Person illustrates community engagement ideas board

Urban health

Shifting the Power in Research: Lessons for funders from Cape Town

23 January 2023
3 min read

Our Portfolio Manager, Gabrielle Allen, reflects on her time at a workshop all about bridging the gap between research and communities.

Since 2020, we’ve been delivering a partnership with the Wellcome Trust, supporting and developing projects shifting power in research to help address health inequity.

I was recently invited to attend the MESH Connectors Workshop in Cape Town along with Shaun Danquah from our partner Centric to connect with other organisations doing similar work around the world. The event was really inspiring and brought together talented individuals, agencies, creatives, and organisations playing key roles in bridging the gap between research and communities.

Three things to take away

1. Place is everything

What came through in volumes at the different sessions was the importance of place. When it comes to shifting power, institutions need to be prepared to centre the communities they’re designed to help into every aspect of their organisation. This can mean theoretically in their strategy, practically in their engagement with communities, and also physically in meeting people in their place.

As a place-based funder in Lambeth and Southwark, we’re fortunate that our geographical parameters are very clear. But we also have a big responsibility to ensure that the way in which we work with communities within our boroughs is not extractive or problematic, and that any interventions that we’re working on deliver better health outcomes for the people in our place actually experiencing those health inequalities.

We need to reflect on where we sit within our place and consider at every level where the power lies to ensure that any decisions made are as equitable as they can be. This is something we are exploring more and more when considering power in grant-making and how we choose the programmes of work we focus on in the future.

2. More stories, fewer spreadsheets

One of my favourite aspects of the workshop was hearing lots of anecdotes from a wide range of people recognising the seemingly small wins from communities being at the centre of research. Often, these wins might have been slow burners, or something that doesn’t necessarily fit on a spreadsheet as a big shiny number, but its impact can be huge – especially in building trust.

As funders, we can reflect on what we consider an evidence base and make sure that we recognise these kinds of successes, especially if they don’t fit in to the typical monitoring and reporting process.

There were also some creative examples of bringing research and communities together which made me feel particularly inspired. Bella and Sara, the team behind Planet Divoc ‘91, told us about a youth-led engagement project, using comic books to make sense of health messages. Young people designed a story about meeting aliens in outer space to show how different messages could be interpreted and test what landed best. At Impact on Urban Health, we’re keen to explore what resonates with different people, so it certainly left me with some food for thought.

3. Knowledge is power, but listen to that knowledge

We talked a lot about power at the workshop, exploring the differences in power sharing, power shifting, and power building. Shaun from Centric was reflecting on the saying ‘knowledge is power’, and the way in which we can raise up the truths of people in often ignored communities, but policymakers and changemakers need to be open to hearing that insight and doing something about it.

As foundations, we need to be open to receiving and acting on different types of knowledge. This should be the driving force behind how we make decisions on what to prioritise and what works for the communities we are serving when pushing for change. It takes work internally but ultimately that’s worth it.

We should respect that knowledge creation already exists within communities, often driven by community organisations immersed in this reality. We have a role to play in amplifying and investing in existing work, rather than trampling on other people’s toes by thinking we know better or extracting this knowledge without context or consent.

When it comes to shifting power, institutions need to be prepared to centre the communities they’re designed to help into every aspect of their organisation.

Gabrielle Allen
Gabrielle Allen Portfolio Manager

Things we shared

The workshop was also a great opportunity to share some reflections from our own work.

We highlighted some of the brilliant projects our partners are delivering as part of our Shifting the Power in Research portfolio:

  • Centric – mobilising and growing community expertise in peer-to-peer research to create a base for social change grounded in the nuance of shared experience. Centric is developing community research as its own approach, not a practice to add on to research, but a way of conducting research in and of itself.
  • The Giving Lab – building a community-led fund that gives local people decision-making power and money to spend on their own ideas. The Giving Lab is creating a culture of continuous growth where people make their own choices, build their own skills, and claim their own power, then pass it on.
  • Health and Social Equity Collective – working across academia, health and social care, and community organisations to build a more inclusive knowledge base and use this learning to dismantle the structures underlying health inequities. The Collective looks to build a responsive, dialogical relationship between grantee and funder.
  • Clearview Research – rethinking power in funding governance. When working with communities in partnership, funders often want the communities to have power, but this reveals an assumption that these communities don’t already have their own power. Are funders truly comfortable recognising what they should be doing differently?
  • Rooted by Design – exploring community research ecosystems. Acknowledgement that research already happens in communities and there is a need for funders to respect and amplify spaces where this knowledge creation is already happening, rather than assuming they are there to ‘fix’ things.

There was lots of synergy with what others are working on globally which was great to hear, and some of the themes from our discussion included the importance of putting the wellbeing of communities first as well as how you sustain this work in the long-term.

I’d like to thank MESH for allowing me to be a part of such an inspiring workshop. We’ll be sharing more learning from our Shifting the Power in Research portfolio in the coming months but do reach out to me in the meantime if you’re interested in hearing more. You can also read Shaun Danquaah’s blog offering his perspective on the workshop.

Knowledge creation already exists within communities, often driven by community organisations immersed in this reality. We have a role to play in amplifying and investing in existing work.

Gabrielle Allen
Gabrielle Allen Portfolio Manager

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