Participatory research with Southwark Young Advisors

Maria* and Sydney from Southwark Young Advisors and Jonah, Lavanya and Olimpia and from Social Life) share some brief reflections on our research and engagement processes.

Between November 2020 and January 2021, Social Life carried out 10 in-depth interviews and two focus groups with Southwark Young Advisors from Camberwell, Dulwich, Elephant & Castle, Old Kent Road, Peckham and Walworth. This was part of a larger project that explores daily life in these areas, and the impact of COVID-19 on daily life.

We adapted the research design to the constraints imposed by lockdown restrictions, and all the engagement took place on Zoom or by phone. At the beginning of November, London entered a second national lockdown. As we moved into December, lockdown restrictions were relaxed for a short period. A third national lockdown started in early January 2021, demanding that people in England stay at home, except for limited reasons, and, unlike in November, largely closing schools and colleges.

Social Life offered a brief training on social research methods to two of the Young Advisors who took part in the research. Working with a member of the Social Life team, the trained Young Advisors, Maria and Sydney, facilitated focus groups with their peers. Social Life employed the Southwark Young Advisors for this research, we wanted to to tackle concerns about knowledge extraction and unequal dynamics between researchers and community participants. The team felt this led to a more collaborative, inclusive engagement process.

We would like to thank all the young people who shared their views, hopes, fears and aspirations with us. The report of this work will be published later in the year.

Take 1: Sydney

"The team highlighted the importance of having board questions and maintaining neutrality. They explained what good social research actual is and what it looks like, choosing questions and participates that give the crucial feedback that is needed.

Towards the beginning of the focus group it was harder to remain neutral, not nodding or commenting. As the discussion progressed, the task became more manageable as I was listening and saw the conversation develop and become more meaningful it was easier to sit back and play a more passive role, guiding the conversation and asking questions. The discussion progressed naturally and everyone was participating so it was easier for me to fulfil my assigned role.

I think my participation allowed the group to feel more relaxed and comfortable as I have a relationship prior so it would have eased them into the conversation. As a focus group facilitator, I was able to share the set questions with the group ensuring that they understood each question and being able to reword the question if necessary. This was my first time being a facilitator, so the experience was a new one for me as a Young Advisor. I found it interesting and at the same time I had to ensure that I engaged a group with the questions, kept the discussion moving and sensing when it was the appropriate time to ask the next question.

At first, it was extremely difficult having to conduct meetings online. It is difficult online especially when people experience IT problems or don’t have their camera on, so you aren’t sure if they are actually engaging with what is happening. Face-to-face you can see facial expressions and body language, which help to know how successful the group activity is. Working at home can be difficult as you’re in your home environment around your family, you can’t always get the privacy you need, free from distractions. It proves challenging to get in the right frame of mind, when you are not in the right environment."

Take 2: Maria

"Starting this journey with Social Life, I was initially intrigued as to how I could integrate my role as a Southwark Young Advisor to help conduct social research involving young people of the community. Following interviews with members of the team and a thorough run-down of how to conduct social research, I felt more comfortable and confident in my position of co-facilitating conversations alongside young members of the community. I learnt how to adopt into my role and understand the responsibilities I had as a key communicator in order to lead the session. With a variety of characters involved, I was able to bring everyone’s opinion into the limelight and make sure all contributions were being noted simultaneously.

Without the training, I wouldn’t have been as prepared or secure in my position nor would I have realised the importance of the conversation itself. The format of the session, via Zoom, was led by myself and another Social Life facilitator, where we allowed members of the group to discuss freely their opinions on living in Southwark. There were a mixture of agreements and disagreements that gave us multiple insights and we did not intervene to gain the rawest information possible. If at times myself or Olimpia felt as if the conversation was becoming side-tracked or not relevant to our focus, we were able to subtly readjust the topic back to one of use. Unlike filling a survey or self-reporting, the nature of the discussion felt more mutable and therefore ideas were more developed and concise rather than short-ended. I felt comfortable both as a co-facilitator and also member of the discussion because I knew my opinion would be classified as my own; there was no sense of judgment or bias within the group.

I believe this process responded very well to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current unprecedented times we are living through, by making each individual involved in the research heard and validated especially through the nature of online work which might make connections harder to grow between people. An amazing experience I am happy to have been part of."


Take 3: Olimpia

"An important lesson I learnt from working with Maria and Sydney, and the wider group of Young Advisors, is that researchers and policymakers alike need to learn how to listen to and empower young people’s voices. As one Young Advisor put it:

“[The council’s] design and words make them look like any other communication, like it’s made for corporate and not young people. Designs and wordings are important ways to reach out to young people.”

