Who: Durham University's Centre for Social Justice and Community Action (CSJCA)
What: To promote community-based participatory research towards the goal of social justice.
Why: The aim is to promote and develop research, teaching, public/community engagement and staff development (both within and outside the university) around the broad theme of social justice in local and international settings, with a specific focus on participatory action research.
Where: Durham University
Durham University's Centre for Social Justice and Community Action (CSJCA) was set up to promote community-based participatory research towards the goal of social justice. Professor Sarah Banks, Durham's Theme Leader for social justice and social inclusion, organised a series of events to gauge the level of interest in the kind of engagement the Beacon NE focuses on. From these events the impetus for the CSJCA grew, especially after discussions with Professor Rachel Pain and Dr Andrew Russell.
The aim of CSJCA is to promote and develop research, teaching, public/community engagement and staff development (both within and outside the university) around the broad theme of social justice in local and international settings, with a specific focus on participatory action research. It plays an important role in fostering and supporting University-community research partnerships, enhancing skills and capacities across the two sites, and challenging and impacting on the traditional way that University staff do their research.
The CSJCA aims to help raise the profile of community-based participatory research within Durham University and support its staff to develop the necessary skills. It runs an annual programme of workshops for staff, students and members of the wider community which have been very popular (for example, on Community Organising and Developing Participatory Action Research); runs seminars and other events; and in September 2010 helped to organise a major conference on University-community engagement. Events are free of charge to community members.
Examples of CSJCA's work include:
1) Third year undergraduates running research projects with local community groups. By applying their academic expertise, students produce high quality reports which have been invaluable in campaigning and influencing policy. Community organisations in West Rainton, and a new support centre for refugees in the village of Wheatley Hill, are just two of the beneficiaries - both literally up the road from the University, and yet a world away.
“We will be continuously using the report as evidence to funders, in working at different levels to challenge prejudice and discrimination.”
“The project has been beneficial for service users who have appreciated being listened to, and taking active part in something like this rather than just being passive receivers.” Partner organisation
2) Working with Thrive, a project of Church Action on Poverty, in Thornaby and Stockton-on-Tees. Thrive works alongside local households in areas of multiple deprivation which are excluded from mainstream financial services. People have few options to obtain credit and high interest door-step lending is widespread. To combat these problems, Thrive, in partnership with the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, offers long term mentoring support to those in most need. The partnership has gone from strength to strength. They have collaborated in research to understand the needs of 'hard-to-reach' households; arranged placements for students taking degrees in Community and Youth Work and Medicine; and most recently developed 'Changemakers Co Durham' together, a broad-based community organisation working on issues that most affect local communities to instigate real and meaningful change in peoples' everyday life.
“I feel I know myself so much better. It was fantastic to learn from the organisation and build knowledge together - I feel I was at last making use of all my skills and giving something back to society.” Student
Results and outcomes
What worked well
- Interest and enthusiasm from community members and organisations shows that there is a real need for these kind of events and partnerships
- Over 200 people in the local community have benefited from training so far
- There has been a shift within the University towards more acceptance of the importance of public engagement, and more willingness to see community partners as having a role in defining research questions collaboratively and expecting to benefit from research
What didn't work well
- Core funding is difficult to come by, and CSJCA's Development Officer is part time at present. As such, it is important that expectations amongst University members and community partners are managed
- To sustain the initiative requires a lot of effort and time invested from key staff, away from other activities and is not necessarily rewarded. With the current funding environment, it is challenging to secure funding for significant research proposals
- Ideally, the aim of public, community and business engagement is to embed it as an integral part of research and teaching. This can, at times, raise challenges in terms of introducing novel approaches to engagement, but it also creates opportunities and incentives. The Research Excellence Foundation has research impact as a key feature, but it is important to recognise that there can be tensions among different activities and sometimes also conflicts for staff. This emphasises the importance of ongoing support such as that provided by the Centre
- Changing current University research cultures towards less elitist and hierarchical models is a significant challenge
Funding, time, good relationships, trust, and commitment.
The organisers offer the following tips for anyone contemplating putting on, or becoming involved with, a similar activity:
- Building University-community relationships is a long term process that requires the investment of time. Good participatory research is slow research
- It also requires good relationships – again, time and demonstrating commitment to organisations and their goals engenders trust
- Don't gloss over differences in agendas between community and University partners; rather explore them and how to work across them
- Be honest in making commitments
- Keep channels of communication open
- Keep critically reflecting on what you're doing
Name: Dr Andrea Armstrong, Development Officer
Name of organisation: Durham University – Centre for Social Justice and Community Action
Telephone: 0191 3342232