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Collaborating for Social Justice: a community-university partnership

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Who: Greg Brown is the Project Manager for Thrive, a community project based in Thornaby-on-Tees,  which is a partner with Church Action on Poverty; Kathleen Carter, Maurice Clarkson and Robert Moss are community activists with Thrive;  Sarah Banks is Professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences, Co-Director Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University and Beacon North East Theme Leader for Social Justice; Dr Andrew Russell is Senior Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Co-Director Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University and Academic Lead/Public Engagement, Beacon North East.

What: A mutually supportive community-university partnership.

Why: To research the important issues of household poverty, individual isolation and mental health in the local community.

When: June 2008 - ongoing.

Where: Teesside, North East England.

Project description

The collaboration between Thrive and Durham University is best described as a partnership, rather than a project. It was established through Thrive’s Project Manager, Greg, who was planning to extend the organisation's research work with households in poverty and felt he needed help to do this – specifically to collect, collate and analyse the data. So he contacted Sarah Banks (co-director of CSJCA) in June 2008 after finding her name on the Durham University website.

“My involvement with Thrive has been, and still is, a great privilege and enormous learning experience. The relationship started with Greg asking for help from the University. This could easily have resulted in a short-term offer of some student support and ended six months later. But now, two and a half years on, we really do have a community-university partnership. I have learned so much from Thrive that has enhanced my skills and experience. Cath, Maurice, Robert, Greg and their fellow activists at Thrive are very good at communicating tactics and approaches to community organising. But above all, their enthusiasm, determination and positive attitudes are uplifting and infectious. The life of a University professor can sometimes be a bit of a treadmill. In the company of Thrive’s community activists, anything is possible and life is never dull.” Sarah Banks, Durham University    

The research Thrive carries out builds directly upon the aims of the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action (CSJCA)  to promote and develop research, teaching, public/community engagement and staff development (both within the University and in the surrounding region) around the broad theme of social justice, with a specific focus on participatory action research, as Thrive has considerable experience of working with households experiencing poverty and disadvantage.

There are two strands to the project: sustainable livelihoods and community organising:

The sustainable livelihoods approach takes people as the starting point and examines how their strengths are enhanced or inhibited by political structures. These strengths are in five areas (human, social, physical, public and economic), which are required to build up a livelihood which is sustainable. Building on contacts made and data gathered from household interviews based on the sustainable livelihoods model, Thrive works with local people to identify pressing issues on which they can take action for change - such as mental health, jobs and training, financial inclusion, leisure services and participation.

Thrive is developing into a broad-based community organisation, using the same principles as the Changemakers projects in Manchester and Bradford that are also supported by Church Action on Poverty. Community organising is about connecting a diverse range of civil society organisations – usually in a geographical area - in order to move into the public arena around agreed issues.

Since the initial contact was made between Greg (Project Manager, Thrive) Sarah and Andrew (Co-directors of CSJCA), several mutually supportive collaborations and research partnerships have developed. For example:

  • Medical students worked as volunteer interviewers and mentors with Thrive during 2008-9;
  • The University provided a research consultant (Andrew Orton) to help work with Thrive to design stage two of the livelihoods research during 2008-9 funded by a grant from the Wolfson Research Institute;  
  • Funds were obtained through Beacon NE for an action researcher to work with Thrive for six months in 2009 to help collate and analyse research data; 
  • Funds were obtained for a part-time practitioner research PhD studentship through the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, 2010-2015 to work on sustainable livelihoods approaches;
  • Thrive provided a placement opportunity for a Master’s student from South Africa studying community and youth work during summer 2010.
  • University staff and students attended several training programmes organised by Thrive and Church Action on Poverty on Community Organising during 2008-10.
  • Greg, Cath, Maurice and Robert from Thrive were members of a Co-inquiry Action Research Group, working alongside academics from Durham and Newcastle Universities to study community-university research partnerships during 2010.
  • Members of Thrive were plenary speakers at Durham University’s Community-University Engagement Conference in September 2010.
  • Thrive and Durham University ran a very successful workshop at the national conference on public engagement in London, December 2010.
  • Durham University and Thrive sucessfully submitted a bid for funding to the Northern Rock Foundation for a two-year action research project to do further work on debt on Teesside, December 2010. This project started in May 2011

Purpose and aims

The aim of Thrive is to engage sections of the local community whose life choices are most limited by political structures, and enable them to take action for change. From Thrive’s perspective the purpose and aims of the collaboration are:

