Engaging universities and communities: putting people at the heart of what we do

by Helen Chantal Coulthard , recipient of a bursary to attend Engage 2019

The annual Engage conference provides an opportunity for people to, in their words, ‘come together to be inspired, challenged and refreshed’.

This year’s conference aimed to disrupt current ways of thinking and questioned whether engagement is delivering its potential now it is becoming a more familiar part of the higher education landscape.

I took away three things:

Focus on the things we have in common

The conference opened with conference delegates delivering stories of disruption and hope. They didn’t walk up to the stage but instead stood up in their seat in the audience and, under a white spotlight and a camera lens, shared sincere and candid accounts of a personal event from their life. I learned that, when someone is asked to share a personal account, whoever they are, they will talk about the things they hold close to their heart: their family, their homes and their heritage. I learned that this is the way to connect with a roomful of strangers; we may not understand their job role or their field of interest; we may not share the same political views or even come from the same part of the world, but by hearing them talk about the things that we have in common with them, we are able to understand them.

Allow everyone’s voice to be heard

Engagement has been driven by the need to listen and the need to share our power – Engage showed me that engagement and involvement activities are less about the activities and more about starting a discussion and allowing everyone’s voice in the room to be heard. I will use this notion when I share the results of our haematology clinical trials by engaging with people across the city of Birmingham who would perhaps ordinarily be excluded from our work.

Learn from those with most at stake

I learned that, as part of the civic ecosystem, universities depend on their local community so should engage with them and should be trying to be representative of that population. Involving and engaging patients in our work means that we are recognising the value in listening to the voices of those with the most at stake. I learned that when you put people at the heart of what you do, you listen to and learn from people, make connections and are then in a better position to make change and transform attitudes.

This blogpost is a reflection of my attendance at the Engage 2019 conference, delivered by National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).