The borough of Barking and Dagenham has been characterised in recent years by the increasing social and cultural diversity of its population. A 2016 survey by the local authority, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (LBBD), saw just 72% of residents responding that they were satisfied with social cohesion in the area, markedly lower than the national average of 89%. Recognising that this was having negative effects on local people, LBBD was awarded funding from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to run the ‘Connected Communities’ programme, which funded action research initiatives to improve social cohesion in the borough.
‘Amplify Barking and Dagenham’ was a collaboration between the Young Foundation and Community Resources, an organisation local to the borough, which sought to address social cohesion issues as part of the programme. It aimed to get beyond the statistics by hearing from residents about their experiences of community and cohesion, and then use this insight to catalyse community-led action on issues that mattered most to residents.
The project employed peer researchers to carry out a borough-wide inquiry into experiences of social cohesion. Seven local residents were recruited and trained as researchers and supported to speak with over 600 local people on the topic. The project intended to generate new and useful insight on social cohesion in Barking and Dagenham; amplify the voices of residents that are least heard; and support local people to create new initiatives to improve social cohesion.
Over a 17 month period the project employed the Amplify Model, combining research, story-telling and action, to build a movement of people committed to tackling the issues around social cohesion. The use of peer research was central to the success of the project, bringing a number of unique benefits that added authenticity to the work and increased its ability to have an impact;
- Peer researchers help to validate the voice of local people, empowering the community to articulate itself authentically.
- The contacts and social networks of the researchers allow for hard to reach groups to access the research and share their opinions.
- The lived experience of the researchers of the topic at hand allows for a more nuanced understanding of issues and information during the research, reducing the potential for misunderstandings that are common in more traditional/professional research.
- Higher levels of trust and mutual understanding between peer researchers and respondents encourage more open and honest conversations, and thus more accurate data.
The research team utilised a range of creative research tools to have conversations with residents about social cohesion, including ‘pop-up’ stalls at local events and places; community mapping; interviews; and participatory video. These were used to facilitate meaningful conversations around issues that are often hard to talk about using traditional research approaches.
The data gathered was rich in insight and nuance, covering a range of different perspectives held by local people. For example, when discussing the reasons why people of different ethnicities did not mix as much as people of the same ethnicity, some respondents shared their belief that people in the community choose to speak in non-English languages to exclude other residents. Whilst others reported personal and traumatic experiences of racist abuse received in the community. That this diversity of belief and experience over a sensitive issue was able to be articulated openly by residents, is testament to the peer research approach engendering trust between respondent and researcher.
The embedded nature of the research process helped to produce useful local knowledge, specific to the area, that could inform conversations about how to improve social cohesion. These conversations took place in co-creation workshops with residents where attention was placed on developing solutions to social cohesion issues. These workshops got people sharing ideas for action, allowing residents to bounce ideas off each other and collectively create plans for local initiatives. The groups focussed on hyper-local actions, which were immediate and attainable for participants, helping to bridge the gap between having an idea and putting it into practice. Actions included organising community litter-picks for neighbours to bond over shared activity; and the creation of a local parents support group.
Working together to address shared issues helped build the capacity of local people to take the lead on improving social cohesion in the borough. Those involved gained confidence and self-belief that they can make a difference through their actions, skills in group-working, planning and community organising, as well as gaining new local social connections. As such the project was successful in forging a way for residents to move from talking about the issues to doing something to address them. This contrasts to traditional approaches to research where knowledge is often ‘extracted’ from communities with the task of finding solutions assumed to professional agencies and decision-makers.
If you'd like to find out more or get involved with peer research at the Institute for Community Studies, you can drop the team a note at email@example.com.