Community Participation in Professional Practice

The city dubbed the “Athens of the North”, with its vertiginous grandeur, is an apt setting for the new postgraduate course on Community Participation in Professional Practice at the School of Health and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh which I have just completed (bar the final assessments). At our first session, there was a focus on social theory and history and throughout the course a rich dialogue on participatory democracy, representation, power relations and ethics which made it clear that, as a practitioner, a deepening of understanding of what community participation actually means in practice is not possible without a grasp of the history and political theories behind it. But the course also challenged us to be wary of theory as a form of authoritative knowledge, since participatory practice provides a space for – and values – multiple knowledges and different worldviews, bringing together scientific knowledge with traditional, local and experiential knowledge to co-create a common understanding. Community participation has many dimensions and critical judgement and thinking are skills that a participatory practitioner needs to develop. Despite, or perhaps because of, the flourishing of participatory approaches in the last two decades, there is a dominance of unsatisfactory practice that is not grounded in learning and critical reflection – constant cycles of learning and unlearning are thus essential for good practice.

Having had interaction in the skype taster sessions with some of my fellow students prior to the start of the course, I was looking forward to meeting them face-to-face, as well as others who were all from different professions and backgrounds. This diversity enhanced the potential for shared learning from different perspectives in the small group of eight. The course leader, Tom Wakeford provided a relaxed and enabling learning environment with his inclusive, Freirean approach to teaching. For some participants, this was a module in their postgraduate course. For me, and others, it was a stand-alone course to learn new skills and gain practical knowledge for continued professional development. Our professional interests ranged from local food activism, community health and wellbeing, to international development, medical anthropology and youth work. Regardless of our field of work or study, what we all had in common was a strong commitment to positive social change and to meaningful engagement with local communities, and a desire to improve and enhance our practice. Collaboration between professionals and local people brings many new challenges which are evolving and which need constant reinterpretation.

So what is community participation? Flexible brainstorming on a definition was among our first tasks. This participatory learning style is, as you would expect, a key aspect of this course, where a mix of teamwork and whole group study accelerates learning and makes it fun, interactive and enjoyable. Due to the short duration of the course (three sessions of one/two days over three months), a certain amount of independent reading is necessary and students are provided with a reading list containing a wealth of material. Reviewing some of this literature in class sharpened our presentation and analytical skills and encouraged critical questioning. Sharing and reflection of our experiences with different methodologies gave us some practical insights and tips for real life application, which was strengthened by the participatory methods used throughout. We reflected on the processes of co-inquiry and citizen juries, as well as dialogic theatre, noting the benefits of a multi-methodological approach. Of course participatory practice isn’t just about methodologies – it is about behaviour, attitude and constant reflection and renegotiation – and most importantly good facilitation.

We were joined for some of our sessions by guest speakers – notably Jasber Singh, who is currently working on a community youth project and Sarah Keyes, a Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh with an academic interest in disability studies. Jaz inspired us to challenge our assumptions and to think more deeply about representation, the politics of difference, identity, race and integrity. Sarah presented her participatory research on peer support by and for people with learning difficulties, emphasising the co-construction of the model.

The split in assessment at the end of the course is 50 per cent practical and 50 per cent reflective. The practical part is not restricted by an academic framework – it can be visual – such as a video or drama. This makes the course accessible to those not necessarily skilled or experienced in traditional academic research or writing, and brings new methodologies into the mix.

At the time of writing we haven’t completed our written (or performed) assignments yet, but whatever the outcomes, this course has made me think deeply about my understanding of community participation to enable me to transform reflectiveness into reflexivity. To quote Robert Chambers  “Personal change underlies and is often a precondition for institutional, professional and policy change. Attitudes and behaviour have been constantly reaffirmed as central to good facilitation and participation. There will always be much here to explore, to learn and to celebrate”. (Reflections and directions: a personal note, Participatory Learning and Action 50, Chapter 3, pp. 32-33).

So the question still remains – as it does in research more broadly – why is this collaborative and inclusive approach to research and practice not embedded in all mainstream academic learning?

For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

On an end note, it is always worth reflecting on the unexpected outcomes of participatory practice. For me, one of the (many) unexpected learning outcomes of the course was being able to say “snail” and “panda” in sign language!

Nicole Kenton is co-editor of Participatory Learning and Action, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

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