  • Gaining support from the University in research and community engagement with access to the university’s resources such as funding, venues and expertise.
  • Strengthening the research reputation and the profile of Thrive through an alignment with a prestigious university.
  • From the perspective of the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, the purpose and aims of the collaboration are:
  • Developing a partnership with an established community organisation with shared values and principles based on participation and social justice.
  • Providing support in the shape of people (e.g. students working as volunteer interviewers and mentors), and research expertise (traceable systems of data collection and storing, analysis and interpretation of data, research ethics and funding) that is of real benefit to a community organisation and local people.
  • Learning from a group of highly committed, skilled and experienced community activists about social and economic issues and ways of developing collective action to tackle these issues. This is enriching for staff and for students, working with real life challenges and political conflicts.

Identifiable outcomes

  • Students have learned how to undertake community based research, mentoring and community organising.
  • The capacity of Thrive to undertake research and to take successful action on important issues (such as doorstep lending) has been enhanced through developing additional confidence and skills in research and partnership working.
  • University staff and students have learned skills in community organising and observed its practice, which can be used in teaching and as a basis for future research projects
  • A sustainable partnership has been developed, based on mutual trust and respect, which is enabling joint funding bids to be developed for new research projects.

“This collaboration has given me a self-esteem I have never had. I refused university when I had the chance and always felt in awe of the people who worked and studied there but I learnt that I can contribute. The collaboration has evolved over time from tentative introductions to full involvement. A larger number of people from the University have been involved with the work of Thrive and they have attended our (Thrive’s) training programmes. The aims are now two way and we work as equal partners. The relationships are professional but with understanding. Our organisers are volunteers and the University respects them as equals.” Kathleen Carter, Thrive

What worked well

Of the mutually supportive and beneficial collaborations that have been developed over a period of two years (2008-2010) there are three examples that worked particularly well – 1) students working with Thrive, 2) community organising training and 3) Thrive’s involvement in the CAR group.


Three undergraduate students from Medicine and Anthropology worked with Thrive for a period of 6-9 months during 2009-10 as volunteer interviewers and mentors on the sustainable livelihoods project. This involved interviewing and mentoring training supplied by Greg and ongoing support whilst the students conducted one-to-one mentoring support for residents in their own homes. This partnership worked especially well because of the commitment from the students and the constant support from Thrive.

The students worked with householders in areas experiencing multiple deprivation so the comprehensive training supplied by Thrive was very valuable as it covered practical and ethical issues (e.g. going in pairs, calling Greg when arriving and leaving the household, confidentiality and anonymity) as well as research project background and research methods training (e.g. interviewing and participatory diagramming). Thrive supplied practical support as well, in terms of mobile phone cards and a taxi account.

The students were, in Greg’s words, ‘very good and proactive’ and in Robert’s words ‘they got a lot out of it and were very flexible’. The students found the experience rewarding and valuable for their chosen career choices (i.e. medicine). Working with Thrive counted as a placement for the Medicine in the Community module, which is part of the first year of their degree.

Community organising training

In 2010, two CSJCA community organising training events were held in Thornaby and Durham, facilitated by Greg and colleagues from Thrive and Mark Waters (Church Action on Poverty). The training was specifically designed for people interested in doing community organising (taking action for change in their own neighbourhoods and communities of interest). The two events were well attended (about 60 people in total) with representation from universities, community/voluntary sector and local authorities.

Evaluations of the events captured some positive responses (all were anonymous) and suggested that what worked well was:

“Hearing individual stories of participants and residents (in particular). Local activists fantastic.”

“The opportunity to network.”

“Looking at grass roots responses to community needs.”

“Considering how community organising can be applied to practical problems”

“Sharing and learning information and skills.”

Community organising training event in February 2010The idea for a Durham based community organisation emerged and between March and December 2010 there have been monthly meetings involving the partners and representatives from about 10-15 County Durham based community organisations. The group has being branded as Changemakers Co Durham and has a web profile and email address.

The community organising training has been successful because it has contributed to equality in the partnership. University staff and students are learning from the community partner. The University is providing practical support such as free places on the courses, a venue, advertising through internal and external outlets and independent evaluation. Thrive benefits from the association with the University as it gives their training course additional credibility. The training has also been ‘timely’, because community organising is now part of the Coalition Government‘s Big Society initiative.

Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research (CAR) group

Thrive have been involved with the CAR group from its beginnings in April 2010. The aim of the CAR group project is to share learning about co-inquiry as an approach to community-university engagement, with a particular focus on research, and to produce materials (co-inquiry literature review, a toolkit and articles in practitioner and academic journals) that will be of use to universities and community partners engaging in this approach.

