England & Wales, Scotland Health and social care, Welfare and equalities

Shaping Covid-19 recovery plans through community research

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Natalie Creary and her colleagues from Black Thrive discuss how local government can collect and respond to data in ways that are centred on the perspective of communities rather than reinforcing stereotypes.

This article is part of our Post-Covid Councils work on Place and Community.

The Covid-19 pandemic shook communities from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to the core. It exposed the statutory sector for their failings to address inequalities across the social determinants of health. During this time, events across the globe shone a light on Black communities experiences of state violence and have created space for conversations about structural racism. However, many have been left perplexed about how to address racism within their system.

How do you tackle racism and deliver better outcomes for the ethnic minority communities you serve? How do you know where to focus your efforts and resources? These are big questions which we have been working through for several years. On the face of it, the latter often appears to be the easiest to answer. Many would advise looking at the data and academic literature. Whilst these appear to be logical first steps, both are often structurally biased.

The drivers for data collection are not centred on the perspectives of communities; at times, data is framed in ways that reinforce stereotypes. Explanations for the patterns that emerge from the data are often based on assumption; they have not involved local communities in the sensemaking process. Similarly, the academic literature is rarely critiqued through a racial justice lens which would enable us to have a more balanced understanding of whether the conclusions or recommendations provided should be received with caution.

In our pursuit to narrow the mental health inequalities gap for Black communities in Lambeth, the Black Thrive partnership works to confront racism within its system. We have challenged ourselves to walk the talk and have tested a model of knowledge production which complements other data sources that would ordinarily be used in isolation to drive policy, practice and commissioning decisions.

We draw on our experience of developing a Community Research model which was tested during the Covid-19 pandemic. The insights generated have been used locally and nationally to inform policy and commissioning decisions. Karis Theophane, Community Researcher (TSIP) shares her reflections on working on Black Thrive’s research projects. Celestin Okoroji, Programme and Partnership Manager (Black Thrive) speaks to the data challenges faced by statutory systems and how community research may be a useful mechanism to support the sensemaking process. I conclude by sharing how this work has been used to inform strategic conversations and reflections on our learning so far.

Karis Theophane, TSIP Community Researcher

“After 15+ years of working in inner-city London communities who experience high levels of poverty and economic deprivation, you realise first-hand the restrictions you’re up against when seeking systems change. So, the question I ask is why fight to change something that was inherently designed to exclude, divide and rule? Instead, we need to build from a place of putting our self-interest to one side and put the service of others first. The great joy of research is the process of change which sits in line with the balance of life. Change is inevitable; it’s how we respond to it that matters.

“Our response was to build a model that challenged the traditional research approach. It’s a way of working that gives communities the tools and resources to share their own experiences and have ownership of their data. For too long, a lack of understanding about Black people has created fear and led to misinformed “solutions” to the issues faced by our communities. With this model, communities are put at the centre of defining their own issues and creating culturally relevant solutions to tackle them at the root.”

Shaping Covid-19 recovery plans through community research
Celestin Okoroji / Image: Black Thrive

Celestin Okojori, Black Thrive Programme and Partnership Manager (Employment)

“Regardless of Covid-19, local government and other parts of the public sector have needed to get much better at collecting, analysing and disseminating data. The idea of ‘evidence-based policy’ has become practically nonsensical because little effort has been put into interrogating the quality of the ‘evidence’. It’s against this backdrop that Covid-19 has forced local authorities to get better at collecting and responding to data and face up to severe racial disparities in health. However, collecting ethnicity data is just the first step in highlighting how race and racism affect our everyday lives. For some, even this first basic step is challenging.

“Beyond highlighting racial disparities, community research approaches enable us to develop an in-depth knowledge of the experiences local people have within and across services. Through this process, Community Researchers develop valuable skills and tools. The knowledge production process is made more equitable by sharing power. Working in this way, developing research questions and approaches to data collection and analysis with the community, enables a more nuanced understanding of the issues that lie behind simple race disparity statistics and the potential to develop solutions with communities rather than for them.”

Shaping Covid-19 recovery plans through community research
Natalie Creary / Image: Black Thrive

Natalie Creary, Black Thrive Programme Delivery Director

“Through our research we gathered rich data that has been shared with Lambeth Council to inform their Covid recovery plans. It has also highlighted where statutory organisations need to transform their services, to build community confidence in their offer. We have also used this research to shape the thinking of national systems around future policy and funding decisions.

“This model is by no means the panacea to gathering intelligence and enabling organisations to attend to racist structures within their system. Community research as a model is not immune to abuses of power, the silencing of voices or the misrepresentation of communities. Teams working in this way need to engage in anti-oppressive practice to challenge what knowledge is valued, how power is shared, and resources deployed.

“As we refine our model we seek to retain many of its benefits. Firstly, during the pandemic we were able to mobilise the Community Researchers and surface local insights at pace because they were already known to and trusted by the community. Secondly, they played a crucial role in guiding us to ask the right questions and advocate for change in areas that are a priority for the community. Thirdly, this process has highlighted new areas for inquiry that would not have been on the radar of the Black Thrive team or partners. Finally, this has reinforced for us that we cannot deliver systemic change without listening to, working collaboratively and sharing power with communities as part of the knowledge production process. Without them, it is hard for a system to truly understand the challenges faced by communities and hinders their ability to use the levers required to tackle entrenched inequalities.”

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