Our digital Community Conversation on the 17th of June was attended by nearly 100 representatives from the public, third, and academic sectors, as well as the Scottish Government and local authorities across Scotland.
The event was the result of a collaboration between the University of Glasgow’s new #UofGEngage Forum, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), the West of Scotland Regional Equality Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, Active Inquiry, the Scottish Community Development Centre, community activists, campaigners, and facilitators, as well as researchers from GCPH and UofG.
The purpose was to bring people together from across sectors and hierarchies to talk about what meaningful collaboration that shares power is, why we need to work together for post-pandemic recovery, and how this can be done. We hoped this event could support us all to consider how we can, in our various roles and with our diverse experiences in the world, think about transforming how we work together as equal partners, for social justice – starting with conversations.
The programme consisted of a mixture of participatory activities, observed discussions and creative reflections. The content was co-produced with our partners and each speaker brought a unique perspective to the conversation.
Jennie Coyle, GCPH’s Communications Manager warmly hosted the event, opening with an invitation or us all to challenge ourselves to listen, participate and reflect.
I’m also here as a participant. To listen and reflect and learn. And so, although I expect and hope this afternoon will be really enjoyable and interesting and insightful, it may not necessarily be easy. And, in fact, it shouldn’t be.
A creative provocation
To begin, Gavin Crichton from Active Inquiry theatre company facilitated “a little provocation to […] shake up roles […] before the conversations”. He led us through some physical warmups, challenging us to:
think about the hat you are wearing today, the role that has brought you here […] If we’re going to have that honest conversation today, what parts of that mask that you sometimes bring to events like this are best left behind?
The workshop continued in small breakout rooms, where participants worked together to create a still image which communicated something about the problem of power inequalities between institutions and communities trying to work together. “So name the problem and then […] make an image of that problem”.
After sharing the still images with the wider group, participants were asked to return to the breakout session and were given “three wishes to change [the problem] to try to go towards a solution”. Back in the plenary session, we were all asked to take ten seconds to move from the first image [the problem] to the solutions image.
Gavin’s session helped frame our event around the central concepts of power, inequality and coming up with collective solutions.
He then passed over to Amal Azzudin, an activist and the Equality and Human Rights Officer at the Mental Health Foundation and Fakhriya Abdulkadir, a student at Glasgow University studying Community development, an activist and community development practitioner.
What does meaningful collaboration look like?
Fakhriya and Amal shared experiences of being involved in a piece of collaborative participatory action research on health and human rights. The project was funded by NHS Health Scotland and the work was carried out as a partnership between the Centre for Health Policy at the University of Strathclyde, the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, the Mental Health Foundation and Glasgow Homelessness Network. The research focused on how people understood the right to health and both groups worked with peer researchers from amongst the communities asked to take part – people who had experienced homelessness, and refugee and asylum-seeking women.
Fakhriya and Amal organised this observed discussion in an interview style, with Amal asking Fakhriya pre-agreed questions. Fakhriya spoke about her motivations for getting involved as a peer researcher, what she found meaningful about the process, and what she took from it:
I wanted to learn about my own human rights and the rights that I have in accessing health services, and how can I exercise these rights […]
For me, it was really empowering, because I felt that my voice was needed, and it was valued throughout the whole process of designing the research itself […] but also when designing the questions.
It was powerful […] When we started the research, it was only the researcher asking the questions. But […] the women would turn to me and answer honestly [about] their experiences and how they felt, but they also felt a connection, because I was in the room, because they kept saying “you know what I mean”. “You understand what I’m saying, you know how it is” […] So from then on, we decided that I should have a role in asking those questions as well. It was powerful […] me being in that in that room because that’s what enriched this research, having a peer researcher with the lived experience. After that I realised this is something that is needed in all areas, not just research. If you want to do something about a specific group, have someone with that knowledge and experience in the room […]
I would say what I really took from this work […] is to be mindful of who is your audience. What are you trying to gain? Why you trying to reach these groups? […] Being that peer researcher in the room […] the expert in my own experience and having that guide when we go to the community and do this focus group with people who have similar experiences as me […] I added value to this research.
After the research was put together […] we went to present [it] together. I was part of that process, all the way through from the beginning to the end […] Representation is key, not just in research in everything that we do. I can’t stress that enough.
