A new initiative developed over the last year is the Researching Community Stories project. This involves undergraduate students undertaking research in a local inner-city neighbourhood to co-produce knowledge with residents and stakeholders about the functioning of diverse communities and in particular to build understandings about how and why such communities thrive (or sometimes don’t). The primary methodology being utilised is the co-production, collection and analysis of residents’ narratives about their own community – with partnership building and collaboration being central to the research. A central idea motivating the project is that to really understand communities, “deep” methods of enquiry need to be employed in which residents’ knowledge and insight into communities are accessed, heard, and disseminated, and that any such project has to work hard to reach people and groups who may have been less likely to contribute to more traditional consultation processes. The work, therefore, as with other Storying Sheffield initiatives, requires the building of sustained and respectful partnerships, and a genuine desire to work with and alongside, rather than on, a highly diverse range of individuals.
Students at Holt House school
Researching Community Stories was developed in response to the work of the previous High Sheriff of South Yorkshire, Andrew Coombe, who during his term of office brought a number of stakeholders together in order to build a means to answer these and other questions. Julie Kenny, the current High Sherriff, has continued supporting the project over her term of office. Brendan Stone and David Forrest from Storying Sheffield represented the University of Sheffield and, working with colleagues from the City Council, developed a number of means of collaborating with residents to elicit insight into and produce knowledge about the community’s needs and assets. Some initial research was undertaken in the Spring and Summer, chiefly in primary schools, in which children drew maps of their neighbourhoods and annotated these with stories which gave insight into how they felt about particular locations, services, and events. David and Brendan then developed a course for University students to lead the next stages of the research. Over the last few months, undergraduates have been taking this work forward in many different settings, and already a detailed picture is beginning to emerge of what residents consider to be the pressing issues, and the best assets, for their community. Students have also been actively developing their own research methodologies, while maintaining a critical and reflexive assessment of the progress of the project, with a sharp focus on questions of ethics, inclusion, and analysis.
Undertaking research at Woodseats Police station
As a teacher in the University, one of the many exciting things about Researching Community Stories is that the students’ work will not only end up on my desk but will also be fed to the stakeholders in the project (community centres, groups, and residents; the City Council; churches and mosques, etc), and used to inform actions and policies, and enhance and deepen understandings. It’s also inspiring to see the way in which students have embraced a very different form of learning, and met the challenges of taking part in a real-life research project. As with the original Storying Sheffield project, this course expects a lot from undergraduates, who have consistently demonstrated their willingness and ability to learn in new and often highly demanding ways.
At Roundabout youth housing charity
Last Friday, for the final seminar of the term, Andrew Coombe visited the students to see how they’d been getting on. The students put together an exhibition of their work, and talked with Andrew and other guests about the project and their findings. It was a lovely occasion, and the quality and quantity of the students’ work was excellent – sophisticated, insightful, and creative. They have also contributed a great deal of knowledge about the best way to run such a research project, and this will inform its further implementation and development.
Andrew Coombe, former High Sherriff of South Yorkshire, talks with students Ellie and Sophia
Researching Community Stories continues next term with a new group of students, and there will be a handover event in February at which this term’s cohort share their findings with the new recruits. Julie Kenny and Andrew Coombe will be there, as will people from the City Council and the community who have worked on the project. We will be publishing findings and stories on this website and at public events as the work progresses, and also producing a ‘toolkit’ to be used for developing similar projects in different locations. Watch this space!