All Being Equal: Engaging Communities In Research

Jenny Phillimore is Professor of Migration and Superdiversity and the Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) at the University of Birmingham. Her work encourages bringing community members into research and training them with the skills necessary to participate. In conversation with Bernadette McSherry.

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Bernadette McSherry
There’s an international trend at present to develop research that combines community skills and knowledge with the resources of higher education institutions. This body of work is known as the scholarship of engagement, public scholarship or community engaged research. The Melbourne social equity institute is keen to explore ways of engaging with communities and we’re trialling what we hope will become a program of community fellowships across the university.

I’m Bernadette McSherry, the director of the institute, which supports interdisciplinary research across the University of Melbourne which aims to ameliorate disadvantage. To find out more about community engaged research our guest this week is prof jenny Phillimore from the University of Birmingham. She has a background in environmental science and a doctorate in urban and regional studies. Over the past decade she has managed teams of researchers focusing on access to health, education, employment, training and housing integration, with a particular focus on integration and organisational change in the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Professor Phillimore, welcome to the University of Melbourne and to All Being Equal.

Jenny Phillimore
Thank you

Can you tell me about your work in general and particular with community researchers?

Okay well I’m the director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, so one of my roles is to support my colleagues at the University of Birmingham to do wide ranging interdisciplinary research around diverse communities. So frequently we’re looking at issues around health, around migration, around integration around faith. But I also have my own research interests, so these lie largely in access to welfare in superdiverse areas and migration integration and settlement.

In particular over the last decade or perhaps fifteen years now, with my colleague Lisa Goodson, we’ve developed a community research program and have published quite widely on how to do community research and how to do it in an equitable way. Community research is one of the really important themes that run through the institute for research into superdiversity, we call it our practitioner research program, and we provide pro bono research training and mentoring for individuals and communities and particularly community leaders

So why involve communities in research, what are the advantages?

Well, it started really with a realisation that as white middle class academics it was really hard for us to reach a lot of places. Genuinely engage with communities. We looked around the research environment and we noted that the majority of people were, they were consulting and researching with community leaders who clearly cannot represent everybody. So we wanted to do something that was a bit more connected ,a bit more authentic, and also with our interest in diversity we came across this issue of well ,which communities do we research? Resources are limited, we can’t afford to pay for endless interpreters, and it felt really artificial just going into communities, taking information and walking away and just doing our own thing with that. So what we wanted to do was develop some kind of partnership, much more collaborative approach, in which we involved communities in the production of the ideas, so what mattered to them. What are the key issues that are really going on here that they feel we should be researching? Helping to research, develop research agenda, but also to develop capacity within communities to do research not only for universities and to bring us this insider perspective which is so important, but also at the same time for universities to be able to give something back, ad actually develop the skills of those individuals so they can put them to use for their own careers, but also for their own communities or the organisations that they work for.

And what makes a good community research?

Well it would be somebody who was a good listener actually. That’s what makes a good researcher generally, community researchers are no different to hat. I guess it would be some3body who has a natural curiosity in life, and somebody who is well connected, who knows quite a lot about what’s going on in their community in general so that they can feed into the research process.

And how do you train and mentor community researchers?

Well it’s a lengthy process and it’s something that we’ve developed, technique that originated around the idea that to involve all kinds of people in research we needed to move away from an academic model. The reliance on written assessments. But at the same time we also wanted to accredit our researchers for their training. Many of them were new to the country, they maybe had never worked in the UK before, they’d never trained in the UK, they didn’t have any UK qualifications, so we wanted to sort of provide them with a package at the end of it, whereby they could have work experience, they could have UK employer’s reference – us – and then have UK qualifications, and they would be thereby more employable. So it starts with a recruitment process where we reach out and we try to go, in the past we’ve tried to go beyond your average community organisations.

So we‘ve used, particularly more recently, social media quite heavily, and then people come in we talk to them about what’s involved, to see if it’s really what they’re expecting, and we try to shape their expectations as well because what we don’t want is people thinking well I can do this training and then I’ll get a job at a university. It is hard enough for anybody to get a job at a university these days and certainly a PhD seems to be a requirement in a majority of occasions. And after that we’ll run a whole range of sessions, so maybe three days of initial training where we work on problem development together, we do a lot of role play around probing interview bias reflexivity, a lot of the concepts that we teach our postgraduate students in fact. It would be really quite difficult to differentiate what we do with our postgrads to what we do with our community researchers. The only thing that is different is the methods by which we teach – it’s a lot more interactive there’s a lot of group work. And the assessments are actually quite often based on observation or getting engaged in exercises.

