IGP Stories

Participatory Visions

Gillian Chan

11 May 2023

“It’s not about empowering people, it’s about holding space”

Dr Leah Lovett, a socially engaged artist and senior research fellow at UCL’s Centre for Spatial Analysis corrected me with these words when I asked her about the challenges she faced in conducting participatory research. Leah’s words emphasise the subtle importance of reframing our approach to social justice and participatory research. Notions of empowerment suggest giving power and resources to communities lacking it. Leah’s rephrasing invites us to consider instead the deep wealth of resources, knowledge, value, and insight that communities already have. In conversations with researchers and community partners who conduct participatory social justice research, I consistently saw echoes of Leah’s advice. Many emphasised that communities have inherent knowledge and value, but what they lack is room to grow – the right environment and space to flourish. Enabling meaningful participatory research involves holding space and creating the right environment for community knowledge to flourish.

What prevents community knowledge from flourishing?

Between May to August 2022, UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, Co-Production Collective, and Institute for Education, funded by UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality, set out to investigate the practical barriers university researchers and community partners face in conducting participatory social justice research. Defined as participatory research practices (including citizen science, co-production, and participatory action research) that adopt equity, diversity and mutual benefit as critical values and desired outcomes in their approach, we wanted to understand what impeded the growth and flourishing of this approach to research. Specifically, we interviewed 21 research facilitators, university researchers, and community partners - all of whom had expertise supporting or engaging in participatory social justice research across a range of disciplines – and asked them what barriers they faced in conducting participatory social justice research, particularly in terms of funding and university processes. Drawing on the barriers identified in the interviews, a workshop was organised that brought together university researchers, community partners, and funders to co-produce recommendations for change.

We found that the obstacles research facilitators, university researchers, and community partners faced generally centred around three key challenges:

1. Relationship-building is under-valued;

2. Community partners aren’t valued; and

3. Sectors work in silos

People spoke of limited investments into pre-grant relationship building and short-term funding cycles that impeded the long-term and meaningful relationship building needed for participatory research. Moreover, community partners often reported feeling under-valued because of funding restrictions that limited their ability to be lead grant recipients, an unequal distribution of authorship and intellectual property, onerous and prejudicial university payment requirements, and ultimately, limited investment into their long-term development. These issues were compounded by the overall sense that community partners, academic researchers and funders tended to work in siloes both across and within their sectors, preventing common understanding and mutual learning.

How can we provide room to grow?

In interviews and subsequent workshop conversations, funders, community partners, and researchers recommended that funders and universities:

1. Co-develop a set of core values with community partners to guide their strategies and plans

2. Place communities at the centre of decision-making by allowing them to be lead funding recipients and enabling them to be a part of committees that make decisions on funding and research directions, as well as university planning

3. Ensure funding is more ‘relational’ by making applications more accessible and funding more flexible (e.g. allowing diverse ways of demonstrating impact and utilising funds)

4. Offer a wider range of funding models and long-term funding to support relationship-building

5. Support community research careers by creating community research roles and offering mentorship, training, and upskilling programmes as well as scholarships

6. Redesign university finance, legal and ethics processes to be more flexible and relational (e.g. allow for one-off payments, create streamlined processes for setting up community research partners as consultants, ensure shared intellectual property is the default)

These recommendations speak to Leah’s charge that we hold space – holding space requires that academics, funders, and universities make room, clear out the clutter in our processes, reshape structures that don’t work and ultimately, make way for the community to hold resources and decision-making power.

To find out more about study’s findings and recommendations, please read our Executive Summary or Full Report.

If you’re interested in alternative ways of working and recommendations for funding and research change, check out these additional resources:

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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