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Cooperation in Engagement: A University beyond the University

Ting Yan studied a PhD in the School of Engineering at University of Birmingham. Her public engagement experience includes being an event manager (2017-2018) and an event coordinator (2018-2019) of Pint of Science Birmingham.

As an early-career researcher interested in public engagement, I was lucky enough to be supported by the public engagement research (PER) team to attend “Engage 2019”; a two-day conference organized by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). This years’ conference, held on 4th and 5th December in Bristol, was of the theme of “Disruption”.

The conference was programmed into four plenaries, offering a great opportunity for all attendees understand the current landscape of the engagement sector, including current issues or challenges (e.g. climate change; social inequalities), and discussing the ‘disruptor’ roles of us within universities or communities. Alongside the plenaries were a series of varied workshops, presented by engaged groups from different universities or communities. Some of the novel workshop formats included; ‘living libraries’, poster exhibitions, and global café taster case studies.. The program maximised the opportunities for attendee networking and the ability to tailor the experience based on topics of interest. Furthermore, the program ensured attendees were inspired to take practical, disruptive action to improve their engagement practice, and all in in a relaxed and welcomed atmosphere. Below I’ve shared stories from some of the sessions that inspired me the most.

What roles for universities?

Initially it surprised me when some community representatives described that connections between  universities and their communities  had only recently started to be developed. But after conversations with different attendees from different communities this seemed to be a common experience. In fact communities felt that universities rarely stepped out to reach the communities, though sometimes did encourage the communities to step inside. This was felt to be a common experience from all community representatives and across the UK higher education sector. In a rapidly developing world with deep divisions between cities, generations, transient and stable populations, and in the face of climate change etc., this session posed the question what new roles for universities? An inquiry report conducted by Civil Society Futures (here presented by Julia Unwin, Chair of the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society) found that

universities are rooted in their places and we are building resilience in capacity when we align the university with local history, heritage and culture instead of only treating the place as a place of research; it is mission-critical that universities make our relationship with the place and build the community wealth consistently over the long term”.

Universities must move beyond themselves to take the huge opportunities offered by a renewed interest in civil society. This means considering our physical boundaries and investing directly in communities, which will also help our universities strengthen or build brand and reputation, as well as help to attract the very best students and staff they need. After Julia’s plenary there were group discussions to consider the question: How can higher education institutions (HEIs) work more productively with a host of types of organisation committed to achieving social outcomes? The outcomes of the discussion focused on seven key points:

Considering the current political and social divisions across societies worldwide, and the apparent loss of  trust in large organizations (including universities), it is time to build place-based engagement in a co-operative way with community partners. In the words of Civil Society Futures report, it is time to shift power to the partners or the communities to form a shared decision-making process. Let people be heard and contribute, and trust people to provide insights, make decisions and run things; build deeper and closer engagement to provide real and meaningful relationships between each other, and be honest about our success and failures.

Place-based engagement in a co-operative way

Rita McClean (Museums and Heritage Consultant) used Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) as an example to reflect her experience as a museum leader. Part of BMAG’s aims are to ensure that co-operation, between the communities and the museum, shapes the museum itself; the diversity of programmes to attract  diverse visitors to the museum. The other leaders of this plenary, Jane Robinson (Dean of Engagement and Place, Newcastle University) and Mike Neary (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Lincoln) agreed with this approach and the three discussed how, in order to build good and effective engagement, that we must think about what resources and benefits could be shared with and shifted to the public through engagement? What do community partners really want and need from engagement? These questions were echoed throughout other sessions of the conference, for example the ‘living library’ of patient engagement, a case study of ‘getting (almost) a whole university to engage’ and ‘Social engagement as a tool for disruption – lessons from Thailand’.

Living Libraries

A Living library is where you can ‘borrow’ a person of interest for a one-on-one discussion, like you would a book on a topic you want to understand from a library . At Engage, the Living Library covered topics ranging from evaluation methods, long-term relationship building, working with charities and supporting researchers to work with artists and designers etc. I ‘borrowed’ Alice Taylor-Gee, who is a Public Engagement Manager from King’s College London working in patient engagement and using artists to help translate research to patient audiences. I asked how did she connect with artists? Did the artists and the researchers work separately or work together to embed the art and research into each other? Alice used her patient engagement experience as an example: here she reached out to artist communities she knew of  to ask if they had any interest in the research projects and began to work with those who did The key to the work, however, was in communicating that patients, medical researchers and artists can all gain benefits from the project: e.g. patients may know their condition better, and researchers and artists could develop new perspectives on their own work through embedding both work or ideas together in a creative way.

Getting (almost) a Whole University to Engage

Mutual benefit was also key in this case study from Public Engagement Manager, Lucinda Spokes from University of Cambridge. She used the annual Cambridge Science Festival as her example. The 2019 festival comprised 375 events and received more than 65,000 public visits with involvement of around 1,000 researchers. This seemed like a huge undertaking, given the complexity of targeting such a broad range of audiences and getting almost all departments and staff involved. However, I was excited that aiming to include everyone might reap huge benefits in terms of diversity of researchers and audiences.. Key aspects of the project Lucinda highlighted included creating large numbers of training opportunities (e.g. hands-on activities, debates, film showings, and public speaking) that were made accessible to researchers at all levels; from professors, to student volunteers and according to their personal needs. I wondered how best to research what the needs of the academic community are before creating training and how this could apply to my future work. I also considered how best to ‘market’ events to different audiences; whilst there is always appetite from audiences to gain new knowledge or skills where this is relevant, it can be hard to communicate what these are so we should try to clearly articulate where engagement might yield benefits which are helpful for careers or education. Again, this session underpinned the requirement for mutual benefit to be considered as a core driver in engagement to ensure as broad a range of participants as possible are encouraged to take part.