Following Fakhriya and Amal’s observed discussion, UofG Postgraduate researcher Amanda Ptolomey offered reflections on what she heard, alongside her own experiences as a participant and researcher in collaborations:
You were talking about how powerful that experience was, and I was thinking when I’ve been involved in collaborative processes […] we take those things with us […] I was involved in something that felt really collaborative and meaningful, so I wanted to try and put that into action in the Community development practice that I do […]
I was thinking too about a project I was involved in called Scotland in Lockdown […] We had a budget for partner’s time for helping to recruit participants, for steering the direction of the project. That made sure people were actually resourced for their involvement. [It was] really important, and also how people can participate – whether that’s having data to use your mobile phone or having devices to use […]
We worked with AMINA Muslim Women’s Resource Centre who wanted to do some focus groups with the women that they had already developed really good relationships with. They have lots of expertise and capacity to work with those women, however, they hadn’t conducted online focus groups before […] We used some of our time and skills to build capacity […] Thinking about that reciprocity that people who were engaging in our research and projects can gain skills that they can take with them […]
And finally, I was thinking about lived experience and trust and thinking beyond [our] particular roles […] about the more holistic parts of our experiences as people and sharing that with others. And how many barriers that can break down in the work that we do […]
I would finish by reminding myself and calling on others […] to use Scotland in Lockdown and the project that you worked on Fakhriya and Amal, as exemplars for ways that we can work together […] If someone says that you can’t have a budget for paying partners, you can cite the Scotland in Lockdown study as a project that did. If someone says you can’t involve people with lived experience in the design of a project, show this project as an example of how well that worked and how meaningful that was for people.
Types of knowledge to address complex policy problems
The next observed discussion featured UofG researcher Claire Bynner and GCPH researcher and Chair of Saheliya, Shruti Jain. Claire offered insights into the types of knowledge needed to address complex policy problems, while Shruti outlined a systems approach to addressing systemic racism.
Claire began by offering an example of a GCPH collaboration, commissioned by a local authority to understand neighbourhood inequality: “Apart from the strategic directors, people weren’t really using [the statistics], even though they said this was what was needed”.
In response, Claire and the team carried out a new research project called ‘Making Data Meaningful’, “to understand what makes knowledge or research meaningful to people on the ground doing the frontline work”. The team interviewed frontline workers as well as community residents:
What we found from that really changed our thinking […] For example [in one] neighbourhood where there was rubbish literally everywhere […] you didn’t need empirical data to tell you had a problem […] The local waste management team [brought] in a consultant, who drew up some option appraisals [to] redesign their recycling collection scheme. Then people voted, they selected an option, and they increased their recycling by about 10%. But they still had quite a serious problem […]
The […] housing team [then] shared some insights […]. They basically said there are lots of people struggling with getting out of bed in the morning […] with brushing their teeth. And for them recycling rubbish is the last thing on their list. [They] built a lot of trust with these people and supported them through a recycling scheme, but they also referred them for help [… ] with social isolation and with a whole host of other issues.
What that story told me was that all these different services had approached the problem around neighbourhood recycling from very different perspectives […] Key to [the solution] was having those different types of knowledge.
Claire then explained that “consistently […] the types of knowledge that seemed to be important, when you’re looking at very complex policy issues aligned very well with [Greek Philosopher] Aristotle’s […] three fundamental types of knowledge”. She continued:
The first one is called empirical knowledge – verifying a claim […] looking through observations and statistics […]
The second type of knowledge […] is what we would call technical knowledge […] how you apply a principle or a rule in practice [for example] how you organise your waste management service […]
The final type of knowledge […] is what [Aristotle] calls practical wisdom or phronesis. This is the ability to combine different forms of evidence, with empathy and judgments about what action to take in a specific situation […] who’s being included who’s being excluded […]
There are no perfect solutions or perfect answers but it’s about the ability to deliberate and to weigh up those alternatives in practice. It can be quite challenging […] There are very difficult trade-offs to make. Ultimately, it’s about recognising the need to integrate these different types of knowledge.
Anti-racism and systems change
Claire then handed over to Shruti “I’m going to leave it there, because the bigger challenges is the challenge that you’re going to talk about, which is not just how to weave this together, but how would you tackle systemic racism and systems change”.
Shruti began by outlining what a systems approach is and its importance:
The system’s approach is usually needed to solve complex problems […] Racism, like tackling climate change or alleviating poverty, is a complex problem. It doesn’t have clear causes and the influencing variables can’t be easily isolated […] A system can be small like an organisation or it can be massive like society […]
Racism is a system based on race that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities and puts others at advantages. So far, we’ve seen isolated efforts which have delivered small scale improvements to parts of the whole problem. […] We need to see and leverage the entire system.
