Cross-sector approaches, collaborations and partnerships are at the heart of great local, social and national change, and being able to model that through the Civic University Network – at a governance, advisory, and delivery level – feels really important.

The position the Institute for Community Studies was in, as we entered 2020, and the position in which we now find ourselves post-Covid, makes the work of the Civic University Network both daunting and also incredibly energising.

And the question of how we best connect the network to more bottom-up approaches in local communities is fundamental to its success. But of course, this is not a new idea. The motivation to find ways of connecting (as institutions) to people and communities, is bubbling up everywhere; in business, in the arts and cultural sector, in the health and public sectors, with increasingly higher levels of support from charitable and philanthropic investment. This need to (re)connect and value the experiences, capacity and power of communities seems almost universal – although it is more espoused than enacted, at present.

Holistic and systemic change

Concomitant to this, we have seen a strong drift towards “place” (although it is worth remembering that this is not for the first time) with funders, investors and policy-makers increasingly thinking about change through the lens of place. Affording an opportunity to think more holistically and systemically about social change, and aligned to a widespread intent to tackle the geographical inequalities that exist across the country.

We also see a rise in models of ‘collective impact’ and approaches such as the “Buffalo Equity Roundtable” to support more comprehensive, multi-sector and community involvement to deliver localised change and reduce inequalities. And there is so much more room for conscious and careful experimentation to forge cross-sector partnerships within towns and cities across the UK.

The Inquiry into the Civic Role of the Arts also made a strong case for community involvement and partnerships in place; and fostering specific programmes to support the advancement of the ideas within it.

Local authorities, particularly in the new operating environment, which has seen the emergence of thousands of new informal community organising groups, is requiring them to re-think and work with changes to the community and voluntary sector landscape in a more distributed and flexible way.

Innovative grassroots practice

The Civic University Network can play a unique role in building the soft infrastructure to facilitate learning and exchange; to develop, test and share strategies and approaches for working in and will play a key role in convening and support activities which bring those different approaches together in a common view, to understand and codify ‘what’s working’ but also, as importantly, to spot new and innovative grassroots practice.

There is a clear role here for community research, and peer researchers. Local people trained and able to reach into the spaces and places where professional researchers and academics cannot reach with trust and credibility. More recently, as part of the Institute for Community Studies, and reaching back into the long history of the Young Foundation, we have been training and supporting community researchers for many years. This has now coalesced into an embryonic national network, standardising community research as a discipline and trialling ways in which community researchers work with academics – and other institutions who influence their well-being – such as property developers. There is a huge opportunity here to accelerate the growth of that research network; supporting communities and researchers alike as they find more ways of working for social change together.

And so for us, there are three key principles that underpin any strategy to work in place, and with communities.

  1. Start with needs, not objectives. Effective involvement and partnership with communities needs to speak to the expressed and sustained priorities and interests of those different communities. Co-creating research agendas with people and communities is of real value here – something we’ve been trialling at a national level through the Institute.
  2. Acknowledge wider ecosystems, diverse partners, and commit to work with them. It sounds an obvious point, but in a place-based partnership, one of the biggest mistakes is to see yourself at the centre of the work. You’re a part of a wider system, in which you are one actor. That means not always controlling the agenda (literally or figuratively) and having to take a place round a table, where you are not necessarily most comfortable or accustomed. If it doesn’t feel different and uncomfortable at first, you’re probably not breaking any new ground.
  3. Recognise the power of community. There is a strong narrative at the moment; that the community spirit that’s been so prevalent during lockdown is something that must be sustained to ‘tackle social challenges’ and provide support. This positions ‘the community’ as remedial capacity; whose job and role is to respond in ways to provide a civic safety net for vulnerable people. This is no doubt important. But it is very limiting – and evidentially sometimes off putting to those who want to become more civically active. There is also a capacity to reimagine and reinvent that exists within communities; they can be as strong a force for change as any other actor – and the capacity for social innovation in partnership with people and communities, demonstrating new models for inclusive, place-based change is potentially huge.

This work is long. It’s not a 12 month job or even a three-year job. Both at a network level and a delivery of agreement level, we need to hold ourselves to account for thinking about long term commitment.

Community Posted on: 23 July 2020


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