Social engagement as a tool for disruption – lessons from Thailand

Mutual benefit must be considered at the very beginning of setting up an engagement project. To enable people to gain the benefits what they want, there must be a clear baseline for the engagement. This is dependent on a good understanding of what community partners want, and what issues they face. If this is not considered and addressed, the intervention is likely to fail. This was explored in the session ‘Social engagement as a tool for disruption – lessons from Thailand’.

One ‘lesson’ from Thailand was based on research into Box Jellyfish toxins. Box jellyfish can cause painful stings to unsuspecting tourists so in this example information-boards sited on the beack were used to advise visitors to be cautious of box jellyfish. However, local citizens rejected the notice boards because they worried that the warnings would discourage tourists who they relied in to make their living. This demonstrated that different groups always have different perspectives and in this example, a lack of two-way communication, led to distrust between universities and researchers. Thus, it is indispensable to build an effective conversation between organizers and communities, in advance of running activities.  Another learning point was

it is vital to create a WIN-WIN situation and ensure the communities can gain their benefits.

The second ‘lesson from Thailand’ concerned a project to raise awareness and understanding of sexual harassment. Here ‘Magic Dolls’ were developed that included characteristics of gendered anatomy to help children to disclose traumatic experiences of sexual harassment or abuse. In this project an open and multi-layered approach to stakeholder engagement was key and a huge variety of groups, organisations, schools, parents networks and more were engaged to ensure this sensitive topic was handled correctly and led to meaningful and effective engagement.

The Parenting Science Gang

Face-to-face communication is an excellent way to collect constructive ideas especially for a small group, however sometimes this is impossible. Often, the method used to answer this is engagement through social media. The session  ‘Radical citizen science and its enemies’ provided a great example of fully using a social media tool to its full capacity. Sophia Collins and her colleagues conducted an engagement project called ‘Parenting Science Gang’, which tries to help bring science into parenting. Sophia and ‘the gang’ set up a public Facebook group page so that people with problems or questions on parenting could leave messages, discuss with other group members or talk openly with experts. This might sound quite common, however, the important thing in this project was the engagement extended beyond Facebook. Firstly, the questions and conversations were used to develop a ‘database’ of parenting questions and this database was analysed to explore e.g. what frequent parenting issues were encountered and asked? The results were then used to drive further engagement. Through this way of empowering the publics, academics know what themes communities are interested in, and what academic research they can develop and offer; whist communities have the chance to decide topics with their voices turned into actions, and seeing their desires being met.

Hence, it is necessary to build two-way dialogues both on-line and off-line; to explain our ideas, to sincerely ask each other’s’ thoughts and let people speak for themselves and express personal views.

As a result, universities will make real relationships with their place and build community wealth and trust consistently over the long term.

In all, my experiences at the conference demonstrated that:

What engagement activities I will carry out or do differently as a result?

It was said by the Civil Society Future that “an ally to recognize that they feel the negative effects of racism within society; an ally needs to feel that sense of justice in the same way they may feel injustice; being an ally is not about ‘saving BAME’ people, it is about saving our society from the enduring legacy of racism”. Above all, in the New Year 2020,

I am keen to focus on global engagement involving international communities aiming to increase and improve the diversity-culture and reduce the division between the new immigration or international students and the locals.

I am also interested in co-operating with the sport centre and running-groups e.g. the parkrun to run an engagement activity based on the annual 10k or half-marathon running. I am going to take following actions:

this year I would like to empower the communities and focus on ‘co-operating’ engagement activities, to let community partners have their controls back and voices heard.

It is possibly better to arrange a series of mixed evaluation tools depending on scales or types or evaluation questions of the activity. Among those methods, ‘Interactive method and love heart’ were supposed to be most effective ways to record the responses of all visitors. Other methods could be tried in short talks or small-scaled events. It was suggested that evaluation questions have to be confirmed in advance of planning the festival.

I used to join a 10k running organized by the sport centre, and participated in the ‘cannon hill park’ parkrun. It was found that after the running, some people did not know that further stretches would be helpful on their muscles; runners usually were happy to taking photos to memorize that moment; after the photo moment, most of people just went back individually. Thus, I was thinking what if we organize a sport-festival at the end of the 10k? Researchers and communities e.g. sport centres; medical schools can be invited to give short and interesting talks about common issues encountered during long running; BAME society groups can be invited to do activities representing their countries’ or cities’ traditional cultures.

How I will share the learning with others?

Beside the blog post, I am happy to share my reflections through reports, workshop sessions or forums, and apply reflections into the future engagement events. During the new events, experiences can be shared with the team.

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