This includes all of the parts, and all of the relationship that exists between them […] A systems change requires us to shift the foundations that hold those complex problems in place. It basically seeks to address the root causes of the problems. And that then allows us to work towards transformational long-term change.
It’s not enough to simply improve systems [..] We need to transform them [and] disrupt them too […] It requires us to work together as a collective […] to address those root causes of the problem […] We need to address how bias and discrimination play out within the system […] but we also need to consider the historical context, from which the system has been born and continues to exist.
Any effort to change the system needs to address how [it’s] been upheld by historical and dominant practices and cultures […] rooted in whiteness and in patriarchy. So unless we explicitly address these, we aren’t going to achieve the transformational long term change […]
We’re fundamentally talking about a shift in power and without the shift in power we’re literally just tinkering around the edges. We aren’t going to achieve racial equality.
What’s happening on anti-racism in organisations in Scotland is not a great picture. I see a lot of damaging practice […] We need to bring communities and their voices right in the heart of this otherwise we’re not really going to achieve the power to change. We’ve got a lot of work to do here in Scotland on anti-racism.
Over to you
For the second half of the event, participants were placed in curated breakout rooms with experienced facilitators. They were asked to reflect on what they had heard and relate it to their own experiences. Below is a collection of reflections:
Researchers have all the power. Inputs from professional staff are not always valued.
Academic knowledge is still considered superior, therefore professional and administrative staff who have technical knowledge are not valued.
When I managed a charitable project, I felt like collaborating felt fraught and problematic because of the need to feel like each partner was getting what they needed out of the collaboration. I was always being counselled not to give away too much.
There is power in a grassroots movement of disabled people, their lived experiences evidence, data, their talents and strengths to work collaboratively and build solutions. There is influence in the numbers, but the only real power is to improve their lives through our own programmes and supports. It’s untapped potential in many ways.
An activist commented that they started with no power but gained power through education and the ability to express themselves.
[We need to] embed lived experience in training and learning for staff in agencies; empower public sector staff to think and behave differently – to codesign, to listen, to empower; embed and deliver human rights; provide access to services for those facing poverty and inequality including disabled people and those with protected characteristics; empower staff who have protected characteristics; greater investment in communities worst affected by inequalities including of identity; courageous leadership.
Decision makers need to go to communities to find out what is going on and listen to people.
Community organisations have similar language and currency of power. This is different when taking to academics.
The power of people telling their own story was familiar and energising.
Structures stop collaborations happening – people with the most power control the money and many organisations promote individualism – reward individuals for their successes.
I’m hearing all this stuff that I hadn’t really thought about in that much detail before. I realise there’s a lot to do, but I just have to just try. I think it’s planted a lot of seeds for people.
Participants were asked to finish in their breakout sessions by considering one action they could take within their own power to improve collaborations. Everyone wrote these down as pledges and held them up to the screens to form a collective vision for change.
Read all of the pledges and notes from participant breakout sessions on the event Padlet here.
To close the event, UNESCO RILA Artist in Residence Tawona Sitholé provided reflections through an original piece of poetry created from his observations. Below is just a flavour:
Graham Ogilvie from Ogilvie Design also listened in on the whole event and provided amazing illustrations which captured key themes and ideas. These will all be made available in due course, along with the event recording.
We are working with Steven Black from Brand Calibre to make a short film about the collaborative processes behind the production of this event and will update you via this blog when it is ready!
Thanks all for the powerful and incredibly useful event today. The dialogue sections were great and my breakout session allowed a very open and honest conversation due to excellent facilitation. We got beyond the usual starting positions much quicker than in previous conversations I’m involved in on this topic. Very powerful close with the spoken word contribution.
It was brilliant and I really hope that we can build on it as much as we can. There was a real sense of engagement.
It was wonderful. Best event I’ve ever been to. It was just really well done and moved at a good pace, so you never lost your attention. All the speakers were really passionate and good at what they do.
I really enjoyed it. Another chance for me to rant!
There was just a real energy from the very start of the session right till the very end.
There was there was a good balance of people. Seeing what troubles them, but also trying to find a way through it. There were people who are from different ends of this power dynamic so that was interesting to see how those conversations are going to work being really honest and open with each other.