Last year, Islington Council launched ‘Let’s Talk Islington’, a programme of mass public engagement around inequality in Islington that reached over 6,000 people. Our central aims were to understand local people’s lived experiences of inequality alongside their priorities for the borough’s future, crystallising around the question “how can we create a more equal Islington?”
Our challenge was twofold. How do we empower those communities we don’t normally hear from or lack knowledge of – LGBTQ+ people, disabled children, people living in poverty and overcrowded housing – to share their stories? How do we considerately create a safe space and build the requisite trust for people to feel comfortable sharing the inequalities and deprivation they experience in their daily lives?
‘One size fits all’ doesn’t work
Facing this challenge, we recognised that there is no ‘one size fits all’ engagement strategy. For example, some groups (such as people with learning disabilities) may need a more tailored approach to fully express themselves, while survey answers tend to be much less in-depth than an interview. Traditional qualitative research can be an extractive process, lacking mutual exchange of knowledge or value between researcher and participant; the researcher has full control over the process, decides how the participants’ narratives are presented, and doesn’t necessarily build a relationship with the participant beyond the scope of the research timeline.
We wanted to do things differently, working closely with local partners to pilot engagement which embedded community power into the heart of the process. We therefore invested heavily in inclusive engagement design and participatory research approaches which built trust, connections, and empowered communities to have greater control over their stories.
As part of our design approach, we also identified a significant local data dearth on many of the groups we know are impacted by inequality. For example, other than hate crime statistics, we have very little information on the local LGBTQ+ population (particularly Trans people) in Islington; our understanding has previously been drawn from national data and research by charities such as Stonewall. The absence of large-scale data collection provided another incentive to ‘deep dive’ with small cohorts to meaningful explore lived experience and gain rich personal insight.
Here are three examples of communities we worked with…
Storytelling with Older People
Working with London Metropolitan University, we worked with a group of older people (over 55s) who regularly attend activities at a local community centre in a deprived area of the borough. Researchers built trust with the older people through a series of social lunch-club events, before conducting ‘storytelling’ interviews with 11 older people who recalled their experience of living in Islington using a personal memento. The older people all each had their portraits taken by a professional photographer which were then showcased in a public exhibition and permanently displayed in community centres around the borough.
London Metropolitan University and local filmmakers coordinated a project which trained nine LGBTQ+ people in documentary filmmaking techniques as a medium to express their experience of being LGBTQ+ in Islington. The project took place over the course of five 2 hour workshops, with continued contact between researchers and participants after the workshops finished. This visual research methodology is called ‘videovoice’; part of a wider body of Participatory Action Research (PAR) approaches which emphasise research and action led by the community. One of the important purposes of videovoice is to challenge traditional research approaches by acknowledging and minimising the power dynamics inherent in the researcher/research participant relationship. An important part of each LGBTQ+ videovoice workshop was to reiterate this aim and to encourage on-going discussion and storytelling. Participants wrote and recorded short films capturing what it is like to be LGBTQ+ in Islington, from the impact of homophobic attacks to an aspirational look at how Islington could be ‘the gayest borough in the galaxy’.
Puppetry with SEN teenagers
Pupils aged 11-16 from The Bridge School, a school providing support for children with particular special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities, worked with Little Angel Theatre to explore life in Islington through puppetry. This methodology exposed young people to new skills – puppetry – and broadened their horizons, as well as being a lot of fun. Each young person created their own puppet character and narrated their experiences in a short film, touching upon housing, financial circumstances, parks, safety and mental health.
Key learnings for participatory and inclusive engagement
Creating space for open, honest dialogue was key to understanding the depth and nuances of different people’s experiences. The focus was on taking the time to listen. Rather than orchestrated, structured conversations, we were adaptive and created an opportunity where people could tell us what they thought without there being a fixed agenda or method they had to contribute.
A crucial aspect across most of the projects was engaging in spaces in which people already felt comfortable and familiar. It also made life practically easier for both researchers and participants, and meant there weren’t any time, financial, or other barriers (such as caring responsibilities) associated with travelling to a new location. For the LGBTQ+ videovoice project, all those involved in the project – including the researchers, participants, and videographer who came to capture the sessions – were LGBTQ+ themselves, which helped create a feeling of mutual understanding and safety to open-up about personal experiences without feeling judged.
Creative methodologies were also helpful for engaging with young people. For example, the puppetry workshops for SEN teenagers helped the young people open-up and express themselves; they also genuinely had fun and it broadened their horizons with new experiences. Engagement isn’t just about the policy outcome: the process itself is important and can be personally valuable, even transformative, for participants and facilitating staff.
Participatory group work also helped participants learn from each other; in the words of one LGBTQ+ videovoice participant, “Listening to people’s experiences, I realised that there’s something bigger and important happening. Thanks Islington and VideoVoice to create this safe space for people from different backgrounds of the LGBTQ+ community; give us the strength and support to get out of our comfort zone; and motivate us to create these videos.”
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