3 December 2015

People making a difference in communities … a participatory cross-sector conference

What Works Scotland Research Associate James Henderson presents highlights from this stimulating conference, focused on people who make a difference in communities.


What Works Scotland (WWS) recently brought together four research projects and their academic leads from across Northern Europe – Denmark, England, the Netherlands and Scotland – to engage in participatory discussion with a lively, complex and cross-sector audience. The latter included those working in the public sector – local authorities, community planning partnerships (CPPs), health and Fire & Rescue – and the third and community sectors, and those who are community activists and volunteers. The facilities of the Grassmarket Community Project provided the ideal backdrop, with its own diversity of learning, community-building and social enterprise activity in the heart of Edinburgh.

The researchers offered initial material to fuel our discussions:

Annika Agger (Roskilde University) speaking on strategies for participation within area-based initiatives in Denmark, seeking to build neighbourhood networks and social capital, and that include ‘pop up’ participatory activity e.g. a Food Wagon and a ‘garden’ in a parking lot; and a concern to locate the ‘tacit voices’ within communities, and their ‘ambassadors’, via work with children and families.

Laurens de Graaf (Tilburg University) outlined research into ‘exemplary practitioners’ in disadvantaged Dutch neighbourhoods. These are people working within services and/or communities who successfully connect with community groups and minorities by mixing: commitment and empathy; entrepreneurial flexibility and a cross-sector ‘multi-lingualism’; a focus on getting ‘results’; and winning support from key, credible ‘big players’.

Oliver Escobar (Edinburgh University/WWS) explained his (ethnographic) research through shadowing CPP officers in order to understand: their ‘front stage’ (in view) and ‘back stage’ (behind the scenes) activities; the complexity of their relationships across public sector, ‘community’ and elected representatives; and skills as they sought to mediate, support dialogue and deliberation, and resource projects. As catalysts, they often took one of two broad approaches: Administrative and seeking to work constructively within the formal confines of the CPP structure; and Activist, flexible and seeking to challenge and find ways around those confines.
Research team: Oliver Escobar, Meljin van Hulst,
Annika Agger and Laurens de Graaf

Discussions on the tables, across the whole hall, and through Keynote Listeners – six people selected from public, third and community sectors to feedback reflections – generated valuable insights and debates, including:

  • the dangers of generating expectations in communities that cannot then be met, and therefore the need to think carefully and be explicit as to what is being offered;
  • the risks of burn-out from both ‘democratic professionals’ and community activists as they seek to generate change, and therefore the crucial need to value and respect their work;
  • recognising the need for committed individuals working within communities – ‘exemplary practitioners’ – to work effectively within local community structures and with local CPPs.

The afternoon session focused on a joint research project across the four universities – presented by Merlijn van Hulst (Tilburg University) – that explored the generation of five ‘profiles’ of neighbourhood practitioners through extensive data collection and analysis across the four countries. Two of these profiles – Enduring and Struggling – relate to people committed to work in a particular community – building community networks or campaigning on local issues. The other three – Facilitating, Organising and Trailblazing – are of people committed to working across a range of neighbourhoods: by facilitating/coordinating; or working for wider social movements and change; or collaborating to find innovative, practical solutions.

Summaries of these profiles generated wide-ranging and critical dialogue again across the tables, hall and through the Keynote Listeners, and key discussions included:

  • how these profiles might be used in different ways: as people with particular foci which could shift around over time – moving from one profile to another; as roles that individual people can shift in and out of in different contexts – perhaps even at the same meeting.
  • how do organisations and projects get the right mix of these ‘types’ and support such people playing these distinctive roles in working together creatively and effectively.
  • do such profiles ‘hold good’ across the developed world and the developing world – can they generate valuable conversations and understanding more internationally?

The conference illustrates the value of participatory dialogue and reflection to both support the work of researchers and bring their fresh thinking into the work and critical reflecting of practitioners; and the Keynote Listeners providing a valuable twist on the traditional flow of academic-led discussions. The potential for the public sector and the third/community sectors respectively to take the lead in such events, presenting from their work to gain critical feedback and reflections from/in other sectors, would seem a valuable area for future explorations.



The community sector itself has a long-standing history and experience of participatory working to draw from and could valuably support further events. For instance, the creative and artistic approaches of the ‘community-led’ Craigmillar Festival Society in a working class urban community at a time of growing unemployment in the late 1960s illustrates not only still relevant community practice but highlights the crucial economic and social contexts of such practice. Indeed, a key question that continued to re-emerge across this conference was: how can ‘democratic professionals’ and community activists create constructive changes in communities stiffled by economic and social inequality? Can they impact to prevent inequalities, as proposed by the Christie Commission? Certainly ongoing challenges for any future committed dialogue across the public sector, the third and community sectors, and research and policy-making communities.

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