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Research and development COVID-19

Life always has stories: a guest blog from community researcher Elaine

3 December 2020
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4 min read

Elaine and her fellow community researchers are helping us address some of the inherent inequalities that limit the way research is carried out in urban areas, alongside The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP).

Elaine Brown
Elaine Brown
Community researcher, TSIP

Early life

Jamaican born, an early British arrival, I grew up in Balham and ran wild on Wandsworth Common. We were the only Black family on the road. My brother and I were the only Black children in our primary school; I fielded so many questions I didn’t know the answer to and spat back responses to the many insults directed our way.

We were lucky to own the house packed with a family to each room, sharing the bathroom, kitchen and card games every Friday night. My mercurial father was adventurous and would load his three children into the car and drive in any direction of his Sunday feeling: Brighton, Bristol, Birmingham. I too, mercurial, adventurous.

My parents were keen that I should pass the eleven plus exams but had no clue about how the process worked and trusted that the teachers would make sure their child did well; my father was, after all, an important man in his own eyes. In truth he was well known. His 1953 arrival gave him an early advantage into the workings and goingson of this new environment, and many people who arrived later sought him out for personal or business help.

I cannot remember any help or advice being given on exactly what eleven plus involved, it was just words spoken by teachers about learning your sums and spellings. Come the day there was an excitement in the air and disappointment on the papers.

Parties, so many parties as each group of new folk arrived, settled, made friends, found commonality. Weddings too, and the trials of the hot comb pressing sizzling oil into my ‘bridesmaid’ scalp; to this day I have to check that the hairdresser knows I need careful attention. Being the oldest in a house full of siblings and children, I learned observation and assistance, and had my own little life that would change by the middle of my teens, with the full understanding that I was not like ‘them’ – English people.

Even though by this time my language development was exceptional, I’d read every book the local libraries held and gained much from the streets too, though not from my own culture, as mum would have had my head off if I slipped into the vernacular.

I learned observation and assistance, and had my own little life that would change by the middle of my teens, with the full understanding that I was not like ‘them’ – English people.

Elaine Brown
Elaine Brown Community researcher

Life in Brixton

Thanks to a bursary, I began working in childcare at 16, and two years later chose to work as far from home as possible. Haringey council placed me in a Hertfordshire residential children’s home, where I came across a similarly aged worker washing a child’s hair with the plaits still in. I had never known anyone having their hair dealt with in this way, and it explained much about the child’s difficult relationship with the one South American worker who would release the hair first, then comb and plait it.

Then the father, whose first task fortnightly was to comb his three-year old son’s hair, no matter how he cried. These two, one mixed race, the other African, were the only two children who looked different to the other 20 residents. My surprise and understanding of the father/son connection never left me.

Years on, back working in Brixton, in my own family we juggled marriage, childcare, different work patterns and running a dance group at the newly opened Battersea Arts Centre.

I did a one-year course at The Tavistock Clinic then qualified with a Certificate of Qualification in the Social Work (CQSW), which meant progressing into having a greater impact on children’s lives. New skills, insights, and working with a wide range of professionals doing the best we could – and if we were lucky, we got things mostly right.

 

Community research

I’ve worked within the residential, fieldwork, secure, private and agency sectors in inner London, home and shire counties, and counted myself lucky in most of those environments. I have come to see that many of my childhood observations afforded me a path of sharing, striving, cooperation, problem solving, adventure and ‘making things right’ – which was how I fell into TSIP and community research.

I had seen behaviours I felt were intended to take advantage of research participants and people in the community! These practices caused me to comment, make suggestions, and I was drawn into the opportunity to become a researcher myself, and develop new skills. I had not entertained the idea that I had anything left to contribute and hadn’t expected a new working life.

New is challenging, uncertain, scary and maybe, tantalising, rewarding, life affirming.  Turning away keeps you the same and keeps things the same, while the new is always moving, onward. Without changing we have little chance of keeping ‘ours,’ whatever that might be – culture, heritage, relationships, for that too moves on. Guess who’s changing now!

I have come to see that many of my childhood observations afforded me a path of sharing, striving, cooperation, problem solving, adventure and ‘making things right’ – which was how I fell into TSIP and community research.

Elaine Brown
Elaine Brown Community researcher