What’s on(line)? Creating new platforms for virtual community engagement in ActEarly
As part of our ActEarly collaboration in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, we’ve been working with the inspirational Bromley by Bow Centre to explore what makes happy and healthy children. The aim of this stream of work is primarily to set the agenda for the ActEarly research priorities across Tower Hamlets, to build stronger relationships between researchers, residents, and organisations in the area, as well as to begin co-produced action based on the identified priorities.
At the beginning of the year, the Bromley by Bow Centre recruited four community researchers to form a dynamic team. Following a series of induction and training sessions in February and early March, the team began to develop extensive community engagement activities aligned to the aims of Act Early. However, on 23rd March 2020, lockdown was announced, and the ways in which community engagement activities might be undertaken changed dramatically. Like so many community centres, the Bromley by Bow Centre is at the heart of many people’s social networks, and there’s a huge impact on communities when centres like these close during the Covid19 crisis. The work of the team therefore focussed on transferring what was planned to be primarily face-to-face engagements, visiting parents’ groups and physical locations across the borough, to developing online activities. This has included:
- Family Playrooms – a virtual playroom and online activity group for families with children from 0 – 11 years old.
- Have Your Say Arena Playrooms podcast – a weekly online podcast where we talk about things that inspire us and what makes children healthy and happy
- House of Dreams – activity sheets distributed in a printed magazine, and online workshops with groups.
- Have Your Say survey for parents and professionals
Reflecting on their work so far, Sultana Begum Rouf said ‘We often have similar struggles through the lockdown period but we all have different ways of dealing with things and reacting to the situation. Being available online for support is a two-way thing – it’s a leveller. Some people have said to me that they’re inspired by me talking about what I’m doing, which is great but I’m also learning so much too.’
The community researchers agree that research can be done without being face-to-face – it just needs a bit more time to think and to be creative. Pratima Singh, reflected ‘doing research virtually is a new adventure to me, particularly in terms of building trust and consensus with the community. We should be really proud of our model! It just takes a bit more time than the face-to-face work.’
Naomi Mead added ‘The big obstacle we faced was that we began at a point of not having any relationships with people online. So we’ve had to build up those relationships and engagement, and that trust.’ The aim of the online activities is to create a space for people to be themselves; share ideas and support; and explore family learning and the themes of the ActEarly project. ‘The Family Playrooms are starting to be transformed into spaces for local people to own and use for themselves. Recently, a group of film-making parents launched their homemade “A Day in the Life” film in the Family Playrooms – that’s an example of the celebration and sharing we want to encourage more.’
The team is currently planning its summer activities, moving towards a blend of online/offline work to support the community, and to keep exploring “what families need to be happy and healthy”.
Alexandra Albert, Research Fellow, Citizen Science, University College London, email@example.com
Naomi Mead, Research and Evaluation Coordinator, Bromley by Bow Centre, firstname.lastname@example.org