But it is good to keep in mind that ‘young people’ is not a homogenous social category. In our work with the Young Advisors we used a participatory research design. The value of peer research or citizen research rests precisely in this ‘learning with’. At its best, community or peer research aims to empower local knowledge. At its worst, community research amounts to extracting ‘expert knowledge’ and to a form of tokenism or fetishization of lived experience (for more on this, see Austin and Boyd’s study). 

Knowing when to step back and reassess one’s position in the field is key in participatory research. During the online training and focus groups, the team worked hard to make sure that the Zoom ‘rooms’ were welcoming spaces for co-producing knowledge about young people’s everyday lives in Southwark. In those in-depth conversations, we got to hear a plurality of views about local assets and challenges, and about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people’s everyday lives. As importantly, we learned about young people’s thoughts on how the research findings could benefit other young people living, studying and working in Southwark.

I particularly appreciated young people’s questions about the outputs of the research. Their questions and feedback reminded me of what the Social Research Association defines as high quality social research. Simply put, it highlights that good social research is ‘useful’ (it should have some practical relevance and researchers should clearly spell out how they expect their research to contribute) and ‘useable’ (research outputs should be readily actionable).

Above all, working with the Southwark Young Advisors during the COVID-19 pandemic taught me that a sustained and committed consultation process is key to shaping young people’s perceptions of local change, collective control and feelings of belonging." 

Take 4: Lavanya

"The participatory research with the Southwark Young Advisors was my first experience of engagement at Social Life, which made the process seem a bit daunting at first. The nerves however were dampened by the approaches we took to carry out the in-depth interviews. We used photographs and maps allowing the Young Advisors to narrate their experiences rather than just answer questions. The interviews were laid back and the conversation developed organically.

The interviews set the stage for the two focus groups. Seeing familiar faces, introducing each other once more, and ironing out technical issues put everyone at ease. The participants in the virtual room were more aware of others, asking and presenting visual cues before speaking, which allowed the ‘space’ to be democratic. This took away many of our early worries of the online platform not recreating the benefits of a physical room for discussion. To our advantage, the participants were seasoned Zoom professionals.

Prior to the interviews and focus groups, the team discussed and set aside perceptions we had of interacting with young people. This was an important step to ensure we dispel concerns about communicating with a young demographic.

The participants were engaged and keen to dig deeper to reflect on their lived experiences in conversations with peers. They were often candid and always eloquent when speaking about their lived experiences. We were cautious to identify this is a select group of individuals from the wider young demographic, as they may not represent the experiences of the youth in Southwark. They were in a unique position, working with the local council as Young Advisors. However, throughout both engagements, it was clear that they were able to relate and relay more general experiences of the young people. Their association with the Council became an important tool to enable the interaction and it did not constrain their narratives."

Take 5: Jonah

"Initially during the focus group, the headaches of Zoom were hard to ignore; one participant struggled to connect for the first 15 minutes, another’s connection was too weak to be heard quite properly, and others would periodically disconnect and reconnect. Despite these obvious pitfalls and the exclusionary aspects of an online format, there were a few silver linings to be found. We encouraged each participant to arrange their screen in ‘tile’ view so everyone was visible, and began with a relaxed pace, embracing awkward silences. This arguably led to a more democratic arrangement of perspectives than a physical room could offer, and as one participant reflected, led to easier expression:

“I feel like it’s been very relaxed; when it’s not a tense environment you talk from the heart more. In other calls we’ve had, because there are so many professionals you have to fight to speak, and then when you do get a chance to speak you want to say everything at once and rush through it.”

The subject of the discussion, whilst at first being fairly light (it was 6pm on a Friday after all), developed nicely into quite personal, collective conversations, even when there was disagreement. A key subject was on the phenomenon of increasingly online lives and the fatigue and anxiety that has brought, whether through school (changing power dynamics of online classes with teachers predicting grades), or through social lives (social media being the new school yard). Many felt parents and teachers understandably struggled to empathize with this new world, and that councils and regeneration programs needed to engage with such realities if they truly wanted young people’s involvement.

Having Sydney and Maria work with us as co-facilitators brought many benefits; they had grown up in Southwark, were actively engaged in local schools and communities, and were familiar with the other Young Advisors. This experience helped develop a topic guide together using language that would translate well, and also to mediate the focus group discussions to meaningful points. Having Maria and Sydney actually employed alongside us also reduced the fear of unethical extraction, since we were no longer simply researcher-subject, but more colleagues, collaboratively attempting to solve the riddle of inclusive engagement. This ultimately resulted in a process that whilst also feeling far more effective, was also highly enjoyable too."


*Note: The name has been changed to ensure the Young Advisor’s anonymity, ‘Maria’ is a pseudonym.