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Supporting community participation in research projects - part II

11 Dec 2020 | Cat Tabbner

Cat Tabbner and Monique Campbell are community engagement and empowerment (CEE) specialists within our team working alongside the researchers at GCPH, the University of Glasgow and our partners.

In this two-part blog they discuss the six contextual factors for supporting community participation in research and provide recommendations based on rapidly reviewing recent evidence published by third sector community organisations.

In the first part of our blog, we highlighted why understanding community contexts is more important than ever in supporting meaningful participation in research projects. The blog introduced six contextual factors based on a rapid synthesis of reports published by third sector community organisations.

These factors are: assets; money and resources; equalities and appropriateness; inclusion and accessibility; availability and energy; and changing circumstances. Our initial blog explored the first two of these factors and now we will explore the remaining four factors.

Equalities and appropriateness

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated mitigation and control responses are causing suffering and hardship in different ways across communities. For example, groups across Scotland have built a network to support the unique impacts of the crisis on Black and Minority Ethnic People and ensure they are treated equally. Young Black people and People of Colour Scots have described new and persistent forms of racism that they are enduring during the crisis and have called for race-informed and culturally responsive services among their recommendations.

Community organisations are also reporting that COVID-19 has “supercharged" existing inequalities, including for children and young people, and black and minority ethnic groups. New hardship has arisen for some, with many people furloughed and facing joblessness, perhaps for the first time. Community organisations have also reported that due to social distancing and self-isolation restrictions, working as a group can be extremely difficult or impossible. Many people are also experiencing bereavement and loss.

We are also living through an unprecedented situation of being asked to spend more time at home. The quality of our homes and our circumstances can impact on the capacity and ability of individuals to participate in research projects, whether we live alone, with family or flatmates, or in overcrowded households. See our blog on the role of home in a pandemic.  

With this context in mind, we recommend that research projects consider if they are asking for participation that is appropriate in the current circumstances. In particular, we recommend that projects consider how they will promote equality, human rights and anti-racism for Black people, People of Colour and minority ethnic groups in the participation they seek.

Inclusion and accessibility

Many groups have reported increased use of digital technology to enable work to safely continue within government guidelines. Carefully selecting digital platforms that best meet the needs of specific groups has been cited as an important starting point, see for example the online LGBTI community in Scotland. However, many organisations have also reported that people experiencing inequalities and poverty are the most likely to lack the equipment or the means to access digital platforms like websites, social media, video conference software and apps.

A blend of digital and non-digital practices (for example phone calls) appears to be an essential combination for successfully maintaining contact with marginalised and isolated people and who may be geographically dispersed. Many youth work organisations are using a mix of online and face-to-face work with young people. This blended approach has also been used for reaching a wide range of people. For example, a phone helpline and a website was set up by voluntary and public sector partners for people in Glasgow to get support during the pandemic.

We recommend that projects consider how they will reach the right people and how they will ensure accessibility in the participation they seek. We also recommend that the methods used promote inclusivity for people who may be experiencing poverty or who have protected characteristics, whether they are digitally active or not.

Availability and energy

Community organisations have been widely reporting that they are working flat out to help their members as best they can to cope with and recover from the pandemic, collaborating with groups in their networks as well as public services. Priority has often been given to helping those community members experiencing severe hardship and to providing support that complements city-wide and national efforts. For example, some groups, including housing associations, have been supporting individuals who are socially isolated and delivering culturally appropriate food for groups who would otherwise lack access to the food they require. However, some community organisations are also reporting that they need more staff and volunteers to provide the support that they have identified is needed.

We recommend that projects consider the availability and energy levels of staff and volunteers across community organisations if they are requesting participation support.

Changing circumstances

Community organisations are facing two main types of change associated with the pandemic. Firstly, COVID-19 has brought direct and indirect health impacts to bear on individuals, friends and families. For example, mental health concerns feature in many reports, including distress, loneliness and worries about finances and losing jobs. As a result, the composition of staff and volunteers in a group may change at short notice. Secondly, government guidance and restrictions are evolving and changing as required to protect the population from the virus. This means that working practices of community organisations' can be expected to change as the pandemic continues, including that restrictions may relax as well as tighten.

We recommend that research projects consider how the participation they seek can be undertaken during these sorts of ongoing changes.

Reflecting on these six contextual factors

In reflecting on what this combination of factors may mean for supporting communities to participate in research projects, we have several concluding points. Glasgow’s diverse communities are reporting different experiences of the pandemic and so the participation requirements of one group may look quite different to another group.

As a result, there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all approach. To enable equality of opportunity for communities to participate, it will be important for research projects to understand these differences and to have the flexibility to tailor support methods – not doing so risks exacerbating worsening inequalities. With this in mind, we have presented recommendations for each factor that are broad and flexible to encourage research projects to work with communities to understand how they can usefully support participation in a range of ways.

Lastly, even as many groups report increased use of digital technology and a range of practical responses to the pandemic, staff and volunteers also describe the human qualities that they are finding essential for maintaining relationships with, and supporting, their communities. Especially striking among these are values of social justice, fairness and equality and ways of relating to people based on empathy, trust and kindness to understand and support communities in the right ways.

What is also striking is the scale and pace of applying this expertise while maintaining the energy and resilience that this challenging work requires. These values and qualities are not new to community engagement guidance. Trust, for example, continues to be central to guidance on building relationships with communities in the National Standards for Community Engagement.

The values and qualities practised by research project teams, and the ways that they build relationships with community groups, are likely to also be crucial for supporting participation. This is why, even where research projects do not have a primary aim to support recovery from the pandemic, the approaches they use matter now more than ever because they have the potential to buoy up, even in minor but useful ways, the significant human energy and practical effort that is being expended across communities in our city.

While this energy and effort is impressive it is not limitless and it requires investment, as so many community reports call for. In this way, our recovery from the lasting impacts of COVID-19 requires us all to consider our contributions, including research projects.

For more information, these networks have collated helpful resources:

Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector COVID news

SCDC Communities Channel Scotland

BEMIS Ethnic Minority National Resilience Network

Glasgow Equality Forum

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Supporting community participation in research projects - part I

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