Then at the end of a three day program individuals are allocated a mentor and that’s an academic volunteer – we’re not paid to do this – and the mentor and the individual will stay in close contact. Having already done some mock interviews with us the individual will go out and do their first interview, they’ll record it, they’ll do a self-reflection form, and they’ll summarise their findings and do a lot of work with their mentor looking at their technique, looking at the way that they were able to probe for the right information and put people at ease. There’s a lot of backwards and forward like that with their mentor.

At the same time mentors have actually got quite involved with researchers. So together sometimes they’ve written reports, they’ve done some lobbying work, the mentor has got engaged with the researcher’s community organisations, and there has been a lot of help with careers.

So there’s one notable example of an individual who really was very very quiet when he came to us, but built up a lot of confidence through getting involved in community research and heard about this need in his community that refugees were unable to access furniture when they gained their refugee status. They were given empty homes, and at the same time he was aware, looking around him, that people throw away sofas that are perfectly useable, TVs that they upgrade to the next best thing, so he started a social enterprise and his mentor has been really quite supportive over a period of a decade, staying in touch, providing encouragement, and I think it’s fair to say that Jimmy now really brings more inspiration to us than anything we can offer to him.

Now you mentioned just before that mentors aren’t paid for mentoring, that the volunteers. I wonder what funding sources are available for community research – is this something that is funded through the University, through external sources?

This is currently funded through the University of Birmingham. IRiS has some core funding from the university and the university knows that as part of this in our business plan we will run annually a practitioner researcher program. So that’s one of the ways in which we’ve been funded. And this has enabled us to really I think hone what we do, because we know the resources and we can keep on building on our developments. In the past though we‘ve embedded community research into many of the research projects that we’ve undertaken.

Currently for example I’ve got a big European project involving four countries, four different welfare regimes, and in each country there’s a community research program. So what we did is we travelled this Easter to Lisbon and we had a 2 day meeting in which Lisa Goodson, the leader of the practitioner researcher program, actually trained academics from other countries to become trainers in their own countries. Then subsequently she has gone away and she has provided all of the training materials that the countries need. So this is again a new development for us. We’re actually building capacity for people to do research in other countries.

And I wonder if you can give us an example of a project where this has occurred and given benefit to the community?

There’s a number I could point to but I suppose my own personal favourite is a migrant maternity project. We recruited I think maybe 4 or 5 different women community members with many many different languages between them to go out and identify and explore the maternity experiences of migrants who have been in the UK and had a child in the UK in the previous five years.  And quite frankly they were able to reach places that we never could have gone. And to discuss extremely sensitive issues.

The findings from this study showed many turned over popular belief that the reason infant mortality rates are high in migrant communities is because they don’t use antenatal care, they don’t value it. What this research was able to demonstrate was that there were so many barriers to women attending antenatal care, many of which were state imposed. And once we had this knowledge we were able to do a lot of engagement work, some of it involving our community researchers, where we went out to the hospitals, to midwife training programs, and also to policy makers, and explored with them the ways that they could work more effectively in partnership with community organisations who were doing good work in that area, who again we’d identified through the research.

I guess the happy ending was that we connected the community organisations with midwives who had no idea they were out there, and this meant that things like a volunteer doula service for example that will take women who are completely isolated and provide wraparound care and love and support and everything that those women are missing. And for midwives the ability to be able to make that referral and know that the care was there for the women, that they knew was lacking, really helped them in their professional work ,but of course the changes for women in the future and they can access this care makes a big different.

Thankyou so much for telling us a little bit about community engaged research. It obviously has very high impact in the communities that you serve and we’ve certainly learned a lot today.

I’ve been speaking with Professor Jenny Phillimore of the University of Birmingham.

All Being Equal is recorded at the Horwood Recording Studios at the University of Melbourne. Thanks to producer Gary Dickson and audio engineer Gavin Nebauer. Subscribe on iTunes to make sure you never miss an episode. I’m Bernadette McSherry, thanks for listening.


Produced by Gary Dickson. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. With thanks to the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne.