Whitley Researcher’s Newsletter: Introduction

As with many organisations, the last 12 months have brought us new opportunities for collaboration and championing community-led research, as well huge challenges and uncertainties.  Since last summer, we’ve presented our research at national conferences and Westminster, written our first book chapter and engaged in research on a range of important issues: from young people’s future lives and parent-school relationships, older residents’ engagement with arts and culture, cycling, families’ access to food, community gardens and the impacts of Covid19 on local communities.   We’ve also had the pleasure of working with our fantastic undergraduate interns, Faith O’Rorke, Katie Ralph and Lizzie Sandeman who led our ‘Ageing Well’ research with the support of our dedicated University research assistants, Alice Mpofu-Coles, and Dr Lorna Zischka.  With their help, we’ve continued steering the research and evaluation strand of the Reading Place of Culture programme and explored the opportunities and barriers facing cultural organisations and BAMER communities working with older residents in Reading, with a report launch planned for Autumn 2020.  University of Reading students have played an important role within our collective since we started in 2013 and we hear from previous interns Bethany and Hayley in our new feature ‘Where are they now?’

Our pioneering band of Young Researchers, led by Paul Allen at JMA, have now moved into their formal examination years and have less time to engage in research projects. Nevertheless, they have not disappeared from the research scene and members are active in different settings such as the RVA Youth Social Action team and in supporting a new younger research group at JMA.  With funding from Study Higher and the University of Reading, and continued support from the Whitley for Real partnership, we’ve expanded these activities to Reading Girls School and Cranbury College.

These developments reflect a Reading-wide diffusion of the exciting concept of young researchers – the RVA Youth Social Action team have now completed a major research project involving some 700 teenage residents in the town. A soon to be published report will have considerable impact on youth voice and provision in Reading.  Our Study Higher work has involved engaging with several schools across Reading with an opportunity to enable students to undertake creative writing challenges and helped support young researcher approaches – for instance, in the Cranbury College pop-up bike repair plan – sadly postponed by coronavirus but ready to go as it eases.

Food for Families (a Reading-wide community garden project) provides another example of the spreading value of community based research – evident in reports including children’s involvement in horticulture and several evaluation analyses. This research outreach is also evident in the links with Thames Water to secure the development of Fobney Lock on the Kennet and Avon Canal as an environmental and educational research centre linked to neighbouring communities, including Kennet Island and Whitley. What’s noticeable about these developments is how they connect with and feed each other – a clear feature of participatory action research is its capacity to build trusted relationships, networks and contacts. Study Higher recognise this and have commissioned us to prepare a toolkit to enable other schools and communities to develop young researcher projects.

Colleagues from Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Reading have engaged our community researchers to support an application seeking significant funds to transform our national food system; some of the preliminary work involved local research in Whitley looking at attitudes to food consumption and access.  We are collaborating on this with our founding partner, Whitley Community Development Association (WCDA), who have expanded their food surplus scheme to deliver food parcels to 100s of elderly and vulnerable residents during the pandemic.  On Friday 5th June, one of our brave community researchers, Aneta, raised over £300 for the project by getting a buzz-cut!

We do live in unprecedented times and there is no shortage of efforts to make sure that we record as best we can the experiences – of tragedy, resilience and triumph – that individuals, families and communities have been through during the pandemic.  To this end we are attempting to collect the stories that we all have about how our lives have been so radically transformed.  A few of our community researchers, Sandra, Liz and Naomi share some of their thoughts in this newsletter.

Another way is through photography and JMA and the young researchers are now considering how best to organize this vital record – with a focus on people living alone and families.  The new young researchers have also expressed interest in a bike club and helping the Whitley Researchers in their planning to undertake a Whitley based project looking at promoting increased cycle use in the local community. It only seems right to make our world a safer and healthier place when so many have lost their livelihoods and so many lives lost.

As well as reflecting on past year, we also want to say a huge thank you to all our research team, participants, funders and partners for their continued collaboration, solidarity and activism. Thanks also to Sonia and Bethany for producing this newsletter. We hope you all stay safe and well.

Sally Lloyd-Evans and John Ord, June 2020