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Barriers to collaboration between universities and black and minority ethnic community organisations could be removed says Katherine Dunleavy, whose research points to a positive way forward.

Photo of a poster titled Common Cause outlining their research

Common Cause Research/Chris Cronin

In recent years, black and minority ethnic (BME) civic and cultural organisations have been hit hard by austerity, pushing many to the brink of collapse. At the same time, there have been increasing levels of participation and collaboration in research conducted by higher education (HE) institutions, bringing funding, new skills and opportunities into communities and new knowledge into universities. However, levels of collaboration between universities and BME organisations have remained low.

Ownership and legacy are often overlooked at the start of a partnership, but they are issues at the core of the longer-term benefits of a collaboration

So, over two years, Common Cause Research set out to investigate how questions of race can create barriers to partnerships and ask how we can remove them.

Complex collaborations

To understand the complexities of university–BME community collaborations, we worked with 19 projects, spanning a range of areas, including arts, history, creative writing, language and religion, to create case studies and short films that provide an in-depth look at the experiences of the community organisation or artist and the academic partners. These can be downloaded and viewed here.

The case studies showed us that there are still deep structural inequalities that make partnerships difficult, but where these projects do succeed, they make a vital contribution to the arts and humanities and create ongoing benefits for the organisations involved.

Here are three key issues that emerged.

Structural inequalities

There are economic and social inequalities between large organisations, such as universities, and smaller community organisations. This can lead to substantial difficulties for partnerships with BME communities. Universities are still seen as distant from and hostile to the histories and interests of such communities. Legacies of previous extractive research contribute to the mistrust of institutions, while austerity and social inequality limit the capacity of BME organisations to contribute to partnerships on equal terms.

Time and trust

Time and trust are vital to developing successful and ethical collaborations that address the needs of all parties. This requires time to enable explicit discussion about exploitative practices, stereotypes and prejudices, to build a mutual respect of diverse experience and knowledge, and to establish ethical procedures that are sensitive to the interests of all partners.

Equitable and transparent funding is also essential to trust between partners, and more fair and flexible funding options are desperately needed.

Ownership and legacy

Ownership and legacy are often overlooked at the start of a partnership, but they are crucial to realising the longer-term benefits of a collaboration, and essential to tackling structural inequalities. It is important to recognise the contributions of all partners and communities through ownership, and to ensure knowledge is appropriately archived to build the capacity to develop insights through future work.

Principles for partnerships

Across the large, bureaucratic institutions of the HE and cultural sectors, there is much we can do to support diversity in our partnerships so they are conducted in fair ways. To that end, we have used our case studies to draw up a list of ten principles to ensure fair and mutual partnerships:

  1. A commitment to strengthening the partnering community organisation
  2. A commitment to mutual benefit
  3. A commitment to transparency and accountability
  4. Fair practices in payments
  5. Fair payments for participants
  6. A commitment to fair knowledge exchange
  7. A commitment to sustainability and legacy
  8. A commitment to equality and diversity
  9. A commitment to sectoral as well as organisational development
  10. A commitment to reciprocal learning

These are available to download as a poster from our website and we encourage all those engaged in working with BME community, arts and civic organisations to apply these principles to their project management practices.

Nationwide networks

The Common Cause Research report makes detailed recommendations to funders, community and arts organisations, universities and academics as there is no one solution that will change these deep-seated issues. However, as a research team we recognised that urgent work was required to support BME arts, civic society and community organisations.

We therefore established the Common Cause Networks in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Nottingham. Managed by Runnymede Trust, these regional networks provide a safe space for arts and cultural leaders in BME communities and those founding their own projects and organisations to share experience and expertise, support peers and hear from local speakers as they think through, plan and then act to realise their ideas.

To date, the networks have offered workshops on funding and marketing, action learning and mentoring opportunities, and this year will run match-making with researchers, alongside sessions on developing projects and working with government.

We have supported 200 BME-led civic and arts organisations focused on a variety of projects - from a drama exploring the Windrush generation’s contribution to the NHS to a community-focused festival of Arab and North African women’s art, and from a platform for Chinese heritage writers to a project to support the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees. The networks are open to new members, who can join through a registration form on our website.

By building the capacity of BME organisations to allow them to interact with large institutions in a sustainable way and on an equal footing, we are beginning to develop a basis for arts and humanities research that truly reflects the diversity of our communities.

Katherine Dunleavy is a research coordinator at the University of Bristol.

Common Cause Research was funded by the AHRC, as part of the Connected Communities Leadership Fellowship, and Arts Council England.

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Photo of Katherine Dunleavy