‘Nothing About Us, Without Us, Is For Us’: Reflections on an Undisciplining Workshop

By Dylan Eastwood and Heather Mew

The phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ has a long-standing history within political thinking and is premised on the principle that no policy should be decided without direct participation of the people who are likely to be affected by said policy. This is the underpinning belief of Stockton’s Poverty Truth Commission, a joint venture between various local stakeholders to ensure that people with direct experiences of poverty are leading the conversation on policies designed to address poverty and its effects. This mantra, we believe, should also be at the heart of academic research, and so the purpose of the Undisciplining workshop was to consider ways that researchers can work collaboratively with charities and community groups.

As a small charitable organisation, Thrive have come into contact with many researchers over the years, often looking to retain some of our information, knowledge and lived experience of what it is like to live in poverty. Researchers want to chat about poverty in all its forms: debt, housing, universal credit, health – the list is endless. Often the process is the same: we let a researcher in, to which they then attend one of our coffee mornings with a pen and paper, taking notes on the things we say before leaving, never to be heard from again. We rarely get feedback or updates on where our information is being used. This is frustrating for us as a group – not only does it feel like a waste of our time as we often gain nothing from allowing research to happen at Thrive, but it is painful to allow a researcher into our group, to open our trust and bare our souls, only to be later left in the lurch. It was out of these frustrations that the idea for the Undisciplining workshop was born – how can Thrive develop better relationships with researchers, but more importantly, how can we ensure we benefit from these relationships and the time we give?

One issue raised during the workshop which we think is of particular importance is the need to conduct research over long periods of time, to establish reciprocal relationships, and to dedicate a significant amount of the researcher’s time to ‘being there’, where ever there may be. At Thrive we want people turning up to our protests, helping out at our events on the high street, and putting in the labour to support our anti-poverty campaigns. We understand that the pressures upon academics to conduct world-leading research with less time and less funding makes this a difficult challenge, which is why these activities cannot be an afterthought. Time for campaigning and on-the-ground support need to be written into scholarship proposals and funding applications, following full consultation with the charities and community groups researchers want to work with. And sometimes academics have to ask themselves hard questions – if they have been provided funding to undertake a piece of research but not allowed the time to do so collaboratively and build relationships, should they still push ahead and do that research? Should they demand the time of those living in poverty, or from the charities with over-stretched resources, without the ability to give something back in return? Indeed, should academics even be doing any more research at all on certain topics, or instead should they be attempting to source money to support campaigns, or to influence local and national government? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they are questions to consider nonetheless.

Having the opportunity to sit down with different researchers and students during the workshop in order to discuss these questions was a very helpful process. It gave us at Thrive a real sense of what academics want from charities and community groups, and what they are willing or able to offer in return, in order for both parties to gain something and develop an equal partnership. This partnership is vital and brings us back to our original mantra: ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’. One of the most striking aspects of this workshop was how little opportunity academics and charities have to sit down in the same room together and discuss collaboration and developing partnerships, and we appreciated having that chance for an hour or two. Colin Jeffrey, a Thrive volunteer, said of the workshop:

“I opened up the meeting on behalf of Thrive and Heather, and I noticed we had full attention not only from ourselves but the academics, and that to me was great. We did a few exercises, and here once again the involvement from both parties was spot on. The time we spent in the workshop was very productive for me, I learned so much from that experience and do feel good that the academics are wanting to interact with us in a better way”.

It is vital that we continue these conversations together in order to better relationships between academics and charities and community groups, and to ensure that the research process is mutually beneficial. For us at Thrive the Undisciplining workshop was just the beginning of these conversations, and we appreciated the willingness of everyone in the room to improve their research practices and build better relationships with their research partners. How everyone moves forward with these discussions remains to be seen, but we welcome any responses or suggestions from people who are attempting to build reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships with charities and community groups.

Dylan Eastwood is the social media manager at Thrive and is passionate about fighting poverty. Heather Mew is a PhD student at Newcastle University, researching working class resistance to austerity in collaboration with Thrive.

Originally posted 22nd October 2018

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