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Case Study: Engaging with Communities

Arts- and performance-based collaborative training

Student-led project

Jayne Sellick, Durham University

January – September 2013

Engaging with communities is a collaboration between postgraduate researchers (PGRs) at Durham University, the University of Newcastle and Queen’s University, Belfast. It brings together community and university members to enhance participatory research skills, network and develop future collaborative projects.

Content of Skills Development programme

The Skills Development award, together with a £500 ‘Conference and Events Grant’ from CARD at Durham, enabled us to develop two FREE events, as well as provide 5 travel bursaries:

A two-day workshop (2nd and 3rd May) brought together 53 PGRs, early career researchers and community members with an interest in developing arts- and performance-based techniques in community-engaged research. It took place at St Anthony’s Priory, reinforcing the community-focused ethos of the event and creating a relaxing environment to discuss the promises, challenges and ethics of community-engaged research. The programme included eight mini-methods workshops; a ‘Voices of Experience’ panel; an open space discussion; an evening performance and opportunities for individual and group feedback and reflection. These were facilitated by academics and local arts- and performance-based practitioners with diverse interests ranging from age, fear, health, digital performance, theatre and memory, to body mapping, museum studies, music and much more!

A follow-up 'speed-dating' event is taking place on 11th June, in partnership with the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action (CSJCA). This alternative networking event provides community groups and PGRs the opportunity to discuss potential research synergies and future collaborative partnerships. There are 30 places. An associated 'speed-dating' blueprint is being developed with CSJCA; this will be reviewed by participants and freely disseminated, so that others may adopt the same structure within their own community or university setting.

Successes

Engaging with communities brought together PGRs from different disciplines over a common interest in and commitment to participatory research. By sharing local contacts, the student committee was able to generate an innovative programme of workshops with highly experienced arts practitioners. As a result of the workshop, a collaborative relationship is already developing with an academic who would like to implement one of the PGR-led workshops into their current teaching practice.

For the committee, the project provided experience of working across universities and delivering a programme with academics and arts practitioners. By taking advantage of a two tiered organisational mode, we gained valuable advice from an advisory board of experienced academics from across the three universities.

Challenges

During the two-day workshop a key challenge involved balancing skills training with time to reflect on how these methods might be used for academic research. Creating space for this dialogue was a fundamental part of bringing together participants with a broad range of interests and research experiences.

Working collaboratively was a challenge for the committee – we had to work around mismatches between expected and actual time commitment, constraints of communicating through Skype and challenges of managing heavy PhD workloads, to name just a few.

My top tips

  • Pre-application, seek as much advice as possible from researchers and other staff at your institution with experience of successful funding applications.
  • Look out for additional sources of funding!
  • If you are planning to work collaboratively within or beyond your institution, implement a selection strategy to learn about the skills of your peers.
  • Good communication within the team is vital! Make sure you have an agenda from the start, designate roles and responsibilities and ensure that team members carry out their assigned tasks to set deadlines. Reiterate the role of the project leader, and ensure that all members of the team respond to the requests and accept the role of others in the team.
  • Use dropbox or a similar tool to share files, meeting agendas, budgets etc.
  • Choose a venue that reflects the ethos of your event. St Antony’s Priory provided opportunities for people to share in a meaningful, active way which was beyond what had been expected (much of the feedback commented on the enthusiasm and positive atmosphere generated by the two days).
  • Be flexible with the event timetable – sometimes tea breaks and lunchtime need to be extended if people are having good conversations. Don’t hesitate to do this, but make sure everyone is informed of changes in the programme.
  • Feedback and reflection time during an event are good, but it is possible to overdo it!
  • Create partnerships and connect to existing networks inside and outside universities to ensure project legacy.

Further details are available at the Durham University engaging communities webpage.