This case study has been generated by a collaborative research study of community-university partnerships. Part of the ESRC-funded Imagine Project, the study was conducted jointly by Susanne Martikke, research officer at Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation alongside Professors Angie Hart and Andrew Church of the University of Brighton.
This project is led by Lydia Lewis from the University of Wolverhampton and Clare White from the Workers’ Educational Association.
"Mutual Recovery through Communities of Creative Connection" is a research project that is part of a five-year research programme looking at "Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery: Connecting Communities for Mental Health and Well-Being". The overall study is delivered by a consortium of seven universities, including Lydia’s employer, the University of Wolverhampton. The consortium came out of a research development workshop hosted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the 'Connected Communities' programme in September 2011.
Lydia had been interested in adult community learning for many years and had done work on behalf of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), as well as being a member of WEA. So, when the AHRC issued a call for a topic that would be relevant for the WEA (health and wellbeing), Lydia approached the WEA policy officer about attending the workshop together.
Translating something that was developed in a workshop into something that will be applied with adult learners and community arts project members on the ground required a high degree of flexibility. Therefore the overall bid was developed in a quite general way, allowing space for letting the project leads shape their respective research studies. The WEA was comfortable with this approach, because the overall topic area was of interest and the precise WEA programme of courses at any given point in the future is not always very predictable. The WEA also trusted Lydia to advocate on behalf of it in some of the project development meetings, given the previous personal relationship. In this way WEA's investment of time and resource into the development was in line with the fact that there was a very good chance the bid would be unsuccessful.
For the WEA, the main motivation to collaborate with Lydia in the study was the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on everyday practice, as well as the prospect of having evidence of the impact of the training the organisation delivers in communities. Lydia’s approach of spending time with the students through an entire course inspired Clare White’s (WEA) confidence that the research would be in-depth enough to generate some valuable insights. The research has also tried to find mechanisms to add value to what people are doing on the courses. For example, instead of providing honoraria to individuals for participating in the research, some money was put into a pot to buy arts and crafts materials for the groups.
The research is carried out by Lydia, together with a trained researcher who identifies as a survivor of a mental health issues and services. Clare’s main role is as an intermediator between the learners, the tutors and the researchers, ensuring that everyone has the information they need. Clare also co-facilitated and observed focus groups to assist learners with these, at the same time learning about research techniques. Participating in the steering group meetings has enabled Clare to reconnect to the theory behind much of what the WEA does and how it links to debates in feminism, sociology and politics. For Lydia, too, the work on the project has been equally useful by allowing an opportunity to get a real insight into the organisation and how it works, as well as reconnecting her with her own creative practice.
From the academic point of view, working with a big national charity like WEA holds the promise of research findings becoming part of national policy debates, as the organisation uses the findings to lobby and advocate. In addition, organising the fieldwork was much easier, because WEA already had contacts and trust in the communities. For WEA, being part of the project has meant that it has been properly funded to bring learners together to reflect. Although funders sometimes allocate small amounts for evaluation, this is usually too small to do anything meaningful. At the same time, the cost usually does not cover the administrative cost of pulling workshops together. The research funding of the partnership, on the other hand, is fully costed. It is also a long-term project, something else that is a rare luxury in the voluntary sector.
Last but not least, the study aims to make communities that are currently invisible and unrecognised for their contribution visible, as well as reflecting on their own experience. Feedback suggested that in some cases focus groups proved to be more beneficial for adult learners than one-on-one interviews, because they helped people realise that they are not alone with their problems.
The Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery research programme is funded by an AHRC/RCUK Connected Communities large grant, no. AH/K003364/1.
Lydia Lewis, Project Lead, University of Wolverhampton: Lydia.Lewis@wlv.ac.uk
Clare White, Health Project Manager, Workers’ Educational Association: CWhite@wea.org.uk
Images from WEA West Midlands Region