For many of us working in “community engagement*”, the arts, social enterprise, charities and (anything relating to) regeneration, 2020 was a turning point; a wake up call to look at the resources available to us and to evaluate our work; the deep cracks in the system having been made fully visible to us by the pandemic, 10 years of austerity, shifts in global politics and the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2020 I realised the extent to which I benefit from a world of privilege. This privilege (and some hard work, but lots of privilege) has led to me finding myself in positions of power. For example:
- being offered decent amounts of money to “engage communities” on behalf of authorities, institutions, developers and big funders
- being approached by funders to apply for grants
- being told that the work I’m involved in is creating a better world, based on (what looks like) evidence
- receiving awards or recognition for my work
- being invited / paid to talk about my work
- being invited to recreate certain aspects of what I’m doing in other settings, with other people
- being invited to join networks or steering groups to have a say in important local issues
[These characteristics of power are currently available to me via the worlds of the arts, design and regeneration]
Deep down, I know that people sometimes trust me with power and money because I’m “likeable”; I meet their expectations of how a person who “engages communities” should look; how they talk about their work and talk to people.
Some of that is genuine. I do actually try really hard to be approachable, transparent and to understand the needs of others. But lots of that like-ability is an understanding of codes; having the life experience to know when it’s time to code switch; and a complicity in much bigger systems I have, before now, been blind to.
This isn’t going to change overnight. I can’t change who I am – I don’t necessarily want to – but I can change how I work and who I work with.
In getting to where I am today, I’ve learned a lot about the public sector, and about how funding, community organising and social enterprises work. This is all useful knowledge. But I now know that this knowledge can be mis-used, and that it’s my responsibility to put things in place (and writing) to make sure I’m not the one mis-using it.
I haven’t actually written any Terms and Conditions for working with me. I’m not that professional. But when I do, they’ll be a slightly tidier version of this blog post.
Dear person offering employment,
First of all, thank you. I’m self employed with no guaranteed/PAYE income, so I genuinely appreciate every opportunity to remain self-sufficient.
Great to hear that you’d like my help with:
- inviting people to be involved in your new arts project or regeneration strategy
- or talking to members of the public about the re-design of a public space in their community
- or setting up a community organisation
Sure. I can help you. You’ll just need to read and agree to these [draft] T’s & C’s.
If I’m expected to: build relationships with groups of people from a community; help set up a new steering group; come up with a programme of public engagement activities; or just talk to people on your behalf… I will be ensuring that there are careful procedures in place. This may need to be a full safeguarding policy, or it may just be 1 sheet of contacts, informal procedures and responsibilities.
If your project asks for the inclusion of people from marginalised communities (ie ethnic minorities or people with mental / physical health issues), then more care may need to be taken to ensure our actions don’t cause any harm.
This harm could be: alienating people; distress caused by perceived pressure to correctly perform a certain task; excluding people; enforcing unintentional biases; perpetuating white privilege / systematic racism….
The process of creating project-specific procedures will help us identify any risks and agree on etiquettes for sharing spaces. There is no formula to getting any of this right, but by questioning these things and evaluating our processes, we’re taking a step towards minimising harm together.
I understand that when it comes to the ethics of funding, I’m going to have to pick my battles, especially in the charity sector.
If you invite me to work with you or offer me a fee to invite people to your project, I will look into how this work is being funded. I may have to ask you questions to better my understanding.
My choice on whether or not to accept a job will partly be decided on whether or not I believe your funding is directly contributing to any social, economic or environmental problems that you are trying to tackle. Ie. social isolation, improving access to employment opportunities, sustainability.
If I choose not to work with you and I believe that your money would be better spent sharing resources with existing organisations, I will point you in the direction of some excellent people you can support. [That’s support, not commission].
Members of the public have every right to be suspicious or curious about new, well funded projects. They will often ask questions and I will be as transparent with them as possible.
Just because we’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s working
One thing I’ve noticed, especially this past year, is that people in positions of power (money, influence, cultural capital) will rarely ever question their own methods of “proving it works”.
I won’t criticise anyone’s previous successful work for sport, but I will identify any tried+tested methods that seem to be based on assumptions, and from time to time I may need to call them out.
The reason for this is that often our methods of measuring success and impacts are transactional; attendance numbers and quick feedback surveys before leaving a venue; simple ratings systems to interpret complex personal responses; when you can use data to prove that your project succeeded in having positive impacts as big as social inclusivity, social mobility or anything relating to diversity; things get dangerous.
These assumptions allow us to interpret feedback as we please, and to make huge leaps in our reporting – giving us access to further funding, power and privilege.
Examples of common assumptions in “Community Engagement“
- When programming a series of workshops or “engagement” programmes; choosing what skills, opportunities and resources are most needed or desirable (often on behalf of people who don’t look or live like us)
- If people don’t come forward with negative feedback, it’s evidence that a project/activity was successful
- Attendance from people of a particular marginalised community = this activity was socially and culturally inclusive to said particular marginalised community
- Ticking a feedback box that says “I feel happy” = “I am happier because of this activity”
Assumptions happen as a result of unconscious bias, so I will do everything I can to ensure that any questioning of assumptions is done sensitively and constructively. The aim is to help build a layer of accountability into our work, and to adapt; together creating a safe working environment for constructive critiquing; where change is helpful, not inconvenient.
From my experience within organisations and running a CIC, I have a pretty good understanding of how much work (and money) goes into building relationships, forging partnerships, setting up steering groups, organising meetings, paying, feeding and safeguarding people, and maintaining group membership.
