The eerie streets of the 1980s inner-city Leicester were a deprived part of the East Midlands which during the Thatcherite years, represented one of the manner urban conurbations. It was impacted by industrial decline, racial tension and police violence against Black youth. It was against this backdrop that movements orientating towards trade union activism and anti-apartheid sentiment thrived.
It was in Leicester as a child where I first became familiar with the oppression of a people based on race, as we gathered around the television watching Black people take on a racist power structure and be severely treated as a result. This was the first-time I began to hear terminologies such as ‘uprising’, ‘resistance’, ‘liberation’, ‘struggle’, ‘equity’, ‘equality’, ‘ownership’ and ‘shifting power’. Terms which were utilised alongside images of schoolchildren and young people being shot at and killed while watching Soweto and Johannesburg, plus hearing about Sharpeville.
These were powerful images which we observed daily. People were walking around with clothing identifying with the cause, and people began reading books related to the anti-apartheid struggle. Musicians and cultural icons began to associate themselves with that anti-apartheid messaging, from Eddie Grant to Bono.
This was the first time we heard this language used which is regurgitated frequently today: ‘activism’, ‘solidarity’, ‘equality’ and ‘liberation’ - terms which are in vogue today as being from the nomenclature of equality. During the 1980s, Black communities were also indulging in forms of proto-‘co-production’ and ‘co-design’ for instance, yet this was regarded as subversive as it was thought it was a mere exercise in plotting seditious activity.
The criminalisation of the anti-apartheid movements in the 1980s eventually gave way to mainstream acceptance and incorporated into a standard discourse. Moreover, the reality of the economic demise of a racist state and political structure became evident as South Africa effectively became an international pariah mired by cultural, political and economic banishment across the globe. All this feeds into the work which Centric are conducting today.
This month I had the honour of being present at the Connectors in Engagement Workshop, an African-led health engagement event in Cape Town and take learnings from the UK over to South Africa – which had inspired efforts to decolonize power structures and processes. This was the first Black-led conference I had ever attended and I had the opportunity to hear about amazing developments from other parts of the African diaspora.
From my perspective, it felt liberating as I did not feel the pressures of micro-aggression, racism and prejudice. There was no sense of an inferiority complex on my part or feelings of being unheard. I had none of these sentiments as I felt at home and free; this land symbolised freedom for so many of us during the 1980s.
It was a platform to talk about injustice in an authentic manner. It encouraged me to reflect on how we hold conferences in the UK and frameworks which are more African-centred. It was refreshing to not have feelings of being monitored or assessed, and there was no lingering trauma present. I felt at home, bolstered by the fact I was comfortable to even ask attendees to do stretches upon commencement of afternoon sessions!
While going for morning runs with locals, I discussed community research and its importance on a global stage and how to break down the research journey into bite-size chunks. This makes it more palatable for communities who have so often been side-lined. These conversations would also continue during the seminars and workshops.
I was able to contribute and share many of my own learning experiences from urban regeneration and urban planning. Plus, my experiences in engaging in serious youth violence and the initiative I built during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was also able to discuss the interventions we developed and pioneered around medical scepticism and apathy, and how to subsequently build research capacity and capability.
I acknowledged these issues which we encountered in London and clarified how these are not topics which are restricted to regional locales. It was becoming quite evident these have now gone global.
I also learned how people tapped into the creativity of the townships and are developing audio-visual projects with the young people. What was clear was creative approaches can be used to feed into mainstream medical and health institutions to help build trust.
I likewise became aware of the experiences of people from Liberia, Kenya, Zambia and the townships of Cape Town. I saw and heard the passion, lived experiences and daily struggles of those who had really developed something out of nothing, and yet still smile for another day. I was surprised how many people from other parts of the Black diaspora were interested in how Centric conduct research and our research ethos resonated with people from a broad range of global communities.
We have already began looking at more global projects with Cen Giving and the upcycling initiative in Accra, Ghana. This is a project which itself acknowledges the need for philanthropic efforts via a transnational approach which builds trust in these localities with those in the diaspora.
It was inspiring to exchange ideas, share learnings, collaborate and see if the work in which I am involved in the UK was relevant and can resonate with people in South Africa when it comes to building research capacity for local people. What was also clear was research and engagement processes need to be simplified for as many people as possible globally.
Particularly from deprived communities, which still find themselves entrenched in colonial assumptions. The jargon around issues can often be conveyed in a manner of academic and institutional detachment, which means people are unable to truly engage or comfortably share their lived experiences. As Tuhiwai-Smith (2012: 1) argued in her book Decolonising Methodologies: “The word itself ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary.”
A more palatable approach to research needs to be explored which can also lead to a greater appetite to learn about research for the betterment of a broad range of communities and societies.
While in Cape Town, I heard experiences of research extraction and the passion to create cultural knowledge production. Their comments included: “We must be producers of our own knowledge so that someone else does not come and tell the story for you.”. This indicates that seldom-heard communities must be brought into the fold of research from which they have been effectively barred, and in doing so, bringing hope to people who have been hitherto ignored or deemed as the research subject. It’s a necessity they become pivotal to research production as the researchers.
The Connectors in Engagement workshop in Cape Town opened my eyes to the fact our problems do not exist in isolation. There are lessons which we can learn at the UK grassroots which can inform global solutions to current problems in community research and engagement.
I would like to thank Gabby from Impact on Urban Health and Wellcome Trust, and to extend my thanks to them and Nabil.
Centric want to join forces and share practices to move to a more global effort based on these learnings to build research capacity at local levels and encourage an ethos of cultural knowledge production. In this way, regions can take ownership of research within their locales – enabling them to not just tell their own subjective stories, but also conduct their own objective research.
As Nelson Mandela said:
“It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”
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