Co-produced research is increasingly valued by academics. But how is it viewed by community practitioners, especially those who feel jaded by years of fruitless consultation by policy makers and researchers? Sue Cohen, a long time community development worker, reflects on her time working on co-produced research projects at the University of Bristol.
“A few years after the EU Referendum in 2016, I organised a workshop with communities living and working in disadvantaged areas of Bristol, part of a broader event on the impact of Brexit on the city, led by the University of Bristol.
Austerity had taken its toll. On outer estates – some areas with no social spaces, no bank, no launderette, no supermarket – community representatives described increasing fragmentation in their communities, between majority British born white people living in the area and those perceived as ’other‘. Brexit only served to exacerbate those divisions. Open racism was no longer culturally taboo. Hostile media coverage on immigration had taken hold.
Meanwhile, in inner city areas, communities from different backgrounds and cultures were increasingly keeping to their own social settings. The impact of austerity on community infrastructures, meant many collective spaces had now closed down, the SPAN Study Centre for example, that I’d helped to set up 20 years before. People in the area were more and more likely to co-habit by remaining in their own ’safe‘ spaces, taking turns to co-occupy the park or the launderette.
Yet in the midst of these ever-increasing trends, shared spaces were being forged by the Productive Margins Programme across these very same areas of the city, with the focus on food and poverty, and the unlikely research question “who decides what is in my fridge?” This co-produced research project (one of seven in England and Wales) was bringing disenfranchised communities together from outer estates and inner city areas alongside multi-disciplinary academics from the University of Bristol, to reflect together on the regulations that disempowered and controlled and how they might be disrupted and transformed.
For all the Brexit bluster about ’taking back control‘, anger about EU regulations never surfaced in these settings. The challenges that did surface – food deserts and lack of transport on outer estates, cheap takeaways that take over the high streets and eating habits in inner cities – were more the outcomes of planning laws and neoliberal trajectories.
Working alongside the artist Anne-Marie Culhane and the Community Kitchen at Co-Exist, a number of creative practices developed from the research question, two of which – Somali Kitchen and the Utopian meal – embodied a form of prefigurative politics, disrupting hegemony, transforming physical and metaphysical spaces in the process.
The year-long celebration of Utopia’s 500th anniversary, inspired some of the best get-togethers for reconfiguring society. The Utopian meal was one of these, bringing mainly older white residents from the outer estate of Knowle West in conversation with mostly younger Somali families from the inner city, in a setting that neither community had visited before: Hamilton House in the artist quarter of Stokes Croft. The meal became one of the highlights of the research for some of the Knowle West residents involved:
“I keep going back to that [utopia meal]… It was something I didn’t expect. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it. Because I thought, ‘I’m not going to stay long.’ You know? And in the end, I don’t think I wanted to go.”
Immigration was seen through a different lens:
“Ours is a very old community. And there’s a very new community. Ours is dying. Theirs is growing. And we need to find out where theirs is growing and why ours died… Ours is a very old community so perhaps that’s why we’re dying.”
There were commonalities:
“ We’re not that different… Although sometimes life makes you think you’re different… They still laugh and have a joke. They’ve still got their lives; they’ve got their children; they’re worrying about meals for their husbands, and things like that.”
“The fight was about trying to put your stamp on what you want. Theirs was around fast food – they didn’t want their kids to eat junk food – and ours was around… We ain’t got a supermarket .. It’s not just a supermarket; it’s the whole kit and caboodle that goes with it, that’s going to make this community thrive.”
Somali Kitchen developed as an intervention against the proliferation of takeaways selling cheap, processed food around local schools. It ‘popped up’ at Junction 3, in a new mixed development beside the M32, where the City Council Cultural Services and the Housing Association had removed plans for community spaces and a café after the economic crash. Neoliberal market forces had effectively appropriated the site. Somali Kitchen both performatively and transformatively disrupted those regulatory controls.
On that hot day in July, over 600 people came to Somali Kitchen at Junction 3, bringing together demographics that rarely interacted, with new social, cross-cultural and cross-generational interactions taking place, euphoric for some:
“And I like that environment, the location, for the Junction 3. The smell of the city, and everybody comes to it. The spices. I still love it, and thinking about it.”
“It’s perfect – it’s the space to disrupt. It’s fantastic.”
Anne-Marie Culhane designed a Shed on Wheels – a Nomadic caravan – and co-curated the event with the Somali women’s group, and the community kitchen at Co-Exist, that included cooking, artifacts, spice grinding and cultural activities. Somali women have had little visible space to engage with the outside world in this way. They became visible at J3 celebrating the physical and social space, imagining a way of being yet to come. As a result of which, Somali Kitchen still lives on, as a social enterprise, referenced now by many agencies across the city, driving agency, popping up in diverse settings.
“What I have learnt from this research is that we have power if we come together, that we have a voice, and we can raise this issue if we come together all a community… Why there are so many [takeaways] if it is damaging our health?”
“So we all have the power to change this. And with the work of the schools, with the support of the BCC, with the support of the Mayor we can do something.”
I’ve been involved in three of the Productive Margins’ co-produced research projects. It’s hard to believe now just how much harder the food project was in the early stages. Looking back it’s easier to understand why. The community organisations were based in different areas of the city with very different demographics and ambitions. None of us, including the interdisciplinary academics had worked with one another before. After a long period of trying to resolve our different trajectories, one academic said the project was turning into ’a disaster’.
Nor were some of the Knowle West residents that impressed on first meeting. Having been endlessly consulted over many years with nothing to show for it by policy makers and researchers bandying around notions of ’empowerment’ and ‘co-production’ as if the very words become the thing itself, they were wary:
“ I thought it was a bit of a flop… I mean, they’re probably doing what they’re supposed to be doing; it’s standing back and watching to see what happens… I think I would have liked some more of their knowledge about how to achieve… That sort of hands on stuff.’
In some ‘co-produced’ settings, academics have been so used to being the observers, they can become as ‘ghosts’ rather than active contributors to the knowledge base. However, once the artist had been appointed – a power-sharing interview that became the highlight for one of the Somali participants involved – co-produced activities started to roll. The same academic that believed the project a disaster, now described the outcomes as transformative – that collectively we had created a ‘third space’.
So much has been said about ‘the left behind’ under Brexit, so little has been said or done about collective learning across difference. Instead, knee-jerk, populist politicians set people up against one another, reinforcing fear and stereotypes around immigration – the law is against you, representative democracy is against you. Media politics seem constructed for people to shout at one another, reducing critique to sound-bites. But then to do otherwise, bring people together across difference to learn from one another, to power-share, unravel the regulations that stifle and disempower – and in the process re-invent them – would begin to dismantle the ‘master’s house’.
Sue Cohen was a community development worker and CEO of the Single Parent Action Network UK for more than twenty years, and was involved in participatory research with grassroots groups. In 2013 she moved into co-produced research as Co-Investigator of the University of Bristol’s Productive Margins programme. Now semi-retired, she continues to carry out co-produced research in community settings on a part-time basis and is working on a book on feminist responses to Brexit.
Image credit: Ibolya Feher. Taken at the Somali Kitchen event at the Shed on Wheels, which was designed and curated by Anne Marie Culhane, artist on the Productive Margins food project, and co-produced with the Somali Women’s group at SPAN and Coexist.