Written by Froi Legaspi, a community organiser at Citizens UK, and speaker at the UK Science Festivals Network Conference 2021, who helped support the Community Buddies programme in Summer 2020. Froi tells us more about the community-first approach we took in this guest blog.

As a community organiser for Citizens UK, I work with civil society groups like schools, faith and community groups, to create local agendas for social justice, influencing decision makers along the way.

When I was introduced to the British Science Association's (BSA) Community Buddies programme, it almost sounded too good to believe - a programme to train and support academic researchers and community leaders to build a relationship between them with no prior agenda. The only thing each pair had in common was that they lived in the same area, and they were passionate about social impact.

After being invited to play a role, I saw great diversity in the participants’ geography, gender and ethnicity. It’s a real testament to the relationships built through existing community programmes run by the BSA’s Engagement Team, which has seen community leaders apply for small science grants and being supported in grassroots science engagement.

But a key question for the research and public engagement world is, "who decides the agenda?" Citizens UK and the BSA wanted to pilot Community Organising training to help answer this question. 

“People Before Programme”

We exist in a world where we're constantly being "sold" something, whether it's an interrupting ad break in the middle of a YouTube video, a robot telemarketer ringing our phone, or being surrounded by adverts at the bus stop. Because of the dominance of our market economy, we often see wider society attempting to adopt the norms and practices of the business world. This is true of communities trying to set up a jobs support programme, using a social media campaign to promote it, only then to have a few people attend. This is also true of universities and their researchers trying to get the public excited about their talks and presentations which, more often than not, results in few non-professionals engaging.

Well-meaning people assume that others care about the same things as they do.

"You ought to care about the climate."

"You should come to this talk."

This often leaves us preaching to the converted and the usual suspects.

Community Organising is a practice rooted in civil society with its modern theoretical frameworks developed in 1940s South Chicago by Saul Alinsky. One of its core principles is "People Before Programme". The idea behind this principle is that we should build relationships with people and, only then, collectively decide on our project or programme, rather than impose our ideas on the people we intend to help or work with. Through this approach, we benefit from better insight and the energy and capabilities of trusted people in our communities. People Before Programme is a useful philosophy for civic universities wanting to be alive and responsive in their research through building community connections. 

“Relational Meetings”

As practising community organisers our core activity is having, and training others to have, Relational Meetings, and identifying who should attend.

Ed Chambers of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) defines a Relational Meeting as:

"An encounter that is face to face - one to one - for the purpose of exploring the development of a public relationship. You're searching for talent, energy, insight, and relationships."

"A solid relational meeting brings up stories that reveal people's commitments and the experiences that gave rise to them... that animate people to act."

The only agenda of a Relational Meeting is you and the other person. In a relational culture, professional and non-professionals alike can discover what passions we share and what we are prepared to dedicate ourselves to build. In a world where we are constantly being sold to, this is a counter-cultural way of working - operating with a degree of humility, open-mindedness and respectful of where people are.

In the workplace, we are often compelled to work with others. In communities however, people have busy lives and competing interests. People are not obliged to care about your ideas or projects. In over eight years of experience of community organising, I find people will dedicate their precious free time and act with you in the context of a relationship rooted in trust and common cause.

Building community connection

It was fascinating to deliver a series of workshops for the BSA in Relational Meetings. There are tools and practices we use as community organisers that help us begin to unearth our Public Narrative, our public story of self, so we may better communicate our values to people with the potential to lead alongside us. Participants sketched out reflections on their Public Narrative and, after seeing an example Relational Meeting, they were invited to try one out, drawing upon their stories and reflections. The only rule was, “be curious about the person in front of you”.

Expectedly, the community buddies found this quite easy. Community leaders without a relational style of leadership don't often get very far. Among the academics, there was a range in the levels of confidence and comfort in having these types of conversations.

A common reflection was that, although these types of conversations were often inspiring and motivating, they didn't usually happen in the context of university life where conversations were often more bureaucratic and task-based.

A few specific examples of common interests amongst the community buddy pairs included:

  •       Supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter into well-paid science careers
  •       A long-standing love and pride of their town.

Research that is alive and responsive

At the beginning of a “People Before Programme” approach, there is no defined outcome beyond the seeking of potential public relationships. What's exciting is that the projects that come out of it will be rooted in a common vision between academics and community leaders. And where there is no common vision - that's okay. As in private relationships, public relationships don't always work out - that's also okay. But when they do, they can be very powerful and have huge potential to turn existing research projects into ones rooted in genuine community connection and social justice.

The 21st century is quickly becoming a post-truth world, with growing distrust and suspicion of elites and institutions. This is perhaps best illustrated in the scepticism we're seeing towards the COVID-19 vaccines.

A key challenge for universities and academics in the future is how to root the benefits of innovation and research in communities and places that are often left behind. This isn't always a question of engagement, but a question of trust - who still has it in our communities and how do we build it with them?

Join Froi at the UKSFN Conference on 19 January for a crash course on how to have conversations that build momentum within communities, and allow us to work more effectively towards social impact.

For tickets and more information click here.