other in an open, transparent way, acknowledging that everyone has valuable insights no matter where their experiences come from, their role within UofG or the size of their organisation. The #UofG Engage Forum has so far consisted of events, a podcast and blog space but we are always ready to learn and try new things. We recognise many existing barriers to inclusion in this virtual space and are actively working with others to overcome them.

The Forum is facilitated by a group of staff from across all four UofG Colleges, and partners, and is open to, and keen to engage, new members. We welcome students and staff (from academia to professional services) as well as partners who feel this Forum could be of benefit to their work. We will actively seek to ensure diversity (relating to protected characteristics and all marginalised groups, academic discipline, thought, and status within and outwith the University) at decision-making level and throughout the Forum content.

Fundamentally the Forum aims to support relational engagement, guided by the values and principles of equality and social justice, in whatever context that may take place.  

How you can get involved with #UofGEngage

We know there is so much more incredible engagement work going on across the CoSS, the University and beyond. We will continue to use the CoSS Newsletter and #UofGEngage platforms to share experiences of community engagement, community-led support requests and opportunities for collaboration and learning.

To see what others are telling us about their ideas for the Forum, or to tell us your own thoughts anonymously, check our Padlet. Contact Monique Campbell or Zara Gladman if you would like to share a blog, record a podcast, or suggest a theme for #UofGEngage event.

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