Unless you have funding in place to cover resources and infrastructure over a period of time, I can’t help you set up a new community group, community interest company (CIC) or co-op for your project.
I can’t do the impossible. You may have promised to a funder that you would include a certain local community or marginalised group in your project delivery. I can’t be held responsible for your project not delivering on promises that were made before my involvement, when there wasn’t the funding or infrastructure in place to provide sustainable, meaningful community engagement.
I can help you to identify existing groups or services you may wish to share resources with, in the hope of planting the seeds of new partnerships or community interest groups.
If you commission me to help you produce your public “engagement” activities… You get me, my knowledge, my time (for the agreed period) and my skills.
Working with me doesn’t grant instant access to the other organisations or organisers I’m connected to. In particular those working at a grassroots, community level.
Tech poverty isn’t a new problem, but many of us never had to deal with it before 2020.
All those social media posts and newsletters sent out before 2020; did we ever think about the damage done by excluding people from certain online content, or by wording things in a particular way?
Have we always tried to provide equal opportunities for people to access what we say / do online ?
If I decide to work with you, and we need to create online content or host online activities at any point, I will try to:
- ensure that there are basic online safeguarding procedures in place
- speak up if I don’t know how to make online spaces safe
- check content and session plans for social, cultural or language barriers
- help you build in checks to ensure meetings / sessions are as welcoming as possible – to all
Which takes us on to….
Language has always been a bugbear of mine. I used to think that Jargon was simply elitist and “icky”, but I’ve since learned that there is so much more harm that can be done by the language of well-intentioned communications.
You should expect, and make time for, consulting others (myself included) on any written content produced for sharing with members of the public or community groups. Whether it’s a simple flyer or a full newsletter; it’s important that we take the time to ensure that anything we publish online or in print doesn’t alienate people or mislead members of a community.
I won’t always have the answers, and we may need to seek guidance from others to ensure that we are not creating any language barriers in our communications. This should be expected when engaging marginalised communities or ethnic minorities, where English can often be a second language.
8.0 Challenging systematic racism
The recent shift in mainstream conversations about racism has completely tipped upside down the world(s) in which I operate and make a living from. Which I think is a good thing.
Since: the murder of George Floyd on May 25th 2020; the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement; the recent calls for accountability in the arts and charity sectors. I have read and reflected and I have tried to address my own complicity in the systematic racism that’s all around me.
This is an ongoing process and I by no means have all the answers. But post-2020, if you work with me, you’ll need to be open to talking about race and racism.
As is illustrated by all previous points, it’s now impossible for us to look at the charity sector, social enterprise, the arts and care work without seeing how white privilege and systematic racism can potentially be perpetuated by jobs like mine; “community engagement”; the role that allows powerful institutions and funders to speak directly to communities.
I won’t ask anyone to renounce their entire career. That’s not how I work. But I will challenge ideas if I think they are perpetrating systematic racism or unintentional biases, of any sort.
What I ask from collaborators, clients and funders is an openness to the processes of building in accountability: reviewing, evaluating and making space for things to change.
Together we can look at the work we’re doing and we can assess whether we should be trying harder to make our spaces and conversations more welcoming for everyone.
We can support each other in calling out biases.
We may occasionally need to step outside of our own comfort zone and adjust our expectations of what “success” looks like.
2020 and global politics have shown us that what we were doing before wasn’t working, so now it’s time to try something else.
9.0 Oh yeah. Reporting
Your targets are never going to be my priority, however much I play ball. I’m acutely aware of the fact that data on public engagement is what gives funders, commissioners, authorities and institutions their power, and I’m far more interested in qualitative reporting, from meaningful exchanges. Even before 2020.
I’ve never been good with numbers, ask my colleagues.
I am here accepting your money because I want to ensure that you are as approachable, adaptable and transparent to people as possible.
I am here accepting your money because I believe that the resources you have can be helpful to others.
And, as of 2020, I’m now here accepting your money because someone has to make sure that your project doesn’t harm anyone in the process.
I’m not here to give you good data.
[Ts & C’s DRAFT updated 18.03.21]
I’m very up for hearing your feedback and questions about where any of this has come from.
I’m NOT NECESSARILY up for spelling it out further. It’s the responsibility of all of us to check our privilege, act on the bits that apply to us and do the work.
*But why the constant sarcastic “Community Engagement”?
If you’re a newcomer to my blog, you’ll notice the sarci use of “community engagement”, despite it being the best description of the role I often do for work. If you’re reading this blog post, you probably know what I’m referring to.
I hate the term because of how loaded it has become and how problematic a lot of this work can be. Essentially “community Engagement” is a shorthand for saying things like….
- Working with
- Talking to
- Seeking validation from
- Needing consent from
- Consulting with
- Offering opportunities for
… members of the public, local residents or members of certain communities.
But why is this a problem?
Often, this translates as predominantly white led institutions / organisations funding (and benefitting from) outreach programmes that “Engage” marginalised communities (and communities of colour).
Some useful reading:
- ACEVO‘s report on diversity in the UK charity sector
- The PANIC Report on diversity in The Arts (including arts charities – commissioned by Create, an arts charity)
- An old Birmingham University report on diversity in Social Enterprise (shout if you know of a better resource!)
- A great piece on the lack of diversity in Arts Boards and why that’s an issue, from The Conversation
- Here’s a piece from The Atlantic on The White Savior Industrial Complex
These are just a few, I’d love to see some other sources if you care to share. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org