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Working with communities for more meaningful public engagement

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Blog posts

Rachel Edwards

30 May 2024

Rachel Edwards, Public Engagement Officer, reflects on her visit to the Engage Live 2024 conference, and how we can keep evolving public engagement practices for a better future for all.

“How long did you take to travel here?” It sounds like a simple question, but a simple question can be the basis of a truly engaging experience. This was the start of an insightful two days in Bristol for the Engage Live 2024 conference. It gave me the chance to hear from a professional public engagement community that’s vaster than I ever thought possible.

The opening plenary set the stage for the next 16 years for academia, with Steven Hill, Research England, calling for ‘change not publications.’ He wanted to see transdisciplinary research become the norm, alongside co-creation including with diverse communities, to affect societal change. This strongly aligns with Research Data Scotland’s vision – to help researchers access linked datasets across areas such as education, health and the environment – and our efforts to include our public panel across our work. I knew we were in for a great couple of days. 

Diversity

Diversity is central to a public engagement professional’s work. We strive to reach a variety of audiences, particularly those communities that are so often missed. On the first day, I was amazed by the breadth of community engagement projects being showcased.

What really struck me though was the diversity of public engagement professionals and the research areas they focused on. Naively, I had never really thought about public engagement outside the scientific sphere, but in the space of one morning I travelled from scientific research to the arts, and then took a step back into history.

After the opening plenary, I found myself in one of the most inspiring talks of the conference. In Living Memory flipped the funding model. What if we start funding the community, rather than the engagement professionals? In Living Memory funded six community projects, each providing a unique insight into the stories of Lewisham history. We all communicate in stories, so what better way than to engage this way?

Communities know what their community needs are, and it was clear that, with a little public engagement professional support, they can achieve great things. Now, we’ve been inspired to explore how we can bring the same opportunity to Scottish communities.

“I had never considered working with the Higher Education system before this opportunity”

Beverley Glean, IRIE! Dance Theatre

Addressing the challenges

Across the two days, the core themes of the conference were accessibility, diversity, and the stories about the many challenges some communities and public engagement professionals face. One story came from Dr Tanvir Bush, registered blind due to a degenerative eye condition. She highlighted that, despite the disabled community being the largest minority group – a quarter of UK adults – we are still living within an ableist society.

On the second day of the conference, Professor Ima Jackson, Glasgow Caledonian University, spoke about her aims to address the systemic racism which is embedded in many research systems through a new anti-racism observatory. Receiving £2 million of funding, it will launch in late 2024 and will have oversight of the anti-racism approach in Scotland, act as a place to store collective knowledge, and support co-production.

Thankfully, the conference practiced what it preached and created an inclusive space for all. Dr Tanvir Bush applauded the event’s accommodation for her accessibility needs, but I also noted a quiet space for those who needed the time away from the conference buzz, gender neutral toilets, and rooms that were accessible to all. These changes only made the event better for everyone.

“It’s about ‘us’ not ‘us and them’”

Dr Tanvir Bush, Research Fellow, Bath Spa University

Still a lot to learn

Day 2 continued to put a spotlight on the struggles we still need to overcome and asked; ‘What about the people behind the engagement?’ We’re struggling too. New research on ‘Relational Practice’ found that people in relational roles, such as public engagement, don’t have the support they need to address the unique challenges they face.

We hold deep conversations with communities and often touch on triggering subjects. Over time, public engagement professionals carry the stories of many people with them. In the past, I have felt this burden and strongly support the call for greater mental health support for all of us in relational roles. 

“It’s always worth considering the kinds of people attracted to these roles. They lead with their hearts, which creates vulnerability”

Sian Aggett, Project Manager, NCCPE

Looking to the future

However, I wouldn’t be in my role today if I wasn’t happy to hear people’s stories and be a part of the change. The conference managed to engage the engagement professionals by showing us why we do what we do and why it matters. The event finished by asking the audience what we want to see in 2040. Like the anonymous quotes, I’d like to see a 2040 where the silos are broken, and where everyone’s knowledge is valued.

Find out more about how RDS works with the public through our Scotland Talks Data public panel and Public Engagement Fund

“Let’s remember what this work is for, and how beautiful it is when it’s done well”

Paul Manners, Co-director, NCCPE

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