Through frequent engagement, facilitated by the Youth Involvement Co-Leads Mr Niyah Campbell and Ms Through a series of Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) funded initiatives, the Engaging Environments project aligns topical environmental research with the actions, aspirations and concerns of communities within Birmingham (and elsewhere). This is achieved through connecting NERC (often applied) environmental research with resonant social and environmental justice issues. The project applies a best practice community organising habits to build lasting relationships and ensure the project objectives were cocreated with the projects community partners.
This series of initiatives has several partners: Citizens UK (Birmingham) and Earthwatch Institute (Europe) are core partners throughout. From August 2019 the work has also been part of national consortium with other academic partners.. Furthermore, the nature of Citizens UK, as a membership organisation, has enabled grass roots engagement with small community partners – including hyper local environmental organisations (Aspire and Succeed and B37 Project) and connecting to creative industry approaches to connecting to young black people (BLESST – see link to film later).
The project set out to understand how the practice of community organising can provide a tool for public engagement with environmental research.
The work spanned three NERC funded projects:
- Pilot study for Engaging Environments (ENCOMPASS): trained a small number of scientists in community organising, re-framed environmental research from a community perspective and trialled local activity.
- Academic Secondment: Based on this pilot a second increment seconded an environmental scientist to Citizens UK to embed environmental science understanding in their social justice work. Meanwhile, the role of institutional development, a core tenet of community organising, was defined from a university/HEI perspective.
- National Perspective: The third (and current) stage is the contribution of this organising approach to a national programme alongside two other engagement practices: storytelling and citizens science.
An integral element of all stages of this series of work was to ‘actively listen’ highlighting the consulting aspect of the work. The middle increment helped inform Citizens UK (and their 25+ members) of the nature of environmental research and provided resource to make this research accessible. The project also has collaboration at its centre, through working to bring environmental science and research perspectives to social justice work and providing perspectives and tools with which to inform research and education.
Citizens UK are a people powered alliance dedicated to challenging injustice and building stronger communities. Nationally, it has eighteen alliances and over 450 member institutions. Citizens UK, Birmingham, were founded in 2013. There are currently 28 members including universities, schools, faith institutions, and social enterprises. The University of Birmingham is a founding partner.
Citizens UK seemed like a perfect partner to consider how research in environmental science might ‘look’ from a community perspective this formed ‘phase 1’ of Engaging Environments: ENCOMPASS (Dec. 2017-Nov. 2018) where PI Dr Carl Stevenson, Research Associate, (Dr) Derren Cresswell (0.5FTE) and Dr Caroline Gillett, from Public Engagement, delivered capacity building, a local listening campaign and grass roots activities, with partners Earthwatch, predominantly around understanding and accessing green space.
NERC Innovation Placement
This activity continued with a NERC Innovation Placement with Saidul Haque Saeed of Citizens UK (Birmingham) being the host and mentor to Dr Cresswell (1.0 FTE), supported academically by Dr Stevenson. This Innovation Placement embedded an environmental scientist within the staff team and membership of Citizens UK (Birmingham). Furthermore, the Placement spanned the time between Phase 1 and Phase 2 (August 2019-present) of Engaging Environments.
Phase 2 was developed with a consortium of academic partners: University of Reading (lead), Newcastle University, University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan, University College London and the Open University. The consortium includes funding for staff time in Citizens UK chapters, in Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Thames Valley, London as well as Birmingham (c. 1 day per month). In Birmingham the phase 2 programme continues to fund a Community Engagement Officer for 18 months (0.6 FTE) in Earthwatch as a community counterpoint for the funded Post-Doc at the University (1.0 FTE – December 2019-Oct 2021). In addition, there was a small allocation to a PI/Co-I at the University.
The approach being used in Engaging Environments is Broad-based Community Organising, a collaborative process purposely seeking to bring together faith, education (school & university), social enterprises and union institutions. The rationale behind this focus is that institutions have longevity and bring people together within neighbourhoods. Community Organising aims to develop individual ‘leaders’ within institutions and communities and build relational cultures. This is achieved through training individuals in organising practice. The training has no entry requirements and covers the ‘habits’ of organising. These habits focus on building relationships between individuals providing a way for them to act together for the common good. The habits can be openly applied to a range of scenarios when working alongside others (See figure). This aspect of ‘working alongside’ is important – it is not working ‘for’ or ‘providing a service’ or ‘directing’.
Research, in this context, is based on a deliberate listening campaign comprised primarily from 1-to-1 conversations with individuals from one’s community or organisation. The purpose of these is to understand priorities and build trust. Further examples of research are small group meetings or neighbourhood walks.
Action is taken alongside others and can include ‘traditional’ research into a topic, meeting decision makers or others who would be useful to help deliver change, or in negotiating a change.
Evaluation is not only a way of assessing if change was achieved but also considering who relationships were built with and if people were developed in the process.
Community organising has evaluation ‘in-built’ into its cycle. The national project is using a logic model and is currently in progress.
There are also less ‘formal’ aspects of evaluating the work. Members of the project team have been sought out and asked for support and input into a range of aspects of colleagues’ work. For example, asking for contributions to the impact plans for colleagues’ UKRI standard and large grants; advice and support in setting up a network of community partner and practitioners around applied teaching and research.
People and institutions act on their ‘self-interest’ – this is to be expected and is implicit in the methodology – by understanding this self-interest via intentional listening we can align values and undertake action to create mutual benefit.
Community partners may have different starting points, but these can still resonate with environmental research agendas (see Figure at end).
To build on this it is useful to consider: what does green policy look like to people? It is important to listen to civil society.
It is important to question, honestly, when a research agenda drives engagement. Whilst it is difficult not to have an agenda if relationships can be built, where they exist it is possible to work more easily with people who understand your agenda. Without a relationship you just want their labour, or data.
What happens in one city cannot be directly related to other cities with different circumstances and relationships.
- University staff have co-trained 75+ individuals in community organising in Birmingham
- the project has held five, online, community of practice events establishing – a network of 40+ people (split c. 50:50 University-community partners)
- 10+ undergraduate reports have been written for community partners, and one MSc dissertation.
- Staff in the university’s External Relations team are shifting project-based learning to contribute to institutional culture change in public engagement.
- The strengthened relationship with Citizens CUK has, in part, led to their inclusion on the Programming Board of The Exchange.
- Research and Professional Services Staff trained in Community Organising including their presence on CUK, Birmingham chapter’s governance structure.
- Trained Environmental Scientist helping deliver governance and restoration of grade II* listed building and landscape – strengthening the relationship between the University and a historic community partner. The work continues: using a community documentary a next set of actions around green space are being planned.