The CAR project has been funded by Beacon North East and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and is coordinated through the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University. As well as Thrive, members of the CAR group include academics from Durham (including Sarah Banks as Chair and Andrew Russell) and Newcastle Universities involved in collaborative projects through Beacon North East under the themes of social justice, ageing and wellbeing and energy and environment.

The CAR group has met on five occasions to discuss in detail the findings from a literature review, case studies presented by members and the design of a toolkit. This case study was presented to the CAR group by Greg Brown, Kathleen Carter, Maurice Clarkson and Robert Moss, collated by Andrea Armstrong with additional material from Sarah Banks and Andrew Russell, based on a collaborative partnership under the theme of social justice.  

From tentative beginnings and initial doubts about their involvement, the Thrive members have become a key part of the CAR group. They are active, equal partners and proactive in suggesting new ideas. The CAR group has been such a success that although the funding ends in January 2011, it is hoped that the group will continue in some way.

What didn't work well


There has been no significant long-term funding for building the partnership between Thrive and Durham University. This may be regarded as a challenge, but one of the main lessons learnt is that short-term (several months to one year) collaborative projects can contribute to building trust in the partnership and lead to further collaborations.

For example, the involvement of medical students (6-9 months) was enriching for the students and helped Thrive, although because it was short-term it meant there was a limited role for them. Longer term research partnerships such as the part-time practitioner PhD research studentship (5 years) and applications to trusts/foundations to fund more substantial research projects are a way of gradually developing the partnership into the future.

“The links between the Thrive project and Durham University have been strengthened and there is the possibility of future collaborations between Durham University and Thrive on projects to tackle financial exclusion and make a real difference in Stockton on top of the progress already achieved. The strategic thinking of the University has been really helpful and their determination to engage with us has been a major contribution to its success.” Greg Brown, Thrive

Language and Jargon

One of the main challenges noted by several of the community participants is how to cope with academic language and jargon. From a university perspective this means being able to translate (the language spoken and written) for an academic and community audience working in a day-to-day setting.

For example, this might mean not giving a presentation, but conversing face-to-face. The lesson learnt is to use clear, jargon free language so as not to make community partners feel excluded. This also works the other way as practitioners have their own jargon, especially in relation to community organising methods, which an academic audience may not understand.

Top Tips

  • Community –university research partnerships work best when there are commonalities - for example, sharing the same or similar values and principles, with a determination to pursue an ethos of engagement/collaboration/participation. It is also important for partners to be interested in each other’s work.
  • A series of focused, short-term collaborations can be developed that are mutually supportive and beneficial, which contribute to strengthening a longer term multi-purpose collaboration involving research, training and student involvement.
  • Personal commitment and enthusiasm is a key ingredient to build and maintain community-university partnerships. For participants from both organisations, this often means giving of one’s own time and going the extra mile beyond the requirements of the job.  However, it is important to recognise when relationships are becoming too personal and identify where to draw boundaries. Establish boundaries early on in the relationship - for example, how and when to contact people. If the issue of a relationship becoming too demanding happens later on in the collaboration, recognise that it is acceptable to say ‘no’. It is important to think carefully about how much time can be given in order to avoid over-commitment or disappointed expectations.
  • Working in partnership provides opportunities for personal as well as professional growth for participants.
  • It is important to try and alter perceptions of academics and universities as stuffy and unapproachable by making both accessible. It is helpful to challenge stereotypes and an important part of this is taking care in use of language – ‘keep it simple’.
  • There are some key practical and ethical issues and questions to consider when working as part of a community-university research partnership -for example, how to share power and leadership roles fairly. Here an experienced facilitator is vital. To ensure equity in the partnership it is important to respect and value the different expertise brought by all participants (including expertise by experience). Confidentiality in local communities is not always possible and may not be desired. But it is important to discuss this early on and decide if ensuring anonymity of people and places is required and how it can be achieved. If publications and dissemination events are planned, outputs from the research should acknowledge everyone’s contribution. Be prepared for the challenges of university research ethics procedures for community-led research, which tend to expect research to be predictable rather than ‘bottom–up’ and developing over time.
  • Brokerage roles are an important part of community-university collaborations and research partnerships and this means knowing the ‘right people and organisations’ to make things happen.


If you would like more information about the partnership, then please contact:

Greg Brown, Thrive Project Manager,

Sarah Banks, Durham University,

If you would like more information about the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research project then please contact: Andrea Armstrong,